The signs, promos for the new season of the cable television show Mad Men, are plastered all over Manhattan: ENVY IS BACK. I'm glad to hear it. For me, envy never went away.
I suffer, you see, from chronic, unrelenting envy, a condition I have always tried to hide. Lately, however, envy seems to be getting a good name. HP has a new series of Envy laptops. Massage Envy has over 700 spas throughout the country. Bubba brands has a new envy tumbler. Even human beings are bearing the moniker. The first New Years Baby in Las Vegas was named Envy Essence-Faye Scurry. I thought envy was something you were supposed to give up on New Years.
True, you name something Envy to make other people feel that way, not you. Your Envy laptop is the envy of all your friends. Baby Envy's parents probably wanted to make her enviable, not -- like the fairies in Sleeping Beauty -- to inject her with the sentiment.
Still, these days even the sentiment of envy is getting some positive publicity. According to a recent study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, envy can make you smarter, though that is not exactly how they put it. "When envy is activated," they write, "people attend to information about social targets and are better able to correctly recall this information." In other words, envious individuals pay more attention to and remember more about those people they envy.
This is good news for me since though I am a professor of English literature by day, envy is my real field of expertise. Here I have spent the better part of the past fifty years overdosing on the sentiment and assuming I was morally inferior to my peers, and I was actually growing more observant than them.
No wonder I have such talent for impressing people with my flattering memories of them. My childhood friend loves when I describe how she won the oral reading contest in first grade. My co-worker asks me to recite the hilarious things his now-teenage son said as a toddler. My husband counts on me to remind him about the beautiful woman he was dancing with when we first met. Acquaintances are amazed that I can recall their hobbies, their children's colleges, their two big fluffy white dogs I never even saw. When it comes to having a prodigious memory, you can name me Envy!
Indeed, I remind myself of Satan the ultimate envier in Western literature and the anti-hero of Paradise Lost, John Milton's 17th-century epic poem. Like me, Satan uses envy to his observational advantage advantage. When, after rebelling against God and being thrown out of heaven, Satan sees the newly created human beings in Eden, he finds the "Sight hateful, sight tormenting!" His envy leads him to study the pair carefully, especially Eve. Unbeknownst to her, Satan listens with acute attention as Eve describes the story of her birth, and in this way he is able to detect her vulnerability. He realizes that Eve herself envies Adam's power, his superior place in the human hierarchy. As he fashions Eve's temptation, Satan remembers everything about Eve, and he uses it to ruin her.
Unlike Satan, I have not consciously worked to ruin other people (well, not outside of my own thoughts). Nevertheless, my envy can feel ruinous and saturating, like and incurable form of nausea. Yes, I know we all feel envy now and again but I assure you mine is worse. I have envied friends in the hospital because they are getting more love and attention than I am. I have envied those who survive hardships like poverty or their parents' alcoholism. Those who triumph over adversity have no need to feel guilty. I envy them that! It is not pretty.
So, you can see why I was happy to learn that envy has at least improved my memory. t has also made me less afraid of losing my memory now that I have turned fifty. So long as I forget my envy, that is.