Career essayist Epstein wields a nimble pen in this consideration of the “most pervasive” mortal sin.
When invited to contribute a volume to the Oxford series on the seven deadly sins, Epstein (Fabulous Small Jews, p. 699, etc.) found that only four remained to choose from. Too thin for gluttony, too nervous for sloth, and too embarrassed to choose lust, he was left with envy. (This is the first in the series.) He makes the best of it, arguing that, in addition to being a common thread uniting all the other sins, envy is ubiquitous: “To err may be human; to envy is decidedly so.” And though experiencing envy may be “no fun at all,” under Epstein’s guidance, this sin is pretty entertaining to contemplate in all its fine permutations. It appears that there are distinctions to be drawn, for example, among jealousy, resentment, and envy. Schadenfreude gets its own chapter, as do “The Young, God Damn Them.” Epstein repeatedly notes envy’s tendency to crop up close to home, be it between colleagues, close friends, or professionals in the same field. After all, “It doesn’t really seem to make sense, does it, to envy the Queen of England?” Accordingly, it’s those cultures that promote equality as an ideal that do best in cultivating its ugly bedfellow; Epstein puts forth the Soviet Union, the US, and ancient Greece as examples of particularly envious cultures. While he almost always hits the mark, the author isn’t infallible. His comparison of male and female envy makes questionable generalizations about the personal nature of women’s feelings, versus the “zanier” nature of men’s, although it’s nonetheless almost shamefully entertaining in its gratuitous skewering of Paul Simon’s appearance.
Strangely comforting in its reassurance that the reader is not alone in being a petty SOB.