A psychoanalysis of resentment as a social symptom

The topicality of resentment is, above all, clinical. That sad crush it appears frequently in our offices, fueled by accusations against someone or against the whole world. “I suffer: someone must be blamed for it”: this is how Nietzsche sums up the logic of the resentful and his attachment to harm. Resentment is an affective constellation that serves the characteristic conflicts of contemporary man, between the demands and imaginary configurations of individualism, and the defense mechanisms of the “I” at the service of narcissism. The logic of resentment favors the “individual” to the detriment of the subject, and contributes to sustaining in him a narcissistic integrity that is independent of the success of his undertakings. I advance the hypothesis that the imaginary version of the fault, in resentment, is interpreted as damage.

To resent means to attribute to the other the responsibility for what makes us suffer. Another to whom we delegated, at a previous moment, the power to decide for us, so that we could blame him for whatever fails. In this respect, the resentful person can be taken as the paradigm of the neurotic, with his unconscious servitude and his impossibility of involving himself as a subject of desire. But this is too general a definition to allow us to focus on our object.

Resentment is not a clinical structure, nor can it be strictly confused with a symptom, although it can be considered as a compromise between two psychic fields, that of narcissism and that of the Other. Resentment is not a concept of psychoanalysis; it is a common sense category that names the impossibility of forgetting or overcoming an injury. Impossibility or refusal? In the Portuguese language, the prefix “re” indicates the return of the hurt, the insistence on a complaint, the active conservation of an offense. The particle “re” is also present in other languages. Resentment, resentfulness, resentment, respectively in French, English and Spanish. It is a repetition actively maintained by the offended one. The resentful person is not someone incapable of forgetting or forgiving; he is one who does not want to forget, or who “wants not to forget”, not forgive, nor overcome the evil that victimized him.

Philosopher Max Scheler, who discusses Nietzsche's theories from a Christian perspective, considers the emotional state of the resentful, an introspective person occupied with accusing ruminations and revengeful fantasies, as “psychological self-poisoning”. It is a relatively stable psychological disposition which, through systematic repression, releases certain emotions and feelings, in themselves normal and inherent in the foundations of human nature, and tends to cause a more or less permanent deformation of both the sense of values how much of the power of judgment [1].

For Scheler, the affective constellation of resentment is composed of the sum of grudge, desire for revenge, anger, evil, jealousy, envy, malice. An evil conjunction, therefore, in which the desire for revenge plays a predominant role; the word resentment indicates that it is a reaction – but if this reaction had been put into action at the time of the grievance, even if it was an act of speech, the feeling of injury or grievance would have been appeased.

The concept of repression indicates that an impulse has been prevented from taking effect. What happens in resentment is that the offended person does not dare, or does not allow himself, to respond to the height of the offense received. The “psychological poisoning” referred to by the author is produced from the reorientation towards the “I” of the aggressive impulses prevented from being released, generating a passive disposition for the complaint and the accusation, as well as the impossibility of forgetting the past injury .

But let us observe that, in the case in question, this desire is absolutely not to be confused with a tendency to respond or to defend oneself, accompanied by anger, rage or indignation.[2].

Anger, rage, indignation, prevented from exerting itself in the direction of the object, are transformed into rage and indignation against oneself; bad conscience, as we shall see in Nietzsche, is the necessary counterpart of ressentiment. The guilt that the resentful person insists on attributing to the other, responsible for the injury, is the manifest face of the “unconscious feeling of guilt”[3] that “psychic poisoning” – the return of aggressive impulses to the ego – produces. The resentful person is a vindictive person who does not recognize himself as such..

There is a difference between the desire for revenge and the impulse to respond to an attack, be angry with it, or defend yourself. Revenge is a psychic need that only makes sense in cases where the victim was unable to react. At this point, Max Scheler uses a metaphor with Nietzschean resonances: the captured beast that bites the hunter is not trying to take revenge: it is trying to free itself from captivity. Revenge stems from the lack of immediate response to the offense. It is “a dish best eaten cold”, say the people; revenge must take place after a time during which the victim's counterattack is as if on hold, postponed but never renounced, fueled by anger, or the impossibility of forgetting a past anger.

