Like every single person reading this, I own but have yet to finish reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.
I also own a Bible and I haven’t read it cover to cover either, so clearly I am at ease with not knowing how things All Work Out In The End.
Despite my readerly failings, there is one passage from IJ that stuck with me, enough that I actually took the time to write it out by hand. Here it is in text, because oy, my handwriting:
“You feel these men with their photographs in magazines care deeply about having their photographs in magazines. Derive immense meaning.”
“I do. They must. I would. Else why would I burn like this to feel as they feel?”
“The meaning they feel, you mean. From the fame.”
“Lyle, don’t they?”
“LaMont, perhaps they did at first. The first photograph, the first magazine, the gratified surge, the seeing themselves as others see them, the hagiography of image, perhaps. Perhaps the first time: enjoyment. After that, do you trust me, trust me: they do not feel what you burn for. After the first surge, they care only that their photographs seem awkward or unflattering, or untrue, or that their privacy, this thing you burn to escape, what they call their privacy is being violated. Something changes. After the first photograph has been in a magazine, the famous men do not enjoy their photographs in magazines so much as they fear that their photographs will cease to appear in magazines. They are trapped, just as you are.”
“Is this supposed to be good news? This is awful news.”
“LaMont, are you willing to listen to a Remark about what is true?”
“The truth will set you free. But not until it is finished with you.”
“Maybe I ought to be getting back.”
“LaMont, the world is very old. You have been snared by something untrue. You are deluded. But this is good news. You have been snared by the delusion that envy has a reciprocal. You assume that there is a flip-side to your painful envy of Michael Chang: namely Michael Chang’s enjoyable feeling of being-envied-by-LaMont-Chu. No such animal.”
Why did/do I love this passage so much? Two reasons.
One, because though I’ve yet to have my photo in a magazine – literally or figuratively – that swift transition from validation to a kind of crippling anxiety seems … familiar. I don’t need to have been there, nor done that, to know that my own experience would follow the same path.
Two, because as much as I recognize the truths contained in this passage (see previous paragraph), it’s also utter bullshit.
I have had moments – fleeting, rare – where something in my life has been envied by someone else. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that it was an “enjoyable feeling,” but it was, you know, on the pleasure continuum.
That’s not to say that the envied situation/thing was itself fully pleasant. There are downsides to every envied experience. Of course there are.
You get to walk the red carpet!
Where you are expected to engage in a conversation about your fingernails.
You’ve inherited a castle!
Good luck with your utility bill.
You landed your dream job!
Comes with a parking spot and crushing guilt.
But the things we envy needn’t be that grand. If you’re looking for quotidian proof of the emotional value of envy’s reciprocal, Facebook pretty much has it nailed.
We share some small, delightful thing from our lives – a weekend vacation, a nice meal, a child’s drawing – and the tiny thumb-shaped tokens of envy tumble in, and we see them, and it makes us feel good. Makes us feel like we’re keeping up with The Joneses. Hell, we might even be The Joneses. Any why shouldn’t we be The Joneses? This is a good life. It’s one worth wanting.
Not that we’re allowed to admit it publicly, enter the humblebrag.
Do famous people feel this same augury of affirmation when lesser beings covet the minutiae of their lives? I can’t say for sure, having not been famous, but I think we can all agree that Gwyneth Paltrow has made a rather compelling business case for it.
I think there is some such animal, in other words.
Which makes me feel better about envying each of you, knowing how happy it must make you feel.