An Ode to Envy

What is jealousy? What drives us to envy others? Why do we all seem to find jealousy both detestable and secretly enjoyable at the same time? And why is jealousy such a prominent theme in most of our greatest literature?

jealousy jealous envy envious

These are the questions Parul Seghal explores in this eloquent lecture (video below). As she says, “Jealousy baffles me. It’s so mysterious, and it’s so pervasive.” And in thirteen minutes, she offers a brilliant analysis of the intersection between jealousy, literature, knowledge, and relationship.

Here are some highlights that I found particularly valuable:

1. The best analysts of jealousy are novelists

If you’re not yet convinced why it’s important to read fiction, listen to what Seghal has to say about jealousy in literature.

“I’ve never read a study that can parse to me its loneliness, or its longevity, or its grim thrill. For that we have to go to fiction. Because the novel is the lab that has studied jealousy in every possible configuration.”

2. Jealousy is about knowledge

“Jealousy is exhausting. It’s a hungry emotion. It must be fed. And what does jealousy like? Jealousy likes information. Jealousy likes details….Jealousy likes photos, that’s why Instagram is such a hit.”

3. Jealousy is revelatory

“Jealousy reveals us to ourselves. And does any other emotion crack us open in this particular way? Does any other emotion reveal to us our aggression, our hideous ambition, and our entitlement? Does any other emotion teach us to look with such peculiar intensity?”

4. Jealousy is diminished by relationship

At the end of the lecture, Seghal focuses on what to do about jealousy. And she recognizes that there are no easy answers. But the one suggestion she makes is that jealousy takes a blow when we put ourselves on the same side as the “other.”

“What if jealousy really is just a matter of geometry, a matter of where we allow ourselves to stand in relation to another? Well maybe then we wouldn’t have to resent somebody’s excellence; we could align ourselves with it.”

In the end, though, no solution to the problem of jealousy is forthcoming. And that, of course, is because the real root of jealousy lies in the broken and sinful condition of humanity after Eden, something that Seghal doesn’t go into. But her insights on the nature of jealousy are still brilliant and worth watching.



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