Grateful for an afternoon off

by Yule Heibel on May 1, 2003

May the First, Labour Day the world over except in North America. I spent a leisurely afternoon nonetheless, catching up with an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in a long time. We talked about families, dogs, addiction, not necessarily in that order. Towards the end of my visit, I mentioned Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story, a book I had been dying to weave into yesterday’s blog, but hadn’t managed to. My friend had read that book, but hadn’t yet read her other book, Pack of Two: The Intricate Bond Between People and Dogs, which I had also wanted to mention yesterday when I wrote about the importance of people and our relation to various drug substances. On behalf of Caroline Knapp, I meant to say, “the importance of people and dogs,” so here it is today. Whatever your relationship to substance abuse, compulsive behaviour, and desire, you’ll learn deeply from her stories. (Posthumously, her Appetites: Why Women Want was recently published, it’s on my to-read list.) Because the concept of resentment, which had troubled me when I wrote about rankism, came up also, I looked around for a definition of Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment (resentment to the power of x) and found a great essay by Elizabeth Murray Morelli, Ressentiment and Rationality. She writes that “Ressentiment is a state of repressed feeling and desire which becomes generative of values.” While envy fuels resentment, the latter only turns into ressentiment “when one convinces oneself that the envied values, which are beyond one’s reach, are not really valuable after all.” Morelli’s point, however, is that the trajectory of this affect is essentially rational, for it can’t start without an initial sense of self-worth: “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 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.” A sense of self-worth, however, as Morelli demonstrates with Kant, is the mark of a rational person. A mess, one is tempted to say, “rooted in our relatedness with others,” but for which there is no self-medicating or virtual interface escape. At the behest of Philip Greenspun’s blog, I also bought a copy of this month’s Atlantic Monthly, but have so far only read the article about Hitler’s library. I wish the author, Timothy Ryback, could come to some kind of conclusion about Hitler based on his library holdings, although I understand that it’s impossible, based on the material. Still, you can’t help speculating. Students of popular culture & literature have written about the Karl May phenomenon, and German infatuation with the Wild West is well known. Many late 19th- and early 20th-century Germans were in love with the idea of the Wild West and the North American Indian, and many based their visions on Karl May — who never travelled himself to the countries he used as the settings for his stories. Perhaps there was a bit of German collective ressentiment in the love of the Wild West & the “noble savage” idolatry, too: Germany arrived too late at the imperialist banqueting table on which far-flung colonies were served up for the delectation of European masters, and partaking vicariously of Wild West adventures while identifying with the aboriginal inhabitants was a way of circumnavigating reality (no German colonies, at least none after WWI) and repressing the desire for such while devaluing the value of the colony by taking the side of the Indians. There is a lot of ideology in Karl May, and it’s meaningful that Hitler read him avidly. Nietzsche’s concept of ressentiment is also apropos in thinking about Hitler’s surprising and apparently deep interest in spirituality and the life of Christ, for there, too, is the very rational strategy of devaluing the value of religion in order to usurp it for one’s own purposes. But then, this is familiar terrain: Hitler’s ideological maneuvres and German compliance in his project after all gave rise to one of the greatest studies of rationality, Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (which is, however, only available in such an intolerable English translation that readers are better off going straight to Horkheimer’s essay, Eclipse of Reason).

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