Monday, October 29, 2007

Whose Schadenfreude is the best Schadenfreude?

Last night I had two disparate conversations linked together by the suggestion of Schadenfreude. Are you familiar with the word? It is (rather obviously) a word derived from the German language, and Wikipedia notes that it has no direct English equivalent. It means 'pleasure taken from someone else's misfortune'. Interestingly, the aforementioned online encyclopedia does mention an obscure English word that comes close to conveying a similar meaning- epicaricacy. The Greek roots of that word include components indicating joy, upon and evil. I actually find it a bit surprising that a corollary in the American language hasn't risen to popular usage. I have no doubt that most people in this country have either experienced the concept or seen it vividly displayed by others.

The idea occurred to me after someone took offense to a particular recommendation I made for YouTube night. I have sent about 75 clips to the moderator of the event, and many of them have been played in my presence. Each time I send a list of links, I include a note or two to explain what my feelings are about each item. I always expect that she will use her own discretion in choosing the ones she includes in her programs. I would have understood if she had omitted the one that drew controversy last night. I included it in a previous post with the disclaimer that it is very disturbing. In fact one reader commented that he agreed with that assessment, and another regular visitor to this blog mentioned that he had heeded my warning and bypassed it altogether. (If you really want to view it, click this link)

Basically the clip features a young person with what appears to be extreme anorexia, dressed up in a lingerie and leg-warmers, carrying an umbrella and tap dancing without any musical accompaniment. She/he has an extremely bizarre appearance and (toward the end of the video) stares directly into the camera. Her/his gaze implicates the viewer in the production and dissemination of the spectacle. It is really quite inexplicable and unlike anything I have seen previously. The only thing I can really compare it to is something out of Tod Browning's Freaks. That was a film released in the 1930's that spawned a rash of criticism that destroyed the career of the promising director. It contained a cast of actual sideshow "freaks" with extreme deformities. As you are no doubt aware, carnivals in the first half of the 20th century often traveled with attractions featuring such human oddities. The exhibition of such people has been labeled as exploitation as long as the practice has been in existence.

So it is no surprise that I was confronted by an appalled viewer after the the clip was shown last night. He wanted to know why I was laughing while it was playing. While I can't explain why it is so, I often tend to have this reaction when I am watching something that makes me extremely uncomfortable. The sheer madness of such subject matter has a strange effect on me. In this specific case, I certainly take no joy in the plight of the featured star. It is definitely not an example of Schadenfreude. There is something truly horrifying about the production of this video. Yet I am fascinated nonetheless. I tried to explain this to the young man who was offended that I would expose others to this sight. He wanted to know what my intention was when I decided to pass it along. I responded honestly that I am attracted to the most extreme in human behavior, and feel that it's important not to turn my head away from it. I understand that others might be affected in other ways... but I don't think that is a reason not to share it.

Somehow that young man believed that I had some perverse intention in recommending the clip. I wasn't sure what he was accusing me of, but his questions did make me second guess why I had brought it to anyone else's attention. Maybe I did so in order to observe other people's reactions to it. And perhaps there is a certain element of Schadenfreude in that? On the other hand, maybe it was just so unspeakably odd that I felt justified in my curiosity. I did expect that including it in my list would generate feedback. Sometimes it seems that it takes something this extreme to wake people out of their stupor and make them confront tough realities. I couldn't help but wonder how my youthful and sensitive challenger feels about the current obsessions of the fashion industry, and the way they have sold unhealthy body forms as the culmination of "ideal beauty". Does his indignation rise to that particular spectacle?

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2 Comments:

Blogger Rob Park said...

when is "youtube night" at the brillo box? I might want to go.

That guy who was offended probably watches pretty horrible stuff in the privacy of his own house. But that was exceptionally creepy.

Nice.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Hey Rob,

Yeah, he probably watched Baywatch.

YouTube night is on Sundays, from 10PM-Midnight. Tell me if you want to go sometime. I'd meet you up there.

1:21 AM  

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