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From the archives

The March of the Cheezie

Our snacks as a history of ourselves

Model Behaviour

A Haida village as seen in a windy city

Beyond the City Limits

Diversity and rural Canada

Green Eyes

Does jealousy have a redeeming upside?

Suanne Kelman


Peter Toohey

Yale University Press

272 pages, hardcover

ISBN: 9780300189681

Some researchers feel compelled to study disreputable neighbourhoods or people. Peter Toohey, a professor of classics at the University of Calgary, is apparently attracted to disreputable emotions. He has already explored what the ancients called melancholy and we see as depression (Melancholy, Love and Time: Boundaries of the Self in Ancient Literature), before moving on to Boredom: A Lively History.

While Melancholy explored the evolution of self-consciousness in the ancient world, Boredom had a more ambitious aim: to rehabilitate boredom’s reputation by revealing its positive effects on our lives.

And now, in Jealousy, Toohey has turned his attention to this feeling in the same optimistic spirit. He asserts that it is “a potent means for the assertion of individual rights and the encouragement of cooperation and equitable treatment.”

Imagine the shelves of our libraries if humans did not experience jealousy: no Madame Bovary, no Anna Karenina, no Emma, no Othello.

Jeff Kulak

It would certainly be cheering to learn that jealousy can sometimes be good for us, given its pervasiveness in art and life. Imagine the shelves of our libraries and the walls of our great art galleries if humans did not experience jealousy: no Madame Bovary, no Anna Karenina, no Emma, no Othello, no Cain and Abel, no Trojan War. Popular music would be denuded of songs from “Frankie and Johnny” to “I Wonder Who’s Kissing Her Now” to Sting’s “Every Breath You Take.” Opera seasons would have to be cut by at least half—no Tosca, no La Bohème, no Carmen.

Even the Bible would lose more than 50 verses, including at least part of the second commandment (Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9), the one that concerns idols: “You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God.”

The book glories in the pervasiveness of jealousy in our culture, past and present. In the visual arts alone, Toohey leaps from Michelangelo to Vermeer to Edvard Munch, roping in 16th-century lithographs and 17th-century woodcuts and little-known modern painters along the way. (You might want to read this book with a computer at your side: the black-and-white reproductions do not always do full justice to the paintings. Moreover, it is sometimes difficult to see what Toohey is describing without colour.)

Nor does he neglect literature, science and history. There cannot be many academics capable of skipping from Ovid to Dante to Alain Robbe-Grillet to John Le Carré and Alice Sebold, then detouring into psychological experiments, real-life murderous love triangles, animal behaviour and Greek mythology. (Toohey has been quoted as saying that Jealousy is a “crossover” tome, adding that “academics say it’s too popular and people say it’s too academic.”) The ancient curses and spells alone would justify buying the book: “do not allow Karosa herself … to think of her [own] husband, her child, drink, food, but let her come melting for passion and love and intercourse, especially yearning for the intercourse of Apalos.”

Still, Jealousy is not just a learned and leisurely stroll through culture and history. Toohey begins, as he must, with the distinction between jealousy and envy. It is no easy task, and he defaults to a quotation from an earlier book called Jealousy by Peter van Sommers: “Envy concerns what you would like to have but don’t possess, whereas jealousy concerns what you have and do not wish to lose.” He notes that the characteristic shape of jealousy is a triangle, involving other people, whereas envy is dyadic, a straight line between you and a thing or a quality.

It is a roughly workable distinction—except that, in my experience, many of us secretly visualize some invisible, pseudo-parental authority bestowing or withholding the rewards of this world, which turns envy into a triangle, too. Moreover, in a species capable of investing rubber and footwear with erotic value, the lust for material goods can also carry a complicating aura of sexuality. After a fairly exhaustive discussion of language, including Latin roots and the current British slang term “well jel,” Toohey himself admits defeat to the extent of using the words “jealousy” and “envy” interchangeably in his text at times.

In other chapters, he examines jealousy in sexual relationships and families (I loved the story about Ingmar Bergman’s childhood plan to murder his sister); jealousy in animals and toddlers; differences between the male and female experiences of jealousy (established by MRI images as well as art); changing attitudes toward jealousy in history; anthropological considerations, notably Margaret Mead’s claims that among Samoans jealousy was rare and socially unacceptable; cures for jealousy through the ages, and much, much more.

The two threads that will attract the most attention are Toohey’s wide claims for the role of jealousy beyond the private sphere—in the workplace and as a spark for creativity, for instance—and, above all, his claims that the emotion can enhance our relationships and lives.

I find it hard to argue that jealousy is less important than Toohey imagines. The late novelist and television host H.S. Bhabra pronounced fairly often that the distinguishing qualities of writers are envy and constant fantasies of revenge. Toohey reinforces that idea with a quotation from a poem by the author, critic and poet Clive James, which runs in part:


The book of my enemy has been remaindered

And I am pleased.

In vast quantities it has been remaindered

Like a van-load of counterfeit that has been seized.


The poem concludes:


Soon now a book of mine could be remaindered also,

Though not to the monumental extent

In which the chastisement of remaindering has been meted out

To the book of my enemy …

But just supposing that such an event should hold

Some slight element of sadness, it will be offset

By the memory of this sweet moment.


I have quoted more of the poem than Toohey does here, because the second portion buttresses some of his scientific evidence. In an experiment called “the ultimatum game,” psychologists offered a sum of money to two people, to be divided as the first player saw fit. The researchers found that the second players usually refused an offer of an unfair and inadequate amount of money, even though that choice left them with nothing. That result replicates experiments with capuchin monkeys, who would hurl rewards of food at their keepers if other monkeys were consistently receiving greater rewards for the same activity. We are not the only species that cuts off its nose to spite its face. Toohey has to admit that jealousy’s effects are not always benign.

