Will's Coffee House

John Dryden, Dramatist, Critic, Poet Laureate, and my ancestor, frequented a coffee house called Will's almost daily, where he would hold forth on sundry subjects with great wit and aplomb. Same deal here, only without the wit or aplomb.

Location: Large Midwestern City, Midwestern State, United States

I am a stranger in a sane land...

Tuesday, November 09, 2004


Leave it to the Germans to come up with a word describing pleasure in the misfortunes of others. "Schaden" = "Damage", "Freude" = "Joy", so "Schaden" + "Freude" = Joy in the damage sustained by others. It's a good word, and it's an interesting lacuna of English (supposedly the biggest and most detailed of languages) that we lack a word for such a fundamental component of human nature--maybe it says something about the degree to which emotional nuance escapes us, which is why we have to turn so often to French (joie de vivre, esprit de coeur) for our linguistic self-espression. But this one the Germans nailed: Schadenfreude. I mention it because, on another blog somewhere, I read the comment that for those of us still brooding over Nov. 2--come Tuesday, it'll already be two weeks! seems shorter, no?--the only pleasure of the next four years may be confined to Schadenfreude--the pleasure of seeing the Bush admin's idiocy and cruelty and greed come around to bite them on the a--.

I myself am dubious of this notion, since the degree to which life has insulated Bush and Cheney and Co. from the uglier consequences of malfeasance (bottom line: they're all rich, and the rich don't have to pay for anything, oh the not-really-irony) suggests to me that they'll leave as cheerfully untouched as they are right now. I don't really believe in Hell--the Bible is remarkably vague on what would seem a pretty important subject, though I understand it's considerably more explicit in the Koran--I think the idea of endless punishment for temporally finite sin is just silly in its unjust but imaginatively satisfying illogic--but one does wish for something like it at times, just so that people who didn't really suffer sufficiently in this life get what's coming in the next...On the other hand, I'm willing to forgo such satisfaction if it means that I myself can avoid the eternal bonfire that no doubt awaits me. Which brings me (tortuously) around to my point: it occurs to me that Schadenfreude is the compensation for Envy.

Because here's the thing about Envy: it's the only one of the Seven Deadly Sins that's completely devoid of pleasure. For those of you who aren't David Fincher fans (or readers of Dan Savage), let's review: Pride, Greed, Wrath, Lust, Sloth, Gluttony, and, yes, Envy. (Frankly, I don't get why Cowardice isn't in there. I mean, a guy who has an extra helping of dessert before running into a burning building to save a kitten and feels excessively good about himself--so good, in fact, that he goes home and fornicates with his girlfriend--he gets my vote before someone who abstains from dessert, loathes himself, and doesn't even think about women, but lets the kitten burn.)

Save Envy, pleasures abound in the Seven Deadlies. Pride--an abstract pleasure, perhaps, but feeling really, really superior to other people is a visceral rush known to every misanthrope and crank and vegan and church bake sale coordinator. Greed is again abstract, but as any arbitrageur will tell you, it's not the having, it's the getting. Wrath? Well, we'll get around to that, but anyone who's ever kicked the living s--t out of an appliance that refuses to work according to the incredibly inscrutable instuction manual will tell you that the feel of foot against metal, the sound of shattering plastic, the shrieked obscenity that folks in the next zip-code can hear--oh, these are things that put the joy, joy, joy, joy down in one's heart. The pleasures of Lust, Sloth, and Gluttony are so obvious as to require no explication. And then there's Envy.

Envy is comfortless. Envy is self-torture. Envy is based entirely on an ugly, cold bitterness. (It can't be 'hot,' because then it turns into Wrath.) Nobody enjoys being envious, while everyone enjoys being slothful, greedy, gluttonous, and lustful. Except...

Except for Schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is not part of Envy. But Schadenfreude is derived from it. Schadenfreude is what we feel when those we envy suffer. Schadenfreude is not, I think, derived from Wrath--Wrath (which, by the way, is not Anger--it is excess of Anger, just as Gluttony is excess of Appetite, Sloth is excess of Restfulness, and so forth) is an active sin--Wrath moves us to act--to cause suffering. Envy is passive--Envy is not desire for what another has, it is hatred of another for having it. So all Envy can do is wait, and enjoy the suffering that comes, when it does, from the having.

And that's what they think we've got to look forward to in Bush's second term. The pleasure of seeing them squirm under the weight of the power and responsibility they've seized. I don't know, though--the press is so thoroughly (sorry, ladies) p--sified that we really can't count on them to give the Bushies the screwing they've so abundantly earned. I'm afraid that even the cold comfort of Schadenfreude may be denied us. Which is too bad, because we're just eaten up with Envy these days. And we need some way to satisfy that monstrous little toad in our hearts.

But then, that's true of all the sins, isn't it? We've all got one or two, and we've all got to find some way to live with it/them. As for me, I'll 'fess up; my sin of sins is...drumroll, please...Wrath. Odd choice, perhaps, but I note that it's becoming increasingly fashionable in this era of Fox News and flamewars.

Lust? Well, sure, I have it, but thanks largely to the godd--ned medication I'm forced to pound by the fist-full in order not to go self-destructively nutsy, my libido is...diminished, to put it mildly. So I can't claim any moral superiority for this one--it's just holier living through chemistry. (Which, since I'm pleasantly married yet surrounded by nubile and impressionable--read: easily manipulated--young co-eds all the time, is probably a good thing, really.)

