I recently dreamed that I was back in law school. I was seated at a table in a lecture hall. My books and class notes were on the table. I stepped away from the table for a while. When I returned, my books and notes were gone. I panicked. It was clear to me that someone had stolen my class materials. An exam was coming up and I needed these class materials to study for the exam. I woke up screaming.
Is it possible that the dream expressed my envy of other students?
The definition of envy used by Melanie Klein is the angry feeling that another person possesses and enjoys something else desirable, often accompanied by an impulse to take it away or spoil it. Contemporary writing also recognizes envy as a painful affliction. Klein thinks that envious impulses, oral and anal sadistic in nature, operate from the beginning of life, initially directed against the feeding breast and then against parental coitus. She sees envy as a manifestation of primary destructiveness, to some extent constitutionally based (no pun intended!), and worsened by adversity. The attack on the good object leads to confusion between good and bad, and hence difficulties with depressive position integration. Envy heightens persecution and guilt. Klein came to see gratitude as an expression of love and thus of the life instinct, and as the antithesis of envy.
In the dream, I had projected on to another the impulse to take away from me something of value. In reality, it was I who wanted to take away from another student (perhaps a more gifted student) what I felt I lacked.
I find Klein’s observation about gratitude being the antithesis of envy to be particularly meaningful. I knew a man who was incapable of expressing gratitude. It was as if he had to “spit in someone’s face” after the other did him a favor. In April 1980 I gave him $10,000 (almost $30,000 in 2016). Months later he ridiculed me harshly to my sister (“At least he swims.”). In about 1972 he asked me to help him with a homework assignment. I graciously helped him — and he thereupon reported to my sister, “He can’t teach.” In April 1969, weeks before his soon to be father-in-law gave him a gift of $1,000 ($6,500 in 2016) as a wedding gift the man berated his father-in-law (“He’s a jerk. He is such a jerk.”) because the older man had chastised him. One of the man’s favorite expressions was “He bites the hand that feeds him” — a projection of envy.
Klein would see the man’s inability to express gratitude as the other side of the coin of pathological envy.