I’m sure most people, when asked to provide a list of emotions they experience in a given month, would not include “schadenfreude” even though it rears its head often enough.
Coming from the German “schaden,” which means harm, and “freude,” meaning joy, the experience is one of feeling pleasure at the misfortune of another.
It’s a strange emotion to be sure because we usually associate joy with a pleasant outcome whereas schadenfreude is pleasure derived from another’s ill.
And the experience is universal. William James in “Principles of Psychology” says, “There is something in the misfortunes of our very friends that does not altogether displease us; [even] an apostle of peace will feel a certain vicious thrill run through him, and enjoy a vicarious brutality, as he turns to the column in his newspaper at the top of which 'Shocking Atrocity' stands printed in large capitals.”
Indeed researchers who seek to quantify its presence in our lives say schadenfreude is on the rise. In “The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreuse and the Dark Side of Human Nature,” Richard Smith says he looked at the number of times “schadenfreude” appeared in the English language from 1800 to 2008. In modern times, he says, from the 1980s on, schadenfreude as concept and “practice” has achieved a greater share of our emotional landscape.
I’m inclined to think it’s because we’ve become a more punitive and cynical society, maybe even more sadistic, and schadenfreude is one of the manifestations of that callousness — though schadenfreude is not in the same ballpark as sadism (or even gloating), which are more actively aggressive in nature.
Because schadenfruede is etymologically German, for years critics characterized it as a peculiarly German phenomenon, especially during World War II! But, when we examine the spectrum of world cultures, we see that every culture has its own word or combination of words to denote this emotion or some approximation of it.
The French have their “joie maligne,” Hebrew has “simcha-la-ed,” and ancient Greek has “epichairekakia,” which ancient as well as modern scholars say is a distant relative of greed, avarice, and envy.
In Japanese, there’s “meshiuma,” which means, “Food tastes good that comes from the misfortune of others.” The writer Gore Vidal once remarked, “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” The converse would be, “Every time a friend fails, I am more alive” and the double converse, “I derive pleasure from the misfortune of others.”
For those unfamiliar with the word (I will not say the experience), an example might be helpful at this point.
We are driving along our favorite county road, staying well beneath the 30-mile-per-hour speed limit because the road is highly patrolled. All of a sudden, a large SUV appears in the rearview mirror with a young kid at the wheel and he’s up our bumper.
Staying our course, we see the “kid” begin to wave his arms in what seems to be gestures of anger; he then pulls out over the double yellow line and guns it past us. As his passenger window nears ours, he looks down at us with derision and double-guns it up the hill and out of sight.
A few moments later, as we near the hill, we see his car pulled over and a cop writing him a ticket. If we feel a certain satisfaction at this point and think something like, “He got what he deserved,” or, “Justice triumphed,” or, “There is a God,” we are in the schadenfreude business.
When Martha Stewart was indicted in 2001, the United States experienced a kind of national schadenfreude. People felt that the person who had dictated personal and social tastes for years finally got her comeuppance.
There is some debate over whether the shadenfroh’s delight comes from the bodily pleasure produced or seeing society’s fabric saved. In other words, was justice done to the nervous system or to the collective? And there is strong evidence that shows when the experienced misfortune is great, schadenfreude all but disappears and a hybrid form of empathy kicks in.
Understandably schadenfreude has been linked to envy because when we envy another’s possessions or achievements, we engage in an internal (and often subtle) trash-talk dialogue, subconsciously trying to improve our own lot. People pay big money to therapists for years to understand and get out from beneath such a complex.
The irony is that people will talk about schadenfreude experiences openly whereas they are far more reluctant to speak about what they envy because envy is an open admission of inferiority.
Of course the moral implications of schadenfreude have not gone unnoticed. In Spanish there is a saying: Gozarse en el mal ajeno, no es de hombre buen (“A man who rejoices in the misfortunes of others is not a good man”). Or should we say is a person who has not reached emotional maturity?
