Thursday, May 31, 2007

Die reinste freude ist die schadenfreude

I am currently reading a book called "Haunted" by Chuck Palhniuk, most famous as the author of "Fight Club", which was made into a successful film. As might be expected, "Haunted" is a slightly odd book made up of a selection of short stories. I came across the title of this post in one of them.

I don't speak German, but I believe the phrase translates roughly as "Our purest joy comes when we view the misfortune of others." Ninjawords translates schadenfreude as "the malicious glee experienced from someone else's misfortune". It is by far the most popular word listed on Wordie (one of my internet obsessions), and forms the basis of much that we think of as humour. Even Dogbert has been known to "get in on the act."

Although I suspect most of them do not analyse it, shadenfreude is the reason why so many people buy their doom-laden newspapers every day. To use the vernacular, "I may have a crap life, but I can read in here about loads of people whose lives are even worse!"

Schadenfreude is an intrinsically lovely word and it carries, or at least used to carry, an air of learning about it. The discussion about the word on Wordie is interesting. Alguien suggests that:

"Due to flagrant overuse, schadenfreude has been depreciated from a twenty-dollar word to a dime a dozen. If only the supply of words could be restricted in the same manner as currency."
But why is the word, or at least the tendency it describes, so popular? It's hardly our most attractive characteristic! Dbmag9 on Wordie puts it very well, in my opinion:
"Schadenfreude seems to be one of the most primal pleasures. Television shows abound are filled with examples: man falls off ladder, child flies off swing, bucket falls onto woman. In one sense it is a valuable learning experience: you are glad you weren't in that position, and make a note not to be in it yourself. But why is it so funny? The only answer I can give is that it expresses the joy you have, build in by millennia of evolutionary conditioning, that you were not the weak one who ended the chain, that, whilst others may fail, you go on to live another day."
Odd creatures, we humans, aren't we?