Jealousy: Peter Toohey is #WellJel

Jealousy, the green-eyed monster, has been spotted here at Yale Books. A fascinating emotion, jealousy occupies a paradoxical space on the emotional spectrum: we all feel it but no one wants to admit that they do. Peter Toohey, a professor of Classics who specialises in the nature and history of emotions, argues in his new book that jealousy is much more than the destructive emotion it is commonly perceived as. Using a wide-ranging comparative approach to provide a fresh and intriguing perspective, Toohey places the emotion at the core of culture, showing the contribution jealousy makes to relationships, creativity and civilisation.

As a cultural commentator Toohey has written for publications such as Slate on what he calls ‘domestic’ emotions; boredom, jealousy, loneliness. An interest in these less glamourous emotions drives his work, but in contrast to the lurid exploitation that tabloids make of the darker side of human feeling, Toohey’s approach is sympathetic and nuanced, often filled with a fond humour. So, to celebrate publication of his new book, we called him for an interview. Reassuringly upbeat, given his chosen subject and the seven hour time difference (the interview took place at 8.30am for him), he explained exactly why jealousy can sometimes be seen as a positive force.

Jealousy: Interview with Peter Toohey

Your previous book with Yale looked at boredom, this one is about jealousy. What has drawn you to focus on these two areas of human experience?

I guess I’m interested in these ‘domestic’ emotions, common sorts of emotions that most people experience, but that are often said to be distasteful, or that we should feel ashamed of – boredom is like that and jealousy definitely is.

You suggest that jealousy can be seen as positive in the arena of the workplace. Is this the same as healthy competition?

Maybe, but I think more similar than the same. Jealousy is driven by a perceived threat, always, whereas competition is not necessarily driven by a threat at all. But competition and jealousy are obviously linked and aim at possession. I’d take the ‘healthy’ out of it though!

In your preface, you write that ‘jealousy’s daily life is much quieter’ than its portrayal in the press. Any recent examples?

I guess it depends on the sort of jealousy that you’re talking about. I think my point was that, with respect to sexual jealousy, it’s not always violent and it doesn’t always end up in murder and mayhem. Often it ends in a quiet way, with a sense of resignation and sadness. That’s how it is for John le Carré’s hero George Smiley. The reaction to his wife Ann’s infidelity is usually a resigned and very doleful shrug of the shoulders. So that’s what I was getting at in terms of sexual jealousy.

Would you say that the tabloid depiction of jealousy is really the exception to the norm rather than the reality then?

Who wants to admit to feeling jealous? I think most people will tell you that they never experience jealousy … they don’t want to admit they ever feel like that.  They’d never act in such a negative way. As for the tabloid depiction … a quiet response to jealousy doesn’t sell well. You’re not going to sell a story to the tabloids about people getting on with their lives with a quiet, resigned and mournful shrug of the shoulders.

How successful do you think artists have been at depicting ‘jealousy’ in art?

I don’t think any artist has been especially successful at representing jealousy. Even Charles Darwin seems to believe that you can’t really do it. How do you paint a feeling?  But Edvard Munch is perhaps the most successful.  Well, at least he may be the person who has painted jealousy most. His paintings are not always great though. They can be very cheesy! They can make jealousy too obvious.

How do you depict jealousy in art? If I asked you about an emotion like that you’d want to talk about how you feel, wouldn’t you? But you can’t paint a feeling. You can only paint the circumstances that may accompany the feeling. So the painter may highlight triangular situations where she or he may try to depict the resignation or anger of the jealous person. That’s how Munch does it. Others work on the symbols relating to jealousy which are usually the eyes and the ears. Why? How do you learn about the circumstances that will create an emotion like jealousy? You learn about it by seeing it with your eyes or hearing it with your ears. So these two symbols particularly have become embedded in the artistic tradition.

Does jealousy influence you – positively? Can you give us an example?

I’d say the easiest is to be seen when there is a threat in a relationship. One person is guilty of indifference, neglect; the other person tries to tweak their emotional loyalty by creating a real or artificial sense of jealousy.

The experience can be positive in that you’re not going to feel jealous unless you actually care about the other person. It’s what you do with the feeling that can lead to bad things. There is nothing wrong with feeling an emotion like jealousy, or anger, or a desire for violence. These are natural reactions to difficult human circumstances. It’s how you act them out that’s the issue.

But jealousy is not always sexual. It can occur in work situations, as we’ve said. Then it can act as a goad to action – to compete and to achieve. In a case like this the jealous situation may not seem admirable, but the outcome can be.

And do you think that this acting out of emotions is culturally influenced or more to do with the individual?

I suspect jealousy is present in all human beings. The reason for that becomes clear in the work that evolutionary psychologists and neurologists do. They believe that jealousy is there to try to strengthen human relationships, to protect against the breakdown of human relationships and to assist in genetic replication. Preserving relationships in many cultures may be important. It’s important because of the length of time that humans have to spend bringing children up.  Jealousy becomes one means by which relationships can be tightened. Is jealousy culturally specific? Well, jealousy is inherent in all human and most animal relationships, at least higher animals. Perhaps in some cultures it’s less important.

Future projects – will you continue to pursue the theme of human experience?

I hope so. If I get the chance, I’d like to do a bit more with these domestic emotions. Jealousy often leads to profound feelings of loneliness. Loneliness is fascinating…

Jealousy is now available from Yale University Press. Peter Toohey’s previous book, Boredom, can be found here.

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