Envy and Luck

The bliss of ignorance

“Jealousy we understood and thought natural—a desire to have what somebody else had; but envy was a strange, new feeling for us. And all the time we knew that Maureen Peal was not the Enemy and not worthy of such intense hatred. The thing to fear was the thing that made her beautiful and not us.”
Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye


This “thing” that made Maureen so beautiful in Morrison’s novel and quite unlike Pecola is the same thing which cuts two those born in South Tehran and others born in, say, Zurich: concurrent lives, yet unequivocally separate. On the one hand is a life assured to be more or less comfortable. On the other is a life that is increasingly precarious, a life marked by strenuous exertion, and yielding little similar to the relative bliss of that of contemporaries in Switzerland.


According to the Laurent Gaude novel The Sun of Scorta, a person’s sole task in life is to toil, and toil becomes precisely that which we bequeath to those who follow. This seems a rather atheistic or even pagan approach — at least inasmuch as Umberto Eco distinguishes between an atheist and a believer in his Cinq Questions de la Morale. According to Eco, the atheist is markedly less lucky than the believer, for he is without access to contrition and bound to live under the growing weight of his deeds. And if we were to extend our contemplation of the matter to include Paul Ricoeur’s definition of good and evil, we would conclude that evil is but the unavoidable by-product of good deeds. Evil is the collateral damage — to use a topical expression — of good deeds, like the killing of innocent civilians in times of war. The atheist is condemned to accumulate this collateral damage and live under its mounting weight.


In following such a train of thought, “belief ” becomes crucial if one is to escape a mounting sense of guilt. One believes that the needs and interests of his wife take precedence over those of the neighbor’s wife, that his children are the best, not the kids around the corner. And when defending his country against strangers, invaders and ambiguous “others” he is but practicing his belief of belonging, and in so doing is able to relieve himself of that inevitable collateral damage — of the evils that chaperone his belief. The damage incurred becomes tolerable, redeemable. Is it then unwarranted for us to say that in certain situations, an acquiescence towards evil marks our actions: Is this not the case of a citizen living in a nation led by imperialist interests, such as Israel or today’s America? Is this not the putative justification of all that cruelty unleashed against the Palestinians? Is this not precisely the practice of making the other responsible for the evil that must come with every good, of sending evil to the other side of ethnic, religious and geographic borders?


What makes a Palestinian or an Iranian look so feverishly upon a Swiss or Dutch citizen is not jealously, as Toni Morrison implies. Nor is it a sense of plenitude and self-righteousness, so typical of imperial subjects. Rather it is envy. It is an envy which paradoxically does not incite or energize but rather inspires lethargy and fatalism. Yet such envy makes the envious knowledgeable about the envied: envy requires knowing, and knowing well, while the envied basks in the bliss of ignorance toward the true nature of the collateral damage incurred. George W. Bush knows little of those who envy him, but they know much of him. Furthermore, knowledge begets envy and spurs it. And so the Iranian will grow increasingly envious and deeply vindictive as he learns of the ignorant bliss of others. Surely enough, luck lands only where it is not awaited. Its prerequisite is that we be as inadvertent as the Swiss and quite unlike an Iranian who is constantly aware of how distant luck is and how close envy can be.


Although ignorance is enviable, one is often caught in a cauldron of contradictory emotions as one witnesses the absolute ignorance of those who pompously espouse the independence of Iraq. To think that Al Zarqawi has the ability to defeat the United States is to question whether he understands the meaning of victory: there is no victory in sending Iraq to the era of Taliban-Afghanistan. Such victory would mean nothing but rendering Iraq unlivable. In such a “victory,” little room would be left for envy or jealousy. The Iraqis would become absolutely ignorant, divorced from any knowledge of the outside. In such a victory, Al Zarqawi and bin Laden promise an ignorance that exceeds the ignorance that motivated Bush to invade Iraq in the first place (his belief that the idyllic image of America is prevalent among Iraqis and is a cause for envy). Perhaps what Bush needed to gain complete victory was for the Iraqis to have simply known that America is America and that Iraq is Iraq. Or perhaps there is ignorance on both sides. Perhaps we should once again mention luck—our bad luck of living on the battle line between two warring factions moved solely by ignorance and with hearts too vacuous to harbor envy. Further, it would be best if we no longer wished for jealousy.


It is possible to envy Bush for his ignorance as we could do the same with Pamela Anderson for her luck. Envy has geographical, natural and ethnic ramifications too numerous to list. What is deeply painful about this whole matter are the many reasons that make us envious rather than envied, and surrounded all the while with ignorance on all sides. I could possibly envy Bush, but I cannot envy Osama bin Laden. Perhaps luck will come my way once again so that I may feel pity for the latter.