Big Meanie: Nietzsche’s Theory of Ressentiment

Posted: November 22, 2011 in Uncategorized, Writing
Tags: , ,

‘While the noble man lives in trust and openness with himself (gennaios‘of noble descent’ underlines the nuance ‘upright’ and probably also ‘naïve’), the man of ressentiment is neither upright nor naive nor honest and straightforward with himself. His soul squints; his spirit loves hiding places, secret paths and back doors, everything covert entices him as his world, hissecurity, his refreshment; he understands how to keep silent, how not to forget, how to wait, how to be provisionally self-deprecating and humble’.

Ressentiment (pronounced /rəsɑ̃tiˈmɑ̃/), in philosophy and psychology, is a particular form of resentment or hostility. It is the French word for “resentment” (fr. Latin intensive prefix ‘re’, and ‘sentir’ “to feel”). Ressentiment is a sense of hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one’s frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousyin the face of the “cause” generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one’s frustration. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.

‘Ressentiment is not to be considered interchangeable with the normal English word “resentment”, or even the French “ressentiment”. While the normal words both speak to a feeling of frustration directed at a perceived source, neither speaks to the special relationship between a sense of inferiority and the creation of morality’.

I am drawn to Nietzsche’s concept of ‘ressentiment’. I love how he has made a new meaning out of an existing word. The French word ‘ressentiment’ is taken by Nietzsche and twisted subtly, so it becomes edgier, harder, more meaningful.

Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse refers to the powerlessness and resentment the amorous subject can feel towards ‘the loved object’ – perceiving him or her to be the cause of the lover’s suffering.

I’ve felt my own ‘ressentiment’ myself. I can relate to both Nietzsche and Barthes’ versions of it. And when you take away the symbolic ’cause’ of your suffering, what are you left with? Not an absence of suffering but a different way of perceiving it.

I like the picture at the top because it is not clear who is the ‘big meanie’. Is it the girl standing up screaming, or the person by her side, perceiving the shouting. Because when you feel ‘victimised’ or full of ‘ressentiment’ you can actually be quite aggressive.

This old classic pop song, You Oughta Know by Alanis Morrissette is a great embodiment of the feeling of ressentiment:

‘It’s not fair to deny me of the cross I bear that you gave to me’

could have been written by Nietzsche or Barthes. I used to play the song all the time when I was getting over my first Big Love. I know it off by heart. Literally.

I like ‘ressentiment’ – I think it is an integral aspect of the human psyche. But it is worth keeping in check, so we don’t all become Big Meanies ourselves.

  1. Gs says:

    I think this idea of resentiment is very apt, in contemporary life. It extends even to the motives of feminism, and the reactions against feminist gains.

    Also, whether he likes it or not, Nietzsche’s use of ‘noble’ is a use which is not regardless of class. Personally, I can’t read and understand this without seeing a reference to nobility as class, rather than just nobleness of character.

    • Yes I think there is a reference to the ‘noble’ class. Sometimes I find Nietzsche a bit ‘metaphorical’ he may not mean everything literally.

      And the person who told me about the word ‘ressentiment’ did so in relation to feminism.

    • bat020 says:

      trouble is that character and class are pretty tightly bound together for Nietzsche. so I don’t think the distinction between the two senses of “noble” is one he would have recognised.

      you hit a similar problem with the literal v metaphorical question. usually we think of the former as closer to the truth than the latter. hence the phrase “the literal truth”.

      but Nietzsche takes the opposite stance. he famously declared that “truth is a mobile army of metaphors”. and his favoured metaphor for truth is: a woman.

      • I’m glad you confirmed my instincts there. I will deffo read some more now. I didn’t know he used ‘woman’ as a metaphor for ‘truth’ I will look out for that!

        • bat020 says:

          the truth-as-a-woman stuff appears in the preface to Beyond Good & Evil. in a similar vein, Life is personified as a woman in Thus Spake Zarathustra – see “The Second Dance Song” in book III. it’s a recurring motif, and an important counterpoint to the generally disparaging remarks about women that pepper Nietzsche’s work.

