Jealousy is so mysterious, and can be inescapable. Even babies suffer from jealousy, as do other primates and animals Jealousy has gotten terribly bad press since Pope Gregory I described envy as one of the “seven deadly sins.” Some of us call jealousy The Green Eyed Monster.
And yet, I have never read a study that can deconstruct its endurance…Jealousy is a result of seeing inactive positive aspects of yourself in another. To deconstruct it off the therapist or coach’s couch, we look to fiction. Novels have become the laboratories that study jealousy in all its configurations. Is it an exaggeration to say that if we didn’t have jealousy, we might not have literature? Think about it; no faithless Helen, no “The Odyssey.” No jealous king, no “Arabian Nights.” Out the window goes the old high school reading lists, because you no longer would have the likes of Sound and the Fury, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Madame Bovary,” etc. No jealousy, no Proust. His masterwork, In Search of Lost Time, is probably the most exhaustive study of sexual jealousy—as well as just regular competitiveness—that you can find. Usually when Proust is mentioned, it’s the romantic parts that come to mind. We forget how harsh his vision was. We forget how pitiless he was. Remember, these are the series of books that Virginia Woolf said were “tough as cat-gut.”
Let’s look at why they go so well together; the novels and jealousy, jealousy and Proust. Is it something as obvious as that jealousy— which boils down into person, desire, and impediment—is such a solid narrative foundation? I don’t know. It is good at describing, when you think about what happens when we feel jealous. When we feel jealous, we tell ourselves a story. We tell ourselves a story about other people’s lives that make us feel useless because they’re designed to make us feel useless.
Jealousy makes us all amateur novelists, and this is something Proust understood. It isn’t the jealousy per se that’s the problem, but the distortion that is destructive and unhealthy. The distortion occurs when, rather than identifying and complimenting elements demonstrated by others that we would like to emulate, we belittle someone’s talent or good fortune, or wish them harm, just because we are jealous and feel inadequate.
In the first volume of the series of books, Swann’s Way, Swann, one of the main characters, is thinking fondly of his mistress and how great she is in bed. Suddenly, he recoils and realizes, “Hang on, everything I love about this woman somebody else would love about this woman. Everything that she does that gives me pleasure could be giving somebody else pleasure.” From then on, every fresh charm Swann detects in his mistress, he adds to his “collection of instruments in his private torture chamber.” When Swann is in his jealous moments, he’s listening at doorways and bribing his mistress’ servants and he defends his behavior.
Proust himself was notoriously jealous. Proust’s boyfriends would have to leave the country if they wanted to break up with him. Jealousy is exhausting. It’s a hungry emotion. It demands to be fed.
And what does jealousy like? Jealousy likes information. Jealousy likes details. Jealousy likes the vast quantities of shiny hair, the cute little pencil case. Jealousy likes photos. That’s why Instagram and Facebook are such hits.
Proust links the language of scholarship and jealousy. He is trying to show us that jealousy feels intolerable and makes us look absurd, but it is a quest for knowledge, a quest for truth, painful truth, and actually, where Proust is concerned, the more painful the truth, the better. Grief, humiliation, and loss. These were the avenues to wisdom for Proust. He says, “A woman whom we need, who makes us suffer, elicits from us a gamut of feelings far more profound and vital than a man of genius who interests us.” Is he telling us to just go and find cruel women? No. I think he’s trying to say that jealousy reveals us to ourselves. And does any other emotion crack us open in this particular way? Does any other emotion reveal to us our aggression and our hideous ambition and our entitlement? Does any other emotion teach us to look with such peculiar intensity?
Freud wrote about this as well. He was visited by a very anxious young man who was frenzied at the thought of his wife cheating on him. And Freud says it’s something strange about this guy, because he’s not looking at what his wife is doing. She’s actually blameless. She is under suspicion for no cause. But he’s looking for things that his wife is doing without noticing what she is doing; they are unintentional behaviors. Is she smiling too brightly here, or did she accidentally brush up against a man there? Freud says that the man was becoming obsessed with his wife’s unconscious behavior.
Jealousy trains us to look with intensity, but not accuracy. In fact, the more intensely jealous we are, the more we become dwellers in unhealthy fantasy. Jealousy doesn’t just provoke us to do violent or illegal things. Jealousy prompts us to behave in ways that are wildly inventive. I read a story in the news about a 52-year-old Michigan woman was caught creating a fake Facebook account from which she sent vile, shocking messages to herself for a year. She was trying to frame her ex-boyfriend’s new girlfriend, and I have to confess when I heard this, I just reacted with admiration. Let’s be real; what immense—if misplaced—creativity. This is something from a novel. This is something from a Patricia Highsmith novel.
Ms. Highsmith remains a favorite where jealousy is concerned. She was a very brilliant and interesting woman of American letters. She’s the author of Strangers on a Train and The Talented Mr. Ripley, books that are all about jealousy, how it muddles our minds, and once we’re in that realm of jealousy, the divide between what is and what could be can be blurred in an instant. Tom Ripley, her most famous character, goes from wanting you, or wanting what you have, to being you and having what you once had.
But what do we do? We can’t go the Tom Ripley route. And it’s a pity, because we live in envious times. We live in jealous times. We’re all good citizens of social media, aren’t we, where the currency is envy?
In the end, as in the growth of Inspector Lestrade of Sherlock Holmes fame, the purpose of jealousy is to encourage you to develop buried aspects within yourself. Jealousy is an indication of what you are about to do, become, or have if you cultivate a given attribute in yourself.
I’m not sure novels show us the way out. So let’s do what characters always do when they’re not sure, when they are in possession of a mystery. Let’s go to 221B Baker Street and ask for Sherlock Holmes. When people think of Holmes, they think of his nemesis being the criminal mastermind, Professor Moriarty. But I’ve always preferred Lestrade, that rat-faced head of Scotland Yard who seems to need Holmes desperately. He needs Holmes’ genius, but resents the crap out of him. So Lestrade needs his help, resents him, and seethes with bitterness over the course of the mysteries. But as they work together, something starts to change, and finally in The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, once Holmes comes in, dazzles everybody with his solution, Lestrade turns to Holmes and he says, “We’re not jealous of you, Mr. Holmes. We’re proud of you.”
It’s one of the few times we see Holmes emotionally moved in the mysteries, but it’s also mysterious. Jealousy is viewed as a problem of geometry, not emotion. One minute Holmes is on the other side from Lestrade. The next minute they’re on the same side. Suddenly, Lestrade is letting himself admire this mind that he’s resented. He recognized that Holmes is what he could, or would like, to become.
Could it be so simple? What if jealousy really is a matter of physicality, just a matter of where we allow ourselves to stand in relation to another? Maybe then we wouldn’t have to resent somebody’s excellence. We could align ourselves with it. Like the child who sees another child riding a bike, he learns to rid the bike himself rather than preventing the other child from continuing with his pleasure. Perhaps there are situations when we can actually look forward to jealousy as the sign that there is something new and wonderful out there for us to learn or learn to become.
Still, we all need a back-up plan. So while we wait and work for personal growth to occur, let us remember that we will always have fiction for consolation. Fiction demystifies jealousy. Fiction tames it, and invites it to the table. And after all, look who it includes: Inspector Lestrade, terrifying Tom Ripley, crazy Swann, and Marcel Proust himself.
We are in excellent company.
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Frank Hopkins is a life coach in Baton Rouge who is certified as a Professional Coach (CPC) by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). Frank has helped numerous people to go through emotional change in a way that is positively transformative.