Potato Heads of the Pandemic
Potato Heads of the Pandemic

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Potato Heads of the Pandemic

In July 2020, while under quarantine with coronavirus, a large emu-like bird bit Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. In October, another powerful man who had downplayed the threat of the pandemic was receiving what many perceived as his comeuppance; when former President Donald Trump announced his COVID-19 diagnosis, the dictionary Merriam-Webster reported a remarkable 30,500% increase in searches for the word ‘schadenfreude’.

From Schaden, meaning damage or harm, and freude, meaning joy, we arrive at schadenfreude, the pleasure in someone else’s misfortune. Nothing unites us more in self-righteous delight than seeing Dominic Cumming sweating in Downing Street's garden having to explain his jaunt to Bernard Castle to the nation’s media. Or learning of the donation that Matt Hancock received from a top horse auctioneer at the ‘super-spreader’ Cheltenham Festival. ‘For what do we live but to make sport for our neighbours, and laugh at them in our turn,’ proclaims Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Quite right.

"the bizarre failures of others have been important landmarks, punctuating the sameness of days with much needed damage-joy"

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Return to the Convent, by Eduardo Zamacois y Zabala, 1868. A group of monks laugh while a lone monk struggles with a donkey.

In December 2008, journalists from The Guardian to the New York Times lamented that we are living in a ‘Golden Age of Schadenfreude’, citing side bars of shame, online trolls, Instagram envy and celebrity meltdowns. Of course, ridiculing people online comes with less risk than in person, and technology has likely compounded our delight in the misfortune of others.

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Yet, during the pandemic, faced with a lack of real-world events and forced into the online babble, the bizarre failures of others have been important landmarks, punctuating the sameness of days with much needed damage-joy. When we look back at this year, perhaps we'll remember it by ceremonious misfortune, much like medieval communities went by the religious calendar: ‘it was sometime before Rudi Guiliani's hair melted down his face,' we'll say, 'but sometime after he accidentally held a press conference in a garden centre car park.’

Whether you feel it is morally right or wrong to feel joy at the news of, say, Trump’s diagnosis, schadenfreude itself is value neutral. It is simply a flickering human emotion, and one that is nuanced. In Crime and Punishment, when a crowd gather to view the injuries of the alcoholic public official Marmeladov, Dostoevsky wrote about ‘that strange sense of inner satisfaction that always manifests itself, even among the victim’s nearest and dearest, when someone is afflicted by a sudden catastrophe; a sensation that not a single one of us is proof against, however sincere our feelings of pity and sympathy.’

There was certainly a strange mixture of sympathy and respect for the Texan lawyer who inadvertently dialled into a court Zoom session with a sad kitten filter over his face. How noble his frantic attempts to rectify the mishap. How sincere his assurances to the judge that he was indeed a real attorney and not a cat!

Stuck inside, staring at cracks in the ceiling and sit-falling on chairs with wobbly legs, we've all tried our hands at a little DIY, and many of us have failed. Whether Myra Hindley kitchen scissor haircuts or clumsily removing huge chunks of plasterboard, we've all had to crack on with tasks usually best left to the professionals. Yet in terms of a Who Did It Best (that is, Worst) the grand prix goes once again to Spain's seemingly endless cavalcade of Regular Joe art 'restorers'.

"How noble his frantic attempts to rectify the mishap. How sincere his assurances to the judge that he was indeed a real attorney and not a cat!"

November saw a sculpture of what was once a bust of a smiling woman turned into ‘The Potato Head of Palencia’, a plasticine-like glitch on the outside of an ornate building. This followed on nicely from June when a famous Baroque painting of the Virgin Mary was left looking like a haughty pancake after the second attempt to restore it. In 2012, Cecilia Giménez famously turned Ecce Homo by Elias Garcia Martinez into what has since become known as 'Monkey Christ'; she did such a fantastically bad job that Andrew Flack and Paul Fowler wrote a comic opera about it, Behold the Man. One can only assume that the latest batch of botchers are vying for their own librettos. A dozen dodgy haircuts and dye-jobs should have humbled us all, and yet, and yet...

The resurgent interest in schadenfreude during the pandemic has firstly to do with uncertainty. 'From what passion proceedeth it,' the Renaissance philosopher Thomas Hobbes asked, 'that men take pleasure to behold from the shore the danger of them that are at sea in a tempest?' In the face of so much real suffering, in the middle of a storm but at least safe on dry land, someone else’s anecdotal misfortune is a good way to release nervous energy.

The second reason social-media-fuelled schadenfreude has been important during the pandemic is a chasmic lack of gossip – a vital part of human existence for thousands of years. Indeed, it’s not so much the misfortune of others that has held our sway, but the anything of others; a similar piece to this one could be written on schadenfreude’s opposite, which we might term ‘compersion’, to borrow from the polyamorous community where it is in common currency: feeling joy at the joy of others. This is a time when we have all been living vicariously through the peaks and troughs of others, for want of something other than the steady stream of days without drama or arc.

"Our life’s greatest failures are a mere footnote in everyone else’s."

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Pieter Brueghel the Elder, The Fall of Icarus, ca. 1558

As we approach spring, we might keep in mind a more successful image of Things Gone Horribly Wrong, Pieter Breughel's The Fall of Icarus. The painting shows ships with great billowing sails stealing out of the bay, a farmer and his horse pulling a plough; then, if you look a little up from the angler in the bottom corner, you’ll see our tragic hero, little more than a pair of legs flailing about in a dark patch of sea. Our life’s greatest failures are a mere footnote in everyone else’s. Certainly, the ploughman, fisherman, and shepherd are more interested in getting on with their work, with no time for anyone flying too close to the sun.

The world opening up provides a chance to ‘Fail again. Fail better’, as Samuel Beckett put it. And, unless, you decide to fix up the Mona Lisa and accidentally turn her into an emoji, it’s likely no-one will notice.

By Sammi Gale


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