Tree of Life: 11

Jameson characterizes Nietzsche’s conception of ressentiment as an “ideologeme,” an amphibious unit of class discourse that can take conceptual or narrative form.  Certainly, for Nietzsche, ressentiment at its origin is nothing other than the impotent antipathy of the oppressed classes toward their oppressors.  Here the key word is “impotent.”  For Nietzsche, potency basically means the ability to modify your environment to maximize the satisfaction of your desires.  Hence you’re impotent to the degree that you’re unable to actualize the best imaginable way for you to live.  And the best imaginable way for anyone to live involves not having to do anything out of external necessity, that is, out of a necessity originating in the environment.  It involves taking your virtues and running with them to their transcendental limits.  It involves making your logos serve the glorification of your physis.  If Nietzsche spoke Freudian, he’d say that the good life means acting freely according to the pleasure principle and the sorry life means having always to react according to the reality principle.  And the fate of the oppressed is precisely the latter.  Because they cannot actualize their desire, they are confined to feel it over and over again (re-sentiment).  For the subject of resentment, the pain of impotence is dulled by feeling (over and over again) the antipathy for the resented object.  Re-sentimenting is a form of self-medicating.

Nevertheless, history testifies that ressentiment can eventually give birth to deeds.  A deed born of ressentiment may be a perversion of an original nature but it is still a deed: for example, the transformation of Attic culture into Alexandrianism, of pagan antiquity into Judeo-Christian modernity, of feudal society into bourgeois society.  With respect to this latter social transformation, it appears that the victory of slave morality is complete, since in bourgeois society slave morality subtends the rift between the ruling classes and the ruled and interpellates both classes as subjects of a reality that neither can qualitatively modify and to which both must adapt.

In The Tree of Life, Malick certainly presents the ideologeme of ressentiment in narrative form, especially through the character of Mr. O’Brien.  Granted, it is a weak presentation compared to the treatment of the theme in Days of Heaven


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