Of all the emotions, named and unnamed, the one that is most rarely admitted to is envy. The more we destigmatise talking about mental health, the easier it has become to admit to persistent feelings of sadness and fear. Wrath is a tricky one – how it is expressed can determine others’ reactions to it, but admitting that one feels it on occasion is largely acceptable. You can be angry in a whole range of contexts, and even say that you hate someone, as a corollary of this first emotion. You can say you hate a professor, a parent, a parking lot attendant – people you may encounter just once or perennially – and few will blink at the harshness of the word. But envy? This powerful emotion that’s so easy to detect (and judge) in another is the last one that most will confess to feeling, let alone being motivated by.
Anything that is suppressed manifests somewhere else. There’s a cord of envy that runs beneath so many opinions and choices, be they personal, professional or political. Those who cannot recognise how it provokes them are condemned to expending their energy on dragging others down, sometimes very self-righteously. “Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo,” as the author H.G. Wells put it.
About a decade ago, the German term schadenfreude, meaning “pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune”, became popular among English speakers. It turns out there’s a corresponding English word, epicaricacy, but this hasn’t entered common parlance. Before the whole world (wide web) decided that wokeness was aspirational, it was hipsterdom that dictated culture. Back then, dropping obscure words from many languages was one way to signal how cool you were (now, some would die of shame – ah, another negative emotion – if they did something so privilege-revealing).
The trendiness of the word schadenfreude allowed for people to explore and even express their envy – provided that its object had experienced some failure. It did not bring into the light the more insidious, painful kind of envy borne of another’s good fortune. That’s the kind that holds the risk of twisting the one who feels it into both personal bitterness and detrimental actions.
A similar contemporary moment might be the author Roxane Gay’s list of anonymous nemeses, whom she dramatically refers to as such on Twitter, with unveiled resentment. As a result of her candour, having a nemesis or several has become a part of online repartee. Some suggest that it provides a flippant way to channel ambition. At the very least, it’s honest. It doesn’t pretend that jealousy doesn’t exist.
But where is the space for useless, acrimonious, incurable envy? Why do we – we whose homes are broken by lies and secrets, whose careers have contained moments of sabotage, whose hearts have harboured poison – act as though this base emotion belongs only to the worst of people, and not our beloveds, our associates or ourselves? But it’s a human emotion, as human as love or disgust. If we didn’t deny its existence, if we didn’t conceal our envy from ourselves, perhaps we will find ways to dispel it – and the destructiveness it is known to spur.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 24th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.