The term schadenfreude literally means damage-joy. When one enjoys hearing that a rival is encountering trouble, one is experiencing a sense of schadenfreude. Most of us have experienced this feeling at some point in our lives, but most of us also have been jerks at some point in our lives, and the two sometimes come at the same time.
There is no real-world term for its opposite, so some people have begun to use a made-up word, freudenschade, to describe the distress one feels when a friend or rival is doing well or has had a success. (One friend recently told me about feeling jealous when they heard that I was publishing this blog right here. “Why does he get to do that?” the friend said that they thought about my writing. Now, this friend also has time to spend on a similar project, but was not. Is not. “Jealous” was the word used.)
Gore Vidal hated a lot of people, and even appeared to take pleasure at his rivals’ distress at his success. He had feelings of schadenfreude over other writers’ freudenschade. (That is as hard to type as it is to say.) Truman Capote was one of his top three hated individuals. Vidal’s mother was number one and Robert Kennedy was probably second, because Kennedy hated him first, seemingly without cause (JFK appeared to enjoy Vidal’s company more than his brother’s), and without end. But Capote …
Truman Capote was American literature’s lost boy, at least for his generation. He was not the first nor will he be the last, but not many lost souls stick around for as long as he did. His entire published output in life is small, six books, none long, one of which is a novella, “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” and another is “In Cold Blood,” which is based on a true story. “In Cold Blood” was published in 1966 and was not followed by anything until 1980 when he published a collection of fragments. He died in 1984, aged 59, and his literary executors discovered that the novel he had been promising for years, for which he had been accepting and returning advances with a clock-like regularity, was nothing more than some more sketches and fragments and journal entries and verbal doodles, which they published anyway. It did his reputation more damage than he ever did.
Drugs and alcohol and a need for immediate feedback, which writing long pieces and books does not often provide, produced the sorry sight of a man, unpublished for the last two decades of his life, appearing on TV talk shows in different states of inebriation. He had earned a deserved reputation as a promising young writer in his early 20s, which brought him acclaim and invitations to parties and TV talk show panels. The discovery that he preferred live applause given for a well-told story and loved drinking more than writing was his undoing. Incapable of sitting with himself, a condition many addicts may recognize in themselves, he would sit next to Johnny Carson and slur his way through anecdotes that never sounded truthful and, even better, never were true. The fun would follow in the form of lawsuits.
Vidal and Capote were about the same age (Capote was born in 1924 and Vidal in 1925), had their first novels published at a great young age (Vidal 21, Capote 24), and had a rivalry thrust upon them by the media. Both enjoyed celebrity, but Vidal appeared to enjoy sitting with himself and producing work as much or even more. He seemed to view media appearances and celebrity as a reward for doing the work.
Both knew failure and setbacks. There is a famous quote attributed to Capote, “Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor.” Being a boy-wonder who fought to remain in the public’s consciousness as still a boy, still a wonder, even into his 50s, Capote’s “success” was of a certain kind, as a person with a famous reputation who felt success(ful) only when a live audience would applaud him as a “writer,” even though he was not writing at all, not in front of them, not when he went home after. Who knows what flavor that condiment brought him?
Vidal was born to a prominent but not wealthy family. He remained unimpressed by fame or prestige, even while being a name-dropper extraordinaire. Capote made up stories to make himself appear intimate with the famous; Vidal crafted ways to distance himself from the important, usually by revealing truths, by name, in his work. Capote was born and raised in poverty. In one of his less kind quotes about his almost rival, Vidal declared, “Truman Capote has tried, with some success, to get into a world that I have tried, with some success, to get out of.”
Some near-kindness for Capote’s ghost, his shade, came out of Vidal long after Capote’s death. In his memoir “Palimpsest,” Vidal re-quotes himself (why take a pass on the opportunity?) and says that he said the above line (about getting in and out of the world of prestige), “unctuously.” He goes on,
Truman was surprisingly innocent. He mistook the rich who liked publicity for the ruling class, and he made himself far too much at home among them, only to find that he was to them no more than an amusing pet who could be dispensed with, as he was when he published lurid gossip abut them. Although of little interest or value in themselves, these self-invented figures are nothing if not tough, and quite as heartless as the real thing, as [he learned].
It is a moment of sympathy, almost of empathy, and it is quickly forgotten in Vidal’s book; in the few sentences in which Capote’s name appears elsewhere, the words “lie” or “liar” are always nearby. If failure is a condiment, schadenfreude is salt, plain and delicious.
The WordPress Daily Prompt for November 4 asks, “If ‘failure is the condiment that gives success its flavor’ (Truman Capote), how spicy do you like your success stories?”
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