Thursday, October 15, 2009
The Germans have a word, schadenfreude, which translates as "delight in another person's misfortune" (courtesy of Princeton University's wordnetweb).
There is no equivalent English word.
But the lack of a word does not imply the lack of an emotion. To the contrary. If I -- or any other English speakers I know -- are any indication, we feel it. Perhaps to excess.
So here's an idea for a magazine which would be dedicated to gratifying the maliciousness in all of us.
Such a magazine would not be about life's castoffs, those poor unfortunates who never did very well for themselves. Although we may be glad that we are healthy and whole, hearing about those who are not should not provoke schadenfreude. If we are anything less than sociopaths, such people should provoke sympathy.
No, Schadenfreude Magazine would concentrate on those who once had the world by the tail, but now have their own tails tucked firmly between their legs -- preferably because of their own transgressions.
Would you be interested, for instance, in an article about Dennis Kozlowski, former CEO (and looter) of Tyco, and what his current life in jail is like? Imagine a photo spread of his six foot by nine foot cell, featuring a thin single mattress and a toilet with no lid. (An inset could show his former mansions.) The spread could also include a picture of the communal showers where he must clean himself with the other prisoners. The caption might read, "Where's the $6000 shower curtain?"
Perhaps the photo above could be captioned, "Dennis Kozlowski, about to have his cavity searched."
Imagine an article about Sam Waksal, the social climbing insider trader. He's out of jail now, but it would have been fun to read about him while he was incarcerated. The title could have been, "Where are all your fancy friends now, Sam?"
Would you find this edifying? (Be honest, answer yes.)
One would think that the justice system, in the interests of discouraging crime, would allow the access required to produce such photos and articles. (It would not be dissimilar, in both spirit and intention, to pubic hangings. Or, from an even earlier era, the heads of enemies mounted on spikes.)
Likewise, if you want to discourage athletes from taking steroids, what better suasion than a layout of Marion Jones when she was in prison garb? Or a picture of her current living quarters, now that she is broke?
How gratifying woult it be to see a picture of Philip Markoff, the Craigslist murderer, incarcerated? Perhaps the shot might include his cellmate, a large, ugly fellow, who is wearing a self-satisfied grin as he gazes at Markoff, who lies gingerly on his stomach on his bunk bed.
Don't think there isn't a market for such a magazine. Certain human impulses are universal. (This is why pictures of mug shots are so popular on the internet.)
It's always gratifying to read about lottery winners brought low. No matter how much money they win, they usually seem to end up with nothing. Given that their pre-lottery financial planning consisted of investing in lottery tickets, perhaps this should not be so surprising. Nonetheless, all the jealousy we felt upon hearing about some other guy's windfall should dissipate quite nicely upon reading about his divorce, his various run-ins with the law, his greedy relatives, his soured investments, his dishonest managers, and his problems with substance abuse. (Let's face it: some people were just meant to be poor.)
How often have you read about someone winning the lottery and thought, why him and not me? Isn't it more fun to read about someone who provokes the reaction, "better him than me"?
We all felt a pang of envy upon reading about those dotcom and Wall Street millionaires. And we all felt a corresponding twitch of satisfaction upon reading of how the ones who didn't get out in time lost it all. A detailed accounting of the contrast between their current and former lives could turn that twitch into a veritable orgy of satisfaction.
There are all sorts of airheaded Hollywood stars who, at the peak of their fame, felt obliged to show us what wonderful people they were by publicly pontificating about their political beliefs, their support for the right causes, and their disgust for the wrong kinds of political incorrectnesses. Well, some of them fall upon hard times. How about paying them to take an IQ test, then publicizing those results? (It would allow us to think, we were supposed to take political advice from them?) How satisfying would that be?
Different people, of course, would enjoy different parts of the magazine. Liberals would prefer to see conservatives in jail, and vice versa. Some people might prefer to see white people fall low, others blacks. But there would undoubtedly be something (or someone) for everyone.
The magazine would be the ultimate in feel good journalism. It could even have a catchy subtitle: "Appealing to the Worst in Human Nature."
And it would make people appreciate what they have, rather than resent those who have more.
If the title is a little too direct for you, perhaps it could be called Poetic Justice Magazine.
Either way, it would be a satisfying read.