The Dance of Jael: Pathological Envy in Countries in Transition from Communism
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Written: September 26, 1999
"Envy is forever looking upwards. It does not look sideways. In 'Facial Justice' Hartley (1960) describes a life after a catastrophic war. A Dictator has decreed that envy is so destructive that it has to be eliminated. The citizens are coerced to be as alike each other as possible. The worst crime is not envy itself but to excite envy. 'Equality and Envy - the two E's were...the positive and negative poles on which the New State rotated '(p.12). In order to exterminate envy everything that was enviable has been destroyed. Of course that in itself is the very essence of envy. Neither envy nor equality are spoken of as words but referred to as Good and Bad E. All tall buildings had been destroyed in the war except the tower of Ely Cathedral and none are allowed to be built - a horizontal view of life is required. No comparisons are to be made, women are encouraged to undertake an operation so they all looked alike, to be pretty would excite envy. The result is that the populace loses its humanity and becomes a non-thinking mass. The independently minded heroine, Jael, visits the Ely and looks up at the tower and leads a dance round it. She pays the price of having her more than averagely pretty face (an Alpha face) changed to a Beta face by cosmetic surgery and so made indistinguishable from the others."
(From "Cronos and His Children - Envy and Reparation" by Mary Ashwin - Chapter II "Everyday Envy")
“Socialism is a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue in the equal sharing of misery.” (Winston Churchill)
The distinction between fiction and non-fiction became ever subtler in the "Underground" world of post-socialism, "After the Rain" of communism. In a lethal embrace, in an act of unprecedented intercourse, literature penetrated reality as only the most fervent lovers or the most avid haters do. A topsy turvy continent adrift among the gales of newspeak, under the gaze of a million grey bureaucrats passing for big brothers. A motion picture gone awry: the plot long forgotten, the actors wondering forlornly on a dilapidated scene and the credits flashing over and again, in an endless loop.
This crazed landscape, this party of mad hatters, where time stood still was the result of the two great equalizers: oppression and ideology. The substrate of numerous experiments of groups without control, the inhabitants of these feverish lands internalized their own predicament. The broken toys of spoiled imperial children, the guinea pigs of scientific materialism and then of materialism only - they strutted around, eyes wide shut, ears clogged, mouths stapled, lips sown with the wire of terror. Everyone was equal under their occupiers, their tormentors, their slave masters. And everyone was equal by decree, on pain of death or exile, by the horror-stricken conviction called ideology. To succumb to the former was to survive - to subscribe to the latter was to flourish. Many flourished.
The New Oxford Dictionary of English defines envy as:
"A feeling of discontented or resentful longing aroused by someone else's possessions, qualities, or luck."
And an earlier version (The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary) adds:
"Mortification and ill-will occasioned by the contemplation of another's superior advantages."
Pathological envy - the second deadly sin - is a compounded emotion. It is brought on by the realization of some lack, deficiency, or inadequacy in oneself. It is the result of unfavourably comparing oneself to others: to their success, their reputation, their possessions, their luck, their qualities. It is misery and humiliation and impotent rage and a tortuous, slippery path to nowhere. The effort to break the padded walls of this self visited purgatory often leads to attacks on the perceived source of frustration.
Pathological envy is THE driving force of post communist Central and Eastern Europe. Unable to cope with the sudden shift in values from enforced and artificial equality to primitive, pirate capitalism - the populace retreated to acrimony and bitterness. Faced with the chasmic inequalities engendered by the serial collective robberies known as "privatization" - it reacted with suppressed rage, with despair, with the multiple sadness which is nostalgia. The land has split between a colourful, dynamic, rapacious and omnivorous class - and the sepia-like and quaint backdrop of their compatriots. As the castles of the former rose - so were the abodes of the latter humbled.
The resentment led to fears of abandoning one's self-control, of confronting one's rulers and their cronies, of losing even the little one was allowed to possess. It was a muted mutiny, a rebel-less rebellion, a static trip from guilt to hate. To maintain these seething undercurrents from erupting, to avoid the volcanic tremors that precede every revolution - behaviour was formalized and ritualized. Speech became ever vaguer and ambiguous. Effective communication was halted. The community splintered and the very fabric of society was consumed by this massive act of dissociation.
Pathological envy mutated into solutions the envious could live with.
Some sought to imitate or even emulate the newfound heroes of the capitalist revolution. They immersed themselves in conspicuous consumption, the badly matched purchases of the nouveaux riches replete with the vulgar manners of unrefined power. They adhered to coarse materialism with its confusion of ends and means. They suffered the ever present agitation of envy, the constant comparison to one's superiors, the plagued rat race. To get rich quick through schemes of crime and corruption is thought by these people to be the epitome of cleverness (providing one does not get caught), the sport of living, a winked-at vice, a spice.
Yet others embarked on paths of rivalry and enmity and destruction. This hydra has many heads. From scratching the paint of new cars and flattening their tyres, to spreading vicious gossip, to media-hyped arrests of successful and rich businessmen, to wars against advantaged neighbours. The stifling, condensed vapours of envy cannot be dispersed. They invade their victims and snatch their rageful eyes, their calculating souls, they guide their hands in evil doings and dip their tongues in vitriol. This is the day to day existence in places as far apart as Moscow and the Balkans. A constant hiss, a tangible malice, the piercing of a thousand eyes. The imminence and immanence of violence. The poisoned joy of depriving the other of that which you don't or cannot have.
There are those who idealize the successful and the rich and the lucky. They attribute to them super-human, almost divine, qualities. They think of serendipity as earned, of work as bestowed, of success as deserved and reserved to the deserving. In an effort to justify the agonizing disparities between themselves and others, they humble themselves as they elevate the others. They reduce and diminish their own gifts, they disparage their own achievements, they degrade their own possessions and look with disdain and contempt upon their nearest and dearest, who are unable to discern their fundamental shortcomings. They feel worthy only of abasement and punishment. Besieged by guilt and remorse, voided of self-esteem, self-hating and self-deprecating - this is by far the more dangerous species. For he who derives contentment from his own humiliation cannot but derive happiness from the downfall of others. Indeed, most of them end up driving the objects of their own devotion and adulation to destruction and decrepitude.
But the most common reaction is the good old cognitive dissonance. In Central and Eastern Europe, entire societies are in its grip. It is to prefer the belief that the grapes are sour to the admission of their desirability. These people devalue the source of their frustration and envy. They find faults, unattractive features, high costs to pay, immorality in everything they really most desire and aspire to and in everyone who has attained that which they so often can't. They walk around critical and self-righteous, inflated with a justice of their making and secure in the wisdom of being what they are rather than what they could have been and really wish to be. They make a virtue of abstention, of wishful constipation, of judgmental neutrality, this oxymoron, the favourite of the disabled.
Topped by a thin layer of coagulated fat, a bubble of enraged and maddened envy is boiling underneath - from Murmansk to Athens and from Prague to Dresden. Will it burst and spill over or will it only noisily release its steam is anybody's guess. It is a force to reckon with. The tide of capitalism has lifted few yachts and no one else's boats. People feel cheated. They feel used and abused. They feel conned out of their dignity and their possessions and their future. They look around and see island castles surrounded by oceans of physical and moral filth. This is no decadence because it has no aesthetic values to ameliorate it. It is as ugly as the survival of the thiefest. As Central and Eastern Europe engages, for the first time, in serious restructuring - the social costs will mount dramatically and so will inequality. The process can be reversed only by the redistribution of wealth. But that it will be achieved through progressive taxation rather than through a bloodbath is not a foregone conclusion.
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