The destructiveness of Ressentiment Man
(The Salisbury Review, Spring 2003)
Should we despise actors? Or is it enough to treat them with measured contempt? It’s hard to see why their views on matters of public concern deserve more attention than the views of the average bus driver, yet Hollywood has been a factor in American politics for some time; while in March this year, in the electronic media, it was easier to find out who was winning the Oscars than who was winning the war in Afghanistan. The prominence given to celebrities and their ideas on numerous interview programmes are grotesque. In these circumstances, can one be blamed for feeling (adapting Diderot’s figure) that we will not be safe until the last actor has been strangled with the entrails of the last talk show host?
Dr Johnson’s views were notorious. He once dismissed the typical actor as “a fellow who claps a hump on his back, and a lump on his leg, and cries ‘I am Richard the Third’”. In the several rather anxious pages Joseph Wood Krutch gives to this matter in his biography, Johnson also speaks of them as “less than ballad-singers”, and as “no better than creatures set upon tables and joint-stools to make faces and produce laughter, like dancing dogs”; while he even said scornfully of his good friend David Garrick that he “exhibits himself for a shilling”—though one wonders if it would have made much difference if Garrick had charged more.
Mr Krutch felt this aspect of Johnson displayed a “vehement unreasonableness”, an irrational “prejudice” which must somehow be explained—as due to his envy of the successful and highly paid Garrick perhaps. Envy may have influenced him to some degree. But others might see his view of actors as all of a piece with the bluff stone-kicking realism of Johnson’s philosophy as a whole. From Plato on, the moral implications of those who glibly imitate life at its worst (pretending vices they appear to admire; pretending obligations they will never keep; pretending virtues they do not possess) have troubled thoughtful men and women. In Book Three of The Republic, the severe opinion of actors and drama to be found in Socrates’ dialogue with Adeimantus typifies this point of view. There we are warned that the Guardians
Must no more act a mean part than do a mean action or any other kind of wrong. For we soon reap the fruits of literature in life, and prolonged indulgence in any form of literature leaves its mark on the moral nature of man.
Johnson wholly concurred. The moralist who censured Shakespeare for not labelling his heroes and villains unequivocally good or bad, went on to say that this was a fault which the barbarity of the Elizabethan age “cannot extenuate; for it is always a writer’s duty to make the world better.” Jean-Jacques Rousseau took up the same theme in his Letter to M. d’Alembert on the Theatre, claiming that if theatrical entertainment were allowed in Geneva the city’s virtue would be destroyed. In Plato, Johnson, and Rousseau, all this is part of a continuous argument about truth, falsehood, and the social value of literature and the arts, in which the stage is seen as a decidedly twilight area, and actors as avatars of insincerity.
* * *
Seems, Madam? Nay, it is. I know not seems—in these words Hamlet stands aloof from the world of Claudius, Gertrude, and the ceremonious appearances of the Danish court, making a mournfully defiant claim for the inner self. Black clothes and windy suspirations and forced tears (says Hamlet) are all seemings “that a man might play: But I have that within which passeth show, These but the trappings and the suits of woe”.
The needs of some deeper and more intractable identity than “what a man might play” were brought to our attention thirty years ago by Lionel Trilling in Sincerity and Authenticity, a book which combines high seriousness and deep reading. “The sixteenth century”, Trilling writes on page thirteen, “was preoccupied to an extreme degree with dissimulation, feigning, and pretence”, none of them according to the social manners of the time necessarily bad things. In some circumstances they might be good. Trilling emphasised that a broad interest in the social and dramatic possibilities allowed by the claim “I am not what I am” applied to “a multitude of Shakespeare’s virtuous characters at some point in their careers”: Hamlet is not a madman, Rosalind is not a boy, Portia is not a doctor of law, Juliet is not a corpse, the Duke Vicentio is not a friar, Edgar is not Tom o’ Bedlam, etc. That they are all impersonations of some kind helps to add fresh twists to the tale:
But although innocent feigning has its own very great interest (he goes on), it is dissimulation in the service of evil that most commands the moral attention. The word ‘villain’ as used in drama carries no necessary meaning of dissembling . . . Yet the fact that in the lists of dramatis personae in the First Folio Iago alone is denominated ‘a villain’ suggests that, in his typical existence, a villain is a dissembler, his evil nature apparent to the audience but concealed from those with whom he treads the boards. (Trilling, 13-14)
This statement makes it all the more surprising that Trilling nowhere mentions Richard III; though perhaps he assumes it belongs with Titus Andronicus in a class of ghoulish early horrors that discriminating Shakespeare-lovers properly disdain. This is the sort of mistake literary people (rather than theatrical entrepreneurs) tend to make; yet it is odd even so since the dissembling central to Trilling’s argument is nowhere more self-consciously embodied than in Richard’s character:
Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry ‘Content!’ to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions. . .
