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David Konstan


About Unforgiveness

Review of: Thomas Brudholm, Resentment's Virtue: Jean Améry and the Refusal to Forgive (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008), 235 pages



It is common, both in popular opinion and in scientific literature on the emotions, to characterize certain emotions as positive and others as negative.  Prominent among the negative emotions are anger, hatred, and resentment, the last of which is often treated as a pathology of anger, sullenly harbored in the soul, immune to the passage of time, and nurtured on fantasies of vengeance.  What virtue could such a brooding passion possess?  It is a torment to the person who is subject to it, and morally dubious as well: ought resentment not to yield to the genuine virtue of forgiveness and thereby put an end to the suffering of the injured party and the alienation of the offender, healing the wounds both to the psyche and to society as a whole, which can only be undermined by irremediable antagonisms?  In his thoughtful, elegant book Resentment's Virture: Jean Améry and the Refusal to Forgive, Thomas Brudholm makes a powerful case for the appropriateness of resentment and the refusal to forgive, at all events after what Brudholm calls "mass atrocity."  He exposes and challenges the enormous social pressure on victims of injustice and brutality to give over their bitterness, to make peace, and to move on, as the expression goes, both for their own sake and for that of society at large.  As Brudholm puts it, "This is a book about unforgiveness" (p. xiii).

The book is divided into two parts.  After an introductory chapter on the nature of resentment, the first, and shorter, part deals with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa, and the apparent triumph of forgiveness as a means of restoring civic harmony in a state marked by a form of racial oppression just short of outright slavery.  The second part is a close reading of an essay entitled "Ressentiments" by Jean Améry, originally published in German in 1966.[1]  Améry, whose actual name was Hans Maier (Améry is an anagram of this), was a survivor of the Holocaust and among the small number of Jews rescued from concentration camps (he was in Auschwitz and then in Bergen-Belsen, where he was liberated by the British army in 1945).  He wrote prolifically after the war, and committed suicide in 1978, at the age of sixty-six.  The essay on resentment was part of a series of broadcasts on German radio in 1964-65, addressed to the German people.  It is a beautiful, disturbing, and morally powerful meditation on anger, resentment, and revenge. Brudholm, in his patient and sensitive dialogue with the essay, does full justice to its subtleties and complexities.

Forgiveness is very much in vogue these days, and apologies and petitions for forgiveness are ubiquitous, whether in cases of individual wrongdoing, where an offender seeks absolution from the victim of his or her violence, or on the public stage, with presidents and popes acknowledging historic misdeeds and attempting to heal the wounds through such confessions.  What is more, forgiveness has come to play an important role in psychotherapy and in judicial procedures (promoted particularly under the title of "restorative justice"), and has received renewed attention among religious thinkers and philosophers.  There can be little doubt that the Holocaust and the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in South Africa were important catalysts of this movement.  But it is also the case that interpersonal forgiveness as such is a relatively recent phenomenon, at least in the rich sense of the term in which forgiveness involves two agents: a wrongdoer, who recognizes his or her error and experiences sincere remorse for the injury done, and the injured party, who acknowledges the change of heart in the offender and on this basis forswears vengeance.[2] By and large, in the early Christian church and down to the Enlightenment, sinners repented before God, not before their fellow human beings; the turn to expressing penitence before our peers and the need to prove that it is unfeigned may be regarded as a secularization of divine forgiveness, with the offended party assuming, rather alarmingly, the position of the deity.  Have we the right, then, like stern demigods, to withhold forgiveness, or to demand that another person humble himself before us and manifest contrition so as to earn our indulgence?  Ought we not rather to extend forgiveness even unilaterally, without insisting on apologies, and if such a one-sided and unconditional overcoming of resentment is not forgiveness in the strict sense, take that additional step of graciousness and transcend forgiveness itself?