But in resentment, the time for revenge never comes. Much less that of justice. The resentful person is as incapable of taking revenge as he was incapable of reacting immediately to the grievances and injustices suffered. Returning to the “evil” constellation enumerated above, none of those affects alone are sufficient to produce resentment. The resentment that leads to aggression, the indignation that is expressed in a torrent of accusations, the envy that mobilizes the envious person to conquer the coveted object, need not be perpetuated in the form of resentment. For it to take hold, the victim must not feel up to responding to the aggressor; who feels weak, or inferior to him. Or else, in the opposite way, want to show off a moral superiority. That is why Nietzsche considers it a quality of “slaves”. For Max Scheler, the terrain where it originates, his alone, makes resentment the characteristic of servants, of those who are commanded, of those who struggle in vain under the sting of authority.

One of the central conditions of resentment is that the subject establishes a relationship of child dependency with another, supposedly powerful, who would be responsible for protecting him, rewarding his efforts, recognizing his value. Resentment also expresses the subject's refusal to leave dependence: he prefers to be "protected" even if harmed, than free, but helpless. With that, I want to anticipate here that, in ressentiment, the Other is represented by figures who, in childhood, had effective power to protect, reward and punish the child. It is the imaginary face of the Other, to which demands for love and recognition are addressed, which determine that the resentful person is represented not as lacking, but as harmed.


Resentment as a social symptom

The political importance of the theme is perceived here; although I prioritize approaching resentment predominantly from the point of view of subjective arrangements and negotiations, which is the point of view of psychoanalysis, it is possible to ask whether resentment would not be the most likely effect produced in certain conditions of oppression in which what only remains to the subject “to struggle in vain under the sting of authority”. How to put into action the healthy impulse of immediate reaction to grievances, in cases of objective impotence of those who are faced with the coercive force of the oppressor? How to react to an injustice, even by means of arguments and protests, in cases where any reaction would cost the victim's life? Under a military dictatorship, under a state of exception, under regimes of terror, every reaction has to be forcibly postponed, even for it to have a chance of success. Under what circumstances does this forced postponement, this “tactical retreat”, work to organize forces and mature a project of legitimate resumption of power, and under what conditions can the postponement of reaction turn into resentment?

The state of exception, according to the philosopher Giorgio Agamben[5], imposes the suspension of all rights: only the State, sovereign, exercises power of life and death over all men. Human life that loses the conditions of citizenship is described by him as “bare life”, devoid of rights and guarantees. In cases where no human right, not even the right to life, is guaranteed in advance (this is where democratic states are responsible for the lives of prisoners in their custody), how can we detect the involvement of social agents in relation to their choices of fate? , individual or collective? In cases where the State disposes of citizens' lives, in conditions of absolute disrespect for human rights, does it make sense to think that resentment is a likely reaction from victims?

Reading Primo Levi's reports about the concentration camps makes the reader see that even in conditions of absolute oppression, some prisoners maintained a subjective position in relation to their executioners that did not predispose them to resentment. There are those who are capable of – forced by force to kiss their executioner's boots – not to live this act in a humiliating way. Shame, abjection, writes Levi[6], must side with the man who, having freedom of choice, wanted to force his fellow man to an abject act. Ultimately, some prisoners “choose” death as a means of preserving their humanity. Dying, or letting oneself be killed, is the extreme statement of insubordination under totalitarian regimes – under these conditions it would be frivolous to include certain cases of suicide under the rubric of melancholy.

But the proof that the organization of concentration camps under Nazism had as its objective to produce the dehumanization of prisoners is that the suicide rates in the stock were very low. Deprived of any subjective implication in relation to evil and abjection, reduced to the condition of a “thing”, absolute victims of the Other's will, men let themselves be passively slaughtered, without making use of the last resource that distinguishes the human from the animal: the ability to choose one's own death. “Is that a man?” Lévi asks the reader in the title of his best-known book.

Is another fate possible for anger that cannot be expressed? Is it possible to go through the condition of slavery without subjectively occupying the position of slave? I think so; at this point it is important to stress that resentment is not the necessary consequence of being defeated. It has more to do with voluntary surrender than with defeat. The postponed reaction that produces resentment is one that the person has prevented on his own. The “captured beast that bites the hunter” is fighting captivity. Prisoners of war were defeated in battle, due to the military superiority of the enemy.

When a revolt is quelled by military power, the rebels are forced to gather their forces and wait for more favorable conditions to return to the fight. This “delayed revenge” is not the same as the mental ruminations to which the resentful person surrenders, psychologically powerless to give another destination to his bitterness. But even in cases where defeat is imposed by force and reaction is objectively prevented, prolonged postponement of action may threaten to dampen the will to fight. In these cases, the active maintenance of the memory of the offense, which at first is necessary to feed the disposition of the rebels, can degenerate into a predisposition to resentment.