I’ll play the orator as well as Nestor,
Deceive more slyly than Ulysses could,
And, like a Sinon, take another Troy.
I can add colours to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
* * *
Admittedly these lines are not from The Tragedy of King Richard III as the playwright wrote it. Any search for them as a coherent specimen of Shakespeare’s verse will be in vain. The lines are indeed spoken by Richard, but they come from a different speech in a different play—Henry VI, Part 3. Along with another revealing fragment from the same play (“I have no brother; I am like no brother”) they were cleverly stitched into Richard of Gloucester’s great opening soliloquy in a recent Australian production of Richard III. Purists might object to having “Now is the winter of our discontent” textually molested, and there were doubtless cries that the ghost of Colley Cibber rides again; but the fact is that this highly professional cut-and-paste job produced an unsentimental self-analysis which Shakespeare himself, I dare say, would have warmly approved.
And he might have falteringly clapped much else—certainly the actor John Bell’s interpretation of the role of Richard was both original and satisfying—and it satisfied mainly because it was so attractively humorous and relaxed. No high-key diabolism. Few Prince of Darkness effects. Not even much shouting until the royal need for a horse produced some desperate bellowing at the end.
Instead we saw a shrewd soft-spoken charmer, with an unnerving laugh, whose power derived more from a hypnotic ability to tie his victims in mental knots than from any visible ropes or chains. He smiled, and murdered as he smiled. It was as if Bell had read and taken to heart Lamb’s warning against melodrama: “Shakespeare has not made Richard so black a monster as is supposed. Wherever he is monstrous, it was to conform to vulgar opinion. But he is generally a Man.” Interestingly, a parallel production of the play was on stage in England earlier this year, with Kenneth Branagh exhibiting similar qualities in his own interpretation.
A low keyed approach is exactly what was needed for the sinister wooing of Lady Anne over her dead father-in-law’s bleeding corpse; though when the time came for Clarence to be dispatched, and two sinister intruders entered his room, it was strange to find the Second Murderer’s thoughts about conscience omitted—especially in a production emphasising the play’s comic possibilities. Because what the Second Murderer says is a whole lot funnier than what Hamlet says on the same subject, and deserved inclusion for variety’s sake alone. Instead of moaning poetically on about enterprises of great pith and moment being sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, the Second Murderer’s view is that morality is a luxury plain men must do without. Conscience—
Makes a man a coward. A man cannot steal but it accuseth him. A man cannot swear but it checks him. A man cannot lie with his neighbour’s wife but it detects him. ‘Tis a blushing, shamefaced spirit, that mutinies in a man’s bosom. It fills a man full of obstacles. It made me once restore a purse of gold that by chance I found. It beggars any man that keeps it. It is turned out of towns and cities for a dangerous thing, and every man that means to live well endeavours to trust to himself and live without it.
Sydney would have liked that. But when a four hour play is cut to two hours and no interval something has to go, and anyway the most conspicuous problem really lay elsewhere. It was that the director had defined the style of the production as black comedy, a kind of medieval horror show, and the modern parallels we were asked to consider were drawn either from Edgar Allen Poe or from recent films: Nightmare on Elm Street and Halloween were inspirations mentioned in the program notes. Anna Volska’s worry, voiced at an eve-of-production discussion, on just how and how much to play Queen Elizabeth’s scenes for comedy was revealing. No doubt consistency is a bugaboo of little minds, on the stage and off. But too much inconsistency can be a mistake. When Ms Volska camped it up with a chalky grand guignol face and caricature expressions of shock-horror—a kind of wider-eyed Morticia from the Addams Family—predictably easy laughs were her reward.
