Schadenfreude is a German word that requires several English words for translation, but it speaks in a loud voice in any tongue. It means taking pleasure in the pain and misfortune of others, malicious joy in another's failure. It's what we feel when somebody we really, really don't like slips on a banana peel. Mean-spirited, but delicious.
When the rich and famous, the high and mighty, falter and fall, we don't say "there but for the grace of God go I." Instead we revel in the just desserts for those we think greedy and gluttonous. We feel superior, not because we're necessarily more moral, but because it's their pain and not ours. Schadenfreude ignores nuance. It applies to the guilty, the not guilty and the maybe not guilty but if not guilty ought to be.
Martha Stewart is the schadenfreude sweetheart of the moment. She may decorate house, garden and ice cream cake with a maestro's flair, cover up the hidden cracks and unseemly corners of living room, bedroom and kitchen with stenciled flowers, ruffles or lace, but she's a little too, umm, vulgar, in her perfectionist attention to taste. She doesn't deserve to make her millions. Or so a lot of people think.
She was working on a memoir to defend herself against this. When she announced her plans for her book a year ago , she said she would write about the "bumps in the road," the difficult times in her successful climb up the ladder of lavishness: "To many onlookers, what I have accomplished may appear easy, but it was all done with hard work, old-fashioned elbow grease and a certain amount of pain and suffering."
Although her public may need just such inside dope now more than ever, she has postponed her book. The documents she needs for her research could be required reading in court proceedings to determine whether she traded her stock in ImClone with insider information. Of course, if she is found not guilty, she might just get a best-seller out of the latest bump.
One of the compensations for public schadenfreude is that it's sometimes bankable. But it's more likely that somebody else will make money from it. So it is with the schadenfreudian success of "The Nanny Diaries," by Nicola Kraus and Emma McLaughlin.
The diaries are fiction, but a lot of readers are having a wickedly good time trying to identify Mr. and Mrs. X, the Park Avenue parents who hang out with high society in places where the elite meet in dismal dysfunction in that nuclear habitat known as family.
The nanny of their 4-year-old son is instructed to prepare Coquilles St. Jacques (scallops for those who need to brush up on their French cooking) for his supper, and to dress him in outfits designed by Bonpoint (which sell for hundreds of dollars and are not to be found at Kmart, Wal-Mart or Target). But when it comes to investing in their son emotionally, they've sold short.
Schadenfreude is a base emotion, but sometimes it can be cause for reflection upon more important things. For all of Martha Stewart's pretentious domesticity, only if she's proven guilty of breaking the law should we want to see her punished.
But she shouldn't expect to appear on television and avoid answering hard questions, either. When she was interviewed on "The Early Show" on CBS, Jane Clayson asked her about the investigation into insider trading. Instead of giving an answer, she kept chopping the cabbage. "I want to focus on my salad," she said. (No dice(ing).)
Last week she was scheduled for another appearance where she planned to talk about ice box desserts. When the bookers at CBS told her she couldn't eliminate tough questions, she canceled. If her audience should be fair with her, she has to be fair to them.
It's easy to feel superior to creepy parents like Mr. and Mrs. X in "The Nanny Diaries," but the dairies raise a larger point about how women who take care of children are treated. The nanny, who is college-educated and superficially cultured, has options a lot of poor immigrant women who take care of other people's children don't. The less fortunate nannies are often hidden from sight, powerless and degraded by long hours of servitude, working to save money for their own kids, whom they rarely see, or send money to grandparents who are caring for them in the old country.
We can forgive them if they take a little schadenfreude in the takedown of the Mr. and Mrs. X.