1. RESSENTIMENT AND SHAME IN AMERICAN BEAUTY
The Oscar-winning film American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) illustrates the mimetic dynamic of ressentiment in identity formation. Alan Ball, who wrote the story, said the following about the main theme of the movie [in Chumo II, Peter N. (January 2000). “American Beauty: An Interview with Alan Ball”. Creative Screenwriting Magazine (Los Angeles: Creative Screenwriters Group) 7 (1): 26–35 (p.32)]:
I think I was writing about … how it’s becoming harder and harder to live an authentic life when we live in a world that seems to focus on appearance … For all the differences between now and the [1950s], in a lot of ways this is just as oppressively conformist a time … You see so many people who strive to live the unauthentic life and then they get there and they wonder why they’re not happy … I didn’t realize it when I sat down to write [American Beauty], but these ideas are important to me.
The character of “Colonel Frank Fitts, US Marine Corps” certainly is one poignant example of someone who is “keeping up appearances” at a very high price. His situation can be summarized as follows:
Throughout the film it becomes clear that Frank Fitts is secretly gay and that he is jealous of gay people who “came out of the closet.” He dares not reveal himself as a homosexual, though, for fear of being cast out by the social environment whose recognition he has mimetically learned to desire. Frank Fitts always presents himself as “Colonel Frank Fitts, US Marine Corps” and apparently this self-concept considers homosexuality as “something to be ashamed of.” He can’t stand being around openly gay people, like his two neighbors Jim and Jim, because they awaken his hidden homosexual desires. Frank Fitts resents and hates what he actually desires. When he thinks that his son Ricky is in a gay relationship with his neighbor Lester Burnham, he threatens to throw him out of the house and to banish him forever. Frank Fitts constantly justifies his acts of terror by making his victims responsible for the violence they have to endure. He constantly applies some sort of scapegoat mechanism, his victims “should be ashamed!” They should feel guilty/ashamed about something they actually shouldn’t feel guilty/ashamed about…
Frank Fitts is willing to do anything to protect his socially mediated (self-)image. His scapegoating of openly gay people helps him to be somewhat at peace with his own life, although he is a bitter man. Finally, he reveals himself as a homosexual to his neighbor Lester Burnham, whom he wrongfully considers gay. Frank tries to kiss Lester, but Lester turns him down. Afraid of what might happen, Frank ends up murdering Lester in order to prevent the loss of his so-called acceptable (self-)image. In other words, the sacrifice of Lester – in no ways responsible for what happened to Frank, hence a scapegoat – seems necessary for Frank to fulfill his desire for recognition. In still other words, eros – a mimetically ignited love for some image or social status – leads to thanatos (death) to put an end to some identity crisis.
BE SURE TO WATCH THE EXCERPTS FROM AMERICAN BEAUTY WITH ADDITIONAL NOTES TO SEE HOW THE DIFFERENT CHARACTERS DEAL WITH THE LOSS OF APPEARANCES! – CLICK TO WATCH:
2. THE MIMETIC DYNAMIC OF RESSENTIMENT
In the world of philosophy there are two German names that automatically pop up regarding the discussion on ressentiment, namely Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Max Scheler (1874-1928).
Friedrich Nietzsche discussed ressentiment primarily in his work Zur Genealogie der Moral (On the Genealogy of Morals/Morality – click here for pdf version of this book in English). In Nietzsche’s view, the Jewish-Christian foundation of morality grew out of the weaker men’s pride when these were confronted with a noble and aristocratic ruling group of stronger men. The weaker men, the slaves, reject the morals of the stronger men, the masters. The slave denies being envious of the master and develops a sense of superiority by claiming that the values the master lives by are not desirable at all. According to Nietzsche, Jewish-Christian slave morality triumphs over the master morality of Greco-Roman Antiquity when people start feeling guilty and ashamed about belonging to the group of masters. This is the ultimate revenge of the slaves for not being able to aspire to the same values as the masters. The slaves convince themselves and the masters that the slave morality (the inverse of the master morality) is the desirable model of life, and that the master morality is contemptible.
Max Scheler criticized Nietzsche on these issues in his work Ressentiment. According to Scheler, Nietzsche’s account of ressentiment is very convincing, but he is wrong to consider it as the main source of Judeo-Christian tradition.
