Johnny Depp is going broke, and the schadenfreude feels good
Gore Vidal was, contrary to stubborn belief, almost certainly not the first person to say: “It’s not enough to succeed; others must fail.” Variations on the maxim appear throughout the centuries. The ability to derive pleasure from another person’s misfortune is a foundation of civilisation. It is what separates us from the animals (the less unpleasant ones, anyway). Never mind delight in failure as a complement to our own triumph. Laughing at catastrophe is even more useful as fillip when our lives are unsatisfactory.
Why do you think the peasants delighted at the execution of Louis XVI? Yes, the replacement of absolute monarchy with a nascent democracy offered visible reification of enlightenment philosophies. That’s bleeding obvious.
More importantly, if you’re covered in dung and have nothing to eat but conkers, the guillotining of a wealthy potentate momentarily sets the world back in balance. My foot may have gangrene, but my head is still attached to its shoulders.
There are always lower grade examples of such cosmic balancing. The most recent is the (makes involuntary gurgling noise) desperately sad business of the failed Fyre Festival in the Bahamas.
To get a sense of how humans approach such things, it’s worth pondering the contrasting responses to that bash and to controversies surrounding the Dublin GamerCon event in March. Nobody much laughed when chaos descended on GamerCon as punters were stranded in endless damp queues. All kinds of people from all kinds of places were inconvenienced. There’s nothing much funny about that.
The Fyre Festival was a little different. Customers were charged around $12,000 for VIP packages to the titular music event in the Bahamas. They would, in theory, emerge from their state-of-the-art geodesic domes to enjoy (always a flexible term) gourmet meals and music from the likes of Blink 182.
Before going on to detail the subsequent disasters, we should pause to consider that last sentence. If the event had gone well it would have climaxed with a concert by one of the bratty faux-punk bands that helped make the mid-1990s so unbearable.
That didn’t happen. Unlucky early punters arrived to find the relevant beach in a state of unpreparedness. They were fed sandwiches made with Easi Singles and were asked to make water in less than luxurious port-a-potties.
Eventually, a local band began playing, but it was already apparent that the festival was not going to take place. The journeys home were plagued with further complications. Good news finally arrived when it was confirmed that Blink 182 were still many miles away. The word we’re looking for here is
schadenfreude. It’s hard to think of any happy story that was greeted with such hilarity on social media. Sure, many perfectly decent folk had been inconvenienced. But the feeling was that at least some people with more money than sense had got what was coming to them.
The organisers’ brash hubris fuelled the rejoicing. In the lead-up to the event, various supermodels had allowed themselves to be tangled up in Fyre marketing. Bringing the year’s early schadenfreude classics neatly together, Kendall Jenner was identified as a (try not to gag here) “spokesmodel”.
Just as nobody wept for the creators of Jenner’s appalling Pepsi commercial, there was no rending of garments for the floundering entrepreneurs behind Fyre. Indeed, the chortling was merry and cacophonous.
There is a notion that satire is at its best when it “punches up”. Digs at the powerful, rich and complacent are more worthwhile than those at those on lower rungs of the social ladder.
Schadenfreude works in the same way. If a poor old man falls over it is very sad. If a rich young man falls over then . . . Well, it’s not necessarily funny. We’d better make sure he hasn’t broken anything. It would be as well to check that he wasn’t delivering alms to the disadvantaged.
Let’s try again. If a rich young jerk falls over then it’s always a little funny. If he’s on his way to an alt-right meeting then we may be tempted to give him a push.
This is something we need. We need it more than ever. A barrage of digital information is continually lowering our self-esteem. Whatever the truth of the situation, we feel poorer, fatter, uglier, stupider and less fashionable. Those at the top of the tree have an obligation to balance the books by behaving as irresponsibly and self-destructively as possible.
Ha ha, the toffs are pooing in portaloos. Ha ha, the supermodels are being humiliated in disastrous commercials. Ha ha, Johnny Depp’s going broke.
Fail for us. Fail for us. Remember what happened to Louis XVI. We could still do that to you.