Who can resist the pleasure of Schadenfreude?

Academic disputes can be acrimonious and unedifying, but victory is always sweet, says Shahidha Bari

November 23, 2017
Mick Marston illustration (23 November 2017)
Source: Mick Marston

Some years ago, while waiting for a friend in the office of a small, obscure publishing company, I absent-mindedly opened a cupboard and found it filled with 182 copies of the same book. Stacked from floor to ceiling, dusty and unsold, the books had evidently been mouldering there for years: all 182 copies. Yes, reader, I counted them.

The unloved book was a misjudged foray into creative writing by an old teacher who had given me and my academic ambitions rather short shrift as a graduate student. Schadenfreude is a devilish word to spell, but who would deny it is a delicious sentiment? It is borrowed from German, a compound of Schaden, meaning “damage” or “harm”, and Freude, meaning “joy”. It refers, of course, to the experience of pleasure or self-satisfaction that comes from the troubles or failures of another. And though the word’s earliest usages date back only to the 1740s, it is fair to assume that the feeling has been familiar for a lot longer.

That grumpiest of philosophers, Arthur Schopenhauer, once described Schadenfreude as a sin of feeling, priggishly opining that “to feel envy is human, to savour Schadenfreude is diabolic”. The English approximate, “gloating”, doesn’t quite have the same precision, although it possesses its own charm. I am not ashamed to admit that I gloated in that publisher’s office. And I gleefully recalled that wonderfully wry and sardonic poem by Clive James that begins:

The book of my enemy has been remaindered
And I am pleased.
In vast quantities it has been remaindered
Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized

On a cheerful day, I sincerely believe that academics are, on the whole, a charitable, wholesome and community-minded bunch. But we are not above enmity. From the beginning, we are primed to race each other, competing in exams and accomplishments, hurrying to gather the greater laurels, elbowing each other aside for jobs and ruthlessly clambering career ladders. We can be, understandably, thin-skinned, exposed as we are to criticism, peer review and cross-disciplinary scepticism. We form rival allegiances and forge strident critiques. When we fall out, we might believe the intellectual stakes are great – an important distinction, a pointed clarification, a correction of a crucial error – but our disputes can also be petty and personal: a boot put in with unwarranted vim.  

Zadie Smith lampoons the theatricality of academic rivalry in her novel of 2005 On Beauty, in which bombastic professorial grandees bicker over differing approaches to Rembrandt while engaging in extramarital affairs. But Philip Roth best captures the festering rancour and long-nursed grievances of the university in The Human Stain. The story recounts the catastrophic fall from grace of Coleman Silk, a confidently venerable professor with a secret. In the background, his French feminist nemesis, the coquettishly named Delphine Roux, is mocked by cruel colleagues at the fictional Athena College and covertly derided as “so passé, such a parody of Simone de Beauvoir”.

Perhaps the line between the purely intellectual and the deeply personal is narrow because academics so often identify or are identified with their work. In a recent feature for the New York Times Magazine, “When the Revolution Came for Amy Cuddy”, journalist Susan Dominus details the travails of a superstar social psychologist whose theory of “power posing” proposed a correlation between the adoption of particular physical stances and the production of higher levels of testosterone and lower levels of cortisol. The subject of a wildly popular TED talk, Cuddy’s research was roundly criticised by her peers for its apparently faulty methodologies and employment of the kind of data analysis that could be prone to yielding false-positive conclusions.

But Cuddy was by no means the only social psychologist to adopt such an approach, and Dominus notes how this broader methodological crisis has turned a once cordial and collaborative field into an “openly combative” one, as researchers scramble to question or verify results. She notes, too, how “Cuddy, in particular, has emerged from this upheaval as a unique object of social psychology’s new, enthusiastic spirit of self-flagellation”. We are our research, in some basic way, and we feel criticised personally when our work is questioned.

Yet our disputes can be acrimonious and unedifying. Sometimes, they can be utterly savage, taking the form of vicious sideswipes and vulgar denunciations. I reflected on this recently at a public debate at which one representative of a particular discipline laughed and casually remarked, in the presence of other scholars from the field in question, on the “bullshit” produced by one of his peers. There was an appalled pause and a titter of embarrassed laughter before the debate moved on.

We may have our fundamental and irreconcilable disciplinary differences, but we are surely undone if we cannot extend to each other a certain kind of dignity and hospitality, enabling a culture in which we might pursue the kinds of enquiry we judge to be important without hazarding personal abuse and mocking disdain.

Our petty rivalries are nothing, of course, compared with the undignified spats in which some literary giants have indulged. Norman Mailer once punched Gore Vidal at a party, apparently discontented by a typically astringent review of his book. Literally floored, Vidal pronounced: “Once again, words fail Norman Mailer.” We are also indebted to Vidal for that other excellent insight: “It is not enough to succeed. Others must fail.” It is a mean and unflattering truth. But then I think back to that pile of unloved, unsold books in the cupboard of that small printing press: those – in James’ words – “bummers that no amount of hype could shift/The unbudgeable turkeys”. And I stifle a little smile.

Shahidha Bari is lecturer in Romanticism at Queen Mary University of London.

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