So when I was eight years old, a new girl came to join the class, and she was so impressive, as the new girl always seems to be. She had vast quantities of very shiny hair and a cute little pencil case, super strong on state capitals, just a great speller. And I just curdled with jealousy that year, until I hatched my devious plan. So one day I stayed a little late after school, a little too late, and I lurked in the girls' bathroom. When the coast was clear, I emerged, crept into the classroom, and took from my teacher's desk the grade book. And then I did it. I fiddled with my rival's grades, just a little, just demoted some of those A's. All of those A's. (Laughter) And I got ready to return the book to the drawer, when hang on, some of my other classmates had appallingly good grades too. So, in a frenzy, I corrected everybody's marks, not imaginatively. I gave everybody a row of D's and I gave myself a row of A's, just because I was there, you know, might as well.
And I am still baffled by my behavior. I don't understand where the idea came from. I don't understand why I felt so great doing it. I felt great. I don't understand why I was never caught. I mean, it should have been so blatantly obvious. I was never caught. But most of all, I am baffled by, why did it bother me so much that this little girl, this tiny little girl, was so good at spelling? Jealousy baffles me. It's so mysterious, and it's so pervasive. We know babies suffer from jealousy. We know primates do. Bluebirds are actually very prone. We know that jealousy is the number one cause of spousal murder in the United States. And yet, I have 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. In fact, I don't know if it's an exaggeration to say that if we didn't have jealousy, would we even have literature? Well no faithless Helen, no "Odyssey." No jealous king, no "Arabian Nights." No Shakespeare. There goes high school reading lists, because we're losing "Sound and the Fury," we're losing "Gatsby," "Sun Also Rises," we're losing "Madame Bovary," "Anna K." No jealousy, no Proust. And now, I mean, I know it's fashionable to say that Proust has the answers to everything, but in the case of jealousy, he kind of does. This year is the centennial of his masterpiece, "In Search of Lost Time," and it's the most exhaustive study of sexual jealousy and just regular competitiveness, my brand, that we can hope to have. (Laughter) And we think about Proust, we think about the sentimental bits, right? We think about a little boy trying to get to sleep. We think about a madeleine moistened in lavender tea. We forget how harsh his vision was. We forget how pitiless he is. I mean, these are books that Virginia Woolf said were tough as cat gut. I don't know what cat gut is, but let's assume it's formidable.
Let's look at why they go so well together, the novel and jealousy, jealousy and Proust. Is it something as obvious as that jealousy, which boils down into person, desire, impediment, is such a solid narrative foundation? I don't know. I think it cuts very close to the bone, because let's think about what happens when we feel jealous. When we feel jealous, we tell ourselves a story. We tell ourselves a story about other people's lives, and these stories make us feel terrible because they're designed to make us feel terrible. As the teller of the tale and the audience, we know just what details to include, to dig that knife in. Right? Jealousy makes us all amateur novelists, and this is something Proust understood.
In the first volume, Swann's Way, the series of books, Swann, one of the main characters, is thinking very fondly of his mistress and how great she is in bed, and suddenly, in the course of a few sentences, and these are Proustian sentences, so they're long as rivers, but in the course of a few sentences, he suddenly recoils and he realizes, "Hang on, everything I love about this woman, somebody else would love about this woman. Everything that she does that gives me pleasure could be giving somebody else pleasure, maybe right about now." And this is the story he starts to tell himself, and from then on, Proust writes that every fresh charm Swann detects in his mistress, he adds to his "collection of instruments in his private torture chamber."
Now Swann and Proust, we have to admit, were notoriously jealous. You know, Proust's boyfriends would have to leave the country if they wanted to break up with him. But you don't have to be that jealous to concede that it's hard work. Right? 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 the vast quantities of shiny hair, the cute little pencil case. Jealousy likes photos. That's why Instagram is such a hit. (Laughter) Proust actually links the language of scholarship and jealousy. When Swann is in his jealous throes, and suddenly he's listening at doorways and bribing his mistress' servants, he defends these behaviors. He says, "You know, look, I know you think this is repugnant, but it is no different from interpreting an ancient text or looking at a monument." He says, "They are scientific investigations with real intellectual value." Proust is trying to show us that jealousy feels intolerable and makes us look absurd, but it is, at its crux, a quest for knowledge, a quest for truth, painful truth, and actually, where Proust is concerned, the more painful the truth, the better. Grief, humiliation, loss: These were the avenues to wisdom for Proust. He says, "A woman whom we need, who makes us suffer, elicits from us a gamut of feelings far more profound and vital than a man of genius who interests us." Is he telling us to just go and find cruel women? No. I think he's trying to say that 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 and our hideous ambition and our entitlement? Does any other emotion teach us to look with such peculiar intensity?
