Friday, October 15, 2010

envy's hidden virtues

i can understand why envy has long been frowned upon: it is dangerous to social stability. but recently i have wondered why it has not only been feared, but seen as a moral failing.

i think calling envy a moral failing to be laughed at -- 'oh he's just sour grapes,' for example -- is just a way to justify inequality. isn't envy a natural reaction in situations, such as the transition from foraging to agriculture 10,000 years ago, where equality is slowly replaced by hierarchy?

but who am i to let 10,000 years of civilized history stop me from trying to rewrite the rules? after all, far more of human existence was lived in situations of equality. envy in such societies would be seen as a natural and useful bulwark against self-aggrandizement.

but as highly ranked as we now are, with the super rich like olympian gods circulating in the clouds and skyscrapers high above us, envy is naturally denigrated -- it is an unwelcome reminder of earlier times. we are to regard the rich piously, as people better than we are, endowed with talents and virtues which were rightly rewarded.

except that these virtues tend to begin with selfishness and rapacity.

and i don't like not having what others have.

the other night i found myself making fun of a writer, nicole krauss, who has recently found acclaim. i was not making fun of what she was saying, or the passages she read: to the contrary, she was eloquent and wise. why, then, was i mocking her limp, nasal, weak voice? why did i say, 'try breathing!' to the radio?

yes, dear reader, i was envious. i was not trying to denigrate her writing. i was only protesting my own writing's obscurity. everything she read, almost everything at least, i am capable of writing. and yet there was i driving home from a night ESL class while she recorded a radio interview. it is not just that i do not have her money and fame. it is worse than that.

i don't have the freedom she has to write. this morning on the train to new haven i began a poem -- actually, an ending to a long poem i've already mostly written. it was the first time i've written in a couple of months i think. i wrote a few lines, and felt tears in my eyes. storms and tornadoes are swirling in there wanting to tear free. i wrote a few lines, and then gathered up my bike and backpack when the station neared.

i'm not ashamed of being envious. for one, i protest the structure of society that lifts up and exalts some while grinding others down. for another, i do not look to tear Nicole down: i acknowledge her writing. i just want a shot too. and finally, i proudly admit my envy.

unfortunately, my proud attempt to go against society's grain is doomed to fail. after all, what is the urge to competition so beloved in our dog eat dog system but envy? it is just masked and repackaged to be capitalism-friendly. as long as one wants to possess something, and does not murder anyone to get it, envy is fine. it just ought not to speak its name. rather, we call it the go-getting, getting-ahead spirit.

in other words, envy (called by other names) is harnessed to the economic system for the benefit of our masters. it is allowed in a narrow, individual sense: to get what is mine. not to make all equal.

but isn't individual envy really a signal to something wider? isn't individual envy only telling us something about society as a whole? so i will call my envy by it's name. i do want to possess what she has. but i want more than that: more equality, less deference, less pious reverence before power. i am an individual. but i am also a part of a larger organism. our social organism is unhealthy. inequality is a large part of that illness.

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