Monday, June 18, 2012

The Quantification of Schadenfreude: Part I

Donatien Alphonse François, better know as the Marque de Sade once stated, “It is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure.” It would be easy to dismiss the Marque’s claim, considering the pain he was referring to involved spanking teenage hookers and spent most of his days in an insane asylum, writing about spanking teenage hookers. But the moment I heard my grandmother, a caring and gentle woman, laughing aloud as I explained in detail how I managed to break my arm in half, I realized the Marque may have been more cunning than coo coo, and that the relationship between pleasure and pain is as complicated as it is symbiotic. 

Unfortunately for us English speakers, our language never got around to creating its own term for this relationship, and must refer to the German word schadenfreude, which roughly translates to damaged joy. And sure, I understand that the Germans have an above average grasp of sadism, but in my opinion, deferring to former genocidal fascists to define anything related to joy, damaged or not, is just bad policy. That said, the German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer once touted this type of pleasure  as the most evil sin of human feeling, saying, "To feel envy is human, to savor schadenfreude is devilish." And he might be right. In that sadism, in its purest form, is a choice, and in the case of schadenfreude, which is a seemingly automatic and pleasurable response to the unfortunate, is still a choice. -Albeit a subconscious, highly passive and much funnier choice, a choice nonetheless. Because of this, it’s easy to understand why Mr. Schopenhauer considered schadenfreude, and all of mankind for that matter, evil.

Aristotle wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics that envy, or rather the opposite of envy, or what he called, epikhairekakia, was the cause of man’s keenness of another man’s failure. John Ray, the father of modern English naturalism believed “misery loves company,” which means, when someone’s in pain, sobbing to those with similar sorrows will, in theory, make them empathetic and therefore feel better. But the Marque would have us believe the contrary, that company loves misery, and the reason miserable people feel better in the company of other miserable people is not empathy, but rather people observing others with problems worse than their own and are pleased to see their life could be worse. This is why you, i.e. company, can’t help but enjoy a grown man catching a baseball with his crotch, aka, misery. But why?        

Rob Reiner said it best when he stated, “comedy is when you fall into a pit and get impaled on a spike, and tragedy is when you stub your toe.” But are Mr. Reiner, the Marque De Sade, and Aristotle to have us believe humans are all merely a bunch sadistic pricks who revel, exponentially in the disproportionate severity of the suffering of others by imagining ourselves enduring said tragic event, and are just glad that it’s not us that's been impaled on the spike? With this logic, pain equals comedy, therefore more pain will equate to more comedy. As proven here:

But if comedy were this straightforward, wouldn’t struggling comedians simply take the stage, pull out a hatchet and begin hacking away at their limbs until humor is achieved? Probably. That’s why Mark Twain believed, “comedy is tragedy plus time.” Which means pain, or “tragedy,” would have to exceed a certain amount of time, or repeat itself (x) number of times, in order to become comically viable. This explains why stubbing a toe once can result in tragedy, but if a toe is stubbed, say two times in two minutes, comedy will increase because the initial tragedy has been repeated in a short amount of time. However, the severity of each stubbing, which theoretically should multiply the level of pain exponentially, would therefore increase the tragedy’s comedic value. For instance, if someone, other then yourself were to stub a toe, say five times in fifteen minutes and then happens to sever that toe upon the fifth stubbing, which causes massive bleeding and results in death, the event would unequivocally equate to humor. As proven here   

But death, as well as levels of pain exceeding 10, as seen in Figures 1 & 2, enter a grey area of schadenfreude. Because ultimately the level of humor will be based on the relative distance, both physically and characteristically of the relationship of the individuals taking part in the event which could literally involve millions of factors. For example: height, weight, age, sex, race, species, context, insecurities, occupation, religion, pain tolerance, distance, use of “cuss” words, and most importantly, irony*.
*All factors are subject to large variances due to subjectivity, sense of humor, and ability to detect and or appreciate irony.

As figure 3. illustrates, a thirty-three-year old male deriving pleasure from the death of a short, squat-heavy, elderly, African American, female, human, with a lisp, from Atlanta via multiple toe stubbings would be far more difficult, due to an inability to relate, then say, the toe stubbing demise of a tallish, thirty-three-year-old, white, well spoken, protestant, human, insurance claimant, from New Hampshire and is why we laugh at our friends, family and those we know well, when they trip and fall.   

While familiarity and relatability are important, physical distance is one of the most critical factors. Because if the man in figure 3. is standing, let’s say three-feet from the man when stubbing his toe, he would not, assuming he’s not a sadistic fuck, be able to laugh as they say, in his face. Therefore, it’s fundamentally important to witness a tragedy from a distance far enough to, A. conceal all enjoyment, i.e. pointing and laughing, and, B. not be required to help. Hence, the popularity of books and movies, which places the observer at the scene, just not physically, and allow he or she to do nothing but safely snicker from somewhere from the future and not offend those involved.

As proven here:

Then of course there’s context. In that, do those incurring the pain deserve it or not? Immanuel Kant, in his Lectures on Ethics, regarded the desire for revenge as, “the sweetest form of schadenfreude.”  It's difficult to argue with Kant here. For thousands of years, and even today, to a lesser degree in the United States, humans garner enjoyment from watching the guilty pay for their sins in public. Therefore, proximity aside, if we had witnessed the aforementioned man, say, dropkick a couple of puppies and then stub his toe, we would have chalked it up to karmic revenge and laughed in his face, wishing the man was then mauled by a pack of wolves with AIDS and suffered more than the puppies. As proven here:   
 However, even allowing for all aforementioned variances, including distances and context, there can be no absolutes. In that, if the elderly black woman after the fifth stubbing happens to use profanity during her final words by proclaiming, in a lispy southern accent, “Mossafoka’! I fink I loth my mossafokin’ thoe!” the incident’s comedic value would most likely surpass the younger, more relatable tragedy. Because in the world of quantitative humor, cuss words, specifically the word fuck and its many connotations, represent an unknown and dynamic dynamic that, depending on context, can approach infinity. As proven here: 

Irony, unlike cuss words, which can backfire in certain company, has the ability to transcend all levels of sadness and suffering and make comedy an absolute**.  For example, even if the elderly black woman’s last words included a lispy cuss word like “mossafuka,” if someone at the younger white man’s funeral, say the pastor,  happens to stub his or her toe on the casket during the ceremony, the irony, depending on the veritable quantity and quality, can actually multiply infinity and prove to be so overwhelmingly comical, not even a mourning mother would be safe from the comedic effects of schadenfreude. As proven here:

**All factors are subject to large variances due to subjectivity, sense of humor, and ability to detect and or appreciate irony.

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