Gonzalo Torné

On Resentment

"I might sooner imagine someone saying of himself that he is foolish or incompetent, in order to get something, or arouse pity, but resentful, never; a resentful human being never wants to let on that he is"

On Resentment
Foto: Annie Spratt| Unsplash

Resentment has very bad, exceedingly bad press. And so much so that nobody likes to be on good terms with this feeling; nobody admits willingly to belong to the ranks of the resentful. How few admit that resentment is among the things motivating them and even fewer want to look as if it were the engine driving their actions. One can admit to being jealous, greedy, randy or lazy, but how seldom he or she says, outright (or spurred on by the uncertain hour of confession): “Good evening; my name is Carlos (or Luisa or Manuel), and I am a resentful human being”.

I can quite understand that at this still incipient point of the article a reader might think: “Well, of course, how could it be any other way, isn´t resentment a debilitating energy, a sad passion, the express recognition of some sort of inferiority, of wanting to be in someone else’s place, of wanting to injure him in order to be there, of suffering in the meantime? Who would possibly introduce himself as someone who is resentful? I might sooner imagine someone saying of himself that he is foolish or incompetent, in order to get something, or arouse pity, but resentful, never; a resentful human being never wants to let on that he is.

Well, yes, all of this is reasonable and apt, but it does not take into account what resentment is in all its dimensions, an emotional state (or a crack in subjectivity) that also enjoys, I will not say advantages, but an efective force. For someone born in an underprivileged space, who has been reduced to less while having the qualities to aspire to more, to someone who has been left behind or conspired against, who has suffered an injustice derived from the social structure or the bad nature of someone in a position to abuse…In all of these cases resentment may be the mark that impotence has not wasted either the spirit or the sense of honour or desire of the injured to fight; in these cases resentment accumulates like a motive force; it becomes confused with the hope that the world can be a better place to forestall fresh injustices, a refusal to conform and to allow oneself to be consumed by abuse.

Understood this way,  resentment might remind us of a lever hovering in suspense, waiting to set something in motion, a force awaiting noble projects that would allow for reforms to be made in the world (light reforms, if you like) or for revenge to be executed. It will be objected that that all this seems rather untoward, but as a dike to hold back defeat or absolute prostration (that of the victim who consents to injustice as something inevitable so that he can hold steady) resentment has its merit, provided it can find a little valve through which to transform itself into something and not become a running sore.

That something may be political or artistic, collective or individual. Inasmuch as politics is not a vocational interest for me, although circumstances may leave me no choice, I will limit myself to private resentments, which seem to be capable of inspiring some major works of art. Resentment is a sterile force, agreed, but even the grittiest wind can sweep along seed full of potential. By itself, you  could say, resentment does not accomplish anything, but even when it is as unsubtle as a well-aimed kick it can kick the ball of talent very far. It can cloak very dark emotions, sticky with feeble passions, in the subtle attire of the imagination: characters, situations, intrigue…  It can prompt the outcropping of very accomplished and well-articulated descriptions of society. One example is worth a hundred: Balzac´s Human Comedy. The cycle is a prodigious artistic effort shooting off in hundreds of directions, but we can trace its first heartbeat: a startling settling of scores with the French bourgeoisie and, by extension, with the society that recognized Balzac’s talent and riddled him with debt.

One might say that, on transforming itself into an organised and accomplished artistic impulse, resentment stops being resentment. And that is true, but it does not lessen its value as an impulse. Don´t we owe the omelette to the egg even if in the process of making the omelette we destroy the shape of the egg? Let’s accept the existence, then, of a kind of resentment that transfers its negative energy to a work of art, a corrosive, implacable, lively and eminently lucid work of art, the polar opposite of complacency and acritical submission to power. A resentment that may or may not be good but that is, at least, inspired and productive.

Yet there is another kind of resentment that is easy to recognize for being just the opposite. It is a resentment without a body of work behind it, passive and incapable of generating anything. A resentment that is not so much a point of departure as an end-point in itself. It does not derive from a structural injustice or from a personal abuse but is, rather,  the slow secretion of inactivity and lack of resolve, of the inability to produce or contribute anything to the common space of creative or critical writing. This is a common problem among men and women writers, though writing is the most democratic occupation there is, where anyone with a piece of paper, a pen and a measure of patience, can, in some corner of the world,  exhibit their talent and their capacities and earn some esteem; if that were not the case his or her lot would be that of the chessplayer, playing a game where it is very hard to put the blame on the referee or on bad luck — no streak of bad luck goes on so long—, and it is no wonder that this kind of resentful human being should assume the guise of the non-writing writer, or the super-critical, hypercritical reader, the epitome of morality, the taliban of unexpressed purity.This is a resentment that cannot even find justification in the vague hope of one day actually executing something, because its condition for existence is precisely that of the artist without an oeuvre or with a body of work that is next to nothing. And this kind of resentment, impotent and empty, is indeed horrible, and one can only pity (and avoid) the person who suffers from it. 

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