In an article in the LA Review of Books, Sven Birker makes a distinction between “workaday envy” and “artistic envy”. The former is just the usual envying of another for his success/material goods etc. And since, he argues, it is ultimately rooted in a sort of despair over wanting to be the other person, if we have a solid enough grasp of ourselves, it’s easy enough to see its futility. Artistic envy, on the other hand, is a different beast:
Every so often it happens. I come upon the Coleridgean “right words in the right order.” They are so right that I cannot imagine them being improved upon, so right that I feel them singing through me. Not just for a phrase or a sentence, but for an extended period, maybe a whole work. The Great Gatsby, Joyce’s “The Dead,” pages of Melville, Woolf — at these moments, like when Salieri throws a glance at Mozart’s manuscript and we see his whole being change, all bets are off. Then, so long as I’m reading, so long as I feel the live presence of beauty, I want to have been its author. I want to have written the words, and therefore, syllogistically, to be the person who wrote them — damn the consumption, the debtor’s prison. I no longer worry that this would mean that I cease to be myself because, you see, I did write them! That is, they are the very words I would have written on this very subject, whatever it is, and I know this because of the pure hum of the resonance. This is what certifies their beauty, the idea that in them I see some purest self captured and immobilized. To become the person who wrote that prose, that poetry, would mean that I had, at long last, truly become myself. In the moment of the full encounter, of merging, beauty swallows all, and I feel that no one has ever spoken so clearly how things are or who one is. In the flow of so much rightness it is possible to think that identity is porous. How else could I feel something so purely, be so completely removed from my daily self? I am Nabokov, I am Bellow, I am Woolf, I am whoever wrote that perfect paragraph: William Maxwell, John Banville, James Agee. I am, at that moment, perfectly mapped to that other mind. And so complete is my absorption, my identification, that I have nothing left over that can register envy or covetousness.
Of course, what makes great artists great is less the originality behind their ideas and more how they are just better at articulating the thoughts and feelings that are universal to us. Hence the uncanny feeling of discovering yourself in a particular work. And to bring things back to Birker’s point, it can lead one to a certain feeling of deficiency: if I were more truly myself, I would have written that.
Beauty should always make us feel deficient and humbled; to help turn our souls towards greater things. But even these feelings of lack and desire come with their own peculiar temptations and red herrings.