Ressentiment & Counter-Ressentiment:
Nietzsche, Scheler, and the Reaction Against Equality
By Nicholas Birns, The New School
When I first studied philosophy and literary theory in the 1980's, philosophy and literary theory did not often take into account the current political situation.
Perhaps then the idea of a revived conservatism seemed merely part of the passing political show; now it has been in the air for over a quarter-century, and has
constituted an entire era of our history that necessarily prompts us to revise the way we think about the past. For me, Nietzsche provides a many-sided remedy to
these reactionary aspects of our own time--in his independence (his independence even of what seem to be his own hard-and-fast positions), his deep idiosyncratic
learning, and his literary verve. Nietzsche is the philosopher by far most popular among the nonacademic reader, and this is because thought is not just an avocation
for him; he is thinking in every gesture, every action. Nietzsche, and the use and abuse of the idea of ressentiment, thus struck me as the ideal vehicle to approach
this consideration of our own time and, to put it simply, where it has gone wrong.
Ressentiment & Counter-Ressentiment:
Scheler, and the Reaction Against Equality
By Nicholas Birns
One of the thorniest concepts in the Nietzschean lexicon
is ressentiment. In order to understand the strange
trajectory of that term in English-speaking culture, we need,
in an appropriately Nietzschean way, to go into the term’s
genealogy and the genealogy of Nietzsche’s canonicity in the
Anglophone world itself. Something we tend to forget in the
English-speaking world is that the first impact of Nietzsche
was felt, broadly speaking, on the Left. In England, there
was George Bernard Shaw. In America, the leading Left-Nietzscheans
were Jack London, whose anguished vacillation between Nietzschean
individualism and Marxist collectivism is recorded in his
vigorous and thoughtful novels, The Sea Wolf, and
Martin Eden; and H. L. Mencken, who saw Nietzsche
as a prod in his savage, satiric debunking of complacent American
truisms. The Nietzschean vogue of the 1910s was ended less
by the misappropriation of Nietzsche by the Nazis in the 1930s
than by the anti-German hysteria that erupted after the US
entered the First World War; even a thinker such as Nietzsche
who would have been hardly enthusiastic about Germany’s role
in the war was deemed suspect. Much of the relativism of the
1920s, though, bore a surreptitiously Nietzschean imprint–from
the permissiveness of the Jazz Age to the “revolt against
the village” (to use Carl Van Doren’s phrase) of Sherwood
Anderson and Sinclair Lewis. Literary figures such as, overtly,
Eugene O‘Neill, and, covertly, Ernest Hemingway (whose ‘code’
has a highly Nietzschean tinge to it) kept the Mencken-London
tradition alive long after it had vanished from the salons.
But up until about 1950 or so, Nietzsche was a blank space
in the American academy.
The novelist William Gass, for instance, in a recent review
of Curtis Cate’s Nietzsche biography in the August 2005 Harper’s,
states that he did not read Nietzsche when he went to college,
which would have been in the late 1940s. After the Second
World War, Nietzsche received an academic boost from his role
as a precursor of existentialism and by the serious translations
and studies undertaken by Walter Kaufmann and Francis Golffing.
This Nietzsche was less political than Mencken’s Nietzsche,
far more refined (whereas the Mencken/London Nietzsche was
vigorous and working-class, the Kaufmann-era Nietzsche was
more a cocktail-arty phenomenon), and had its center of gravity
pulled away from Thus Spake Zarathustra toward The
Birth of Tragedy.
This was the era when “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” became household
words, at least in the household of the American intellectual.
In a later generation, the use of Nietzsche became more sophisticated
and even more recondite, as Nietzsche’s demolishing of the
idols was trooped as deconstruction, and his genealogy was
taken up, in both letter and spirit, by Foucault.