But how then was she to handle the death of her two young sons after they had been murdered in the Tower? “Ah, my poor princes!” she exclaims, “Ah, my tender babes! My unblown flowers, new-appearing sweets! If yet your gentle souls fly in the air . . . Hover about me with your airy wings, And hear your mother’s lamentation.” Lines like these cannot possibly be delivered in tones of mocking unseriousness. Grief has a purity of direct expression which belongs in a different universe from irony. In Hegelian terms, grief is the unmediated expression of the “honest soul”, while irony is the idiom par excellence of the “unhappy consciousness”.
* * *
Hegelian? What forced conjunction is this? And who ever said that Hegel had much to do with the stage? Well, Lionel Trilling did for one—but instead of excoriating actors and acting in the manner of Dr Johnson, and pointing to the semantic gulf between “acting” and “doing”, there seems to have been something about the kaleidoscopic and fractured identity of the compulsive impersonator which Hegel found strangely liberating.
From one point of view it could be seen as a new development in the History of Spirit. It was as if the histrionic inspired the free consciousness to break both earthly bonds and social obligations, establishing a new frontier for the autonomous will. Hegel had come across Diderot’s dialogue-as-novel, Rameau’s Nephew, and subsequently, in the pages of the Phenomenology of Spirit (I am following Trilling here), he “enshrined it as a work of exceptional significance, the paradigm of the modern cultural and spiritual situation.”
How so? Because the hero of Diderot’s novel—a human chameleon—is riddled with contradictions, and Hegel sees this contradictory mixture of creativity, destructiveness, and compulsive impersonation as illustrating the dilemmas of the “disintegrated consciousness” which supersedes the “honest soul” of the traditional social order. Honest souls are what you find in the Chaucerian world with its secure and unchanging identities—nun and priest, lord and villein, butcher and baker and candlestick-maker. Fixed and safely predictable social units in a fixed and predictable social world, where the identity encountered on Monday morning will still be recognisably there on Friday night. But under modern conditions men and women are often forced to play uncomfortable and alienating vocational roles—“seemings” as incompatible with their sense of inner identity as those Hamlet complained about.
Partly this is a result of the way modern society provides an ever-increasing variety of parts “a man might play”, and the widening range of avocational possibilities modern existence offers. Partly it is because vocation and character themselves have become less and less secure in time and place. Where Nietzsche could write censoriously a hundred years ago that no father hesitates to subject his child to “his own ideas and notions of worth”, we now live at a time when instead of one domestic source of advice and instruction there are at least a hundred noisy channels, broadcasting twenty-four hours a day, providing characters to emulate and scenarios to enact from the most saintly to the most unspeakable. Dad hardly gets a look in. And the warning “Parental Guidance Recommended” is smilingly fixed over the gate to purgatory by media commissars confident that the very notion of effective parental guidance is becoming a thing of the past.
As you may know, the semi-fictional hero of Rameau’s Nephew is based on the real-life nephew of the famous 18th-century composer, and his highest aspiration is to be recognised as a composer and musician. But he’s no genius, and his disappointments and frustrations culminate in a spiteful destructiveness, a determination to make the world suffer for the indignities he himself has had to endure. Trilling writes that the Nephew “is preoccupied, we might say obsessed, with society and with the desire for place and power in society. . . His talents “are by no means negligible”, but despite this he is “reduced to a bare subsistence as a parasite at the tables of the rich”. As a result he is filled with “a scornful nihilism which overwhelms every prudential consideration.” A practised flatterer with a hundred more or less false identities, the Nephew tells a hundred lies, provokes with a hundred paradoxes, and pursues a hundred unachievable goals—all in order to survive in French society under the ancien régime.
