“He covets whatever belongings he desires.”

Should we respond to this observation with “Well, duh…” or is something more going on than initially meets the eye?

“desire. 1. to long or hope for. 2. to express a wish for.… syn. wish. want. crave. covet.”

“covet: 1. to wish for enviously. 2. to desire (what belongs to another). syn. see ‘desire.'”

Ah, another example of the dictionary game of round-and-round.

This student was writing about our cemetery thief, a formerly ordinary young man who developed a love for funerary art when he was taken by his father to cemeteries to practice driving. He took pieces of broken statuary from discard heaps and repaired them at home; he later sought and obtained a cemetery caretaker’s job, and on his rounds he noticed other pieces that were damaged or deteriorating. Bypassing the middle step of the discard pile, he removed these pieces from their tombs himself, and took them straight home. Some he fixed and sold; others he fixed and kept. His downfall was rescuing, repairing, and then selling a large Tiffany window from a crumbling mausoleum. His purchaser was an antiquarian/fence who was already being watched for dealing in stolen art and antiques.

I asked students to define this man’s crime, if indeed they believed there had been a crime at all. Assessments ran from “grand theft by a hardened criminal” to “salvation by a hero of a work of art that otherwise would have been lost,” and everything in between. The essays were very interesting, but sometimes—especially among students who were trying to defend the thief—the sense got swept away by urgent but inarticulate passion (much like the emotions of the thief, come to think of it).

In this instance, I’m hopeful that my student was trying to say something beyond the pair of synonyms. “Covet” is a Ten Commandments word, and perhaps coveting is forbidden because it is an emotion that can tempt into theft, which is also forbidden. Perhaps she was drawing a line between merely desiring, or wanting, and coveting,  sinfully wanting, wanting that leads to taking. The two words may be listed as synonyms by Webster’s, but they do seem to express two different classes of longing. If we add “cupidity” to the noun forms “desire” and “covetousness,” we can make a progression from wistful to passionate to active: He feels desire for something; the desire becomes covetousness as he wonders why someone other than himself should have it; covetousness becomes cupidity and he reaches out his hand and takes the lovely object.

Of course she may not have been thinking of the nuances of desire; she may have thought that “covet” meant something other than “desire.” Or she may not have even realized she wrote, basically, a circular or self-defining sentence. The context of the statement gave me no help here, since rather than going on to elucidate her pronouncement by definition, explanation, or example, she moved on to another subtopic. As so often happens with student writing, she opened a door and then, instead of going through it, she moved on down the hall to twiddle another doorknob. And the professor can point this out in the current instance without being able to help the student recognize the next such occasion.

It seems, as the years go by, that students get involved in their writing more and more at the level of getting the sentences “right” or “engaging” and less and less at the level of the actual thought. The former engrosses them at the expense of the latter. But shouldn’t the excitement of following the twists and turns of an idea be the very impetus for seeking the best expression of the idea? Isn’t that one reason for all the near-synonyms in our language, to facilitate that kind of thinking?

What do you think: is engagement with thought a necessary driver of engagement with expression, or can they exist independently?


About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

One response to ““He covets whatever belongings he desires.”

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