October 28, 2010

At upmarket motor manufacturer BMW they bang on a lot about joy these days. Joy is timeless; joy is freedom; joy is future proof they boldly claim, flying in the face of the prevailing view that joy tends to be somewhat fleeting in practice. Joy, apparently, is BMW.

Exhorting us to enrich our lives with ‘sheer driving pleasure,’ BMW are on a mission to stamp out all this nonsense about avoiding unnecessary journeys and re-connect us with the hedonistic guilt-free ecstasy of tearing around empty car parks in sexy great slabs of precision engineering.

The best (or most clichéd) adjective to go with joy, of course, is unalloyed – if only for the sheer assonant pleasure of the way they sound together. But now it seems unalloyed joy is far from the only emotion beemer boys and girls are sensing. Anger, fury and rage also appear to be involved.

A survey of 3000 motorists organised for or on behalf of comparisoneers Gocompare (whose operatically inclined avatar Giorgio Campari was recently accused of gingerism for lamenting in song the carrot-hued hirsucity of the Organ Utan) has shown BMW drivers in an unflattering new light.

If the Gocompare survey is to be believed, BMW owners are Britain’s most angriest drivers – worser still even than white van drivers who’ve been beaten into second place this year, barely ahead of Audi drivers, who spring forward into third.

Bad mannered behaviour reportedly exhibited by BMW pleasure-lovers on the roads includes tailgating (58%), pulling out in front of other drivers (40%) and speeding (39%). Nor are the beemer people the only fans of German motors in an angry top ten that also includes the aforementioned Audi, VW and Mercedes.

So joy may not be the complete story here. Unless we are talking about something rather more selfish than the joy of “unity and brotherhood of all mankind” celebrated in the famous Ode an die Freude (Ode to Joy) of Friedrich Schiller so memorably set to music in 1824 by Ludwig van Beethoven. Maybe they just get angry when other road users compromise their joy by impinging on their Freudesraum.

The German word Freude is mainly familiar to Brits through the term schadenfreude (meaning delight in others’ misfortunes) which was introduced into the popular consciousness via some TV ad late in the last century which explained what the term meant before claiming that anyone with product X could luxuriate in the pain of those obliged to go without.

Freude has traditionally been translated into English as joy, and BMW apparently sees no reason to break with this tradition, despite the fact that no-one under 70 uses the word in daily speech in anything other than an ironic sense. But should they perhaps have chosen a different word?

Freude/joy has distinctly unsavoury historical associations dating from the Nazi era. Just as Audi now has Vorsprung durch Technik (progress through technology), Hitler’s lot used to go on about Kraft durch Freude (strength through joy), a slogan abbreviated in the name of what we now know as a VW Beetle: the KdF Wagen.

Even less auspiciously, we have the word Freudenabteilung or Joy Division (from which, via the novel House of Dolls, a bunch of callow young Mancunians took their original aimlessly provocative name, before moving on to the equally dubious New Order: “Our manager chose the name.”) Freudenabteilung was the jokey name given to a cadre of young women set aside in Nazi extermination camps for the pleasure (Freude) of camp guards and cooperative inmates. Probably not the kind of joy BMW had in mind.


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