Envy, The Writer's Disease
It used to be like a fever with me, a compulsion, a madness: to go into a bookstore, head straight for the brand-new books, flip right to the back of the jacket and see if the author was young or old, my age or even--rats!--younger. Envy is a vocational hazard for most writers. It festers in one's mind, distracting one from one's own work, at its most virulent even capable of rousing the sufferer from sleep to brood over another's triumph.
Envy is the green-eyed beast. It is a sickness; it is a hunger. It is the self consuming the self. It takes what was most beloved--reading books, writing them--and sours it, a quick drop of vinegar into the glass of sweet milk. Even friendships aren't exempt. "That story of mine?" your friend says at lunch. "The New Yorker took it. I thought you knew."
A finger has tapped your heart. You smile. This is your friend. Surely you feel happy for your friend. And yet a space opens between you. You can feel it there, wide enough for a cool breeze to blow across.
What is this thing that can take the best from us and yet remain unsatisfied? When I think of envy, I think of Pharaoh's lean cows. They eat up the healthy ones--cannibals, those cows!--yet they remain as skinny as ever, so that, the Bible tells us, "when they had eaten them up, it could not be known that they had eaten them; but they were still ill favored, as at the beginning." I've always felt sorry for those cows. We're told they're poor and lean-fleshed, emaciated and ugly. They feed, but cannot digest. They are unhealthy desire incarnate.
Another image of envy--this time not of my conjecturing, but called Envy by itsauthor--comes from an anonymous late medieval poet:
Where Envy rokketh in the corner yond,
And sitteth dirk; and ye shall see anyone
His len‰ bodie, fading face and hond;
Him-self he fretteth, as I understand.
Envy sits in the corner, hidden, hiding, starved. His face and hand are fading, so thin is he, so insubstantial has he become from fretting himself. ("To fret" here meant to gnaw away at or to rub away. A medieval cookbook directed one to fret an apple through a sieve. "Fret" also refers, of course, to an agitation of the mind, a vexation.)
Envy frets himself. He is alone, his own victim. He is self-absorbed. He is self-propelled. It does not take two to envy. Somehow it takes only one.
Cynthia Ozick, that miracle word-spinner, speaks of envy in a generous interview published in Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews, Eighth Series. "Youth," she says, "is for running around in the great world, not for sitting in a hollow cell, turning into an unnatural writing-beast. There one sits, reading and writing, month after month, year after year. There one sits, envying other young writers who have achieved a grain more than oneself. Without the rush and brush and crush of the world, one becomes hollowed out. The cavity fills with envy. A wasting disease that takes years and years to recover from."
What is this thing that has us chewing at our own selves, grating ourselves against our own sharp sieve? It is the act of stepping back. It is the act of separating, and judging. It takes only one because the one becomes two. The self separates from the self. It points a finger and declares, "You are good" or "You are bad." Either one, it doesn't matter. The first statement usually flips over to become the second. And vice versa. Either way, the separated self is not doing the writing. Envious, the self is thinking about the writing, thinking about the self, rocking in its dark corner.
The self steps back and pretends to be the world. It says: "I too think that self is ugly. I too condemn it." If you condemn it, you cannot be it. Thus the envious self protects itself from feeling puny. It identifies with the powerful, with the world that may condemn the self. It is not the inferior one--far from it! It will take that inferior one and punish it against that sieve. Envy fretteth him-self.
That sharp sieve may be a favorable review of someone else's book. It may be the book in our hand, showing the author's glowing face. What is she? Fifteen? There are a million sieves in the world, many in the shape of a book--that thing we loved most, transformed.
Even Shakespeare was tormented by this transformation: "When in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes / . . . Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope." Shakespeare desired another's art? Dear Lord, whose? And doesn't this prove that envy is one of the scorpions of the mind, often having little to do with the objective, external world? "With what I most enjoy contented least," the poet says. "Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising." For Shakespeare too, apparently, the source of pleasure could be transformed into a painful sieve. Even he could end up with a sense of almost self-loathing.
Perhaps an elemental sense of being neglected precedes the adult experience of recognition or neglect. I'm not saying that many people don't have just cause to feel slighted, to feel jealous of another's gifts. I'm suggesting that the sense of being deprived may preexist mature experience. So that as adults, we are often reminded of that earlier state. So that we are more attuned to repetitions of that same experience of hunger, and we may even transform neutral experiences into ones in which we can reconfirm our own earlier state. Perhaps some of us even go so far as to become deaf to positive experiences or to find some way to discredit them.
I had a friend at writing school who won many prizes and got enthusiastic letters from editors. But whenever I went to visit her, she said, "Look at this letter! Another rejection--I'm so depressed!" It's true it was another rejection, but what about the wild praise that preceded the "Please send more work," the great big dollops of heavy cream? I'd sit on the couch, sick at heart that the letter wasn't mine, while my friend scanned my face. Did my misery really prove to her that her work was loved? Could she really nourish herself from my face? Strindberg writes about ego vampires, and I suppose my friend, in a way, was one. Still, I can't believe the sustenance she derived from my unhappiness stayed with her. She showed the letter to the next person who visited, and the one after that. She ate, but starved. The no in the letter drowned out all the yes.
"I want to be a star," this woman once told me, unabashed. We were walking through a heavy, swinging door, and I stopped a moment, stunned, before I pushed through. What awed me was not that she wanted to be a star--didn't we all?--but that she'd say so, flat out. I thought if you had the gumption to say what you wanted, you'd probably have the nerve to get it. And I was, in fact, impressed by her desire. Most of us wanted the same thing, but we tried not to know it. Such grand wants exact a price. Better to content oneself with the small success.
"I am ashamed to confess this," Cynthia Ozick says in her Paris Review interview. "It's ungrateful and wrong. But I am one--how full of shame I feel as I confess this--who expected to achieve--can I dare get this out of my throat?--something like--impossible to say the words--Literary Fame by the age of twenty-five. By the age of twenty-seven I saw that Holy and Anointed Youth was over, and even then it was already too late."
Too late! We will either be Thomas Mann or nobody. We will be F. Scott Fitzgerald or we ought not to exist at all. And some young writers actually do make it. Look, there's Susan Minot, there's David Leavitt and Michael Chabon. Names on the pages, photos in the magazines, as if to prove it can still be done, real achievement and fame in one fell swoop in the flush of what Ozick calls "Anointed Youth."
In an episode of the old television comedy "Car 54, Where Are You?" Officer Gunther Toody tries to reassure his partner, Francis Muldoon, who is grieving because his father made police captain when he was years younger than Francis is now. "Don't feel bad," Gunther says. "People were younger back then." I've believed that! People were younger back then. But then I open some journal or magazine and see that people are just as young today.
It's desire that causes envy. Isn't desire the villain here? Yet how to be an artist without desire? How far would you get? Without desire, could you send a story out again and again, after it's been rejected? Without desire, could you sit back down at the desk after some friend has enlightened you so thoroughly about your poor little story that now its flaws loom like the gaping pores and massive nostrils of the Brobdingnagians? The piece appalls you, but you go on. You tape the rejection notice to the fridge and send the story out again. Desire spurs you and sustains you. And yet it does you in.