In the Shadows of Resentment

One thing needs to be understood about Friedrich Nietzsche once and for all: this doctor of all things resentment was, at bottom, one of the most resentful philosophers to ever have existed. Surely, he taught “love of fate,” the doctrine that no matter what happens to you, no matter what trauma or pain you undergo, you should embrace it, affirm it―indeed that you should will it again. And not just once! You should, because you shall whether you like it or not, will it for all eternity: this is the doctrine of his Eternal Return of the Same, the “terrible” thought which is meant to make all men tremble. To not bend under its weight, one must never resent one’s fate, for it is what has happened to you. Ethics in this case means: “become worthy of what happens to you” (Deleuze). Fine. But this jealous guarding of one’s own beloved fate takes shelter from its own insecurity by―at least sometimes, but the trend is unmistakeable―resenting the fate of others, above whom the philosopher tries to elevate himself at every turn: to become a “free spirit,” a “free man” over and against all those other lightweights, boneheads and jackasses who do not know that they are slaves; he even resents their fate for them, for their sake, as if one thought them pitiful and took pity on them through admonishment.

The love that Nietzsche preaches thus implies a necessary prerequisite, which is not only a prerequisite but also suffuses the doctrine and is inseparable from its results, namely: you shall despise. You shall despise whatever is “not you”, meaning whatever does not participate in your becoming, in your desire, in your love. You shall filter constantly what does not fit the profile of your eternal self. But, for Nietzsche, it is not enough to reject it quitely. On the contrary, he fills thousands of pages with a hate that is only given the shine of happiness because he lights them up with his own purported extraordinariness and ability to “overcome.” Of course, part of his ambition is to convince you of your own extraordinariness, of your own eternally-returning self-in-becoming, your own power to will who you uniquely are and not get lost in the trappings of what today we would call neo-liberal, democratic, consumer-based society. But to do so, he must disparage, in the name of “calling out.” All possibilities that are incompatible with becoming, all the other selves in himself, all those whose ways of life he deems inferior, he must reject scold and discredit―as if he had to burn them off, to weaken the temptation they presented for him, or even to forget the extent to which he himself was at one time complicit in them. One wonders if he did not simply resent, through a kind of unconscious obsession, the idea that anyone “ordinary” could have any kind of happiness, let alone eternal happiness, if they did not seek the kind of triumph he sought.

For Nietzsche, then, Bejahung must constantly pass through Verwerfung, his yes-saying through a violent explusion of what is not-him, what is not acceptable for his fragmented and chaotic body/image. It is an endless selection saying: I am not this, I am not that, I am only becoming who I am, and no one can compare to that; and I alone will not be dumb enough to define myself according to any idea or form of life already in circulation or corrupted by the common concourse of the “slaves.”

What is comic here, to put it crudely, is the fact that in the last instance Nietzsche is really not that much better than any other resentful dude who thinks he’s amazing and everyone else is crap. The one difference is that he filled reams upon reams of writing justifying resentment, rejection, condemnation, and every other strategy of belittling ‘others’, as a strategy for transformation (becoming, enlightenment, individuation, whatever you like, here it is not a question of splitting hairs conceptually). This is the assumption of a self-singularizing difference-from-the-crowd that galvanizes so many thinkers who follow after him―not just in thought and ethics, but also in style. They condemn what they assume is the other’s self-resentment, because obviously “they” are too lost in their petty notions, their concern with everyday concerns, swallowed up in “inauthenticity” [Uneigentlichkeit]. All they do is pick at their wounds and never give a moment’s thought to death; whereas I, says the philosopher, have reckoned with it, I have owned up to this most extreme possibility, which is why I stand out and why people should listen to me. For in reckoning with my own death, and talking about it, I draw others to do the same, and doing so inevitably makes them think about their own possibility for being and action in their limited time on this earth, and thus I participate in their development in a way that the average person never does―for with my words I present them with the terrible idea that everything they ever did will return eternally, exactly as they lived it.

Yes, perhaps this alone is what separates such philosophers from the ordinary arrogant man: they have put their trials on display and, in doing so, launched a call to all humanity to wake up from their slumber, to emerge from their wishy-washy attitude regarding how they spend their time, to challenge themselves each day with more daring or outlandish tasks, indeed, to carry human experience to the very limits of the possible. Nothing at all is wrong with that per se. But it must be possible to liberate such a discourse, such a “calling out,” from its own resentment of others, from all the caricatured images it must create of other people’s happiness in order to then shoot it down and command it to revolt and change. At least, it must be questioned if such talk is a necessary step or if it is not in the end more detrimental than helpful. For one suspects that, to an certain extent, this entire strategy is only meant to keep these “rare experiences” rare, to keep “becoming” for a reserve crowd of elitist, to shun those who aren’t “up to it” by burning them and testing them and―finally, as if this were a rite of initiation―provoking them to start resenting “average people” too.

My own experience has taught me that these sorts of writing, filled with resentment however inspiring they may try to be (and I know this mode well; see Evil Compassion, a long string of “captious injunctions”), are in the end little more than attempts to recover from one’s own self-resentment, or more simply, from one’s own feeling of being stuck in a situation that one resents and wants desperately to remedy. That is why such texts are “justified” in a different sense: as strategies to escape one’s own self-enclosed mindset, to gain some distance from the “crowd” and thus win back some of one’s own freedom for acting; and that also is the use that such writings can be put to by others who are lucky or unlucky enough to read them. It is only the pretension to say anything real or intelligent about actual other people that is the illusion and should be abandoned―and which the philosopher himself probably only barely believes, since in the end he is not addressing the caricature, but the actual other people―along with the idea that by being so disparaging one has elevated oneself into a select group of those who are “freer.” The only way resentment of this sort becomes useful is if it confesses that it itself is caught in a circle, that the threat it lodges at others is actually launched at no one in particular unless at the one who launches it, thus proving that no one has any cause for resentment whatsoever― unless it is, perhaps, as a purely practical and corrective measure, sometimes helpful to resent oneself.

―May 17, 2017

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