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When Bad Things Happen to Other People
When Bad Things Happen to Other People, by John Portmann; xxi & 242 pp. New York: Routledge, 2000, $17.95.
Isaiah Berlin observes in one of his characteristically lucid essays that "Men's beliefs in the sphere of conduct are part of their conception of themselves and others as human beings; and this conception in its turn, whether conscious or not, is intrinsic to their picture of the world." In John Portmann's book, this [End Page 173] sphere of belief and conduct revolves around Schadenfreude, or the wide array of reactions, including delight, that people take in the misfortune and suffering of others. Portmann would probably agree with Berlin: how one experiences and evaluates Schadenfreude denotes a particular if vaguely realized picture of the world and of human beings.
Schadenfreude is necessarily a social event; the conditions that promote it have probably been present in most, if not all, societies. A pervasive social and psychological feature of modern times, Schadenfreude has recently migrated from the German language to American popular culture, with the word and the dynamic occasionally cropping up in movies and music, folklore, and to a lesser extent in newspapers and magazines, either explicitly or in cleverly contrived subtexts. In believing this is not the case, Portmann is curiously off the mark; America, he says, is the place where Schadenfreude is a prohibited, "outlaw" emotion. This is an especially odd viewpoint considering that contemporary American television offers scripted, exhibitionistic suffering served up in "reality-based" programs whose contrived plot lines frequently entail the glittering, eye-winking depiction of betrayal, humiliation, and guilt. Many television viewers enjoy these and similar shows, judging by their ratings. With characteristic gusto and delight in novelty, Americans have not only assimilated the concept of Schadenfreude, but have given it a postmodern twist, embracing even the wackier aspects of pop culture disinhibition. Sizable television audiences are perfectly content to be passive spectators of these prime-time grotesqueries.
The meaning of suffering has long been the subject of theological and philosophical speculation (Job and Leibniz), and continues to be discussed in recent moral and political philosophy (Sloterdijk and Shklar). In his Critique of Cynical Reason, for example, Peter Sloterdijk observes that the technical term for giving pain and suffering a secular, metaphysical meaning is, obscurely enough, "algodicy." Portmann's survey of Schadenfreude is more tightly focused than the scope of algodicy: it begins with a brief etymological overview of the word's varied uses before turning to selected literary and philosophical texts in an effort to distill and clarify what appears, on closer inspection, to be a rather diffuse, disconcerting, and finally irreducible aspect of the human condition.
Portmann's chief intellectual guides to Schadenfreude are Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Freud, and the theologian Bernard Häring. However, in contrast to these and other important thinkers and writers whom he doesn't mention, Portmann stresses that Schadenfreude ought to be distinguished from cruelty and malice (whether serious or mischievous) on the one hand and from sublimated ressentiment and vengefulness on the other. All these emotions normally involve intentionality; they require direct or indirect participation on the part of an agent to harm another. According to Portmann's conspicuously juridical viewpoint, Schadenfreude is essentially passive (unlike sadism, for example). Such passivity fortifies the moral tone of society, not to mention its [End Page 174] reflexive outbursts in comic, banana-peel situations. Portmann wishes to emphasize that the social significance of Schadenfreude really emerges from a consideration of justice. What is justice? That everyone gets their due: that there is a rational relationship between the appropriateness of suffering people undergo and the justifiable response others have to this spectacle. Portmann's view--one he believes has suffered polemical or moral elision in previous writing on the subject--is fairly straightforward. Properly understood, Schadenfreude is the recognition that some people simply deserve their humiliating comeuppance. Portmann's pointed therapeutic rehabilitation of Schadenfreude is therefore an attempt to ease the guilt that comes from witnessing...