The Party of Envy

The statisticians will no doubt record the 1980s as the most expansive decade for gross national product of the Seven Deadly Sins. The improved techniques of mass distribution that have been so fruitful for this line’s overall performance cannot, however, obscure some softness in the market for a few of its issues.

Lust and Anger slipped behind Sloth and may indeed have been inhibited by consumer preferences for Sloth. Covetousness and Gluttony each rode a rising curve whose crest looks safely far off in the distance. But, of all the offerings in Satan’s portfolio, Envy registered the sort of quiet and steady advance that signals real potential to the shrewd investor. Buy Envy now: it could well be the Deadly Sin growth stock of the 1990s.

Gratitude for faithful service to our less appetizing impulses has always been owed Envy, but it has until now been shamefully cheated of that due.

Emerson once divided America into the Party of Hope and the Party of Memory, meaning, we suppose, the liberals, who are generally without hope, and the conservatives, who are singularly without memory. But Emerson overlooked the Party of Envy, a lapse for which he may be excused because, while never insignificant, its mischiefs have until now been limited to the intramural malignities of the intellectual and artistic class. The poisons of Envy corrode the veins of every passed-over associate professor when he crosses the path of an anointed full professor, every failed novelist when he turns to the best-seller list, every waiter in a West Side restaurant when he thinks of an actor who has a part, and every critic whom few admire when he comes to deal with an author too many revere.

I remember discussing the late Robert Oppenheimer with another nuclear physicist whose sizable attainments were known only to science. His envy of Oppenheimer’s wider prestige was so irrepressible that, at one point, when I said that it strained even my understanding for the London tailors to have certified Oppenheimer as one of the ten best-dressed men alive, this colleague and equal fairly writhed in the dingiest of suits and exploded, “That is ridiculous; he is very sloppy.”

The cankerings of this spirit may explain why so many physicists who had reason enough to be proud of their own parts to need none of the sour consolations of being jealous of Oppenheimer’s, disgraced themselves by enjoying, and in some instances contributing to, the defamations that seared a man perhaps too devotedly patriotic with the scar that proclaimed him unfit for his country’s trust.

Envy’s part in Oppenheimer’s humiliation was a conspicuous proof of the power of its spites. Still, for most of our lifetime, its bad works had been confined to fratricidal compasses; most of us did not know enough about persons better off than ourselves to be burdened with the intimate association that fertilizes Envy with the venom its full baleful bloom requires.

But then came television to destroy that saving grace by converting…

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