“In the adversity of our best friends we always find something that is not displeasing,” La Rochefoucauld wrote in 1665, identifying Schadenfreude — “joy in adversity,” an almost literal translation of his aphorism — for the first time, although more general strictures against envy date back to the Ten Commandments and beyond.
The word, however, is inexact. Imagine one of your friends coming down with a terminal illness, or having a miscarriage, or being hit on the street by a falling piano. There certainly exist some people who are envious enough to wish, or bring, such catastrophes on others. Helmut Schoeck gives several grisly examples in his magisterial book Envy, like the German nanny who pushed a pram off a pier, drowning her charge because, according to her own account, she couldn’t bear the fact that she was childless. But I retain enough residual faith in human nature to doubt that the emotion is general, or even common.
It is failure, not mere bad luck, that universally gladdens the human heart. I have a friend who is a prolific and hopeless writer. Secretly I root for him to fail: his success would be further discouraging evidence of the inability of the world to distinguish bad writing from good. If he were a better writer I am sure I would root for him to succeed. I am rooting not for failure but for justice: the fact that my friend is involved is immaterial. Would I rather he fail then improve? Probably. Which is the ignoble part. Similarly, Michael Blowhard (yes, it’s all Blowhard all the time over here) marvels, with an unseemly touch of glee, in the improved attitude of waiters and store clerks in the wake of the dot.com crash. Mostly I think he just wants better service.
Schadenfreude runs especially high among professional colleagues, the best judges of what their fellows do and don’t deserve. On Wall Street hearts leapt when John Meriwether’s Long-Term Capital Management busted — and sank again when the government bailed them out. Other hedge fund managers rooted against Meriwether because he had been claiming to make 40% returns for years on virtually riskless bond arbitrage, which is impossible. In fact he had been gambling. To make 40% per annum you have to leave certain risks unhedged, and LTCM happened to be hugely exposed to the risk that a government would default on its own bonds. The Russians did so, and ka-boom. Now Meriwether was widely envied, among other things for being the hero of Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker. (In the famous scene from the book, Salomon chairman John Gutfreund proposes a game of liar’s poker for a million dollars. Meriwether counteroffers a game for ten million, and Gutfreund folds.) But so far as I could tell, the Wall Street celebrations, though tinged with green, were mostly for his chickens finally coming home to roost. The feeling seemed to be that it was just that he finally went broke.
If we must import from the German, then, I propose Fehlschlagenfreude, or “joy in failure.” It would be more accurate, if less euphonious.
(Update: Craig Henry comments.)