  2. john gibbs says:

    Whatever else might be said about Nietzsche, he may be the single most helpful resource when it comes to examining the biases that we inherit from our own cultural perspective. Clearly not a fan of democracy, egalitarianism or limp versions of civility, he he provides an inexhaustible basis for reflecting on what might otherwise escape notice.

  3. Jasper Gregory says:

    QRG If you have not read it you should really check out Wendy Brown’s 1995 essays in ‘States of injury: power and freedom in late modernity’
    Her discussion of Nietzsche, Feminism and Ressentiment is unparalleled.

  4. elissa says:

    Oh my, this sure brings back memories of some late night reading of Kierkegaard and his take on Ressentiment –

    That human egos create scapegoats to manage internal feelings of subordination / inferiority complexe is indeed the anthem of feminism and all similar ideologies and dogmas. It is also the foundation of political discourse and consumer marketing!

    Very huge, huge topic. Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence may have been invented strictly so one can keep on discussing such a huge topic -:)

  5. I’ve long had mixed feelings about Nietzsche; I’m not attracted to his irrationalism and anti-democratic sentiments, but quite like his celebration of individualism and hatred of groupthink. Out of his entire work, I think his analysis of ressentiment is most spot-on, and something that’s been far too ignored by contemporary political movements, which fall into that trap frequently.

    Not surprising that somebody would have brought up the idea of ressentiment in regards to feminism, considering how unfortunately widespread and unchecked it runs in that milieu. The entire philosophy of “radical feminism” is built on it!

    And thanks, Jasper, for the tip on the Wendy Brown essay. I’ll have a look at it.

    • Hi Iamcuriousblue – I haven’t read much Nietzsche. It was this ‘ressentiment’ thing that got me the most interested so far but I will read some of the stuff people have recommended now too!

  6. Jay Generally says:

    How have I not commented on this yet? Ugh! I blame the holidays.

    Love the post, QRG. I’m a big Nietzche fanboy. My current diatribe on master-slave relations on my own blog attests. 😀 Ressentiment’s rather the center of several of my points when I try to construct the submissive male as something of a poster boy for the strong scapegoating the weak (though I don’t credit the concept. Maybe I should since I’m lifting concepts wholesale from your blog anyway.)

    Although, at the same time, I don’t think ressentiment only falls top-down, like Nietzche implies. The Dominator is a Freudian placeholder for the cycles of revolution. He is made extra ‘evil’ to excuse the hero’s desire to take his place. That makes ressentiment an interclass and subclass desire too.

    I… hm. I can’t remember if I’m aligning myself more to Kierkegaard’s original use of the word or Nietzche’s expansion of the concept, tho’ and a wikipedia check isn’t jogging my memory. Maybe I oughta hit the books again. -_-; Thanks, as always for the brain fuel, QRG.

  7. redpesto says:

    Random Wendy Brown ‘ressentiment’ quote:

    ‘In this account, powerlessness is implicitly invested in the Truth while power inherently distorts. Truth is always on the side of the damned or excluded; hence Truth is always clean of power, but therefore always positioned to reproach power. On the other hand, according to [Nancy] Hartsock, ” the vision available to the rulers will be both partial and will reverse the real order of things.”‘ (page 46, original enmphasis)

    Another juicy snippet later.

  8. redpesto says:

    Here we go:

    Ressentiment in this context is a triple achievement: it produces an affect (rage, righteousness) that overwhelms the hurt; it produces a culprit responsible for the hurt; and it produces a site of revenge to displace the hurt (a place to inflict hurt as the sufferer has been hurt). Together these operations both ameliorate […] and externalize what is otherwise “unendurable”.’ (page 68)

    …and we’ve still yet to address the anti-pornography rhetoric of Catherine MacKinnon

  9. MRDA says:

    I like ‘ressentiment’ – I think it is an integral aspect of the human psyche. But it is worth keeping in check, so we don’t all become Big Meanies ourselves.

    Heh heh. “He who fights monsters….”

  10. HidingFromtheDinosaurs says:

    It’s the woman shouting. Actually having read what these things come from tends to take the mystery out of it.

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