Only continuous and known identities can be relied on to be the same on Friday night as they were on Monday morning, and not turn out to be enemy aliases come disguisedly amongst us with malign intent. When Shakespeare uses the words ‘true’ or ‘false’ of a man they have of course little reference to either logic or epistemology. They are used in the antique sense of the phrases “to remain true” or “to prove false”—in other words, they refer to someone who exhibits a discontinuous identity which cannot be relied on, whose behavior cannot be predicted, and whose word cannot possibly be his bond. If a man is false this means that he is, like Antony Blunt, capable of betrayal. If true, it means he can be trusted. Seems, Madam? Nay, it is. Hamlet knew.
* * *
But we are not yet done with the “unhappy consciousness”. Another equally important feature of the Nephew in Diderot’s dialogue is his ruling animus. When Trilling’s tells us “he is obsessed with society and with the desire for place and power in society . . . tortured by envy of his famous uncle, and bitter at having to live in his shadow” we should recognise clearly enough what we have before us. The Nephew, in brief, is yet another aggrieved example of Ressentiment Man. And when we turn back to Shakespeare, and to Richard III, we see that it is the fatal destructiveness of Ressentiment Man that Richard embodies too.
Though in order to fully understand this point one has first to ignore all that distracting stuff about crowns and thrones. And also forget about the whole world of dukes and duchesses, of kings and queens. They are required by the historical narrative, of course, and the overarching scheme of a tetralogy which includes the three plays about Henry VI, but for the analysis of Richard’s character adopted here the status and titles of a hereditary aristocracy are merely adventitious.
Instead it is essential to see Richard of Gloucester and his will to power as one version of a psychological type found again and again in Shakespeare’s plays. This is a man obsessed by his undeservedly low status in the scheme of things, and by the denial of a position he feels is his by right, someone variously galled by ” the oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes” and often much else besides. Royal brothers banish brothers, excluding them both from lawful succession and from their patrimony, and this prepares the ground for plots involving revenge. Or in the world of commoners the grievance may be that someone-or-other “lacks advancement”. A soldier in the service of Othello applies confidently for a lieutenancy, only to see it bestowed on an unworthy substitute. “I know my price; I am worth no worse a place” cries a bitter Iago after being fobbed off with the lowly job of flag-bearer. Here and elsewhere ressentiment brings disastrous results.
In both Ancient Rome and Ancient Britain it’s the same story. Cassius resents the life of underlings. Caesar “doth bestride the narrow world like a Colossus, and we petty men walk under his huge legs, and peep about, to find ourselves dishonorable graves.” Death and revenge will come with the Ides of March. The special ressentiment of bastards is a common theme, and never more eloquently expressed than by Edmund in King Lear. Why, he asks, should he be disowned, dishonoured, and deprived “For that I am some twelve or fourteen moonshines lag of a brother? Why bastard? Wherefore base?” He decides that this ridiculous misfortune will not exclude him from the estates of his brother, the legitimate Edgar: “Well then, legitimate Edgar, I must have your land … ” And so on. In all these cases the resentment of those robbed of a birthright, especially when denied the proper recognition of personal qualities by social customs, conventions, or laws, is central to the plot.
But in Richard III there’s still more—there is anatomical fate. And Shakespeare places it plumb in the middle of Richard’s opening soliloquy. That way no-one can have the slightest doubt that his resentment is not merely that of a Plantangenet displaced by the opportunistic Woodville clan, it is the deep and incurable resentment of deformity. In the Age of Compassion this human motive is so undiscussable that it takes some directorial courage to give it the prominence Shakespeare unhesitatingly did. Anyway there it unblinkingly is (and there it was in the recent Sydney production)—a fixed innate exclusion beyond all external questions of merit, authority, or rank. It is also what makes the play’s leading character a classic exemplification of Ressentiment Man:
Of course the general and overt subject of the play is the political evil of the Wars of the Roses (“Civil dissension is a viperous worm, That gnaws the bowels of the commonwealth”), just as Richard’s overt motive is to foil the Woodville usurpation (“Had I not reason, think ye, To seek their ruin that usurped our right?”). But there can be little doubt that what Shakespeare found interesting for a study in character was the link between the psychological wound of disfigurement and a desire to be revenged on the world—a fearful determination to turn its conventions, its social expectations, and even its constitutional arrangements, upside down. Hatred as a direct response to cosmic misfortune appears in his famous opening soliloquy where he says that because he is deformed, unfinished, curtailed of fair proportion and deprived of love, “I am determined to prove a villain, And hate the idle pleasures of these days.”
