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


You have to trust. That’s what you tell yourself. When you see the e-mail hurriedly closed down and a bright smile—is it too bright?—on the face. Or the door quietly closed on a phone call. Or a mumbled explanation for returning late and crumpled. You have to trust. But it catches you in a daydream. The flirtation, the kiss. The plans. Shake the thoughts from your head. Breathe. Stare at the bag (don’t open it!). Stare at the coat (don’t search it!).

We may dedicate a lifetime to avoiding the effects of jealousy. It is mostly a private agony, doing its work furtively in the dark. We know that suspicious accusations will make us look feeble and petty. They could cause problems that don’t exist. So jealousy makes itself known in other ways, in little spites, muttered grievances. A slammed-down dinner plate. A refusal to have sex. It is even a motive for murder. His voice scratchy on the record player, John Lennon sings of losing control, of not meaning to hurt anyone: he’s just a jealous guy.

Jealousy is the suspicion of a rival, a DREAD of being supplanted. In contrast to ENVY, which is defined as wanting a thing one does not have, jealousy involves the fear of losing a person or their affections to someone else. It is triangular: me (the victim), you (the traitor) and the other (the thief). Such treacheries are all the more painful for the feeling of having been discarded (see: HUMILIATION). It is this threat that makes jealousy so inflammatory—and intimacy such a risk.

We are heirs to a strange and conflicted history of jealousy, one that has almost entirely been shaped by gender. While a jealous woman has been historically regarded as meagre and quibbling (she is never the heroine, only ever the bitter rival to true love), a jealous man belongs to a more honorable tradition. In the courtly romances of medieval Europe, the idea of love became inseparable from the yearning felt for an unobtainable lover—unobtainable usually because he or she was married. The lover’s jealousy inflamed desire, and was its true signatory: “He who is not jealous can not love,” wrote the twelfth-century author Andreas Capellanus in The Art of Courtly Love, continuing, “jealousy, and therefore love, are increased when one suspects his beloved.” But jealousy did not only thrive in the hearts of interlopers. Husbands could feel it too. Writers of medical treatises in this period described jealousy as the ANGER felt when one’s honor had been compromised. It heated the body and energized it for the necessary violent retaliation (they believed men, who were thought to be already hotter than cold, damp women, would experience more powerful surges of jealous rage). In Shakespeare’s Othello (1603/4), its tragic hero absorbs these complex attitudes to jealousy: Othello, the original “jealous guy,” is at once hero and victim, an archetype of love’s brutal possessiveness, and a man turned to “poison,” his soul eaten away by the “green-eyed monster.” Of course, the real victim is Desdemona, but somehow Othello’s plight always seems more grand—as well as more poignant since it is without real cause.

The idea that jealousy was the natural response to infidelity was consolidated in that period, through a series of legal cases. In 1670 John Manning walked in on his wife with another man, and then beat him to death with a jointed stool. He was sentenced to be branded on the hand—though the court “directed the executioner to burn him gently, because there could not be greater provocation than this.” Thirty-seven years later, a judge declared jealousy to be “the rage of a man, and adultery the highest invasion of property.” With jealousy defined as a natural masculine emotion inevitably experienced when one’s property (i.e., wife) was threatened, murder was downgraded to manslaughter, and some men who had murdered in jealous rages were acquitted altogether.

By the end of the nineteenth century the notion that jealousy was “the rage of a man” was further bolstered by a scientific-sounding claim that jealousy was an evolved impulse latent in all men—rather than women. Evolutionary psychologists still claim, based on little actual evidence, that in prehistoric societies jealousy became a “hardwired” trait so that men could protect their genetic inheritance, whereas women didn’t need to. This idea is especially problematic because it first emerged among Victorian scientists who believed that some people—such as non-Europeans and the poor—were lower down the evolutionary ladder and therefore closer to their more “primitive” emotions like jealousy and RAGE.

The echoes of this conflicted history could still be heard in the 1970s, when many artists and activists questioned the link between possessiveness and love. Lennon was not alone in describing the dangers of being overtaken by a strange instinct of jealousy around this time. Feminist campaigners contested legal practices that saw women as property and excused the men who killed them. Some who experimented with alternative relationship structures questioned the idea that jealousy was natural at all (see: COMPERSION). Jealousy began to seem both petty and alarming rather than grand and justified. According to French philosopher Roland Barthes, writing A Lover’s Discourse in the late 1970s, it gave rise to a quadruple dilemma. The jealous man suffers “four times over,” he writes. “Because I am jealous, because I blame myself for being so, because I fear that my jealousy will wound the other, because I allow myself to be subject to a banality: I suffer from being excluded, from being aggressive, from being crazy and from being common.”

Since 2009 in Britain—some twenty years after Canada and Australia—the provocation of infidelity is no longer admitted as a defense in court, although research has shown that judges still show sympathy to murderers who cite jealousy as a cause for the “red mist” that led them to kill. Of course, as long as people have relationships and wandering eyes, jealousy will be a fact of life. But what we can change is its unique status as an emotion that justifies violence. Not least because it’s not just men who succumb to the low hum of suspicious thoughts, causing them to search e-mails and discover clues to their loved one’s infidelities in the most innocent of glances. We all do.

For more on emotions and law see: HATRED and VENGEFULNESS.

See also: ENVY; INSULTED, feeling.