While working on this review of Tiffany Watt Smith’s lively little book about the “ethically ambiguous” emotion of schadenfreude — taking pleasure in the humiliations and failures of other people — a message popped up on my newsfeed about Ivanka Trump’s use of a personal email account to send hundreds of emails about government business last year. Given her father’s tirades about Hillary Clinton’s use of personal email and cries of “Lock her up,” this felt like divine retribution. The burst of what Watt Smith calls “malevolent joy” and the “flick of spite” I felt upon reading this bulletin is a perfect example of what “Schadenfreude” is about.
Was my reaction “swirled through with shame” and dampened by concern about a lack of compassion? Nope. Is it evidence of a moral failing? According to Watt Smith, nope again. It’s a natural, even healthy response, fueled by what she describes as the satisfaction of seeing superior or smug people get their comeuppance when their hypocrisy is exposed. She argues that schadenfreude is a common, “cherished communal ritual” that can make you feel better about yourself not just by cutting others down to size but by recognizing that no one is flawless.
Watt Smith, a London-based cultural historian who studies the history of human emotions, doesn’t deny that there’s an element of unkindness that can tip over into sadism when “gloating over another’s bad luck.” She notes that an online outpouring of mean-spiritedness and social media pile-ons “preserved forever in ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ in the digital aspic” have amplified this spiteful aspect of human nature and led some to anoint our era a Golden Age of Schadenfreude — or what the Guardian cleverly dubbed a “Spitegeist.”
But as a historian, Watt Smith prefers to take the long view. She traces this tricky emotion back centuries and across cultures. It’s nothing new. The ancient Greeks, she writes, called it epichairekakia — “epi” for over, “chairo” for rejoice, “kakia,” for disgrace: rejoicing over another’s disgrace. The Romans didn’t always take the moral high road 2,000 years ago, either; they called the mix of feelings malevolentia. In the 13th century, St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in his “Summa Theologiae” that “The blessed in the kingdom of heaven will see the punishments of the damned, so that their bliss will be that much greater.” This sentiment is mirrored by a Japanese saying: “The misfortunes of others taste like honey.” In French, the term is joie maligne.
Smith writes, “I’m British, and enjoying other people’s mishaps and misery feels as much part of my culture as teabags and talking about the weather.” Yet despite multiple attempts over the centuries, including a valiant effort by Hobbes, there’s no English word for “joy in another’s sorrow.” And so the German term “schadenfreude” — literally, damage-joy — which first appeared in English writing in 1853, was adopted.
“Schadenfreude” joins a spate of quasi-academic books that seek to elucidate a common phenomenon for the general reader — in the appealing manner of philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt’s popular little treatise, “On Bullshit....” While a magazine article or TED talk — like Watt Smith’s engaging short lecture on “The History of Human Emotions” — could have comfortably covered its essence, this compact volume is fleshed out with amusing examples of schadenfreude. Its triggers are broken down, categorized and analyzed according to type. These examples are further cataloged in the book’s index, an amusing list that becomes a blank verse poetry of poetic justice: “Bosses, bad: away days, flies (undone), laxatives, meetings.”
Accidents and bloopers are frequent catalysts for schadenfreude. Watt Smith cites the enormous popularity of fail videos, noting that while a popular TED talk may attract 30 million views tops, “a clip of a dad being kicked in the nuts by his toddler daughter has been watched by over 256 million people around the world (so far).” In order to find such pratfalls funny, she writes, you must be convinced that no one was seriously hurt, and that they are neither stunts nor setups. The surprise element is key. “Minor accidents,” Smith posits, “remind us of the absurdity of living in a world which continually thwarts us.”
Watt Smith’s categories often overlap and bleed into one another, making it hard to distinguish one form of comeuppance from another. Schadenfreude, she writes, is frequently fueled by feelings of envy or inadequacy, which explains the thrill of a celebrity being caught misbehaving, or the lazybones’ twinge of satisfaction in learning about the relatively early deaths of prominent fitness fanatics. It’s also a self-protective reflex in the workplace: there’s vindication in seeing a boss who’s always telling others to smarten up wearing her sweater inside-out. Watt Smith comments, “We enjoy nothing more than waiting eagerly for other people’s soufflés to deflate.”
“Virtuoso displays of mockery … have become an almost predictable feature of our political landscape,” Watt Smith writes, citing hot mike gaffes and laughable comb-overs — though not, surprisingly, the rash of gleeful derision that followed Trump’s garbled “covfefe” tweet. Watt Smith enriches her inquiry with a wide range of material, from neuroscientists, feminist activists, stern moralists like Kierkegaard and Kant, and even a chapter from “Winnie the Pooh” — “In Which Tigger is Unbounced.”
Despite her generally lenient attitude toward schadenfreude, Watt Smith does wonder if our taste for venom “cheapens the discourse” and has gone too far. She asks, “Has our eagerness to leap on another’s disgrace become a mere habit, an unthinking reflex?” Good questions, worth thinking about, though Watt Smith, a self-declared connoisseur of schadenfreude, says she’s pretty much made her peace with “these grubby delights.” One thing’s for sure: Living in a time of constant outrageous presidential tweets has certainly provided plenty of fodder.
McAlpin reviews books regularly for NPR, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, and The Times.
Tiffany Watt Smith
Little, Brown Spark: 176 pp., $15