I entitled this series “Chronicles of Love and Resentment” because, however much we want to promote the values of love, we are all creatures of resentment. It is impossible to react to the resentment of others without expressing a resentment of one’s own that will in turn be resented at the risk of a spiral of mimetic violence. Yet the indifferentiated chaos of mimetic crisis is as unrealizable on earth as the Kingdom of God. Our mutual resentments, when properly focused, lead not to the breakdown of the social order but, on the contrary, to its more efficient functioning.
A recent piece on Michael Jordan (“The Best: The Secret of Michael Jordan’s Greatness” by Jonathan Last in the January 25 National Standard) reproaches the media for concentrating on Jordan’s clean image rather than the quality that has made and kept him the greatest athlete of his time: his intense competitiveness. Jordan resents anyone whom he suspects of raising the least possibility of his not being considered the best. Last’s article cites an incident in which he played an outstanding game because he thought an opponent intended to show him up before his family, although the opponent probably had no idea Jordan’s family was attending the game. Yet Jordan’s resentfulness, although undoubtedly painful to his immediate adversaries, does not threaten the sport with mimetic crisis. On the contrary, by setting him above all other players, Jordan’s resentment has not only led to the improvement of his own game, not only encouraged other players to improve in emulation of him, but reduced resentment both in the NBA and in the society overall. Jordan’s superiority is such that he is no longer perceived as an equal competitor; from an internal mediator he becomes an external one, a basketball “god” who helps reconcile us to our lesser inferiorities to our neighbors. As Last’s article emphasizes, the immense value to sport and to world culture that derives from Jordan’s objective excellence is less the product of an extraordinary physical talent than of an immense resentment that, rather than seeking outlets in the sphere of consumption, channels its energies into improved performance. Few of us can dream of excelling in any field as Jordan has in his, but we can all learn from him to recycle our resentment into productive activity.
This is not the way Friedrich Nietzsche or his critic Max Scheler saw what the former was the first to describe with the French term ressentiment. For these philosophers, resentment was sterile hatred generated by another’s superiority. In this view, Michael Jordan should be the last person to feel resentment; we should all be resentful of him. Nietzsche’s great idea, scandalously insightful yet not really true, is that the Christian priest and his Jewish predecessor are archetypal men of resentment whose relation to the noble pagan warriors they eventually subjugated is analogous to the opposition, drawn by other thinkers of the same era, of the naive, generous Aryans to the weak but crafty Semites. The turning point of Western history occurs when the priests, by making the pagans feel ashamed of their own superiority, foist upon them humility and self-abasement. No explanation is provided of how this could have come about; the power of Nietzsche’s “genealogy” lies precisely in its dismissal of either historical or moral explanations in favor of a cynical cui bono (“Who profits?”) to which he opposes the romantic myth of the “transvaluation of all values” by the man who stands “beyond good and evil.” Nietzsche would never have developed this argument had he known the purposes to which it would be put both by the Nazis and in the postmodern era.
Nietzsche’s resentful Christian priests are physically weak, but they are diabolically clever. Max Scheler wanted to set the record straight: resentment is sterile and impotent and Christians are not resentful. Comparing Jesus to a medieval knight, Scheler scorns the masses whose resentment drives political movements. Yet Scheler fears the potential power of such movements. If l’homme du ressentiment is powerless, why are the philosophers who put him on the map so obsessed by his danger to the social order?
The ambivalence of their analyses reflects their failure to understand resentment as a form of deferral mediated by representation. Its first moment is to stand back from the scene of one’s exclusion and contemplate oneself as its victim. The man of resentment appears as not only impotent but perverse; rather than counter the other’s superiority he seems to wallow in his discomfiture. Hamlet, the archetypal man of resentment for the modern era, delights in the scene of his impotence as much as he suffers from it, both hating and identifying with his uncle (see Chronicles 141). Hamlet is an aristocrat, not a bourgeois practitioner of “primitive accumulation” deferring the gratification of his desires in the interest of a long-term goal–he is not, for example, engaged in a long-term plot to kill Claudius that might misfire if he acted more promptly. On the contrary, his attempts at strategy provoke his enemies to violence–the play that reveals Claudius’ guilt to Hamlet also reveals Hamlet’s suspicions to Claudius–whereas his own acts of violence are without exception precipitous and reactive.
It is in the absence of any rational connection between the deferral and the accomplishment of his goal that Hamlet exemplifies the modern man of resentment; he lives not for the goal but for the desire itself, which exists only insofar as it remains unrealized. But this is exactly the point: resentment provides a model of deferral that can be made to be productive despite itself. The conditions of market society that grow up around it exploit its potential productivity independently of the subject’s willpower. The consumer is not simply incited to express his resentment against social reality–say by attending a punk rock concert–but persuaded to dispel the energy of this resentment in an indefinite series of compensatory purchases. Emma Bovary can once again serve as our example: fed up with her husband and disillusioned of her chances at leaving Yonville, she multiplies her purchases of clothes, knick-knacks, art materials… Is she “expressing” her resentment? Or is she learning to focus not on the Paris she cannot have but on the images of Paris she can create within her own life?
Is resentment a “good thing”? The example of Jordan allows us to answer this question in a more equitable fashion than Nietzsche or Scheler. Resentment is the negative moment of mimetic desire in which one sees one’s other-model-rival closer to the center of the scene than oneself. The scandal that fuels resentment is denial of our equidistance from the sacred center, as guaranteed by our originary equality in language. In its simplest form, resentment is a social “instinct” that protects us against unequal treatment, just as our biological instinct makes us pull our hand back from a fire. When someone tries to push ahead of us in line, our “instinctive” reaction is not to let him in. But since the origin of hierarchical society, this same mechanism can be adapted to more creative ends. Michael Jordan is not resentful of unequal treatment; his resentment is aroused by any hint of challenge to his superiority. We admire him not for this resentment itself, but for channeling its energy into his work with such ferocity that he has been able to maintain this superiority for over a decade on the basketball court, while acting as a decent human being outside it.
But Jordan’s “work” itself is not really productive. Only in consumer society do we have both the leisure and the need to admire athletes with whom, unlike the Greeks, we have no prospect or interest in competing. We do not encounter Jordan in the context of our own competitions, but in those whose significance we merely “consume.” Yet it is not enough to say that we are Bovarys, not Jordans. The meanings we construct as consumers are potential sources of enrichment for our productive lives. The chain of mediations is longer in some cases than in others, but it goes in the same direction.
Nietzsche might well have admired Jordan’s resentful pride as he admired that of Achilles, but he would not have called it resentment. My insistence on the term is not, however, an arbitrary matter of definition. The point is that there is no fundamental distinction between the resentment of Nietzsche’s priests or Scheler’s impotent failures on the one hand and that of Jordan and Achilles on the other, nor between either and that of the Hamlets and Bovarys in between. The political history of our nearly completed century is demonstration enough that fundamental human equality must be pushed back one more level than Nietzsche’s anti-Christian critique allowed it. Separating people into the heroic and the resentful, the authentic and the inauthentic, is a prelude to genocide.
Resentment is not something we can abolish. It is inherent in the human condition and just as indispensable to our functioning in society as our biological instincts are to our bodily existence. Our love for our fellows is not a state of effortless beatitude but a continual conquest and refocusing of resentment. We need not model our behavior on Michael Jordan’s intimidation of his opponents, but we can all emulate his readiness to be scandalized that others might see us as less than what we can make ourselves become.