The social upheavals that put an end to totalitarian regimes cannot be thoughtlessly classified as vengeful acts, nor as “resentment” the slaughter of slaves and prisoners prevented by force from exercising their freedom. Resentment cannot be confused with silenced revolt or the forced resignation that occurs under totalitarian regimes or in highly stratified societies. “Bare life” does not produce resentment; it is human life devoid of humane conditions, limited to the reproduction of biological survival – as in slavery, concentration camps or in situations of extreme poverty. Life that elapses as a function of the mere satisfaction of needs, devoid of the conditions that enable men to create some form of the “new”, is not human, writes Hanna Arendt[7].

“Bare life” produces a serious kind of despondency and resignation, but this state does not configure resentment. The latter is the characteristic affect of the impasses generated in modern liberal democracies, which beckon to individuals with the promise of social equality that is not fulfilled, at least in the terms in which it was symbolically anticipated. Members of an inferior class or social segment only resent their condition if the proposal of equality was symbolically anticipated, so that the lack of it is perceived not as divine condemnation or as predestination - as in pre-modern societies – but as “privation”[8]. These are cases where equality is “officially recognized but not achieved in practice[9]” that produce resentment in politics. There needs to be a symbolic assumption of equality between the oppressor and the oppressed, between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the dispossessed, so that those who feel inferior feel resentment.

But another condition must be present here: it is also necessary that the equality of the democratic law be interpreted as a paternal gift of the powerful and not as a popular conquest. Resentment in politics is produced at the interface between democratic law – a symbolic anticipation of equal rights – and paternalistic domination practices, which predispose society to passively wait for this equality to be bequeathed to them as proof of the love and kindness of agents of the power. In Brazil, where these two conditions are frequently combined in a perverse way, social movements oscillate between active proposals for social transformations and reactive, resentful manifestations that express popular dissatisfaction, but do not lead to any effective result in the sense of improving devices of democracy.

I am not able to answer the question about the conditions under which a postponed rebellion produces resentment; political action, even if crossed by the field of forces of the unconscious, has its specificity in relation to psychoanalysis. If I list these questions, it is because they are associated with the theme of resentment and cannot fail to be at least formulated, in order to avoid a certain psychoanalytical reductionism in dealing with this theme so permeated by the field of politics.

*Maria Rita Kehl is a psychoanalyst, journalist and writer. Author, among other books, of Displacements of the feminine: the freudian woman in the passage to modernity (Boitempo).


[1] —Max Scheler, L'homme du ressentiment (1912). Paris: Gallimard, 1958. p.14: “une disposition psychologique, d'une certaine permanence, qui, par un refoulement systématique, libère certaines émotions et certains sentiments, de soi normaux et inhérents aux fondements de la nature humaine, et tend à provoquer une déformation plus ou moins permanent du sens des valeurs, comme aussi de la faculté du jugement (my translation).

[2] – Max Scheler, (cit), p. 15: Mais notons bien que, dans le cas qui nous occupe, ce désir ne se confond aucunement avec une tendence à la riposte ou à la défense, même accompagné de colère, de rage ou d'indignation. (my translation).

[3] – The expression is used by Freud in the me and the it (1923), to explain the relationship between the feeling of guilt and the practice of delinquent acts aimed at punishment, “as if the individual felt relief in being able to relate this unconscious feeling of guilt to a real and current act” (p. 2274). This theme had already been approached by him in the text “The delinquents for feelings of guilt”, from 1916. Later, in the me and the it, Freud reaffirms the unconscious nature of most guilt feelings due to their relationship with the unconscious part of the overcame, heir to the Oedipus complex: “the emergence of moral conscience is closely linked to the Oedipus complex, which remains unconscious”. (p. 2721)

[4] – M. Scheler, p. 19: Le terrain où il prend naissance, à lui seul, fait du ressentiment le propre des serviteurs, des commandés, de ceux qui se cabrent en vain sous l'aguillon de l'autorité.

[5] – Giorgio Agambem, Holy man. Belo Horizonte: UFMG, 2002. Translated by Henrique Burigo.

[6] – Cousin Levi, Is that a man? (1947). Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 1989.

[7] – See Hanna Arendt, The human condition (1958). Chicago: The University of Chicago, 1958.

[8] – The concept of deprivation will be further developed in chapter 1, “Resentiment in psychoanalysis”.

[9] – M. Scheler, p. 21.


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