We do know that when schadenfreude is primed with emotional steroids, the frequency and intensity of its presence leads to the destruction of relationships. When I first came upon schadenfreude years ago, I immediately thought of the great psychoanalyst Karen Horney’s concept of “vindictive triumph,” which she saw alive in her patients saddled with neurosis. Vindictive triumph might be viewed as schadenfreude when it becomes a structural part of our identity and one justified by a more highly toxic logic.
In “Neurosis and Human Growth,” Horney says the drive to vindictively overcome others grows out of “impulses to frustrate, outwit, or defeat [them] . . . because the motivating force stems from impulses to take revenge for humiliations suffered in childhood.”
Often enough, this chronic illness might be accompanied by headaches, stomachaches, fatigue, and insomnia because the drive to see others get their “due” is relentlessly churned up in the subconscious.
If vindictive triumph is indeed a compensatory mechanism, and schadenfreude and vindictive triumph are in fact manifesting themselves more frequently in our culture, as research suggests, what are we compensating for? Why has the need to triumph vindictively moved center stage? Why the need for such an array of trophies?
Heavy stuff indeed, but, as the United States continues to undergo its current identity crisis, understanding what drives people to increasingly take joy in the misfortune of others will enable us to forge a less aggressive future self. Maybe that’s what the great American poet Allen Ginsberg was alluding to when he said, “Candor disarms paranoia.”
La Grande Chartreuse is the head monastery of the Carthusian order and is situated in the Chartreuse Mountains north of Grenoble, France. The order, founded in 1084 by St. Bruno, follows rules called the Statutes. Visitors are not permitted at the monastery and motor vehicles are prohibited on nearby roads. Philip Gröning’s movie about the monastery, Into Great Silence, is available for loan at both the Voorheesville and Guilderland public libraries.
Nearly 50 years ago, I made a rule never to recommend movies, restaurants, and vacation spots to anyone save a few intimates whose number today I gladly count on half a hand.
And though I firmly believe rules are made to be kept, I’d like to call attention to Philip Gröning’s 2005 documentary on the Carthusian monks at La Grande Chartreuse, the Carthusian motherhouse in the valley of the Alps of Dauphine north of Grenoble, France.
The highly critically acclaimed film is called Into Great Silence and its tourdeforcity is a human magnet.
At a period when Gröning was obsessed with trying to understand “time,” he wrote to the superior of the 4,268-foot high Carthusian charterer house seeking permission to record the life of the monks. The superior wrote back saying they wanted to think about it. Sixteen years later, Gröning received a reply saying they were ready, if he still had interest.
He did and arrived at the monastery in mid-March 2002 as a team of one: the film’s director, producer, cameraman, soundman, grip, and whoever else was needed to get the job done. To fully grasp the depth of silence the monks lived in, Gröning decided to live with them and follow their highly structured horarium.
And though the monks chipped in to help Gröning move his equipment up mountainous slopes surrounding the monastery when needed, the director was solely responsible for lugging his tools.
One day, while shooting along a steep ridge, he fell 20 feet and found himself spread out on a slab of stone thinking his day had come. It hadn’t, and after a bit he was back shooting the 120 hours of film that served as the vein from which he mined the 162 minutes that comprise Into Great Silence.
The editing was harrowing for Gröning; it took him more than two-and-a-half years to find a proper narrative. He could not find the glue to hold things together.
Those familiar with Roman Catholic religious orders know the Carthusians are the strictest of all. The monks live in near-total silence, spending most of the day in their cells (warmed by a tin-can-shaped wood-fired stove) and in a walled-in garden.
In these spaces, the monks meditate, pray the liturgy of hours, read, write, and eat alone. Each monk washes his own clothes, does his own dishes, splits his own wood (it gets cold there), and works in the garden for exercise and cultivating plants.
The monks are also assigned communal chores to support the upkeep of the house. For some, this means making the green-colored Chartreuse liquor for which the monks have been famous for centuries.
Some have said the highly structured schedule leaves no “free time” for the monks, but the monks say their whole life is free.
They do leave their cells to chant in the chapel and celebrate Mass. On Sundays, they eat together in silence as one of the monks reads aloud and once a week they take a walk in the woods for hours where they converse about “edifying” things. Gröning caught the monks sliding down the snowy slope of a hill, yelping like kids on holiday, using their shoes as sleds.