Still, I feel that he sometimes perversely underplays the viciously destructive role that jealousy can play in human lives. One real case that does not figure in this book is the murder of Herman Tarnower by his lover Jean Harris. The piece of evidence that pretty well clinched Harris’s conviction was a long letter she wrote to Tarnower, who was dead before he could receive it. It was an epistolary scream of rage, against him and against the much younger nurse who had replaced her in his sharply limited affections. The violence and coarseness of her language dispelled the ladylike image she had until then sustained during the trial—and indeed, her life. Jealousy, combined with a decade of the sedatives and amphetamines Tarnower had prescribed for her, had destroyed the competent, superior, controlled personality she had constructed with so much effort and pain.

It is more difficult for a woman to see positive elements in an emotion based on a sense of ownership, sparked by imagined observations and capable of culminating in extreme forms of persecution.

To be fair, Toohey does cite horrifying instances of murders and abuse. But, at the risk of playing the gender card, I think it is more difficult for a woman to see positive elements in an emotion so often based on a sense of ownership, sparked by imagined observations and capable of culminating in stalking and more extreme forms of persecution. And, for me, that somewhat dilutes Toohey’s defence of jealousy’s positive influence on productivity, relationships and even the social structure. To be fair, he acknowledges that jealousy rarely leads to more just and equal social systems.

That is my only serious reservation about the book. I did find myself wishing that he had included a couple of examples that seemed obvious to me, but that is really a form of praise: I wanted to see his take on works and events that leap to my mind when jealousy is the topic.

Thus, I cannot fault him for using the contemporary figure Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart, priestess of the Church of All Worlds, in his discussion of polyamory, the most extreme form of open marriage or possibly just sexual non-favouritism. But people in my age group rather expect to see an appearance in this context of the 1966 novel (and 1973 film) The Harrad Experiment, about a six-­person group marriage. It had a lot of influence in its day, both on couples who decided to follow its precepts (leading inevitably, in my own social circle, to the breakdown of marriages) and on hopeful young men who urged copies of it on practically every woman they knew.

Still, I knew about The Harrad Experiment, while Ms. Zell-Ravenheart came as news to me. I cannot imagine a reader who will not learn a great deal from this book. Toohey’s freewheeling cultural confidence has the happy effect of making the book feel like a conversation, because the reader (this reader, at least) inevitably finds additional or contradictory examples—and will object to some of his conclusions.

I suspect that he will encounter objections as well from art historians incensed by some of his interpretations of paintings. They may have a point. To choose the most obvious example, his reading of Vermeer’s “The Concert” as a study of jealousy involves a wafer-thin theoretical stretch. There are three figures in the painting: a music master, with his back to the viewer, a woman at the piano and a younger woman singing. It was far from obvious to me that the pianist was jealous of the singer and the beauty, sexual desirability and even pregnancy that Toohey detects in her. I felt strongly enough to look up some more orthodox criticism of the work, which established that whatever qualities the singer embodies, she is almost certainly not pregnant. Dutch painters of the time did not consider pregnant women a suitable subject for art. It is an unusual criticism of an academic writer, but I sometimes suspect Toohey of an excess of imagination.

Still, let me acknowledge that I learned a lot about painters and painting here. Art historians have another reason to resent Toohey’s intrusion into their territory: his appeal to many readers is going to be much greater than theirs. His breezy explications of the works of Hieronymus Bosch and Artemisia Gentileschi and Meredith Frampton (I had never even heard of Frampton, and his painting “Marguerite Kelsey” is a stunner) introduced me to works I would never have sought out for myself in academic tomes about brush technique and chiaroscuro.

Similarly, Toohey will lose points for it in the faculty common room, but I greatly enjoyed the way he swoops into popular culture, linking the uniquely dysfunctional Gucci family and the feuding sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland with the Bible’s Cain and Abel, the Mahabharata and Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers. He even describes Mann’s book as “huge and intimidating”—the only indication that he ever feels intimidated by a cultural work.

Moreover, Toohey has the great strength of recognizing that the present is not necessarily superior to the past, which instantly raises him above the level of popular psychology books. He knows that we do not have all the answers. His summary of treatments for jealousy implies that modern psychiatry is often no more successful than the magic charms and herbs of the past. In Toohey’s handling, our modern therapeutic approaches seem almost as futile as the tepid baths, the whey and nitre, the asses’ milk prescribed by the French psychiatric reformer Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol in 1832.

That is one of the reasons that the reader ends up simply liking Toohey. His voice is appealing and the persona he adopts is both humorous and modest. He uses irony in reminding us that he cannot rise above the issue of jealousy in university faculties (where it runs rampant): “Academics are jealous creatures. (I am, of course, a noble exception).”

The new-hatched fan naturally wonders which feeling or vice will next capture Toohey’s attention. Lust is already an over-plowed field. Gluttony could certainly use a PR makeover, but a historical survey would start to cloy long before the fall of the Roman Empire, never mind that modern monstrosity, the bacon sundae. So, vanity or pride, perhaps? Anger?

It may be impertinent, but I think Toohey should consider exploring grief. Few emotions today are so unpopular and enjoy so little respect. A Russian psychiatrist once told me that she had stopped practising because “North Americans believe unhappiness is a disease.” Certainly bereavement in Canada provokes a chorus of irritating Job’s comforters, exhorting mourners to move on, get therapy, shape up, pull up their socks. Victorian widows were condemned to shun all entertainment and wear black bombazine for years; contemporary widows are urged to start dating before the tombstone is in place. It is the perfect candidate for rehabilitation through Toohey’s erudition and wit.

Suanne Kelman is professor emerita of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University. She is the author of All in the Family: A Cultural History of Family Life (Viking, 1998).