Who Is Not Guilty of This Vice?

Jealousy

by Peter Toohey
Yale University Press, 257 pp., $27.50
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Franck Fife/AFP/Getty Images
Ségolène Royal, François Hollande, and Valérie Trierweiler just after Hollande’s presidential election victory was announced, Paris, May 2012

Love makes the world go round, says the poet, while the cynic says it’s money; and Peter Toohey, professor of classics at the University of Calgary, constructs an entertaining argument for jealousy being the wellspring of a much greater part of our emotional lives, and of a larger proportion of literature, law, and daily existence, than we may have thought. Elsewhere, Professor Toohey has also worked up boredom and melancholy; in those books as in this brisk survey, he proposes some benefits of emotions usually considered to be negative: jealousy is “a potent means for the assertion of individual rights and the encouragement of cooperation and equitable treatment.”

To distinguish jealousy from its relative, envy, he quotes Peter van Sommers’s succinct definition of the two: “Envy concerns what you would like to have but don’t possess, whereas jealousy concerns what you have and do not wish to lose.” I am jealous of that woman my husband seems to admire; I envy her ability to walk in high heels. Othello is jealous of Desdemona, but Iago is envious of Othello. Toohey emphasizes that the definition is slippery, but that we usually know one from the other; it’s just that the two are intertwined, a Laocoön psychic trope, with jealousy more often than envy associated with violence—thrown dishes, outraged husbands, women scorned, murder. He details some of the more famous, gruesome modern murder cases, but Othello and Medea are the archetypes. “Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?” (Proverbs 27:4).

It goes way back. Classical, biblical, mythical, literary, and historical accounts of jealousy begin with the ur-myths of creation, with Cain and Abel, or Homer—the Judgment of Paris, prompting the jealous goddesses Hera and Athena to incite the Trojan War. Toohey has found some remarkable Egyptian and Greek curses arising from male jealousy, as when a second-century Egyptian asks the gods to

let burning heat consume the sexual parts of Allous, [her] vulva, [her] members, until she leaves the household of Apollonios. Lay Allous low with fever, with sickness unceasing,…insolence, hatred, obnoxiousness until she departs the household of Apollonios.

Toohey begins his demonstration that jealousy is a recurrent subject of art with a discussion of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Vermeer’s enigmatic painting The Concert, and Alain Robbe-Grillet’s novel La Jalousie, three examples of how situations of jealousy are often triangular, involving a rival or a prize. Robbe-Grillet’s novel is about the narrator’s jealous obsession with his wife and someone called Franck, spied on through a jalousie, or shutter. One could certainly quarrel with Toohey’s reading of Vermeer’s peaceable scene, often thought to be about music, for which he imagines something much more vivid:

Perhaps the plainer clavecin player, head apologetically bowed, envies the fecundity and looks of the pregnant-looking singer. The music teacher, the social inferior in this scene, may envy the ease of the lives of the two smartly-dressed young women. Or these two women could be locked in a love triangle….

In the du Maurier novel, the woman narrator is certainly jealous because her husband, Maxim de Winter, seems to have loved his first wife Rebecca more than he loves her, his new bride. But Rebecca is a good example of how hard it is to distinguish jealousy from envy; since Rebecca herself is dead, one could argue that the narrator merely envies the qualities of beauty and gaiety people are always telling her Rebecca had. Jealousy is so nuanced that we need other words for some of its twists: there’s schadenfreude, the emotion the narrator probably feels when she learns of Rebecca’s violent fate. Gore Vidal’s famous remark “every time a friend succeeds, I die a little,” which Toohey quotes, is schadenfreude in reverse. Do we have a word for that?

Toohey tells us that beginning in the late nineteenth century, painting and literature would see an “explosion” of treatments of the subject, with obsessively jealous characters like Tolstoy’s Pozdnyshev in The Kreutzer Sonata, or, later, Dickens’s Bradley Headstone—the reader will think of dozens of instances—Emma, or la cousine Bette, or the hero of Trollope’s He Knew He Was Right, who dies of it, or Così Fan Tutte, much of Verdi, “Frankie and Johnny”—jealousy is all over the place. In painting and sculpture there’s a whole iconography of jealousy—ears, husbands listening behind doors, cats with their big green eyes, the color yellow. As the twentieth century approaches, artists begin reaching for means to express what jealousy feels like; here he points to the paintings of Edvard Munch and of August Strindberg, the playwright, who seems to have found painting to be more directly expressive of his jealous state of mind.

Toohey examines the discoveries of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century psychology by Freud and his colleagues. He doesn’t mention but we might think of Freud’s friend Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Novel, the inspiration for the Stanley Kubrick film Eyes Wide Shut, which details the psychic revenge fantasies of a husband whose jealousy in all its Freudian complexity is aroused by his wife’s erotic fantasies. One of Toohey’s more interesting findings is that a morbidly jealous person (as opposed to “normally” jealous) is especially zealous in seeking “visual evidence to confirm the truth of the way they are feeling”; Othello must see Desdemona’s handkerchief. This visual element makes film a particularly suitable medium for expressing jealousy. He suggests that stalking also arises from the visual need.