Twice a year, the monks may receive a daylong visit from family members, and the silent grounds of the monastery grow abuzz with the chatter of kids and adults alike. Though not of this world, the Carthusians recognize the importance of the human feelings and the connections the monks had (have) with the families they grew up in.
They sleep no longer than three hours or so at a time. To bed at eight, they’re up past eleven praying and singing psalms, then back to sleep for three hours, and up again to celebrate more lectio divina. Those who persevere after the novitiate spend an average of 65 years in the monastery doing the same thing every day of every year, with no place to go and no apparent goals.
Gröning beautifully captured their spirit on film and I recommend it because it does deal with “time” in that it shows human beings who treat each moment of life as if it were the totality of that life and who find happiness in such gestures of gratitude. If you watch the film, it will blast smugness out of every bone.
When I speak to Roman Catholics about the film, more than a few claim the movie is a Roman Catholic venture because the Carthusians are a Roman Catholic order. And I tell them they are reading it wrong because the movie is about human beings who fully appreciate what life presents to them each moment of the day, and that that human possibility is not sectarian but belongs to everyone.
I saw the movie at the Spectrum 8 in the city of Albany when it first came out and it knocked my socks off. I was back three days later for a second sock-knocking. I’ve watched it on DVD after that but judiciously because it is such a workout.
The writer Adair Lara said that, when she was growing up, her mother “used to wash our clothes in a wringer washer and then hang them on the clothesline outside. As she pinned up each garment, she said, she thought about the child it belonged to. She never wanted a dryer, even after we could afford one, because it would steal this from her, this quiet contemplation.”
That woman understood the great silence of La Grande Chartreuse, aware of the precious gift that every moment is, realizing that that gift could disappear in the blink of an eye.
If you decide to watch the film, pour yourself a beer or cup of tea, or whatever you like to have at the movies, sit back, and give yourself over to the life ahead without interruption.
You will be transported into another world of time and space and perhaps like me return transformed, an appreciator of the soil in which great silence is born.
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, who lived from 1793 to 1864, has long been heralded as Guilderland’s most prominent son, in these pages and elsewhere.
In his local history classic Old Hellebergh, published in 1936, the late Guilderland town historian, Arthur Gregg, said, “There has never been in the long category of soldiers, patriots, statesmen, manufacturers, educators, and jurists, born and reared in sight of the ‘Clear Mountain,’ [the Helderbergs] one with more fame than the pioneer . . . Henry Rowe Schoolcraft.”
A Renaissant-like omnivore of human experience, Schoolcraft was a glass manufacturer early in life, then a mineralogist, then a geologist, explorer, ethnologist, poet, editor, and for 19 years, from 1822 to 1841, served as United States Indian Agent headquartered at the frontier posts of Sault Ste. Marie and Mackinac Island, assigned the tribes of northern Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
To many folklorists, Schoolcraft is considered the first “scholar” to amass and publish a body of Indian folklore and deserves to be called the father of American folklore. When he arrived in Michigan, he lived with the family of John Johnston, an Irish fur trader who married the daughter of a prominent Ojibwa war chief and civil leader from northern Wisconsin.
Schoolcraft married Johnston’s daughter, Jane, who provided him with a host of Chippewa legends. His mother-in-law gained access for him to stories from “the greatest storyteller of the tribe” and to ceremonies open only to tribe members.
Schoolcraft’s ethnological findings were published in many volumes, the magnum opus of which is his six-volume folio-size Historical and Statistical Information Respecting the History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, published between 1851 and 1857, and costing $150,000.
As editor and writer, Schoolcraft, in 1826 and 1827, produced a much-sought-after weekly journal called the Literary Voyager. The 15 issues constitute the first magazine produced in Michigan and one of the first to appear in the frontier west.
Schoolcraft’s accomplishments have not gone unnoticed. In the Midwest, particularly Michigan, the Schoolcraft name is ubiquitous. A Michigan County is named after him, a town, a village, river, lake, island, highway, ship, park, and even the culinary arts Schoolcraft College in Garden City, Michigan has a food court called Henry’s.