This is not the place to discuss Scheler’s criticism of Nietzsche. Regarding a further reflection on the film American Beauty and other examples of ressentiment, it is useful to merely focus on the characterization of ressentiment by Nietzsche and Scheler. In an article entitled Ressentiment and Rationality for the online philosophical and anthropological magazine Paideia, Elizabeth Murray Morelli summarizes as follows:
Drawing on Nietzsche’s and Scheler’s accounts of ressentiment, we can sum up its internal structure. It is a cycle with the following constitutive elements: an original sense of self-worth; the apprehension of and desire for certain values; the frustration of one’s desire for those values; a sense of impotence to achieve those values: a sense of the unfairness or injustice of not being able to attain them; anger, resentment, hatred towards the bearer of those values, and often a desire to seek revenge; the devaluation of the originally sought values; repression of the desire for the devalued values and of negative affects such as hatred, envy, desire for revenge; a feeling of superiority over those who seek and possess the now devalued values; and a confirmed sense of self-worth. Ressentiment is a cycle inasmuch as it recurs. The person of ressentiment relives the desires and feelings which constitute the condition even as these affects are repressed. The cycle of ressentiment, significantly, begins and ends with a sense of self-worth.
Applied to the character Frank Fitts in the film American Beauty, ressentiment is directed at the life of homosexual couples. The cycle of ressentiment then can be specified as follows: Frank Fitts gains his sense of self-worth by the social recognition he gets from the US Marine Corps (hence he presents himself continuously as “Colonel Frank Fitts, US Marine Corps”); he realizes that he actually desires certain relationships, namely homosexual relationships; he gets frustrated because he cannot fulfill this desire out of fear to lose his social recognition; he develops a sense of injustice: it’s not fair that certain people would enjoy a life as homosexuals and he seeks revenge for this injustice; he devaluates the originally desired life as a homosexual; finally he despises homosexuals in general and is convinced that they should feel ashamed; thus Frank Fitts develops a feeling of superiority over those who possess a life as homosexual couple, and this confirms his sense of self-worth.
From the point of view of René Girard’s mimetic theory, two important observations can be made:
- Ressentiment, as the result of envy, relies on mimesis and mimetic desire.
- When a mimetically ignited desire cannot be fulfilled, the resentful person justifies mental or physical violence towards a model who possesses what the resentful person secretly desires – this is a form of scapegoating. Hence, according to Cuong Nguyen in an article for the online philosophical journal Prometheus (October 19, 2008):
Ressentiment is a reassignment of the pain that accompanies a sense of one’s own inferiority/failure onto an external scapegoat. The ego creates the illusion of an enemy, a cause that can be ‘blamed’ for one’s own inferiority/failure. Thus, one was thwarted not by a failure in oneself, but rather by an external ‘evil.’ This issuing of ‘blame’ leads one to desire revenge, or at least believe in the possibility of revenge.
3. REAL LIFE CASES OF RESSENTIMENT
- PSYCHOLOGY & MEDIA – ressentiment and homophobia, similar to the story of Frank Fitts in American Beauty:
Well-known evangelical pastor Ted Haggard became the center of a scandal in 2006 when a certain Mike Jones, a homosexual prostitute, claimed that he had had a three-year sexual relationship with Haggard. Later on, Haggard admitted to sexual contact with Jones and other men. Haggard had always preached against homosexuality and to this day considers it sinful and problematic. He is still married to his wife.
Pop singer Ricky Martin came out as a gay man back in 2010. However, the star has admitted he used to struggle with his sexuality. He even bullied gay men whilst growing up in Puerto Rico. Martin told the September/October 2013 edition of GQ Australia:
I look back now and realize I would bully people who I knew were gay. I had internalized homophobia. To realize that was confronting to me. I wanted to get away from that.
- HISTORY – ressentiment and racism in Nazi Germany:
It can be argued that Adolf Hitler developed an attitude of ressentiment towards the Jewish people and that he nourished this attitude to a national German scale. One can say that Hitler distanced himself from the qualities he would hate about himself by projecting those qualities on ‘the Jews’. He considered them to be ‘totally different’ from him and other German or, more broadly, ‘Aryan’ people. By hating and scapegoating the Jews for having so-called loathsome qualities, Hitler established a sense of self-worth. It was his way to get revenge for not being confirmed as the man he desired to be. It was his way to get even with the ones he secretly envied but learned to despise. Here’s what Hitler writes in Mein Kampf on the so-called radical difference between his ‘objects of study’ (‘the Jews’) and ‘the Germans’:
Yet I could no longer very well doubt that the objects of my study were not Germans of a special religion, but a people in themselves; for since I had begun to concern myself with this question and to take cognizance of the Jews, Vienna appeared to me in a different light than before. Wherever I went, I began to see Jews, and the more I saw, the more sharply they became distinguished in my eyes from the rest of humanity. Particularly the Inner City and the districts north of the Danube Canal swarmed with a people which even outwardly had lost all resemblance to Germans.