If we keep all of the myriad manifestations of jealousy in mind, Toohey’s discussion begins to seem cursory; perhaps anyone’s would who attempts to categorize or even describe jealousy’s wide domain. In Toohey’s book on boredom, a scholar proposes there is no such thing, that “boredom” is “a term that masks a constellation of independent disorders,” like frustration, depression, surfeit, and so on, and some such cavil may be appropriate here. With the reservation that one cannot possibly anatomize a subject of such complexity, we find that his discussion of jealousy in life and in art does a creditable job of reducing and containing the vast subject by imposing some organizing generalizations.

There are regional fashions in jealousy; northern societies might think of Latins as expressing it more vividly or violently. There are changes in jealousy’s form and provenance over time and within cultures; Toohey looks at those island paradises, like Samoa, where people seem to be free of jealousy, though some anthropologists think they just were pretending so as to fool Margaret Mead. And what about the Eskimos and their traditions of hospitality, which are said to require the host to loan his wife to the visitor?

Eskimos apart, Toohey contends that jealousy, especially sexual jealousy, is to an extent innate, a function of our instinct for “genetic replication.” It is also, he thinks, an integral part of normal human development arising from an individual’s fear of being excluded from “the circle of love and esteem” that humans crave. Fear of exclusion in turn can prompt us to devise forms of cooperation and growth, a positive result. Unattractive or disagreeable people, more likely to be excluded from friendships and groups, are more apt than the successful to feel jealousy and to act on it.

If all this seems intuitively true, even obvious, the psychological literature to “prove” it can produce remarkable stretches to convince us of what we already know: Toohey finds one scholar, seeking to explain Othello, speculating that Othello has some form of dementia, and asserts that though we can’t tell from the “script” of the play, “his occupation as a soldier would put him at risk of brain injury or trauma.” Another researcher, Maria Legerstee, studied three-month-old babies, and “found that if an infant was excluded from dialogue between its mother and the experimenter, it ‘reacted with much agitation…infants might also cover their faces with their arms…or kick their legs and put their feet in their mouth.’” Her conclusion is that

findings from dyadic and triadic communicative interactions suggest that soon after birth infants engage in intersubjective relations with others, have particular expectations from people in such settings, and react with appropriate responses when their expectations are violated.

We hardly need scholarship to tell us that babies cry when their moms go away, and everyone has seen the mean gleam in the eye of a toddler when he looks at the new baby. Dog owners and parents of small children will all have noticed how the little creature hates it when you talk on the telephone. Darwin believed jealousy to be an innate survival mechanism—each individual seeks preferment and is probably hard-wired to do so, like kittens in a litter nudging their fellows away from the nipple.

Toohey mentions studies of dogs and monkeys who sulk and refuse rewards if other animals are getting more or better rewards for the same effort. Perhaps jealousy is too reductive a term finally for the enormous complications in human (and in animal) lives arising from the fundamental disappointment we all feel when first we realize that life is unfair. Though we read all the time of murders by jealous lovers, usually men who can’t deal with the fears of loss and inadequacy that generate jealousy, most of us learn as we go along in life to bear the unfairness. One question Toohey poses is whether we would do away with jealousy if we could, or does it ultimately have a positive effect?

Does jealousy make the world go round? Toohey’s thesis about its ubiquity seems convincing when you look for it in things you were just reading and watching, where you will certainly find it, depending on how broadly you construe the word. I happened to have three works on my night table: the French playwright Yasmina Reza’s new book of short stories about people well connected in high circles of French politics and media, a new (NYRB Classics) edition of some stories by Elizabeth Taylor, the English writer, and the recent memoir by Valérie Trierweiler, the dismissed mistress of the French president, François Hollande.

The first story (“Hester Lilly”) in Taylor’s delightful collection You’ll Enjoy It When You Get There is specifically about a wife’s jealousy of a younger relative who comes to live with her and her husband. The stories that follow also explicitly or implicitly describe situations turning on jealousy or its corollaries of loss and disappointment.

Yasmina Reza, best known for her plays Art and God of Carnage, is a caustic and witty observer of social behavior. Her short book of linked stories, called Happy Are the Happy, is a collection of first-person monologues by eighteen French people whose lives intersect with friendships and rivalries, a ronde, funny but sad, saturated with the longings and competitiveness implied by the broad term “jealousy,” and just enough tantalizing whiffs of the roman à clef, involving French political figures, to remind us of the potency of this emotion in real life all the time. A woman named Chantal has an affair with a DSK-ish government minister, a “no-neck guy who comes up to my shoulder.” He once brought another girl over for a threesome, but it was disappointing:

I’d been expecting the Marquis de Sade, and I found myself with a flabby fellow who wallowed on my sofa and said come on girls, get closer…. The great libertine had set out to corrupt us without even bringing along a bottle of champagne….

