The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016


Most cultures have their traditions of the Evil Eye, a gaze motivated by envy, which poisons, curses or brings misfortune. In many Arabic countries, tradition dictates that you do not praise a beautiful or talented child: and if you do, say Masha’Allah—“God has willed it”—to protect the child from the bad luck brought by the ayn al-h.asūd. In northern India, drivers put colorful stickers on their trucks with the slogan buri nazar wale tera muh kala (may your face turn black, the evil-eyed one) to ward it off. In Scotland, the Droch Shùil is thought to dry up the milk of nursing mothers and cows. Envy is feared not only because it gives rise to a greedy desire to steal the admired object—the beautiful eyes, the healthy flock, the sumptuous home—but because it is destructive. When the envious can’t have the coveted item for themselves, they don’t want anyone else to have it either.

JEALOUSY, which is above all a fear of losing a loved one to another, is often credited with some romantic appeal. The same cannot be said of envy. Envy is a desire to have the material possessions and advantages of others. It’s the sickness that comes on hearing another’s happy sigh, the ache of contemplating their success. Left to fester, it turns to HATRED and maliciousness, laying waste to both envier and envied. The Old Irish epic the Táin bó Cúailnge tells of a war over a stolen bull, which began when Queen Medb and her husband Ailill decided to compare their possessions. Their wealth was equal, until Medb saw Ailill’s prize white-horned bull, and “it was as if she hadn’t a single penny.”

With its roots in the Latin invidus (envious), from in (upon) videre (to see), envy has long been associated with gazing and looking. But the etymology also reminds us that those things we envy seduce us with their seemingly faultless image. Most of us, at one time or another, fall into the trap of comparing our own imperfect insides with the idealized outsides of other people’s lives. This is when envy strikes, multiplying with unfamiliarity and distance. As adults, we mostly feel it as a secret vice. It’s there behind the rictus grin that celebrates other people’s successes. It is the opposite of GRATITUDE, which gives rise to CONTENTMENT (see also: MUDITA). According to the author Nancy Friday, it is “the one emotion in all human life about which nothing good can be said.”

Was she right?

The essay “Envy and Gratitude” (1957) by the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein is now considered a classic in its field. Like many before her, Klein defined envy as a kind of anger, provoked by another person possessing and enjoying something desirable, and that gives rise to the impulse to “take it away or to spoil it.”

The key difference was that Klein did not think envy a sin or a failure of character, but an inevitable part of all our lives. From her years observing tiny infants, she saw the envious impulse at work from only a few months old. From the security of the womb, the infant enters a world of unpleasant sensations, one of which is need. However attentive the parents are, Klein argued, a baby will always experience the frustration of food not being instantly available. So our earliest emotional life is always shaped by two sensations: of losing, and then regaining, the satisfaction of the pleasurable object, what Klein called the “good breast,” or bottle. According to Klein, when the “good breast” is out of reach, the baby perceives the parent or carer as hoarding the enjoyable object, and is filled with rage and a desire to destroy the parent who has kept the food for herself. Thus the “good breast” becomes the “bad breast.” It is, of course, a theory, and hard to prove with any certainty. But if Klein was right, and envy is an inevitable part of our development, then we might wonder whether we’re right to try to rid ourselves of it.

Could there be something of value in the ugly impulse to want what others have—so much so that you’re willing to destroy it rather than let them have it for themselves? It is worth noting that envy, which has one eye on inequalities and disparities, is one of the few emotions to be explicitly concerned with unfairness (for another, see: INDIGNATION). There are some cultures where becoming destructive and enraged as a consequence of the unfair distribution of food or wealth is considered a reasonable response (see: song). By contrast, in Britain and America, it is often made to seem petty. Cultural critics have long been exasperated by the accusation, flung at politicians on the left, that they are merely “playing the politics of envy.” As left-wing theorist Fredric Jameson has argued, such phrases serve to undermine genuine political grievances, discrediting arguments for wealth redistribution by suggesting they are motivated merely by the character weakness of spite, and the “private dissatisfaction” of class hatred (see also: RESENTMENT).

But since the mid-1990s, neuroscientists have argued that our emotions underpin even our most apparently rational ideas, helping us weigh up our choices and motivating the decisions we make. Perhaps envy really does have a serious role to play in political debate. Sometimes the belief that others have it much better than we do is a mere trick of the light. But many have an awful lot less than they deserve. A covetous look, a twinge of envy, might just be an emotional antenna alerting you to some disparity or inequality not too far away. Whether you decide to respond with destructive fury or something a little more creative is, of course, up to you.