March 17, 2008

Reflections on Gericault's Face of Envy, Or: For Everyone Who Wants But Doesn't Get

Gericault’s jealous woman
her eyes askance
obsessively follows goods withheld
The classic face of envy
disconcerting in its human incarnation
For centuries her frozen unsatisfied eyes
glare in perpetuity unfulfilled
Her mouth pulled tight by thwarted desire
a bitter witness to others’ consummations
Vexed at unshared happiness
she ogles the crowning contentment
of rivals to gratification

-Janet Kozachek 2008

This past week, the subject of jealousy was broached a number of times and in various permutations. It seemed to me a great topic to write on and I had an illustration at the ready with a drawing of mine that I had just cleaned up catalogued.

Thinking of the Romantic painter Theodore Gericault, the images that I usually associate with him, other than The Raft of the Medusa, are his luscious renderings of dapple grey and roan colored horses. But late in his short life as an artist, he turned his attention to a series of poignant portraits of the mentally ill. Having a family history of mental illness himself, one wonders at Gericault’s motive for painting these. To exorcize demons by coming face to face with them perhaps?

While in a museum in Lyon, the particular painting from Gericault’s madness series that captivated my attention was the portrait “A Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy.” Making a sketch of this painting at the museum was a strange yet moving experience for me. Of course it would be easier to obtain postcards and catalogues of favorite paintings in a museum, but drawing from a master work is more inspiring and humbling. The act of rendering the picture stroke by stroke integrates the image into the very fiber of one’s being - to be conjured up into consciousness again at some future time in order to mull it over and absorb its saliency.
“The Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy,” has from time to time hovered in my imagination almost like an illustration for a cautionary tale. For with dependable regularity in life, like most people, I’ve been either a target of or a repository for jealousy. On any given day, I can look around this small college town of Orangeburg South Carolina and see the visage of Gericault’s face of envy - that sulking suspicious glare. Worse still, on some days, she stares back at me from the mirror.

I was haunted by envy in the years before graduate school. I was envious of people who had the means to obtain advanced degrees while still young enough for higher education to have an impact on their lives. Two graduate degrees and several years later I am envious of people for whom the same or lesser sets of credentials have secured them the rank, status and security that a position such as full time college teaching grants and which has always eluded me. Oddly enough, it sometimes seems that college teachers envy my free-lance lifestyle. This is probably because a secure paycheck is often paid for with constraints upon time and liberty - not to mention putting up with jealous colleagues. “At least you have time to do your art!” they opine. True, I do have some spare time at this juncture but what most people tend to forget is that when working free-lance, free time means no money. And while short term this is not necessarily a bad thing and it is enviable to have a chance to write and paint, the ramifications for long term underemployment are a bit more daunting.

In a broader context, perhaps the most serious consequence of jealousy is the insidiously terrible stasis that results. It restricts personal attainments and prohibits individual accomplishments. Jealousy keeps a community backwards. For the jealous will do anything to thwart those who appear to be doing better than themselves. I must share here a very colorful illustration of the power of communal jealousy that one of my husband’s English students wrote in a composition paper. “When a crab tries to escape from a pot of boiling crabs," he wrote, "the ones stuck deeper in the pot pull the one getting out back in.”

So now that the disease is identified, is there a cure for jealousy? Perhaps not and perhaps there ought not to be - at least not to the point of total eradication. The wellspring of self-serving competitiveness from which jealousy grows may impart some survival value to the envious. (The aforementioned crabs may just have been trying to hitch a ride on the escapee) But as a maddening obsession that thwarts both individual and social progress some amelioration might be warranted. I cannot make recommendations on anyone else’s behalf, but in my own grass is greener experiences I have found that there are a few salves to the sting of envy.

One is the realization that no matter how qualified for and deserving one is of something, that does not mean that there is an entitlement to it. In fact, the only things that we are probably entitled to are those items covered by legal contracts - and our most serious heart’s desires fall outside that jurisdiction. So, short of becoming an emotional ascetic, the best one can do is to come to terms with the reality of unfairness and make the best of what remains after dissappointment. And after that, to be especially grateful for those things given and obtained without the asking.

Although it takes some stretching if one is unaccustomed to it, nothing expands the parameters of happiness more than joy in the accomplishments of others. It is especially helpful to seek out a community that supports and cultivates the achievements of its members.

On those who inspire envy, most people probably do not fully comprehend their own advantages and as a consequence can appear callous and impervious to the disadvantages of others. Sometimes it is evil. Most times it is ignorance. It nearly always results in fanning the flames of jealousy. In a society such as it is in the United States this is especially heightened by so many inducements to make a conspicuous display of one’s socioeconomic prowess. A funny example comes to mind here of a well-to-do man complaining to me (complaining here as merely a facade for bragging) about losing the instructions to a very expensive camera and having to buy a second camera to get another set of instructions. If I had been more quick witted I might have offered to take the spare off his hands along with a photocopy of the instructions but I just chuckled and gave a slack-jawed stare instead.

Sometimes jealousy is more actively provoked - as in a response from an acquaintance to my news that I had made a few hundred dollars from a recent seminar. She was considering running seminars herself she tells me and charging $3000 each in accordance with the high demand for her expertise. Following my own previous admonitions it should give me great joy if she nets this amount. Initially it does not. In fact if an experimental MRI of my brain were performed to register the response to the $3000 seminar news undoubtedly the reptile portion would be lighting up - that crocodile nature which commands "Go, seek competitor's nest. Dig in sand. Find eggs. Eat them. All of them. After a reluctant tug into higher consciousness, however I find that ultimately it would satisfy me if she conducts seminars that are that remunerative because she probably earned the privilege and because she faces some long term uncertainties.

And this brings me to my final conclusion on the ultimate folly of jealousy. At any given time one can never be too certain about another person’s actual situation in life. The man with the great job? Maybe he hates it and returns home every day to a family that loathes him. The great house? Who knows what kind of mortgage is attached to it. And even if present circumstances are verifiably enviable, the future is yet to come, with all its attendant vagaries of fortune. To paraphrase Sophocles, “One can never count a man’s fortunes until he passes his dying day without pain.”

1 comment:

harriett said...

Or as Bobby Mcferrin's one-hit wonder song admonishes from a decade ago, "Don't Worry, Be Happy"

Superlative post!