Is it a curable illness?

By Joan Didion

Edited for digital format by Deanna Noriega


Although one finds it difficult to imagine Cleopatra afflicted with jealousy (the notion is ludicrous, rather like imagining her laid up with migraine on that perfumed barge, equipped with Fiorinal and an ice bag,) she wanted to know the height of Antony’s bride, to know the colour of her hair- betraying her vulnerability even as most of us have done.

Later… a dreary stream of forlorn women would sit, in doctors’ offices and marriage clinics and divorce courts, stammering the same great tale: Her name was Sally, the first one, she was nothing, he met her at a motel outside Salinas, you know the one, on the San Luis road, the one with the swan on the sign. (That passion for the documentation of irrelevant detail is characteristic of the afflicted.)

2 Nights with Cleopatra, 1954

What each of them has suffered is not, no matter what the love songs say, jealousy. They have suffered instead the inability to cope with jealousy, the incapacity to control an atavistic impulse common to us all. Although not everyone suffers, everyone is potentially jealous; Descartes once described the emotion as a “life-conserving tendency,” Dr. Arnold Gesell as “synonymous almost with the will to live.” A noun derived, not entirely incidentally, from the Greek zelos, or zeal, jealousy is born of the instinct toward preservation of the self:

one can be jealous only of something or someone perceived as an extension of oneself.

Attempts to keep that extension intact become pathological or neurotic only when they become illogical, self-defeating, too expensive, only when one can no longer channel that jealousy constructively.

Controlled and only tacitly acknowledged, jealousy operates almost constantly beneath the surface of social play. Listen for its subdued but sometimes audible echoes… Only the tight threads of the social tapestry preserve the amenities in either situation.

So deep as to be seldom recognized and almost never put into words, another jealousy is that commonly harboured for people one does not know: for the golden girl, the apparently totally blessed. Because extraordinary beauty or intelligence or success in anyone, however deserving, presents a subtle threat to our self-esteem, we love best those possessed of some fatal flaw, some saving evidence of their own mortality.

But all of these jealousies- the minor social and professional jealousies, the deep impersonal jealousies- tend to be challenged, controlled, ultimately resolved with no emotional débris. The pathologically jealous, on the other hand, live, like alcoholics, in a country of heightened suspicions, hot agonies, tortured reproaches, a landscape of hell bordered not by the Styx but by great walls of distorting mirrors. Neurotic jealousy means the stomach that tightens convulsively, the neck ganglion that grows swollen and taut. It means the irrevocable word one meant not to say, the vengeful turning away in bed, the uncontrollable desire to get up and run from a dinner table because one can not bear to watch whatever is going on at the far end.

The Crush, 1993

To be jealous is alternately to hate and to adore the object of that jealousy:

hate for rejecting me, adore for unavailability, for all too apparent desirability, and finally for consummate good taste in rejecting someone as worthless as me. To be jealous is to come perilously close to obliterating oneself, to neglect one’s own interests and work, to spend one’s days piecing together fragments of suspicion, to discover within oneself the inductive cunning of a crack Pinkerton.she uses Bendel soap because he smells of it.

There is nothing free-floating about jealousy: this is no indefinable angst. (What a joy: no longer to wake with that nameless terror… but to assign names, dates, and places to one’s private furies.)

In its most virulent forms, jealousy sometimes enters the province not only of the criminal courts but of the psychiatrists, who call it symptomatic of exactly what one might expect: a pervasive neurotic disorder. Dr. Karl Menninger calls it fear of rejection; Dr. Karen Horney, neurotic pride. No one thinks it a disease in itself, but a symptom, capable of engendering further symptoms.

Walt Disney’s Peter Pan, 1953

In most of us, its more violent manifestations are urgent but blessedly transient. We may get ulcers or we may get migraine, an either/or proposition, for reasons medically still fairly obscure; we may be hospitalized with elusive pains and fevers, uneasily evading the doctors’ questions even as we hope, deep in some ugly place, that what we suffer is something that will show them. Except accidentally, it rarely is; the love-death is a literary convention, a delusion of courtly love, and few die of jealousy. Anna Karenina, but there you are.

Anna Karenina, 2012

Fatal or not, jealousy maims the spirit, paralyzes the will.

At its most intense, the emotion can not be sustained: one can let it simmer to a consumptively querulous suspiciousness, kill its object, or get over it. Jealousy, however heated, ultimately becomes dull because it begins and ends with self. One’s jealousy of someone has only to do with oneself; it touches not  even tangentially the intrinsic peculiar worth of either its object or it instigator…

But just a few of us are afflicted with the kind of crippling jealousy that can be cured only with psychiatric help, few of us remain inextricably tangled in totally hopeless situations. For most of us, jealousy is neither crippler nor escape. It is instead the rare but piercing chill in the night, the waste of emotion better spent on loving. Better spent, for that matter, on cleaning closets.

To cure that jealousy is to see it for what it is, a dissatisfaction with self…

“To ‘know thyself,’” Dr. Karl Menninger once wrote, “must mean to know the malignancy of one’s own instincts and to know as well one’s power to deflect it.” Knowledge is the crucial notion there; deflection may follow naturally… not until we know something can we begin to learn to live with it. To accept the fact that jealousy begins with self-discontent is to change the locus of the threat from outside to within, to take the first step toward accepting one’s own limitations, emotional safety pins and all…

Initially published in Vogue Magazine, June 1961,  Joan Didion describes the physical detriment of neurotic jealousy so precisely it astonished me, an admitted jealous-type, and reveals the important root cause of jealousy as dissatisfaction with one’s self. This piece is informative and could change someone’s perspective/behavior for the better; it will be valid until the end of time. 



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