Gluttony? Yes. True. I eat more than I should, and I enjoy it a wee bit too much. (I also rarely compensate with exercise, which makes me truly inadequate.) Call that a back-up sin--I say back-up because my gluttony isn't, you know, offensive--by the standards of my fellow Americans, I'm fairly abstemious. I do eat fast food, I don't eat junk food. Fine distinction, but I'm inclined to be Jesuitical about this, as Evelyn Waugh would say.

Sloth? Well, I do love sleep, though I can no longer spend the better part of 24 hours doing so. I do love to fritter away the time (or, as my sainted mother would put it, to f--k the dog), but I'm also an anal retentive lunatic who absolutely positively cannot rest until all my obligations are met immediately. So I am Slothful, but only when I can afford to be--any sin that's controlled by guilt isn't really a sin, since one is in a constant state of contrition and thus A. avoids it, and B. counter-acts it. No, I think I get a pass on Sloth.

Pride? Well, God and the readers of this blog know that I'm about as snotty, priggish, and arrogant as they come, but I'm also absolutely consumed by self-loathing. Consumed. Which, I think, balances things out to a morally neutral stance--sure, I think I'm smarter than everyone else, but I don't think I'm better than anyone else. Except for Karl Rove. And Dick Cheney. And Laura Schlessinger. OK, maybe Pride is a problem for me.

Greed? Not really, no. I mean, my choice of careers (Educator, for God's sake) pretty much sums up my worldly priorities. I don't really give a damn about 'nice cars'--just a way to get from Point A to Point B so far as I'm concerned--or a big house--don't have a big family, so it'd just be empty space--or, well, frankly, anything money can buy except books and DVDs and computer games. And those things don't cost a lot. So, Greed? No.

Likewise, despite my current focus on the subject, Envy. I just lack that Chromosome, I guess. I have friends, colleagues, who are, by loose standards, rich--who have the marks of wealth and success--I have friends who managed to get plum jobs and fellowships I didn't, for reasons of bad timing, nothing more--I am surrounded, in short, by people who have things that I might want, but--but--damned if I don't think they deserve those things. Would I take anything away from them so I could have it? Would I enjoy seeing them lose these things? Do I wish them ill in any way because they have them and I don't? No, no, and no--I mean, that kind of thinking strikes me not just as evil, but really alien--I just can't imagine thinking that way. If there's one sin I'm truly free of, it's Envy.

Not so for Wrath, though. Oh, no. Which may strike those who know me (my wife aside) as odd. But my temper--my ability to fly into absolute, blood-tinged rage in the blink of an eye--is, I dare say, unmatched. And oh, how I love it. How I love to be angry--to have that dark energy, that black lightning flowing through me. How I love to vent--to scream--to curse. I swear, it's lucky I'm pretty much of a egg-headed wimp. It's lucky I'm not strong and dumb--because I'd probably be violent. Against people. Strangers, mostly. And the degree to which my Wrath is barely kept under wraps is, at times, a wee bit scary to me. Particularly when I'm forced to wait. Most particularly if I'm forced to wait in line. As in, if I'm at the grocer's, and there's a woman at the cashier taking an unseemly amount of time writing her check and reviewing her receipt and voicing an opinion that's irrelevant to the transaction, I literally have to restrain myself from coming up from behind and punching her in the back of the head. No warning, no shout of anger. Just punch, and maybe a kick when she's down. And if you're at the head at the line at Starbuck's, and you don't know what you want--oh, sweet merciful Lord, I will kill you a dozen different ways in my mind before I come up with just the right way (it usually involves using the plunger from a nearby coffee press like an ice-pick to the base of the skull). (My only comfort at this truly horrible fantasy is that if I did it, I suspect everyone else in line would respond with an inner round of applause.) When it comes to Wrath, I am a bad, bad person. (My favorite superhero, since the age of none? The Hulk, of course.) Please don't fear for me and the lives of those I surround. My Wrath is largely under control, and completely confined to inanimate objects in its choice of victims. I'm ashamed of my Wrath--guilty--and guilty in advance--so I really am quite unlikely to snap, for the same reason that a guy who wears a seatbelt is less likely to fly through the windshield than a guy who isn't. But part of the reason I don't drink much is that I worry about that seatbelt coming off.

Well, this got uncomfortably dark, didn't it? Seriously, folks, I'm not a psycho. I'm just easily angered. Too easily. And too inclined to enjoy it. But that's what I think we all have to do with our sins of choice--find them out--identify them--and learn how to live with them. For me--I have my head shrunk twice a month and vent on a blog. For middle-aged housewives stuck in failed marriages to philandering alcoholics, Wrath is controlled by spending 87 hours a week on the stairmaster at the gym. For barely employed steelworkers who get reamed out by their MBAed, pencil-necked bosses every day, Wrath comes out while watching professional sports at a bar, where Reichian screams are socially permissable. Wrath, in many way, is the scariest of the Sins--it's the one that's most immediately dangerous to you and everyone else. But it's also the easiest to recognize in yourself. The easiest to control--to sublimate. And that, I think, is the point of this blog-entry. Schadenfreude is the outlet for Envy--ugly, but better than letting the poison fester. We all need something like that--something to keep our sins in check--not suppressed, but expressed in ways that keep our worlds spinning forward smoothly. So what's your sin? And how do you hold onto it?


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