Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Joy of Schadenfreude

“Am I proud?
Yes, why should I not be,
When even men who do not fear God
Fear me?

Those few lines were written by Alexander Pope, an English poet and critic active in the early 1700’s, who had some reason to be proud. He was a fine poet and an even better journalist who delighted in pricking the airy balloons of the high and mighty of his time, sometimes anonymously. Prisons yawned in the 18th century to swallow libelers, and men kept their dueling pistols near at hand.

His biographer tells us that Pope’s physical defects – he was misshapen owing to a fall from a horse at an early age – “made him an easy target for heartless mockery.”

He also had a religious problem: “Pope's father, the son of an Anglican vicar, had converted to Catholicism, which caused the family many problems. At the time Catholics suffered from repressive legislation and prejudices - they were not allowed to enter any universities or hold public employment. Thus Pope had an uneven education, which was often interrupted. From Twyford School he was expelled after writing a satire on one of the teachers. At home, Pope's aunt taught him to read. Latin and Greek he learned from a local priest and later he acquired knowledge of French and Italian poetry. Pope also attended clandestine Catholic schools.”

Naturally, Pope did not apply to Catholics or dwarfs the stick that too often had been applied to his own humped back. But what he said of himself was true. Full of an effervescent schadenfreude, a German word that means delight in the downfall of the high and mighty, he was perhaps the best poet of the English Enlightenment. Tragedy elicits fear and pity in the breast of the audience; comedy produces guffaws and a shattering laugh behind the hand, a form of schadenfreude.

When Governor of New York Elliot Spitzer fell with a thud last week, some – most pitifully his wife and children -- felt the bite of tragedy; others laughed at the former attorney general behind their hands, proving, once and for all, that comedy is the tragedy that happens to our bothersome enemy.

And Spitzer was annoying, a little bit like Pope without the poetry or the thoughtful hesitation that a physical defect will cause in the critic. Spitzer prosecuted the evil geniuses of Wall Street and was, for this reason, called the “Elliot Ness” of Wall Street. In a recent report, the Competitive Enterprise Institute listed Spitzer third in a rundown of the worst attorneys general in the United States. Connecticut’s own Richard Blumenthal came in first. The beef against the attorneys general is that by combining cases they have frustrated the spirit if not the letter of state constitutions, which vest in the legislature, not runaway attorneys general, the authority to make laws and prescribe remedies for violations of the law.

When the man Elliot Ness had pursued so energetically, the notorious Al Capone, died in prison – from syphilis, as it turned out – no one was much surprised. Al had consorted with women of the street at least as often as Spitzer. Were he alive, Pope would say, chortling behind his hand, that Spitzer at least had avoided the syphilitic beast. The women of the Emperors Club VIP were well tested, a testament to the efficacy of modern medicine, if not modern morals, which holds that hypocrisy rather than infidelity to the marriage bed is the more wounding (What to call it?) … sin?

An AP story on Spitzer preferred to think of his lapse of judgment not as sin, but as a psychological infirmity. Why do those whom fortune has smiled upon sink to such levels. Narcissism perhaps?

Spitzer’s bank referred questionable wire transfers in a commercial account to IRS investigators because they supposed the money was being directed towards some dubious political purpose. Following the kind of investigation that Spitzer specialized in as attorney general, they discovered that Spitzer’s payments to QAT Consulting and OAT International was going to the hookers from the Emperors Club VIP, and the merry chase was on.

Ground up in the gears was Spitzer’s wife and children, any one of whom could have told him, had he bothered to ask, that commerce with prostitutes was a no, no. In the absence of children and wives, there is always Pope: “Amusement is the happiness of those who cannot think.”
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