Given my thesis that love is “the transcendence of resentment,” one might ask why both in the name of these Chronicles and in the last two of them love precedes resentment. No doubt in the first case one can allege the superior euphony of the word order, but a more serious justification must be found for the other.
Which is that one must begin with the end, because were we still at “the beginning,” we, that is, human beings, would not yet exist. Once more, this is a distinction that Girard unfortunately never made clear enough, but that, as a representative of his “elder brothers,” I have been able to sharpen—recalling the point I made in the previous Chronicle that the ability of Jewish thinkers to do without Christianity is dependent on its existence. It is love that makes religion, so that in the strictest sense, there is no “sacred resentment,” unless you consider the non-originary Satan as sacred.
This makes clear why religions have a “problem of evil”: if God is goodness itself, why is all resentment not transcended? Even to claim that resentment is the necessary predecessor of sacred love, of transcendent différance itself, inverts the Biblical genesis of the world by a perfect God, a fact only indirectly referenced by John’s “correction” of Genesis, where the Logos that he places “in the beginning” can be identified with the “light [that] shineth in darkness” that the “darkness comprehended not,” to paraphrase the King James version. That “darkness” must consequently have been there from “before,” as part of the originary chaos, the tohu wa bohu of Gen 1:2, and John’s precision about its rejection of the light is thus pretty close to making it a figure of “originary resentment,” except that, given that resentment is etymologically a form of deferred emotion, it can never be understood as truly originary. In the originary event, we can only speak of resentment, as opposed to the kind of frustration that produced a “paradoxical state” in Pavlov’s dogs, once it has already been transcended. In other terms, “chaos” is only chaos from the standpoint of a prior or posterior order.
Whence the usefulness of Darwin for unraveling the mystery of the originary paradox of transcendence, which is that of human origin. Evolution, by increasing (mimetic) intelligence beyond a certain point, makes prehuman social forms no longer possible. The confirmation of this thesis by primatologist Richard Wrangham in his The Goodness Paradox (Pantheon, 2019; see Chronicle 614), who, I daresay naively, interprets uniquely human proactive or premeditated violence as a result of our acquisition of language, is as close to empirical corroboration of the originary hypothesis as we are likely to get. Save that if Wrangham would avoid treating language as a gratuitous gift from heaven, he would be obliged to situate his murder scenes within a society already acquainted with la différance.
The point of originary resentment is that it is focused not on one’s fellows, however much they may have been in the pre-scenic stage the objects of aggression, but on the central object that is interdicted by its sacrality. The paradox of desire is that its object is too desirable to be possessed. That a lover may have this sentiment when alone with his beautiful beloved would be incomprehensible were it not derived from a much simpler scene where the central object is surrounded in “fearful symmetry” by rivals for its possession. Recalling that hierarchical animal societies do not divide up such objects, but award their total possession to each member in turn, tacitly assuming that those at the head of the list will leave something for (most of) the others, we must appreciate the unnaturalness of the “moral model,” the principle of equal division that to humans, all other things being equal, goes without saying.
Those on the periphery of the scene can be said to resent the sacred central object, but they gradually lose their fear of it as the pacific nature of the scene becomes patent, motivating the transition to the sparagmos which supplies alimentary reinforcement to the community. But the resentful tension between appetite and non-fulfillment remains a permanent feature of desire. To desire is, precisely, to defer appetitive possession, and whatever appears as the agent of this deferral may then be said to constitute an object of resentment. It is in this configuration that we can begin to understand resentment’s transcendence by love.
The difficulty of defining resentment should make us realize that any characteristically human emotion/relationship cannot be described by starting from its physiological manifestations. Resentment is a cultural phenomenon. Nor is it necessarily experienced as hostility or a desire for “comeuppance.” This is no doubt the way the word is used in normal parlance, and if we begin from the originary relationship with the central object, resentment is, on the one hand, a source of the aggression against this object—as described in Robertson Smith’s famous camel-sacrifice that has served Freud, Girard, and GA as the model for the originary sparagmos. But on the other, if indeed love is the transcendence of resentment, we should recall from Hegel’s Logik that “transcendence” or Aufhebung not merely annuls but also preserves (“lifts up”) what is transcended. It is this easily forgotten aspect that explains what we call esthetic pleasure, whether in an artistic fiction or the real-life experience of beauty.
This allows us to make more precise my definition of the esthetic experience as the oscillation of the attention of the recipient of an artwork between the esthetic sign and the imaginary construction it evokes in his mind (see “Originary Narrative,” Anthropoetics 3,2).
For example, the viewer of a painting sees the physical object as the representation of a figured world; but in order to continue to figure it, he must return his attention to the painting itself. Thus the most compelling paintings, “objective” or not, convey a sense of incompleteness “at first glance” that tempts us to “take another look.” The works of Escher do this in a naively mechanical way, but plastic art’s masterpieces incorporate a sense of anticipation in their narrative and descriptive details. And in the case of a temporally unfolding work of music or drama, we return dynamically from the incompleteness of our imaginary construct to the new matter that we trust will lead us to a final resolution of the work’s tensions.
This formulation can be made more concrete by returning to the originary experience of deferral, during which the object itself cannot be possessed and therefore arouses originary resentment, yet it is through its sacred différance that it provides the community with peace, and consequently makes it an object of love.
Originary love can be qualified as religious, being wholly dependent on the sacred interdiction of immediate satisfaction and therefore providing no “supplementary” esthetic pleasure to that of (peace-bringing) transcendence itself—the proof being that in the originary event, satisfaction can be realized only through actually devouring the object.