As a person with an abiding interest in local history, I paid due attention to Schoolcraft over the years, particularly his relationship with Henry Wadsworth Longfellow whose epic poem, “The Song of Hiawatha,” was based on information Schoolcraft published.
But what enthralled me most about Schoolcraft was a touching one-page story I came upon two years ago when I was looking at Oneóta or Characteristics of the Red Race of America, published in 1847. It is called “Chant to the Fire-Fly.”
Schoolcraft relates that on hot summer evenings before bedtime Chippewa children would gather in front of their parents’ lodges and amuse themselves by singing chants and dancing about.
One spring evening, he says, while walking along St. Mary’s River, the evening air “sparkling with the phosphorescent light of the fire-fly,” he heard the Indian children singing a song to the firefly. He was so taken with the chant he jotted it down in the original “Odjibwa Algonquin [sic].”
Below the text, Schoolcraft offered two translations of the chant — one “literal,” the other “literary” — of a song he says that was accompanied by “the wild improvisations of [the] children in a merry mood.”
I will not give the Ojibwa — you can find it on page 61 of Schoolcraft’s Oneóta — but I will provide Schoolcraft’s literal translation. After I read the poem several times, I could not escape its charms. I envied Schoolcraft that evening when he first heard the children sing. This is his translation:
Give me light before I go to bed!
Give me light before I go to sleep!
Come little dancing white-fire-bug!
Come little flitting-white-fire-beast!
Light me with your bright white-flame-instrument—
Your little candle.
I was so taken with this text that I wrote two poems about the firefly and started looking deeper into the story but the more I did the more I smelled something rotting in Denmark.
That is, I found a chorus of folklorists, linguistic anthropologists, ethnopoeticists [mine], and those of that ilk, taking Schoolcraft to task for being a “textmaker” rather than a scientist dedicated to taking down the Indian world as it presented itself to him.
Schoolcraft wanted to produce something “literary” (marketable), and to achieve that, he engaged in mediating between what the Indians said and what a projected readership might accept from the “savage.”
Schoolcraft says he began to weed out “vulgarisms,” he “restored” the simplicity of style, he broke legends “in two,” “cut [stories] short,” and lop[ped] off excrescences.”
In the introduction to The Myth of Hiawatha and Other Oral Legends, published in 1856, he said the legends had been “carefully translated, written, and rewritten, to obtain their true spirit and meaning, expunging passages, where it was necessary to avoid tediousness of narration, triviality of circumstance, tautologies, gross incongruities, and vulgarities.” In other words, what did not fit his aesthetic and religious views of reality, went.
While giving credit to Schoolcraft for his pioneering work, the early 20th-Century folklorist Stith Thompson noted, “Ultimately, the scientific value of his work is marred by the manner in which he reshaped the stories to suit his own literary taste. Several of his tales are distorted almost beyond recognition.”
This is not an imposition of postcolonial standards on Schoolcraft’s doings. As Richard Bremer points out in his full-length biography of Schoolcraft, Indian Agent and Wilderness Scholar, even Francis Parkman told Schoolcraft to stick to the facts.
Though he often exhibited paternalist sympathies with the Indians, Schoolcraft signed treaties as the Indian Commissioner for the United States that displaced the Michigan Indian. The Treaty of Washington in 1836, concluded and signed by Henry Schoolcraft and several representatives of the Native American nations, saw approximately 13,837,207 acres (roughly 37 percent of the current State of Michigan) ceded to the People of the United States.
I went over to Willow Street the other day to visit Henry’s house, waiting in the cold outside, thinking he might come out. I have many questions for Henry Rowe Schoolcraft.
Peter Henner, a lawyer from Clarksville, wrote an award-winning chess column for The Altamont Enterprise, "Chess: The Last Frontier of the Mind," for four years, retiring from the column in the fall of 2014 to resume his law practice on his own terms. His columns are archived here.
In the winter of 2015, Dennis Sullivan, a scholar and historian from Voorheesville, began his column "Field Notes."
