Don’t Act Like You Don’t Know: The Pleasure of Vicarious Self-Destruction

As I was watching season three of Bojack Horseman this week, I found myself rooting for the titular horse (ha ha, “titular”) to slip further down the spiral of alienation and remorse. Not, I think, because I’m a sadist, or because I feel the character deserves to suffer for his callousness or narcissism, but because I find it cathartic to watch people make terrible, self-destructive decisions. I can do this guilt free when those people are fictional. Even more so when they are anthropomorphized cartoon animals.

empty fire

Sometimes when I see a child at the mall throwing a tantrum, lying face down on the floor, kicking and screaming with the full soul-shredding power of a toddler-sized pair of lungs, I think, “God damn it, kid: me too. Me too.” I want to congratulate the child for having the meltdown I wish I could have.

When an adult does the equivalent of this, it becomes a little malicious to applaud, but the satisfaction I take away is richer.

Let’s face it: attempting to change the world by hurting yourself is the dumbest thing you can do. The mechanism by which people imagine it to work is pretty suspect, yet few people are immune to its appeal. It’s easy to see why. A very nice piece of self-flattery underlies it: the most grievous injury you can inflict upon the world is to provide it with an opportunity to witness you suffer.

I’ll admit I have not enjoyed a lot of success making this trick work. But I feel envious of people who have the ‘freedom’ to create an utter disaster for themselves. What is undoubtedly sad and lonely for someone else, I find cathartic. Since their suffering has affected me, I have the evidence I want that this self-injuring tactic actually works.

Or doesn’t work at all. Giving me pleasure is the opposite of making the world suffer.

Look, don’t judge me! He’s a horse with fingers! He starred on an even shittier version of Full House. If I can’t revel in his pain, what is pain even for?!

All I’m saying is: Paul F. Tompkins totally nailed it this season. I expected that man to be funny, nevertheless I was still blown-away by how funny he was. I can do no more praise than that. I am praised out!

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