The object’s deferred status is precisely, in the phenomenological sense, its presence. Derrida’s critique of presence, as I have pointed out (see, e.g., Chronicle 408), is a critique of the sacred foundation of the human itself as being from the outset always already inhabited by inequality—an anticipation of social hierarchy that is, from an originary standpoint, inconceivable.
None of this, however, invalidates the reality of presence, which in the human/cultural sense is defined simply by the object’s deferral, and need not be associated with the supplemental vice attributed to it by Derrida as a spuriously immediate sign of authentic truth. I have often wondered how Derrida would have responded to the observation that the présence he describes is essentially inhabited by absence, Sartre’s néant, which opens the scenic space within which alone the object can present itself.
Once we add the “emotional” love/resentment dimension to our experience of art, it becomes clear that the aforementioned resentment/love oscillation, which existed at the origin independently of supplementary satisfaction, is in esthetic experience supplemented by what we call its “esthetic value,” the sensual pleasure it provides on the scene of representation independently of reality, as a fiction or object of the imagination. The difference between the spectator’s experience of the painting of a beautiful woman (or in watching a beautiful woman on the screen) and the mere presence of a sacred object that is frustratingly unavailable—the essential difference between the objects of erotic and alimentary desire that makes the latter the only kind conceivable as the source of the originary event—makes it the object of an esthetic mode of love, one not dependent on mediation by the sacred’s power over the community, but capable of being experienced by the isolated individual independently of any contextual mimetic influence on his desires. The resentment/love oscillation that maintains us in the presence of the artwork detaches itself from the “fearful symmetry” of the origin while retaining its emotional charge, just as the signs of language become desacralized in the interest of conveying human desires and information pertinent to them.
Girard’s designation of the Satanic as the domain of mimetic desire can be understood as expressing essentially the same intuition, if we recall that the Scheler quote that serves as the epigraph to Mensonge romantique (L’homme possède ou un Dieu, ou une idole) makes clear that good or bad, one always has a “mediator,” that is, the sacred is indispensable, and our relation to it is defined as the transcendence of resentment by love. But the love in idolatry is misplaced, incompatible with the originary root of the sacred experience. This is necessarily a matter of judgment, but in any social order there are criteria that guarantee such judgments, and in the West, at least in the era of the novels Girard studies, these criteria were defined by the Christian divine/human exemplarity of Jesus.
These observations suggest that Nietzsche’s seizing on what he called the “Jewish” emotion of le ressentiment as the primary characteristic of the modern “common man,” whatever its proto-Nazi flavor, is nonetheless a step toward grasping humanity’s originary essence. Even its attribution to the Jews or Hebrews is, as would be the ensuing Nazi horrors, a backhanded compliment to their firstness, which Christianity pushes to its paradoxical limit.
If we cleanse resentment of its associations with Scheler’s homme du ressentiment or Dostoevsky’s underground man, and go back before the birth of resentment-epistemology with the French Revolution, we arrive at a time when ressentiment was an expression of prideful indignation (Rome, l’unique objet de mon ressentiment, says Horace’s defeated rival’s beloved in Corneille’s Horace), the attitude of the nobleman challenging his offender to a duel. The nobleman’s pride is not a mere assertion of personal power, but of his place in a divinely guaranteed social order.
But such divine guarantees are not inherent in this order; they must be affirmed by the society. In the suffering of the modern man of resentment, endlessly replaying the “triangular” scene of failed rivalry so powerfully depicted by Dostoevsky and analyzed by Girard, the rival in his superiority usurps the center of the scene of representation as the big-man did at the origin of hierarchical society, but without creating a stable order: his centrality is experienced as both inevitable and arbitrary.
The prevalence of the epistemology of resentment in the modern world is the result of its constantly increasing demand for firstness that, in the digital era more than ever, empties the shared sacred of the moral model of its concrete content and fuels the demand for victimary alibis. “Meritocracy” is a praiseworthy concept, but in the terms of originary morality, it is a contradiction in terms: our very existence as a human community depends on the presumption of universal reciprocity. The increasingly clear evidence in the digital era that this cannot be the case—the crucial element (see, e.g., Chronicle 484) not being inequality of wealth and power, but the demonstration that we cannot preserve reciprocity in the use of signs, be they mathematical, legal, biological, or philosophical—is the source of the urge to explain these differences of ability by in principle correctable forms of ascriptive injustice.
These reflections confirm my conviction that generative anthropology must periodically return to the originary hypothesis to seek ever more fundamental, more “minimal” expressions of it, and only this once accomplished can it go forward into history to seek to unravel the web of human culture. Grasping the minimal components of the specifically human relation to the world is not, as it might first appear, a task immediately accessible to our clear and distinct Cartesian intuition.
Hopefully this process will go on indefinitely, or until what we call “GA” has mutated into something that requires another name. When I began forty years ago to think in these terms, I proposed in The Origin of Language what seemed to me a minimal expression of the hypothesis, which has permitted me and others to investigate various historical phenomena, most fruitfully in the domain of literature, my original field of study. As this Chronicle shows, I still find it profitable to rethink the fundamentals of the hypothesis. But having rewritten TOOL, I no longer have the time to rework the subsequent, more concrete analyses of The End of Culture, Originary Thinking, Signs of Paradox, The Scenic Imagination, or A New Way of Thinking—a task I happily leave to others.
I hope that these reflections will also stimulate new thinking in more practical domains, most urgently, in that of politics, where the absence of “new ideas” is nowhere better demonstrated than in the current presidential campaign. The leading figures are all septuagenarians, two of them Jewish, three from different boroughs of New York City. None, however, is from the Bronx, my homeland of resentment—and of love.