I am expecting an award-winner to land on my doorstep at any moment. Anxious host that I am, I’ve spared no effort preparing for the arrival. I’ve spent the past few days getting up a little earlier and writing a little longer - I didn’t want my visitor to get here before I’d finished the initial draft of my screenplay, and I’ve done it. Just in the nick of time. Given that I will be the only one of us to know about or appreciate this achievement, it may seem an odd affectation, but by the time UPS rings my buzzer to present me with my copy of Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker prize-winning novel The Luminaries, I want to satisfy myself that I’m working hard enough, and in the right direction. The truth is that Ellie’s achievement makes me envious, in the best possible way.
Envy gets such a bad rap. As one of the seven deadly sins it is considered to be a ‘capital vice’, meaning that it is believed to act as a gateway to other moral crimes, in the same way that marijuana is accused of being first stop on the fast train to heroin, and Harrison Ford is accused of murdering his wife in The Fugitive.
In all these cases, I believe that a more sober revision of the facts could help mitigate fears.
Envy: A feeling of discontent and resentment aroused by and in conjunction with desire for the possessions or qualities of another.
To me, the sin in that description is the word ‘resentment’. If I was making a list of gateway sins, ‘resentment’ would be close to number one, and envy stripped of resentment would be a cardinal virtue. I’d even argue that most of civilisation’s greatest achievements have been based in that emotion. In my case, Catton’ s honour has caused me no resentment whatsoever, but it has spurred what I believe to be a healthy “discontent… aroused by and in conjunction with desire for the possessions or qualities of another.” I would like to work as hard as her, to achieve a similar reward in my own field.
While expressing and justifying my envy necessitates a little word-play, I think it's a better description of my feelings than other contenders. ‘Aspiration’ is ‘a strong desire for high achievement.’ Too simplistic. Surely everyone desires to achieve highly, just like everyone desires to be beautiful, skilled and slim, but in an intellectual and somewhat passive way. What envy does is provide a boot to the buttock. ‘Inspiration,’ defined as ‘a person, place, experience, etc., that makes someone want to do or create something’ is also close, but it feels a too happy-clappy to capture the sense of hunger caused by seeing someone else achieve something you hadn’t even realised you’d like for yourself. Inspiration may make you want to do something, but envy convinces you that you need to.
Beyond envy, on the far end of the spectrum of excellence, exists a deadening influence: that of wonder. I find this to be a creatively sterile emotion, because while it is important for us to witness extraordinary pieces of dexterity, the sense of wonder, which is comprised of awe and astonishment, does not offer us the feeling that we could in any way match the achievement. I often experience wonder when I watch musicians and sportsmen, who operate at sublime levels of ability in fields in which I can never hope to participate. As a playwright, Ellie’s novelistic achievement should probably be at such a remove from my medium as to inspire wonder in me, but there is something about the fact that she’s a compatriot, and of a similar age and background, that fools me into thinking that there is some possibility that I could hope to emulate her success in my own way. This may be bald and naive optimism, but it is also a powerful fuel that stimulates the desire to better oneself, and in doing so, affords the opportunity to surprise.
Eleanor Catton - thanks for making me envious.
PROFIT & DELIGHT
What I'm thinking about what I'm doing. This blog aspires to a more profound definition of 'profit' and the bog-standard sense of 'delight'.