Freud would write about this later. One day, Freud was visited by this very anxious young man who was consumed with the thought of his wife cheating on him. And Freud says, it's something strange about this guy, because he's not looking at what his wife is doing. Because she's blameless; everybody knows it. The poor creature is just under suspicion for no cause. But he's looking for things that his wife is doing without noticing, unintentional behaviors. Is she smiling too brightly here, or did she accidentally brush up against a man there? [Freud] says that the man is becoming the custodian of his wife's unconscious.
The novel is very good on this point. The novel is very good at describing how jealousy trains us to look with intensity but not accuracy. In fact, the more intensely jealous we are, the more we become residents of fantasy. And this is why, I think, jealousy doesn't just provoke us to do violent things or illegal things. Jealousy prompts us to behave in ways that are wildly inventive. Now I'm thinking of myself at eight, I concede, but I'm also thinking of this story I heard on the news. A 52-year-old Michigan woman was caught creating a fake Facebook account from which she sent vile, hideous messages to herself for a year. For a year. A year. And she was trying to frame her ex-boyfriend's new girlfriend, and I have to confess when I heard this, I just reacted with admiration. (Laughter) Because, I mean, let's be real. What immense, if misplaced, creativity. Right? This is something from a novel. This is something from a Patricia Highsmith novel.
Now Highsmith is a particular favorite of mine. She is the very brilliant and bizarre woman of American letters. She's the author of "Strangers on a Train" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley," books that are all about how jealousy, it muddles our minds, and once we're in the sphere, in that realm of jealousy, the membrane between what is and what could be can be pierced in an instant. Take Tom Ripley, her most famous character. Now, Tom Ripley goes from wanting you or wanting what you have to being you and having what you once had, and you're under the floorboards, he's answering to your name, he's wearing your rings, emptying your bank account. That's one way to go.
But what do we do? We can't go the Tom Ripley route. I can't give the world D's, as much as I would really like to, some days. And it's a pity, because we live in envious times. We live in jealous times. I mean, we're all good citizens of social media, aren't we, where the currency is envy?
Does the novel show us a way out? I'm not sure. So let's do what characters always do when they're not sure, when they are in possession of a mystery. Let's go to 221B Baker Street and ask for Sherlock Holmes. When people think of Holmes, they think of his nemesis being Professor Moriarty, right, this criminal mastermind. But I've always preferred [Inspector] Lestrade, who is the rat-faced head of Scotland Yard who needs Holmes desperately, needs Holmes' genius, but resents him. Oh, it's so familiar to me. So Lestrade needs his help, resents him, and sort of seethes with bitterness over the course of the mysteries. But as they work together, something starts to change, and finally in "The Adventure of the Six Napoleons," once Holmes comes in, dazzles everybody with his solution, Lestrade turns to Holmes and he says, "We're not jealous of you, Mr. Holmes. We're proud of you." And he says that there's not a man at Scotland Yard who wouldn't want to shake Sherlock Holmes' hand.
It's one of the few times we see Holmes moved in the mysteries, and I find it very moving, this little scene, but it's also mysterious, right? It seems to treat jealousy as a problem of geometry, not emotion. You know, one minute Holmes is on the other side from Lestrade. The next minute they're on the same side. Suddenly, Lestrade is letting himself admire this mind that he's resented. Could it be so simple though? What if jealousy really is a matter of geometry, just 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.
But I like contingency plans. So while we wait for that to happen, let us remember that we have fiction for consolation. Fiction alone demystifies jealousy. Fiction alone domesticates it, invites it to the table. And look who it gathers: sweet Lestrade, terrifying Tom Ripley, crazy Swann, Marcel Proust himself. We are in excellent company. Thank you. (Applause)
What is jealousy? What drives it, and why do we secretly love it? No study has ever been able to capture its "loneliness, longevity, grim thrill" — that is, says Parul Sehgal, except for fiction. In an eloquent meditation she scours pages from literature to show how jealousy is not so different from a quest for knowledge.
Parul Sehgal is an editor for "The New York Times Book Review."