Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Let's Hear It for Schadenfreude

The German word schadenfreude has a lovely, Teutonic edge to it, almost a malevolence when you consider its meaning, which is a tempting state of mind.  Fully clothed in schadenfreude, one takes pleasure in the discomfort of one or more others.  

To put the matter straightforward, when we acknowledge its presence within ourselves, we are looking for the most convenient shortcut to our individual dark side, the place where we leave out better natures outside on the temple steps while we move inside to pay reverence to the forces of comeuppance.

Schadenfreude becomes even more an engine of revenge if we see someone for whom we feel antipathy brought down from some height of satisfaction or power or ability.  In such instances, this condition, which sounds somewhere between a skin disease and some form of lower bowel complaint, is a close parallel to the effects achieved at the hands of humor, which condition is the lowering of status of something pompous or self-absorbed.

But pause for a moment to consider.  A significant cause for identification with characters in story bears a close relationship to schadenfreude; we take pleasure in seeing those in power toppled by individuals they may well have abused or, worse, ignored.  

We rejoice when our guys finish ahead, even if the ahead is only a somewhat ahead or a detente with the fates kind of settlement.  Those of us who enjoy humor take an even deeper dive into the seas of comeuppance or retribution or the cosmic shaking and drying of a large dog only just bathed .

The purpose of humor is to bring down the self-absorbed, the self-important, the paradigm of all that is fussy, punctilious, and supercilious.  A major element of your favored Shakespearean comedy, Twelfth Night, is to remind us of the Malvolio lurking within all of us.  He is a man who has unarguably splendid taste in his romantic aspirations, but so, in fact, do we all.  His manner of approaching his beloved reminds us to fine tune our own aspirations so that our folly is not the mere act of daring to hope, rather our folly is in the manner in which we demonstrate our hopes.

However we fare in our pursuits of our goals, the outcome is secondary to the manner of the pursuit.  One who loves well, pursues with a semblance of consideration, grace, and imagination, mixed with a grand measure of abandon, wins regardless of outcome, has engaged process rather than attempted to become the process.

We read to examine the process by which fictional beings pursue seemingly unattainable goals, allowing us to root for outcomes, to learn technique and posture from our observation.  We also learn to avoid dangerous overextensions of self and of individual resources.  

We find examples against which to measure our own past performances and to measure with care our own fictional inventions, to say nothing about our participation on real life events.  If we judge ourselves to have performed with greater nobility and posture than some fictional character, saved and savored for that purpose, we feel free to celebrate our superiority.

In the celebration, we become our own schadenfreude.  Indeed, who among our real and fictional friends, even our own creations of characters will be among the first to prank us.  

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