Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men (and women)? The Schadenfreude knows…
What is Schadenfreude? It’s a German word, first off, as is probably obvious, which is why I’m pretentiously spelling it with a capital S: in German, nouns are always capitalized. Of course, as a loan word into English, it gets a lower-case s. But since many people find Schadenfreude quite capital, and since the big S looks a bit like a snake rearing in the heart of the envious (while the rest of the word looks a bit like a train wreck to most English eyes), I’ll keep it upper case.
Schadenfreude is epitomized by Clive James’s marvellous poem “The Book of My Enemy Has Been Remaindered,” which you can, nay, must read in its entirety at artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/07/24/the-book-of-my-enemy/. It begins, “The book of my enemy has been remaindered / And I am pleased.” And it plays out the glee of seeing his enemy’s vaunted work in the literary dust-heap with assorted undignified tripe:
And (oh, this above all) his sensibility,
His sensibility and its hair-like filaments,
His delicate, quivering sensibility is now as one
With Barbara Windsor’s Book of Boobs,
A volume graced by the descriptive rubric
“My boobs will give everyone hours of fun.”
Such joy in another’s misfortune is unseemly. It’s shady… somehow Freudian, or at least suggesting a need for therapy. You may think of the spiteful section from Handel’s Messiah: [soprano] “They shoot out their lips, and shake their heads, saying,” [chorus] “He trusted in God that he might deliver him: let him deliver him, if he delight in him.” And yet… to slightly modify the lyrics to Beethoven’s masterwork, “Schadenfreude, Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium!” It can be so gratifying.
The word is a nice, complex word for a complex emotion – so seemingly basic, but always with its hints of conflict. With this word, we get a Teutonic sound of machinations. Better yet, it starts with the lips pursed (shooting out) and the teeth biting together in that “sh” sound that starts some words and expressions of distaste, displeasure, or dismay; then the second half starts with /f/, the teeth biting the lip, ready to flip it out, making the first sound of a word of even greater asperity… but then rolling into the growling /r/ to make the onset of frustration and frenzy. And in the shadows of the word, behind the bites? It’s on the tip of the tongue, or at least the consonants are; the vowels open the mouth wider and then close it again, the jaw wagging twice in the word, perhaps as though chewing on a little ball of bitterness.
What parts make this word? Schaden, “harm”, and Freude, “joy”. It always makes me think of Schande, “shame, disgrace”, and Schatten, “shadow”. There’s also just a faint hint of Champagne fizz… that would be from the bottle I’ll uncork when a certain local politician is led from City Hall in handcuffs…
Not that this word sounds like what it describes; more like what comes before and what comes after. The Ancient Greeks had a word for Schadenfreude that sounds like the cackling one suppresses – or indulges – at the time: ἐπιχαιρεκακία, epikhairekakia.
Thanks to Christina Vasilevski for suggesting today’s word.