Even more illuminating are two statements he makes in Henry VI Part 3. The first, from the same speech in which he boasts of his ability to smile, and murder while he smiles, reveals the characteristic drive of Ressentiment Man to crush and destroy his betters: unloved and disregarded, he says his only remaining joy is to “command, to check, to o’erbear such, as are of better person than myself.” The second speech is striking in its individualistic radicalism and hostility to the entire established order of things. This relates to the Hegelian ‘unhappy consciousness’ which opposes the world of the ‘honest soul’, and Shakespeare’s understanding of this state of mind is acute:
Then, since the heavens have shaped my body so,
Let hell make crooked my mind to answer it.
I had no father, I am like no father;
I have no brother, I am like no brother;
And this word, ‘love’, which greybeards call divine,
Be resident in men like one another
And not in me—I am myself alone.
* * *
“Let Hell make crooked my mind” is a terrible threat with terrible implications, but it remained for Nietzsche to fully explore the sickly ethical influence of people as twisted as this. This went far beyond mere personal vindictiveness and revenge. A crooked mind might sourly devise an entire code of crooked values to justify its own place in the scheme of things, inverting, transvaluing, replacing what is light and healthy and natural and strong with what is dark, unhealthy, and profoundly unnatural. After which this crooked code is subversively promoted by those who gain from the inversion until it finally prevails, newly defining virtue and vice in its own terms.
Nietzsche undoubtedly went too far in his repudiation of Judeo-Christian moral understandings: Freud, who saw the repression of our violent and aggressive drives as essential to the rise of civilization itself, is a better guide on these matters. But the insight Nietzsche offered into the inversion of values of our time by those who reject high standards, whether in art or life, is something we ignore at our peril. It explains much that is going on in the “culture wars” of our time.
Is there any connection between Ressentiment Man and the vocation of acting? Not at the deepest strategic level perhaps. The man of inchoate and incurable resentment does sometimes use deception to subvert the moral order; but he may just as well attack it frontally, and indeed the frontal assault is likely to be more emotionally satisfying. He may, like Iago, frame his action in terms of sustained impersonation (“I am not what I am”), or he may with grim and sullen candour devote his life openly to a political cause.
Nevertheless, as an instrument of his purposes, deception and false seeming is something Ressentiment Man resorts to tactically again and again. The false identity which enables Richard to smile, and murder while he smiles, is typical. The crocodile tears he is prepared to shed are the resort of those who find themselves unable to strike now and directly, but who are obliged to wait and pretend and emotionally mislead—until revenge’s dish can be eaten cold. As for the dissimulative histrionics of the nephew in Diderot’s dialogue, here is Diderot’s own comment (speaking as ‘moi’ within the narrative of his novel):
“I listened to him, and while he was acting … his soul divided between opposite motives, I hardly knew whether to burst with laughter or with indignation, I was in pain … I was overcome by so much cunning and baseness, by notions so exact and at the same time so false, by so complete a perversion of feeling, by such turpitude and such frankness, both equally uncommon.”
One might easily be at a loss to find anything to equal this combination—such perverted feeling, such theatrical cunning and moral baseness, such wanton falsehood, such candour and turpitude and mirth … Except of course in the scene where Richard III emotionally seduces the widow of the prince he has murdered, over the corpse of the king he has also stabbed to death, and when she has left the stage turns to us gleefully and crows: Was ever woman in this humour wooed? Was ever woman in this humour won? After which he goes gloating, chortling, and capering on his way.