Crossword puzzle lovers may have wondered about the frequent clue “Russian chess champion” (three letters). The answer is “Tal,” as in Mikhail Tal, who died on June 28, 1992. The “Magician of Riga,” as he was known, Tal became the eighth World Champion in 1960, at the age of 23.
The Soviet-Latvian Grandmaster, who had been terrorizing the chess world for the previous five years, particularly the relatively staid Soviet players, with his unorthodox style of play, was, at the time, the youngest player to win the world championship.
Tal was known as a brilliant attacker, a creative genius, who played intuitively and unpredictably. Today, with modern computers, we know that many of his speculative sacrifices were unsound and should have lost.
Tal himself said “There are two types of sacrifices: correct ones, and mine.”
However, it was not easy, even for the world’s best players, to refute these sacrifices over the board, and contemporary analysts usually were unable to show why or how Tal could have been defeated.
His style was a challenge to the Soviet school, exemplified by Mikhail Botvinnik, which preferred systematic logical chess, buttressed by hard work and study. Botvinnik, who, with one interruption, had been Champion since 1948, prepared carefully and methodically for the 1960 match.
Tal, in contrast, simply played a tournament in his hometown. Tal decisively won the match by a score of 12 ½ - 8 ½.
However, the Fédération internationale des échecs rules at the time permitted a rematch for a defeated Champion, which Botvinnik won, 13-8.
In the second match, Botvinnik, once again carefully preparing for the match, deliberately played for closed positions, leading to positional struggles and endgames, and avoiding the sharp tactical play that Tal loved.
During the rematch, Tal continued to play his favorite Nimzo-Indian Defense and the aggressive advance variation of the Caro-Kann, even as it became clear that these openings were not working for him. It was not until five years after the match that Tal, playing White against Botvinnik, abandoned the advance variation in favor of the more common Panov variation and won easily.
Tal had a great career, winning the USSR championship six times between 1957 and 1978 (when that tournament was probably the strongest tournament in the world), established a record in 1973 - 74 by playing 95 tournament games without a loss (46 wins and 49 draws), and tied with Karpov for first in the 1979 Montréal “Tournament of Stars.”
Although he continued to compete in world championship cycles, he never again played a match for the world championship. However, at the age of 51, he won the World Blitz Championship ahead of then world Champion Kasparov.
Tal died young: He suffered from serious health problems all his life, complicated by chain-smoking, excessive drinking, and partying. His wife, Salli Landau (they were married from 1959-1970), who wrote a biography of Tal, noted that, while some people thought he might have lived longer by taking better care of himself, if he had done so, he would not have been Tal.
She also commented that Tal “was so ill equipped for living… When he traveled to a tournament, he could even fact is on suitcase… He didn’t even know how to turn on the gas for cooking…Of course if he had made some effort, he could have learned all of this. But it was all boring to him. He just didn’t need to.”
In the spring of 1992, shortly before he died, Tal escaped from his hospital room to play in a blitz tournament. The following game, played against Kasparov, is generally regarded as his last game.
Tal –Kasparov 1. e4 c5 2. Nf3 d6 3. Bb5+ Nd7 4. d4 Nf6 5. O-O a6 6. Bxd7 Nxd7 7. Nc3 e6 8. Bg5 Qc7 9. Re1 cd 10. Nxd4 Ne5 11. f4 h6 12. Bh4 g5 13. fe gh 14. ed Bxd6 15. Nd5 (a Typical Tal move! Houdini says the position now goes to -2.0 for Tal) ed 16. ed+ Kf8 17. Qf3 and Black forfeited on time.
The computer says Tal is losing, but it is not so easy to meet the threats on the board. And so Tal leaves the game as he found it, playing aggressively, speculatively, for the fun and joy of the game.
No column for the summer
I have been writing this column for more than four years, and am going to take a break for the summer, until late August.
In the last year, I have put a lot of energy into chess — playing, studying, writing about it — and I want to take some time to do some self-evaluation, decide whether I want to keep doing as many chess things as I have been doing.
This week’s problem
Here Tal finds a neat mating attack against former world champion Vasily Smyslov, who had also defeated Botvinnik for the world championship (in 1957) only to lose a rematch the following year.
After the crucial first move, White mates in no more than four moves.