Geoffrey Fox

Selected posts, 2003-2015

A visit from Envy


Envy dropped by this morning. I hadn’t seen him for a long time, and he was feeling neglected. “No way to treat a friend,” he said, all pouty.

“Hey! Don’t get upset,” I told him. “You have lots of friends. Why, just the other day I saw you huddled intimately with a couple of other writers I know. And you’re famous for hobnobbing with the famous!”

“This isn’t about them,” he protested. “It’s about you and me.”

He had come on a mission, of course. He wanted to remind me that, under his influence, I had signed up to deliver a paper at the Latin American Studies Association conference late next month.

“And you know why, don’t you? Because you’d really like to be a professor at some big university. But of course, those people, the real professors, get their way paid to conferences, and when they present papers it helps them advance their careers in academia. But here are you, outside of the ivied halls, doing all this work, and no one ever rewards you! It’s like I’ve always told you, life is so unfair!”

I just stared at him, taken aback.

“We used to be such good friends,” he went on. “And I’ve helped you so much! Where would you be without me?”

“Excuse me? What are you talking about?”

“Why, what would you ever have accomplished without me? I was the one who kept pointing out the accomplishments of other people. It gave you something to shoot for!”

Yes, he was right. He had done me service in the past. But at such great cost. We used to spend hours together, sobbing and lamenting the cruelty of the world. I felt I really needed him, because he was the only one who understood me and how unique was my suffering. But whenever I was with him, I felt awful.

“I used to go into a bookstore, and see all those books that somebody else had published, and feel wretched because they weren’t mine,” I recalled.

“And that made you try harder to write your own. Don’t tell me it didn’t.”

“You got me to imitate authors I don’t even respect, just because they made money and sold lots of books. Authors I didn’t want to be like, even if I could.”

“Well, imitation is a necessary stage in learning. And remember: I’m the one who introduced you to Glib.”

It was true. I had encountered Hyacinth Glib many times before, but it was my old pal Envy who got him to work for me.

“Glib is a lot like you,” I said. “He can be useful, but if I’m not careful, he’ll take over the whole project.”

“And what’s wrong with that? He writes very well.”

“If I leave it to him, readers say, ‘That was very clever. But what exactly does it mean?'”

“Ah, yes. But you told me you wanted to sound clever. That’s why I brought him to you, you’ll remember.”

“Glib is all right, as long as I’ve got Bear to keep him in line. He’s useful once a project is thoroughly thought out. The problem is really the same one I have with you, Envy. He wants to do the thinking for me.”

“You don’t trust my judgment.” He looked as though he were about to cry.

No, I don’t, I thought to myself. Not any more. And you know what else? I don’t really want to be a professor. I knew that years ago, when I got out of that racket. There are good people in it, but the system wears them down, grinds away the rough edges that make a thinker interesting.

“Thanks for the visit, old pal,” I said. “You’re right; you have done me service in the past. And I’m glad you dropped by, because you’ve suddenly made me realize why I don’t need to spend money to present a paper at an academic conference. I’ll find other, better ways to get my ideas out.”

He looked startled, and turned red in the face, but when I just smiled at him he simply grabbed his hat and stormed out the door. Look out. He’s in a bad mood. He may be visiting you soon.

[For more on Bear and Glib, see my Collaborators page. Envy cartoon from Beartoons )