Thursday, March 26, 2009

Schadenfreude brings out the worst in us

schadenfreude--pleasure at the evidence of pain or misfortune in another person; delight at the reversal of fortune experienced by someone else.

One of the many words on loan to English from another language, schadenfreude is a shot-gun marriage of two German opposites, damage and joy, thus You lose, I smile. This pleasure helps us understand what Aristotle meant when he tied the can of catharsis to the tail of the dog of tragedy.

Schadenfreude allows the reader to feel pleasure when a character, say George Amberson Minafer of The Magnificent Ambersons, gets a well-earned come-uppance; that such a feeling exists in many humans is often an embarrassment until, on reflection, the larger perspective is revealed. We are able to experience tragedy in literature with empathy for the fall from the heights of the major characters, but only after first experiencing relief that we were not the intended targets.

Tragedy and humor have an uneasy relationship, both having kinship with hubris and the resulting behavior from such family ties. Tragedy tends to be less physical and posturing than humor, but nevertheless, it would likely not have established a foothold if the hubris of "My way is the only way" had not got in the front door.

Memorable characters may have their schadenfreude genome, taking a moment or two to gloat when an opponent seems to come out second best in a collision with Fate, but it is safest to leave as much schadenfreude as possible not to the characters but to the readers. Equally valid is the notion that the character who has met a tragic downfall or been handed a serious reversal of fortune and goes forth without breast beating or moaning is the character the reader will regard with the most respect. Once again, let the reader do the deconstruction.

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