As I did in my last post on the National Football League playoffs, I am admitting to secret sentiments I’m not proud of. It’s not enough that the player and the team I am rooting for, Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, are winning. I have been reveling over the fact that others are losing.
In particular I felt gratified when, two weeks ago, the Baltimore Ravens beat the New England Patriots. For many years Tom Brady and the Patriots were the bane of the Colts, and over the past decade their rivalry has been the most heated in American sports, surpassing even that of the Yankees and the Red Sox. Seeing the Patriots defeated, therefore, was satisfying. Yet even sweeter than their loss was their humiliation. The Ravens dominated, and I experienced schadenfreude, or delight at the misfortune of others.
I’m not happy with myself for having these feelings. In fact, they made me feel small. That others may have experienced similar sensations last year (and the year before) when the Colts were bounced out of the playoffs by the San Diego Chargers doesn’t make my own sensations defensible. But there they were.
One of the funniest poems that I know has memorable images of schadenfreude. Its black humor allows me to laugh at this disturbing dimension of myself. It was written in 1829 by Thomas Love Peacock and is a send-up of elevated war poetry. (It brings to my mind the Greek’ raid on the Laeystrygonians in The Odyssey.) Notice how the bouncy meter and the goofy feminine rhymes (especially “led off” and “head off”) undermine the celebration of war:
The War Song of Dinas Vawr
The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
We made an expedition;
We met a host, and quelled it;
We forced a strong position,
And killed the men who held it.
On Dyfed’s richest valley,
Where herds of kine were browsing,
We made a mighty sally,
To furnish our carousing.
Fierce warriors rushed to meet us;
We met them, and o’erthrew them:
They struggled hard to beat us;
But we conquered them, and slew them.
As we drove our prize at leisure,
The king marched forth to catch us:
His rage surpassed all measure,
But his people could not match us.
He fled to his hall-pillars;
And, ere our force we led off,
Some sacked his house and cellars,
While others cut his head off.
We there, in strife bewild’ring,
Spilt blood enough to swim in:
We orphaned many children,
And widowed many women.
The eagles and the ravens
We glutted with our foemen;
The heroes and the cravens,
The spearmen and the bowmen.
We brought away from battle,
And much their land bemoaned them,
Two thousand head of cattle,
And the head of him who owned them:
Ednyfed, king of Dyfed,
His head was borne before us;
His wine and beasts supplied our feasts,
And his overthrow, our chorus.
This is funny as long as we subscribe to contrary values and believe that one should not, in fact, celebrate bloodshed or gloat over the fall of our enemies. Unfortunately, we seem to have few qualms these days over taking pleasure in the reversals of those who disagree with us. People are overly delighted in seeing an opponent be defeated here or a piece of legislation go down there. Many Obama supporters tuned to Fox News on the night of his election to feast on the distress of conservatives, and conservatives are relishing the recent distress of Democrats over the Massachusetts Senate special election.
It is one thing to take principled stands. It is another to turn politics into a blood sport and, in the process, sacrifice the good of the nation. The profit-driven media often abets these base urges. (I exempt National Public Radio and Television from the charge—and of course, many find them boring as a result.)
Schadenfreude may be a very human emotion, but it must be one that we learn to rise above. Or at least confine it to the world of games.