The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016
It’s the consequence of our own agreeableness, anger stuck in a loop. It’s the hatred we suppress when forbidden to give voice to the ways we are hurt or humiliated or frustrated, a wound caused by our own dependency. In time, our hidden anger becomes compacted, sinking into the darkest places of the soul, till it glimmers in little acts of spite and pique, goading, competing, punishing.
Resentment is one of the quietest, and most ugly, emotions we have.
The idea of resentment as a voiceless feeling is an old one. Its medieval forebear, rancor, was understood as bitterness, and unsatisfied VENGEFULNESS. It brought the wasting of inertia, poisonous cancers and foul smells (the Latin rancore gives us our modern word “rank”). In Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia—an enormous handbook for artists published in 1593, which described how over 1,250 passions and personality types should be represented—the rancorous type was pale and thin, his retained anger creating an “ulcer in the soul,” and fistulas on his skin bursting with infectious poisons.
The fear that resentment will leave traces on the body still haunts us. The psychosomatic school of medicine, which came to prominence in 1950s America, linked resentment to digestive problems and stomach ulcers. Its members argued that it was only through unleashing the buried fury in a safe therapeutic relationship that the disastrous effects of resentment could be remedied—and their ideas have lingered ever since.
Yet what makes resentment so very unappealing today isn’t just nervousness about its physical symptoms. Resentment has also come to seem bitter and meagre. An emotion that “seethes” and is “buried.” And is harbored by lurkers and keyhole listeners, who aren’t brave enough to show their true feelings, but take a perverse sort of pleasure in feeling hard done by, not wanting to tell others what the problem is lest it be resolved.
This vision of resentment as a pinched and petty emotion found its clearest expression in the work of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and in particular his 1887 book On the Genealogy of Morals. He developed a concept of resentment—he used the French term ressentiment—to explain all that was obstructed and petty about modern life. He argued that the origins of European civilization lay in a heroic, golden age that celebrated noble rage and swift vengefulness (he called this the “master morality”). At some point during the Roman Empire, Nietzsche thought, this “master morality” began to die out, and in its place a different kind of attitude took hold—the “slave morality.” Nietzsche argued that the slaves of the Roman Empire suffered under the contemptuous treatment of their masters, but were unable to express their indignation for fear of reprisal. Instead, they buried their urge for vengeance, occasionally unleashing it in small doses of PIQUE and spite.
According to Nietzsche, it was this attitude of hidden anger and denial that characterized ressentiment, and that Jewish, and later, Christian, religious teachings perpetuated with their vision of patient suffering on earth and redress in the hereafter (for Nietzsche the Bible was the ultimate expression of ressentiment). As a historical claim, it’s based on almost no evidence. But as a description of an emotion obsessed with compensation rather than action, it has been very influential. One well-known contemporary exponent is the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, who has provocatively argued that terrorism is motivated by the “perversion” of resentment. Rather than granting suicide bombers access to emotions that, on Nietzsche’s terms, might seem more “heroic”—an expression of rage, or an urge for others to share in a burden of pain, or even a desire for revenge—Žižek pins them back into the low-status, morally suspect response of resentment (see also: DISGRUNTLEMENT).
In the long term, resentment might become twisted and gnarled, but keeping anger buried temporarily can sometimes be the wisest option. In contrast to the immediate violence of anger, resentment is settled and deliberate. It waits, putting the brakes on an escalating situation. There are some cultures—those with long experience of oppression in which overt acts of retaliation could have catastrophic consequences—that recognize this long-held resentment and the strange effects it can produce as a distinctive part of their emotional life (see: HAN; also: LITOST). And those long and patient years of suffering and fantasizing about revenge, hoping for payback and being disappointed, etch scars into our emotional landscapes. This is why Nietzsche, though he disliked resentment intensely, believed it was only by developing it that “the human soul became deep.”
See also: ANGER.