Love makes the world go round, says the poet, while the cynic says it’s money; and Peter Toohey, professor of classics at the University of Calgary, constructs an entertaining argument for jealousy being the wellspring of a much greater part of our emotional lives, and of a larger proportion of literature, law, and daily existence, than we may have thought. Elsewhere, Professor Toohey has also worked up boredom and melancholy; in those books as in this brisk survey, he proposes some benefits of emotions usually considered to be negative: jealousy is “a potent means for the assertion of individual rights and the encouragement of cooperation and equitable treatment.”
To distinguish jealousy from its relative, envy, he quotes Peter van Sommers’s succinct definition of the two: “Envy concerns what you would like to have but don’t possess, whereas jealousy concerns what you have and do not wish to lose.” I am jealous of that woman my husband seems to admire; I envy her ability to walk in high heels. Othello is jealous of Desdemona, but Iago is envious of Othello. Toohey emphasizes that the definition is slippery, but that we usually know one from the other; it’s just that the two are intertwined, a Laocoön psychic trope, with jealousy more often than envy associated with violence—thrown dishes, outraged husbands, women scorned, murder. He details some of the more famous, gruesome modern murder cases, but Othello and Medea are the archetypes. “Anger is cruel and fury overwhelming, but who can stand before jealousy?”
Read Who Is Not Guilty of This Vice? by Diane Johnson in the NYRB.