by Theodore Dalrymple (September 2010)
As a man, of course, I do not gossip: but, now retired, I do sometimes discuss my erstwhile colleagues with others of my erstwhile colleagues, out of purely scientific interest.
Now it so happens that the other day I was having a scientific discussion of precisely this nature when the name of a mutual acquaintance came up. My interlocutor said that he did not like him, in fact he would not speak to him. I asked him why not.
‘A few years ago,’ he said, ‘I had a run-in with him.’
‘What about?’ I asked.
My interlocutor frowned. He thought for a while, and then admitted that he couldn’t any longer remember. But this did not seem to him a sufficient reason to resume relations. He had kept his resentment nice and warm, without rehearsing in his mind the reasons for it. It was like the grin of the Cheshire cat, that remained when the rest of the cat had disappeared.
One way and another, I have spent a lot of my life in the study of resentment, my own and that of others. I doubt whether there is any human being who has passed his life totally without feeling it; I know of many who, on the contrary, have spent their whole lives nourishing it.
I have been no personal exemplar in this matter, and perhaps am not still. For much of my early life I thought that an unhappy childhood, such as I had had, was a both license to fail and to excuse myself for all of my manifold types of failing and personal incompetence. And even now, my first thought when confronted with such a failing or incompetence is to blame my childhood, and therefore my parents. I have then to remind myself that something like 85 per cent of my biblical span is now over, and that it is not seemly (among other things) to go on referring to what happened, or did not happen, more than half a century ago – and always to do so in the spirit of self-exculpation, never in any other spirit.
Doctor Johnson uses a phrase that I think is important in the context: ‘He who would attend to the motions of his own mind…’ And to do this honestly, without special pleading, and without a conceptual apparatus that obscures the clarity of any possible conclusion, can tell one a great deal not only about oneself but – assuming that others are not completely different from oneself – a great deal about the human world.
I have found it worthwhile to examine the advantages and disadvantages that accrued to me by the exercise of my resentment, and why it should be necessary to guard against it, for like some epidemic disease to which one has never developed immunity, it is likely to recur at any time.
It is first necessary to state that, for practical purposes, reasons are not causes and causes are not reasons. I know that there is a large philosophical literature devoted to the partial identity or otherwise of reasons and causes, but I have neither the time, nor the ability, nor the patience (because of the character my parents left me with) to review it. Besides, for my purposes the conclusion doesn’t really matter.
When I review my failings and incompetence, of a kind that I am too ashamed or embarrassed to admit in public, but which life itself often forced me to do, I explain them by reference to my childhood – parental neglect, for example. As an initial explanation, this was indeed correct: a small child cannot be expected by himself to know what he should learn and what he should suppress in himself.
But it is one of the joys as well as the sorrows of being a man, as against being, say, an amoeba, that one creates oneself. A shortcoming seen and understood can almost always be overcome, in part if not in whole, by conscious effort. It is no excuse for a man to be violent to a woman that he saw his father behaving thus, if he also knows that it is wrong for him to hit a woman (this, you will be no doubt relieved to hear, is not one of my failings).
Therefore, I could have learned many of the things that my parents did not teach me but should have taught me. I have had time enough, but alas not inclination or persistence enough. The initial fault was perhaps theirs, but the subsequent fault was undoubtedly mine.
Anyhow, I did waste many years, whole decades in fact, in resentment. No man is so much a determinist that he fails to place moral blame upon his parents; and such was I. It never really occurred to me, I can honestly say not for a second in all those years, that my poor late mother had experienced hardships in her life a thousand times harder to contend with than my own, and that therefore, if anyone were to be excused, it was she. Resentment is fundamentally egotistical.
But it does have its compensations of a kind. They are sour, but just like the taste in fruit, so the taste in compensations can run to the sour end of the sweet-and-sour spectrum.
The first thing to remark about resentment is that it never lets you down, because it is powerful in its capacity to stimulate the imagination (in a similarly sour way). For example, if someone points out to a resentful person reasons why he should not be resentful, he will immediately come up with reasons why he should be. I have observed that when someone says ‘Yes, but…’ there is little purpose in continuing by providing reasons, evidence or arguments as to why that person should change his mind about the thing in question. Deeply unimaginative as that person might be in all other circumstances, when it comes to preserving his original standpoint from attack by people who want to argue him out of it, his imagination is infinitely fertile. It acts instantaneously, at the speed light. ‘Yes, but…’ and its subsequent rationalisation emerges from the mouth of the resentful faster than a driver in Mexico City can apply himself to the horn when the traffic lights change from red.
