The Spleen and “Schadenfreude”

Here’s an interesting literary and language note. The word “Schadenfreude” means to laugh at another’s misfortune. It’s a really cool word. But it’s German.
However, there is an English way to express this idea that is much more nuanced. Unfortunately, we have simply forgotten it. This post is to help us remember. It involves the spleen.
Let me explain.
The old way of viewing health was based on “Humours,” of which there were four: Blood, Phlegm, Choleric (yellow bile) and Melancholia (black bile). Blood was hot and wet, Choleric was hot and dry. Phlegm was wet and cold, Melancholia was dry and cold. If they were in the right balance (“well-tempered”), this created good effects in the body (“termperate”).
In this way of thinking, the Liver made blood. The Lungs made Phlegm. The Gallbladder made yellow bile, and the Spleen made Melancholia. Even individual moods could be explained by a “bad temper” of the humours.
These humours had physical effects on the body. For example, if you were sweating and running a very high fever, then you obviously had too much hot and wet humor in you. That’s where blood-letting comes from. If you were suffering from a fever and terrible diarrhea, you were probably parched with thirst and too hot. You might be suffering from “Cholera” which makes a man very “Choleric.” Pneumonia? Too much Phlegm. Depression? Quite Melancholy! Etc. etc.
But there is an old relic from Shakespeare’s writings. The word “Spleen” or “Spleenful” or “Spleeny” happens 31 times in his plays.
For instance, in Measure for Measure, in Act II, Scene 2, the character Isabella has the following passage:
. . . Merciful Heaven,
Thou rather with thy sharp and sulphurous bolt
Split’st the unwedgeable and gnarled oak
Than the soft myrtle: but man, proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep; who, with our spleens,
Would all themselves laugh mortal.
She’s obviously asking for fire and brimstone to rain justice from Heaven on bad people. But what on earth does a spleen have to do with it?
Well, when you understand what Black Bile is, it makes sense. Black Bile is the source of depression. In its good form, it is the source of great introspection of philosophers. For example, a stoic philosopher with a good balance of Melancholia will see the good in a bad situation and drink the hemlock for his own death. But in a bad temper, un-balanced by the other humours, Melancholia makes men not only see the good THROUGH bad circumstances, but actually makes them enjoy bad circumstances. Therefore, one “governed” by the spleen like Hotspur (King Henry IV, part 1, Act II, Scene 2), is a very wicked person indeed, while someone who “desires” the spleen (Twelfth Night, Act III, Scene 2) is someone who laughs at another’s misfortune . . .

If you desire the spleen, and will laugh yourself
into stitches, follow me. Yond gull Malvolio is
turned heathen, a very renegado; for there is no
Christian, that means to be saved by believing
rightly, can ever believe such impossible passages
of grossness. He’s in yellow stockings.

And cross-gartered?


Most villanously!

Hahaha! Silly Malvolio. What a rube for wearing ridiculous yellow stockings that are cross-gartered. Let’s go look at him and laugh because we “desire the spleen” and have “Schadenfreude.”
With that understanding, we can go back to Measure for Measure. In that passage, Isabella is talking about how horrible mankind is. She says that Heaven would show mercy by throwing thunderbolts at (metaphorical) hard oaks (hard evil old men) instead of soft myrtle (soft innocent girls). She speaks of how man, “proud man,” with brief power, and ignorant of the eternal damnation that is coming, acts like an angry ape with false elegance. This injustice is so great before heaven that angels weep. But if they had the spleen of mankind (the Schadenfreude), the angels would laugh at our coming judgment.
Now, I could have made this all up just so someone will go out and start talking about their laughing spleen. If I did that, I would desire the spleen.

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