Morbid Curiosities

Why everyone loves a good train wreck.

The Year in Scandal

The year's worst are really the best.

As the New Year approaches, I'd like to take a moment to give thanks for the gifts of this past twelve months: Herman Cain, the "Cain Wreck," with a mistress around every bend; John Gilliano the anti-Semitic ranter and Dior designer; Estella Warren, synchronized swimmer, drunkard, escape artist; Arnold and his maid Mildred; and the man of the year, Charlie Sheen.

This is my list of the top five scandals of 2011. Rummaging the cyber-muck for the bad boys and girls now brooding over their fresh lumps of coal, I find many such lists. I am grateful for the best of the worst.

I used to cherish those highbrow compilations of the year's best books, films, and news stories. Then, on Black Friday of 2009, I saw the light. Vaguely curious about Tiger Woods' Escalade Escapade, I stumbled into the underworlds of the wide web: TMZ, Gawker, E! Online. Among the dark rumors of sleazy sex, I found my guardian demon. He revealed to me the bliss of doing exactly what I shouldn't: relish the misfortunes of others.

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I'll get to Don Delillo's haunting collection later. Soon I'll sulk through artsy Von Trier's latest chamber of gloom. Just this minute, though, I'm at Gawker, where "today's gossip is tomorrow's news." I see a hyperlink to a juicy story involving a frontrunner for the 2012 scandal sheet. Like a tickle in the throat before a cough or the awful urge to sneeze, it comes: the morbid desire to stare at the shame. I hold back until the last minute, to make the release more intense, and then, with a click, gawk like a teen at his first peep show, enjoying the experience all the more because it's frowned upon.

The sickest part of my thrill is that I'm actually glad this luminary has been humiliated. Such is my incorrigible Schadenfreude, "the worst trait in human nature"--at least according to Arthur Schopenhauer.

I should feel guiltier; or at least guilty that I don't feel guiltier. Well, if I'm wicked, so are you. Let's carpool to hell, a Sheen bobble-head on the dash.

In February, Sheen, already the tabloid addict's darling (cocaine, ugly divorces, porn stars), verbally abused the creator of his hit television show Two and a Half Men and was subsequently fired. Immediately, he staged on a talk show extravaganza of delusional grandeur, buffoonery, paranoia, diatribe, and crypto-mystical aphorisms. "I am on a drug. It's called Charlie Sheen. It's not available. If you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off and your children will weep over your exploded body." "I got tiger blood, man." "I have a 10,000-year-old brain and the boogers of a 7-year-old."

So fascinated were we with Sheen's antics that he found a place in The Guinness Book of World Records: the man who reached one million Twitter followers the fastest. This feat qualifies Sheen as the master of scandal-production (indeed, he later called his unhinged behaviors "performance art"), and suggests the epic extent of our culture's unwholesome delectation.

Fallen celebrities aren't the only ones who inspire this macabre glee. I was secretly satisfied when a colleague of mine, a guy I like well enough, didn't get that lucrative grant that would have elevated him above me. (Gore Vidal, who said that "whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies," would understand.) I also admit to laughing, though I tried not to, when I saw a stranger trip in the theater aisle at a screening of The Fellowship of the Ring. Popcorn rocketed fabulously into the air.

In these more ordinary cases, I usually feel too much bad conscience to get a real bang. Probably the poor soul didn't deserve his troubles, and then there's the fear that such a mishap could just as easily happen me. "But for the grace of God, there go I."

When celebs tumble, I ditch the maxims. There's no way, ordinary guy that I am, that I'll ever suffer such operatic crashes as Mel Gibson or O.J. And surely big shots like these, with their haughtiness and hedonism, have it coming. Stacks of money cushion their falls anyway: bruises heal quicker in the Caribbean, nursed with saccharine rum cocktails.

It's not just our right to run the rich and famous through the mud. It's our duty. It's also better medicine than mere laughter.

Laura Kipnis, author of How To Be a Scandal, believes that our triumphant stone-throwing at the "the excessively privileged and overly lucky" allows us to luxuriate "in the warm glow of imaginary imperviousness that other people's life-destroying stupidities invariably provide."

There are other gratifications. Slinging mud, we often experience the "sudden glory arising from some sudden conception of some eminency in ourselves, by comparison with the infirmity of others, or with our own formerly." So says Thomas Hobbes, whose definition of all laughter illuminates those moments when we mirthfully put the shrunken giants under foot.

Fallen idols are scapegoats, too, onto whom we can heap aggression, verbal or otherwise, that we might have directed toward ourselves or our neighbors. According to anthropologist René Girard, cultures require sacrificial victims in order to avoid epidemic revenge feuds. Violence lurks in all our hearts, pressing for expression. Instead of attacking neighbors, why not shunt the wrath onto one poor soul who stands in for all would-be enemies? To deride Tiger is to dig catharsis. Disburdening our spirits, the rogue, weirdly, turns saint.

Nothing strengthens a community like "us against them." This is yet another attraction of Schadenfreude, at least according to a 2004 article in Science. The study concluded that when a group punishes another for its own benefit, pleasure centers light up in the brains of the chastisers. Revenge really is sweet.

More than a builder of morale, Schadenfreude might actually be moral. Philosopher John Portmann claims that it cloaks a legitimate desire for justice: people getting what they deserve. As Dante sloshes through the stinking swamps of hell, he celebrates the horrific punishments of the condemned, his seeming cruelty confirming the moral structure of the cosmos.

Mixing righteousness, fellow-feeling, purgation, gloating, relief, perverse delight, not to mention cruelty, Schadenfreude is mostly a muddle of the bad and the ugly, but with enough good floating on top to where we can say to Schopenhauer: it's ok to gawk with one eye.

Who knows? Maybe if you stare long enough at the wreckage, you might work through your Schadenfreude to its opposite: empathy. You might realize that the distance between you and the sullied superstar is not as great as you thought, that you're just as flawed as he is, that pain is pain, regardless of status, that you need understanding and solace just as much as he does.

And so another kind of joy might ascend from studying misfortune: the glow of charity, of selfless giving, inspiration for noble New Year's resolutions.

This probably won't happen. It's too much fun to dish just for the sake of dishing. But, as William Blake says, "the fool who persists in his folly will become wise." That's from a book, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, one of my top ten of all time.

Learn more about my new book, Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away, on my website: www.wfu.edu/~wilsoneg/

 

Eric G. Wilson, Ph.D., is the Thomas H. Pritchard Professor of English at Wake Forest University and author of the forthcoming Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can't Look Away. more...

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