So the sustainability, and therefore predictability, of resentment is established. When you are resentful, change does not frighten you because there will be none. No need, either, to fear or face up to the unknown, because everything has been decided in advance. You do not risk, for example, finding out that your incapacity is not caused by what you think it was, but rather by – your incapacity. So resentment allows you to dream on about all you would have achieved if things had been different (better, of course, for no one dreams of how little they would have achieved had things been worse).
But the real reward of resentment is that is changes the polarities of success and failure, or at least of the worth of success and failure. The fact that I am a failure in a certain regard shows that I am not only more sensitive than a vulgar success in that same regard, but really I am morally superior to him. To become a success, he has not had to contend with all that I have had to contend with to become a failure. Really, I am better than he, if only the world would recognise it.
Of course, the world does not recognise it, in fact stubbornly refuses to take any notice of it. But this does not really matter because it is grounds for – yes, further resentment. You see, the dirty trick that has been done me that makes me like I am, that is to say a failure, is only part of a persistent and recurring pattern. My original resentment can become a meta-resentment when the world refuses to recognise the justice of my complaints.
I hope by now that it is clear that I know all this by acquaintance rather than by mere report. This means that many of the failures and failings that I once attributed to my parents were really attributable to my resentment. When I say this, of course, I do not want to make my resentment into an entity that exists independently of my own conscious behaviour, otherwise I shall start resenting my resentment, and looking for the causes of why I should be so resentful: my genes for example, or something else to resent.
Resentment, therefore, is a labyrinth, and if I may be excused a mixed classical metaphor, it is necessary to cut its Gordian knot. This can only be done by a person consciously deciding to do so, and realising that his resentment is not only useless (if pleasurable) but harmful. And this is true even if some of the things that he is resentful of or about have or had an objective existence, and are rightfully to be regarded as injustices.
Now it is my belief, in part deriving from attending to the motions of my own mind, that resentment is pre-eminently the emotion or mode of feeling and thought of our time. When the social historians of the future, if there are any, come to characterise our era they will not call it the age of the atomic bomb, or the financial derivative age, or even that of the 100 per cent mortgage, they will call it the Age of Resentment. For everyone is on the qui vive for the supposed causes of his victim status that are deep-seated, beyond not only his control but beyond repair, at least without a total revolution in human affairs.
Whether increasing resentment led to the conferral of hero status on victimhood, or whether it was the other way round, I am not sure; probably the relationship was what we whose fathers were communist call dialectical.
But another cause of resentment, I feel sure (though I cannot prove, again because of the deficiencies of character bequeathed me by my parents) is the spread of tertiary education, especially in such subjects as sociology, psychology, and anything to which the word ‘studies’ may be attached. Indeed, it seems to me that they might all usefully be joined in one great faculty, to be called the Faculty of Resentment Studies. It would undoubtedly be the largest faculty in any self-respecting university, and would easily pay for itself. Professors of Resentment could teach such subdivisions of their subject as the art of rationalisation, rhetorical exaggeration, preservation of a lack of perspective, suppression of a sense of irony or humour, and so on and so forth. Of course, entry requirements would be minimal. All you would have to do to gain entry is to denigrate your parents at a public examination, and there could hardly be found a child nowadays not able to do that.
Over the entrance to the faculty will be written not the motto of the Academy, ‘Know thyself,’ but rather ‘Talk about thyself,’ ‘Reveal nothing,’ ‘Remember that there is always someone better off than you’ and, above all, ‘Distinguish not between unfairness and injustice.’
What of the graduates of this institution? What happens to them afterwards? The best is for them to sink into outright unemployment; but if they find a job, it should be well below their capacities which, of course, it will be if they have studied diligently. They will then be safely launched on a career of joyful, or perhaps I should say satisfying, misery.
The other great thing about resentment is that there is a potentially infinite supply of it. Resentment is not a zero-sum game. Because A resents B does not mean that B cannot resent A, just as much or even more. Nor can objective conditions ever affect the supply. A billionaire can resent just as well as a pauper: and, of course, vice versa.
Attend to the motions of your own mind, and you will see that this is so.
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