Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Swinish Envy

The green-eyed epigone has long known to the boon of his encouragement an easy way to imitate the reputed example of his masters: he darkens their names and thus interprets them in a light by which he might appear equal to them.

We seldom admire anything that we have not wished to be able to imitate; we feel no inability to do so without feeling our weakness; we never feel this without its humbling us, and nothing humbles us that we should not strive to abandon it: hence the zeal for worthiness by great souls working up towards the admired man, and the envy by petty ones, who by diminishment draw him down to themselves. [1]

In our own time, envy has attained the image of a virtue. He who makes of a common vice the image of a virtue gains the gratitude of the mass. In that lies power.
.....Little shows the grip of envy and the mania for levelling better than the relief and even glee with which the man of today greets the news that some admired man was guilty of some common vice or foible. Thus, when it was revealed — or rather, re-proclaimed for the purpose of flogging a book — that Franz Kafka had some lusty etchings in his collection, one could hear sighs of relief, and even exclamations of glee:

Finally the literary stylite has fallen from his pedestal . . . we may greet him as our equal — a swine like you and I. [2]

The mass has no higher praise for a man than that he belongs to it. A smear of praise is anointed to a man on account of his faults; he is proclaimed more human because of them — “one of us”. When we see the man of today greet with glee a revealed foible of a superior forebear, we glimpse his perverse need to be reassured in his inferiority.


[1] [“Wir bewundern selten etwas, das wir nicht wünschten nachmachen zu können, wir fühlen nicht, daß wir es nicht können, ohne unsre Schwäche zu fühlen; diese fühlen wir nie, ohne daß es uns demüthigte, und nichts demüthigt uns, was wir nicht abzuwerfen streben sollten: daher bei großen Seelen der Werteifer, bei kleinen der Neid, sich zu dem bewunderten Manne durch Anstrengung hinauf zu arbeiten, bei diesen, ihn durch Verkleinerung zu sich herabzuziehen.”] Friedrich. Schulz, “Zersteuete Gedanken”, nr.17., Deutsche Monatsschrift, 3.Bd., Dezember 1790, pp.383-4, digitalised by Universitätsbibliothek Bielefeld.

[2] [“Endlich ist der literarische Säulenheilige vom Sockel gestürzt. . . . wir dürfen ihn als unseresgleichen begrüßen - ein Schwein wie du und ich.”] Ulrich Weinzierl, Pornosammlung von Franz Kafka gefunden”, Die Welt, 6th August 2008.


Sky Captain said...

To people who seek to imitate, I say in all sincerity, "Get a life!"

Malcolm Pollack said...

On the other hand, it may be that a kind of hope is kindled by such revelations: the object of our admiration being thus revealed to be like us in ordinary ways establishes a bridgehead between us - and perhaps makes it possible for us to imagine, however stupidly or naively, that we might actually aspire to be like him in the ways that we yearn to be.

Magotty Man said...

Nay, it is our inner pelagian jumping for joy, because if he can't make it, then we can feel better about ourselves. At least I'm not as bad as that tax collector over there - you know, the one that features prominently on the Society pages, or gasp, the one who is running for office...