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Private Collection/Stapleton Collection/Bridgeman Images
Georges Barbier: Envy, 1914

When the man’s dignified, poised wife reveals to Chantal that he writes to other women the identical erotic e-mails he writes to her, jealousy drives her mad.

Reza’s stories, like all fiction, are based on real lives disguised, however thinly, but Valérie Trierweiler’s memoir, Thank You for This Moment, is unabashedly her own life, an account of her brief reign as President François Hollande’s première dame, and of the ruin her jealousy of his former partner brought down on her own head, though it isn’t clear she really assimilated that lesson. First lady is a role that has much turbulent recent history in France, beginning with the last president Nicolas Sarkozy’s previous (actually second) wife Cécilia, the one who dumped him in office, gaining a lot of fans in America when she blew off a lunch with the George W. Bushes, pleading a headache, and turned up later shopping. She divorced Sarkozy after being première dame for four months and twenty-nine days.

Hollande, the current president, as was well known, had fathered the four children of his long-time companion, another professional politician, Ségolène Royal. They had split up before her failed presidential run in 2007, and when he was elected in 2012, his new mistress Valérie Trierweiler was installed as his official mate, with much discussion about how she should be referred to, protocol issues that were especially troubling to some Americans because Hollande was planning a White House visit, and a leader bringing an unmarried first lady presented a seating problem at the official dinner. Hollande preempted the problem by coming stag, with a public announcement right before the trip that he was dumping Valérie: “I’m making it known that I have ended the life in common which I shared with Valérie Trierweiler,” which was, some said, the first Valérie learned of it. (Valérie said she had refused to sign a joint communiqué, “pas question.”)

In her vengeful but rueful memoir, Trierweiler makes herself seem to be the Tonya Harding of first ladies. Royal is her Rebecca. She could not bear the idea of Hollande’s past relation with Royal or Royal’s moral upper hand as mother of his children, and she doesn’t bother to dissemble her socially disapproved, uncool emotion: “I will readily admit to it: I am jealous. I have been jealous with every man I have loved. I do not know how not to be when I am in love.” Even before her reign, she had raged at pictures of Hollande and Royal together: “I will admit I did want the difference to be clear. There had been a woman before, with whom he had four children, and there was another one now….” When she’s the one officially “with” Hollande, she’s determined to force Royal to acknowledge her. She corners her rival and, with a nod to photographers, obliges her to take the proffered hand. “I know it was childish of me, but it gave me satisfaction.”

She had sunk her own fortunes and turned French opinion against her right off the bat by ungenerously tweeting her support for Royal’s opponent in a regional election: “My tweet had tainted the supreme symbol: the mother, the blameless one.” Even worse, on election night, seeing him go out of his way to greet Royal, Valérie lost her composure and couldn’t resist a triumphalizing whispered demand that she herself receive a kiss “on the mouth,” not realizing the world was able to read her lips on the giant screen. She’s even jealous on Michelle Obama’s behalf when the pretty blond Danish prime minister takes a selfie with Barack: “I could not stand seeing other women put their heads on [François’s] shoulder and hold him by the waist…. I have even sent a few of them packing. Would these women have liked me to cosy up to their husbands?” She can relate to Michelle’s apparently glum expression in the photograph: “I was delighted to see I was not the only jealous partner.” No one is above suspicion that they might be feeling this emotion so rampant in every event of daily life.

One “Relationship Counselor” online lists some common occasions where Americans may recall experiencing jealousy, including the one making Trierweiler suffer: “Your partner seems more loyal and committed to their children from a previous marriage than to you.” (She adds a number of others, among them: “Your parents were busy with their work or other activities and didn’t give you as much time and attention as you wanted.” “The birth of a new sibling suddenly took all the attention away from you and was focused on the new baby.” “A parent seemed to like another sibling more, or another sibling was better-behaved, did better in school, or was more successful socially.” “A friend gets better grades and gets into a better college.” “Your neighbor has a nicer house than you or buys a very expensive car.” “Your co-worker gets the promotion you applied for.” “Your best friend marries someone with a lot of money or who is much better-looking than your spouse.” “Your partner spends too much time at work, on sports, on the computer, or on hobbies and not enough time with you….Your neighbor’s kid gets into Harvard and your kid is an unemployed pothead….” )

Armed with wit, erudition, and Google, probably anybody could write a book about any emotion or condition—anxiety, apathy, avarice, dread—and make it out to be the motive force for every phenomenon, but it does seem that “jealousy” is a useful umbrella word for a wide range of pain. All the suffering lumped under the term makes it easy to answer one of the questions Peter Toohey proposes about whether we would prefer utopias without jealousy to the hurly-burly of our present state. Probably we would, but then art would be the poorer—no Othello, no Emma—and perhaps even the species, lacking that competitive spark, would disappear too. “Jealousy, jealousy,” remarked Winston Churchill, “the most barren of vices.” Maybe, but like many vices, a little adds a lot to life.