Ressentiment accumulates in the soul as necessity forces one to dance to its tune. In The Tree of Life, it’s the especial function of the character of Mr. O’Brien to figure forth this ideologeme. It speaks through him in his Sunday drive through the neighborhood of the rich, eying enviously their enormous properties and dispensing advice to his kids on how to get ahead; it speaks through him in his petty tyrannical table manners. It also speaks through his backstory as a failed musician. Why this biographical detail? So as to make clearer the link between his resentment and the historical refusals of his desire that constitute the realm of necessity to which he is subject. The resentment the father continually directs towards his wife and children may follow from the blame he assigns them in thwarting him from his true vocation. Perhaps he thinks he could have continued on down the musical path were it not for the mouths he had to feed. This thought would have helped elide another: that he never had what it would have taken.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche famously located the origin of the spirit of resentment in an improper reaction to the empirical inalterability of the past, the “es war” or “it was.” Zarathustra warns that if you’re not careful, your impotence to modify the past can lead you into the madness of becoming what you are not and were never meant to be. (Nietzsche’s maxim to “become what you are” thus has its obverse: “don’t become what you are not.” A tough maxim to live by.) It is said that allegory’s quintessential theme is temptation. The whole Waco sequence can be read as Jack’s traversal of the temptation to a life distorted by ressentiment. Linking this to the psychoanalytic angle, one could say that Jack is led into temptation by an introjection of the paternal imago. In his desire to identify with his father, he must likewise discover what ressentiment will make of him.
The trick is to differentiate between the dyspeptic form of remembrance that characterizes ressentiment and the messianic form that Benjamin champions. One stops at the past’s empirical inalterability and can never have done with it, while the other pushes through to the transcendental potentialities it continues to hold. Even Nietzsche suspected, in one very brief passage of his favorite creation, that there was a way to will backward that would not deny but affirm existence.