But perhaps this ambition to forgive all is itself a mark of pride, of a desire to outdo God in compassion, since repentance is a condition for God's forgiveness.  In any case, a moral posture that demands that one reconcile with those who have done harm threatens to undermine a sense of justice and the entirely appropriate anger that heinous deeds arouse.  The yardstick of personal contentment is not the only measure of well-being, even if we recognize that harboring an endless resentment is devastating to the self.  Brudholm quotes an exchange between a TRC commissioner and a woman who was a victim of apartheid, in which the commissioner recommends therapy as a way resolving the woman's "problematic relationship with white people"; the woman answers that "they are the ones who should be getting treatment."  Brudholm comments: "Real resistance to forgiveness does not spring up solely because it is emotionally difficult to overcome anger and vindictiveness.  It could, for example, be grounded in completely sensible complaints about the lack of signs of remorse in the wrongdoer; resistance to state-sponsored forgiveness; refusals to forgiven unilaterally ... and the belief that the request for forgiveness came too late" (p. 33).  Even when one recognizes the costs of harboring resentment, one might still choose not to give it up "because of a sense of moral duty to those who were murdered" or as a protest against "cheap reconciliation or the absence of punishment" (p. 39).  One can compare the enduring hatred that Electra nourishes toward the murderers of her father in Sophocles' Electra, despite the urging of the chorus to get over it; she makes it clear that she has not yielded to endless grief or mourning, as the women of the chorus imagine, but is resentful that the murderers have not paid the penalty and are lording it over her.  Justice may require that one retain even painful memories.

Very well: but does such a perspective really take full account of the damage that enduring resentment causes?  The demand for justice sounds so intellectual and dispassionate, and may obscure the soul-searing emotion that inspires it.  Améry's reflections on his own inability to give over his rage are a necessary complement to Brudholm's analysis of the rhetoric of the TRC, because Améry faced his tormented condition with unblinking honesty and yet without heroics or elaborate self-justifications; he explored the reasons why not forgiving may be, in his circumstances, the most human thing of all.  As he puts it in one of the prefaces to Beyond Guilt and Atonement, where his essay on "Ressentiments" was published: "Emotions?  For all I care, yes.  Where is it decreed that enlightenment must be free of emotion?" (cited at p. 72).  He insists in "Ressentiments": "My personal task is to justify a psychic condition that has been condemned by moralists and psychologists alike" (cited at p. 85). The Nietzschean associations of the French term "ressentiment," which Améry retained in German, are deliberate; Améry identifies with the indignation of the powerless, and defends it as a legitimate response to the horror of Nazi persecution, however perverse it may seem not just to an outsider but to the victim himself-indeed, Améry describes ressentiment as "not only an unnatural but also a logically inconsistent condition" (cited at p. 104), for it demands that the past be undone, a self-evident impossibility.  But forgiveness too demands such a reshaping of the past, a cancelling of the offense even as one recognizes that the past cannot be changed.  This is not to say that Améry is simply intransigent; after all, his essay was broadcast to the German people, with whom he was prepared to enter into dialogue and attempt to move them to understand his sensibility. This is a demand for moral recognition, and with it an acknowledgment of the possibility of overcoming resentment.  Brudholm quotes Améry: "My ressentiments are there in order that the crime become a moral reality for the criminal" (p. 123).  But can this be achieved?  Soon, as Améry knew, the survivors themselves will have perished, and with them their ressentiment; until then, he concludes, "we request that those whose peace is disturbed by our grudge that they be patient" (cited at p. 157).

The inability to give over resentment is a contradictory state, as Brudholm shows, and must be respected as such.  Facile calls to forgive and forget do not recognize the depth of the moral wounds that survivors such as Améry bear.  Brudholm does not celebrate resentment; he tries rather to understand it, along with the conditions and actions that prevent people from surmounting it.  His word of caution concerning what he dubs "boosterism" in regard to forgiveness is well worth heeding.  If it is ultimately good and healthy to give over resentment, let it be achieved in full awareness of its legitimacy as an emotion (whether it is appropriate or not will depend on a correct evaluation of the circumstances and a suitably moderated response to them) and its close relation to human dignity and fairness.  To those who call uncritically for immediate forgiveness, Brudholm's sensitive reading of Jean Améry will serve as a reminder that forgiveness must be earned-and that sometimes this is impossible.



[1]    See Jean Améry, Jenseits von Schuld und Sühne: Bewältigungsversuche eines Überwältigten (München: Sczczesny, 1966), chap. 4.

[2]    See Charles Griswold, Forgiveness: A Philosophical Exploration (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007).