THE AMERICAN SCHADENFREUDE EPIDEMIC
When an evil clown rules your land, you have to expect a certain decline in moral tone, and rest assured that, last year, schadenfreude reached unprecedented peaks in the United States of America.
The term appeared in English as early as the mid 1800s, combining the German words for ‘damage’ and ‘joy,’ and meaning, ‘delight taken in the misfortune of others.’ It’s funny that the word we use for such a thing should be German—you’d think French, right? Or Russian, where they have the useful proverb, “It is not enough that I should have a cow—also my neighbor must not have a cow.” Substitute ‘Guggenheim grant’ for ‘cow’ and you have a formulation that has passed through the heads of many an artist schadenfreuder.
As a writer and academic, there are days when I think that if it weren’t for schadenfreude I’d have no freude at all. My usual dish of it is the pleasure of seeing a competitor taken down a notch, but I’m not entirely without decency: it has to be a someone whose work is meretricious. Artists being an honest breed, most of them will privately admit their susceptibility to schadenfreude toward rivals (or, as I hope the Germans say, Rivalenschadenfreude), and who can blame artists, when their vocation is so full of rejection, poverty and humiliation? The scientific truth is that we humans care right down to our cells where we rank in the pack, and indeed a study proved that the telomeres of low-ranking British civil servants are more frayed than their bosses’.
The kind of schadenfreude we direct at rivals blends into a somewhat nobler kind—the schadenfreude we feel when a true devil gets his due. The US had an epidemic of that type of schadenfreude when Donald J. Trump contracted Covid. President Drumpf (the family changed the name before leaving for America) gleefully took pleasure in the misfortunes of others, picking especially on the weak. He mocked refugees, the disabled, and “losers” who lost their lives serving their country in the armed forces. Most contemptible was someone like Sen. John McCain, stupid enough to get himself tortured in a steaming, tropical prison camp, something Trump neatly sidestepped by skipping military service altogether.
When the Evil Clown was diagnosed with Covid, nary an American liberal didn’t think, “Why, that’s the prettiest poetic justice I’ve ever seen.” It’s not that many of us wanted him dead: just suffer enough to learn that folks should wear masks during a plague.
My therapist tells me that ‘shadow’ emotions such as fear and anger are integral and necessary parts of our psyches. We bury them at our peril. I intend to own my schadenfreude and, what’s more, be disappointed when it’s denied me. Booth Tarkington’s novel The Magnificent Ambersons, later made into Orson Welles’s second-best movie, was about a snooty aristocrat sorely in need of a comeuppance. When he got it, the people who would have relished it weren’t around to see. Similarly, Adolphus Crosbie, the cad who jilted Lily Dale in Trollope’s The Small House at Allington, finally gets his comeuppance, but the people he damaged don’t find out, and Trollope reflects that villains frequently do get their just deserts, but hidden from view. That’s all very profound I’m sure, but comeuppance unseen is schadenfreude denied, and I’ve got a bottle of good, French champagne chilling for the day I see Donald J. Trump in jail. My therapist says that’s OK.
SCOTT WINFIELD SUBLETT is a screenwriter, playwright, film director, professor at San Jose State University in California, and author of Screenwriting for Neurotics.