Green-Eyed Monster

A new book on jealousy has Scott McLemee taking a backward look.

December 17, 2014

Some years ago I met a woman who owned a large calico cat bearing a certain resemblance to Queen Victoria: stout, regal, disapproving. She had enjoyed her mistress’s undivided attention as a kitten; the second cat joining them a few years later proved easy to dominate. But the large male primate who began coming to the apartment on some evenings was another matter. I appeared incapable of taking a hint, and she was not amused.

Before long I was spending most evenings there. Oaf though I may have been, I did get a feeling of being disdained, at best, and could imagine the older cat taking the woman aside to say, through unhappy looks and feline telepathy, “This guy has got to go.” If things ever reached that point, the woman held her ground – and reader, I married her. (The cat with less seniority had in the meantime grown fond of me, which may have helped.)

The situation de-escalated before reaching the stage depicted in Octave Tassert’s Die eifersüchtige Katze, one of the paintings reproduced in Jealousy (Yale University Press) by Peter Toohey, a professor of classics at the University of Calgary. The author roams across several cultures, media, and disciplines in his investigation of the green-eyed passion. In literature, jealousy tends to resemble a kind of madness, and it usually becomes part of the daily news only after escalating into lethal violence. But Tassert’s canvas presents the emotion in one of its more comic expressions.

Painted circa 1860, “The Jealous Cat” depicts a love triangle of sorts. We see a woman sprawled on her bed in dishabille  -- with her lover in, let’s say, close proximity, still clothed for the most part but with his pants below his knees. (A coat hangs on a nearby chair, not draped over the back but thrown on it at an angle suggesting haste.) At first glance he appears to be standing. But the angle of his legs and the way one arm seems to be swinging upward -- and the startled expression on his face as he looks over his shoulder -- all suggest he has just bolted upright. Just behind him, and a little lower, you see the creature giving the painting its title: a jealous cat, stretching up to sink both claws into the man’s exposed buttocks.

“They’re obviously more tempting than the uninspiring ball of string left by the chair,” Toohey deadpans. The painting itself is humorous but it raises perennial questions about emotion: Do animals have them, or is that just anthropomorphizing? And if they do experience feelings that in a human would be understood as emotion, how similar to ours are they?

Animals’ inability to self-report their own mental states makes any answer more or less unverifiable, and we are in the same position regarding the emotions of the human child in its first few years. What we have with both nonverbal animals and preverbal infants is behavior that looks and sounds like what we associate with happiness, excitement, fear, and perhaps one or two other emotions. But is jealousy among them? The experience of it can be raw and overwhelming, but it responds to a situation that is fairly complex. “The foundation stone of jealousy,” writes Toohey, “is triangular”: the product of a situation “usually [involving] two people and some form of possession, animate or inanimate.” The classic form – “the clichéd sine qua non of the jealous situation,” as the author puts it – is the romantic triangle: the jealous party’s claim on the significant other is violated, or at least menaced, by a rival.

Whether or not its brain can process all the elements in play, the jealous feline in Octave Tassert’s painting has at least determined the fastest and most efficient way to disrupt the situation. A desire to hurt the rival may not be noble, but it’s understandable and reasonably straightforward, especially when the rival is standing right there.

Human beings are prone to making things more complicated. The desire for retribution can target the beloved as well as the rival, and even become more intense – sometimes to really horrifying extremes. The author cites one case that sounds like the brainchild of an exploitation-movie director trying to outdo the competition: A British man who spent a week beating, strangling, and threatening his girlfriend also tried to fill her ears and eyes with quick-sealing putty. In handing down a prison sentence, the magistrate told him: “You are almost insanely jealous.” Almost?!

Explosions of jealousy -- even of sexual jealousy, by all counts the most excruciating sort -- usually stop short of mayhem. Toohey notes that there is just enough of a stigma around jealousy to limit how openly we feel comfortable expressing it. At the same time, jealousy is a persistent enough force to make subduing it hellishly difficult, and also irresistible as raw material for art and literature. In Othello, the work most indelibly identified with the experience of jealousy, Shakespeare treats it as a passion that, once ignited, feeds itself, with imagination as the fuel -- even when the grounds for it are entirely false.

Toohey writes of the moment when an individual sees or hears something that ignites the emotion. Even when based in rock-solid fact – with no Iago whispering baseless insinuations – the suffering of the jealous person comes mostly from scenes and conversations running in an obsessive loop within the mind. One of the most interesting chapters of Jealousy considers how literary and artistic works present our eyes and ears as the organs that make us vulnerable to the suspicion then elaborated upon within the brain’s theater.

Perhaps that accounts for the bizarre revenge taken by the “almost insanely jealous” man mentioned earlier. And perhaps imagination is the factor distinguishing human jealousy from whatever it is animals feel when faced with rivalry. Our motives are more complex, and our memories are longer. That gives us an evolutionary advantage. But it also opens up wide vistas of potential misery, where the jealous mind is condemned to wander in circles.


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