Jul 312003

“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.)

  3 Responses to “Fehlschlagenfreude”

  1. "But I retain enough residual faith in human nature to doubt that the emotion is general, or even common."

    I don’t think what you are describing is as sinister as the nanny example, and I do think it is quite common. The misfortunes of others leaves us feeling a little better about our own position in the world. The fact that we compare ourselves most often to our friends and colleagues makes it all the more awkward. That doesn’t mean necessarily that we are rooting against them.

    I do think you have hit upon another phenomenon that has a bit more nobility to it, but I don’t think I’ll take up the neologism.

  2. I won’t be taking up my neologism either, and I hate to defend Schadenfreude even in this qualified way. But a lot of what goes under the name is really professional competitiveness, which is normal and healthy, within limits.

  3. "Schadenfreude" originally went by a different name in English. Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy writes of "’Epichairekakia’, a compound affection of joy and hate, when we rejoice at other men’s mischief and are grieved at their prosperity". I suppose the spluttering unpronounceability of the Greek plus an unmissable opportunity to make snide remarks about the Germans meant it was inevitable that "epikhairekakia" got the chop and "Schadenfreude" got the job before too long.

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