Like many in my generation, I approached Nietzsche reading backward from de Man, Derrida, and Foucault. This mirrored the experience of the previous generation which read Nietzsche backward from Sartre and Camus. Everybody involved here, in both generations, saw themselves in participating in a critique of the American status quo that was fundamentally Leftist in approach. Meanwhile, Nietzsche became a respectable staple of American academia, flourishing in German, philosophy, and (remembering the preeminence of The Birth of Tragedy in the era of American academic expansion in the 1950s) Classics departments. As with most of US academia at the time, these professors certainly, for the most part, saw themselves on the Left. Although of course, American neo-Nazis no doubt misappropriated Nietzsche the same way as their originals had in Germany, this was not an interpretive strain native to American thought.
The point of summarizing all this well-known material is merely to show that Nietzsche in America (as opposed to say, ‘Hegel in America’ which was part of the philosophical establishment in the late nineteenth century, even if not the dominant strain) has always been a pursuit engaged in largely on the American left. But there is one important exception to this, and it lies not on the Nazi fringe, but on the democratic Right. This exception--and ‘exception’, in the Carl Schmittian sense, will indeed prove to be an important attribute of our explication of this situation--revolves around one term of Nietzsche’s: ressentiment. A search of the digital archives of Commentary magazine reveals 24 instances of ressentiment, surely unequaled by citations of eternal recurrence, Zarathustra, the transvaluation of values, the will to power, or amor fati. Why is the idea of ressentiment so prominent in the discourse of intellectuals who otherwise would see Nietzsche as half-madman, half-malevolent genius, but in no wise a moral guide?
Nietzsche introduces ressentiment in On The Genealogy
of Morals, when he is contrasting the (historically situated,
though not actually historical) replacement of the dichotomy
of ‘good and bad’ with that of ‘good and evil.’ In the Homeric
aristocracy and similar tribal oligarchies, Nietzsche says,
there were simply the well-born and the base, and only what
we would today call class distinctions, not moral ones between
good and its obverse. The bureaucratization of organized religion
in the Mediterranean world, Nietzsche says, had a leveling
effect. With its ideas of sin and guilt internalizing the
physical struggle for existence, the priestly class operated
as a kind of disciplinary intellectual cadre. “He has to defend
his herd, but against whom? Against the healthy people undoubtedly,
but also against their envy of the healthy. He has to be the
natural opponent and critic of all rough, stormy, unchecked,
hard, violent, predatory health and power. The priest is the
first form of the more refined animal which despises more
easily than it hates. He will not be spared having to conduct
wars with predatory animals, wars of cunning (of the ‘spirit’)
rather than of force, as is obvious” (GM, III, 15).
This substitution of despising for hatred, the replacement
of straightforward antagonism with insidious envy, is the
characteristic mode of what Nietzsche terms ressentiment.
Before we get to the history of the concept of ressentiment,
we should look at the word itself. Why, when we are discussing
a German philosopher in English, do we use a French word?
All ressentiment means in French is resentment.
If a French person had heard the word used, all they would
have understood is the garden-variety connotation of ‘resentment’
in English. It has no original idiomatic meaning in French.
Nietzsche was using ressentiment in a particular
manner that, once he used it, was bound to become a term of
art in later intellectual formulations; when Max Scheler wrote
about ressentiment in 1912. He was using it in this
designated, Nietzschean sense, as, to use Scheler’s own phrase
(39) a “terminus technicus.” But it is a mistake to think
that when Nietzsche originally used ressentiment
he was using a word insulated from ordinary German conversation.
Although German has words of its own roughly equivalent to
‘resentment’, such as groll (most literally translated
as ‘rancor,” see Scheler 39) and verstimmung, even
before Nietzsche’s time ressentiment was the word
most Germans would use when they wanted to express this concept.
Borrowed during the Enlightenment vogue for all things French
(and, as Walter Kaufmann points out, Nietzsche’s reaching
for the French word can be seen as an instance of his aspiration
to be a “Good European”, a deliberate repudiation of Hegel’s
nationalistic attempt to ‘Germanize’ the philosophical lexicon),
the word would not necessarily have been spoken by the man
in the street. But it was part of the general diction of the
educated, cultured German, who, when they said it, reached
for it with no strain, no affect.