For once, Hitler considered himself to be a talented artist and painter, whose work was not recognized by the main artistic forces of his time. It is known that he was not accepted at the prestigious Vienna Academy of Fine Arts. In his autobiographical work Mein Kampf, it becomes clear that he identifies Jewish art as an inferior but nevertheless dominant cultural expression, which supposedly prevents ‘real artists and real art’ to come to the fore. This becomes just one source of his resentment towards the Jews. Here’s what Hitler writes in Mein Kampf on the influence of Jews on artistic life:
I now began to examine carefully the names of all the creators of unclean products in public artistic life. The result was less and less favorable for my previous attitude toward the Jews. Regardless how my sentiment might resist my reason was forced to draw its conclusions. The fact that nine tenths of all literary filth, artistic trash, and theatrical idiocy can be set to the account of a people, constituting hardly one hundredth of all the country’s inhabitants, could simply not be tanked away; it was the plain truth.
Allegedly, Hitler was not always too confident of his own health and appearance. He wanted to be filmed or photographed from certain angles in order to ‘look good.’ Again in Mein Kampf, he projects his doubts and fears and his sense of inferiority onto ‘the Jewish people’ in order to create a sense of superiority:
The cleanliness of this people, moral and otherwise, I must say, is a point in itself. By their very exterior you could tell that these were no lovers of water, and, to your distress, you often knew it with your eyes closed. Later I often grew sick to my stomach from the smell of these caftan-wearers. Added to this, there was their unclean dress and their generally unheroic appearance.
Apart from Hitler’s particular psychological biography, Germany and Europe in general were susceptible to anti-Judaism and anti-Jewish feelings. The 1929 stock market crash marked the beginning of a worldwide economic depression. The image of Jews as rich merchants and money-grubbers who could not be trusted is but one of many negative images concerning Jews with a long history in Europe. Rich and intellectually refined Jews were envied and resented, especially during the difficult economic times of the 1930s. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Jewish hoax claiming to describe a Jewish plan for world domination, completed the anti-Jewish European paranoia. Thus the Jews once again became Europe’s scapegoats. In Hitler’s universe, the sacrifice of the Jews was considered necessary to free the world from its crisis and to establish a new peace and order. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, first published in Russia in 1903, were used by the Nazis as part of their justification of the Holocaust. It would be interesting to explore the history of this document by reading The Plot: The Secret Story of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a masterpiece by Will Eisner, the ‘father’ of graphic novels.
- POLITICS, SOCIOLOGY & RELIGION: ressentiment and sexism (among others in fundamentalist religious groups)
Hans van Scharen, Belgian journalist, comes across a clear example of what Nietzsche and Scheler would describe as ressentiment in Pakistan. Writing about his experiences in Peshawar [capital of the area formerly known as North-West Frontier Province], van Scharen reports (taken from Knack magazine, November 29th, 2006, De comeback van de Taliban, pp.99-100, by Hans van Scharen; translation by E. Buys):
You can see the influence of fundamentalist Islamic parties in the streets of Peshawar. Even innocent commercials for tea are smirched by grey paint to cover the female face of a depicted couple. By June 2003, the Sharia was accepted as the highest law and is often interpreted strictly, although not (yet) as ruthless as the Taliban would have it. The Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (United Council of Action) proposed a bill to prohibit the depiction of women in advertising. Sami ul-Haq, leader of an important Madrassa, claims that this is done ‘merely out of respect.’ ‘If you depict women naked, you kill their honor and the honor of their families. That is totally unacceptable. Women are precious, like rare flowers, and you should treat them accordingly.’ Naked? Even tea commercials are already offensive, apparently. Our guide sneers, ‘Well, it’s them fundamentalist bearded men demanding burqas who secretly watch videos of lascivious female dancers, and those men are highly fascinated by what they see. Ul-Haq’s brother teaches here, at the Islamic University, and like his brother he has the reputation of being a womanizer.’