Overcoming ressentiment

I’ve been thinking a lot about ressentiment lately. It saturates the news, art, conversations, nearly everything. Or so my eyes tell me.


What is ressentiment? It is not as some (including me) an exact synonym of resentment, but a distinct flavor of resentment. I had been blurring them into synonymity, but the differences are important enough that I intend to start using the terms more precisely. According to Wikipedia,

Ressentiment is a sense of hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one’s frustration. The sense of weakness or inferiority and perhaps jealousy in the face of the “cause” generates a rejecting/justifying value system, or morality, which attacks or denies the perceived source of one’s frustration. This value system is then used as a means of justifying one’s own weaknesses by identifying the source of envy as objectively inferior, serving as a defense mechanism that prevents the resentful individual from addressing and overcoming their insecurities and flaws. The ego creates an enemy in order to insulate itself from culpability.

So my understanding is that ressentiment blames others not only for specific grievances but for one’s own existential state — how one is and how one habitually feels about life. I view it as both analogous and connected to Heidegger’s beautiful distinction between fear and angst. Fear has an object. Angst might seem to have an object, but in fact angst belongs to the subject. Remove the object of fear and the fear dissipates. Remove the object of angst and the angst must find another object. Resentments can be resolved by addressing the object of resentment. Ressentiment is insatiable.

The Dhammapada gets this right:

The hatred of those who harbor such ill feelings as, “He reviled me, assaulted me, vanquished me and robbed me,” is never appeased.

The hatred of those who do not harbor such ill feelings as, “He reviled me, assaulted me, vanquished me and robbed me,” is easily pacified.

Through hatred, hatreds are never appeased; through non-hatred are hatreds always appeased — and this is a law eternal.

Most people never realize that all of us here shall one day perish. But those who do realize that truth settle their quarrels peacefully. (I included this last stanza for the Heideggerians.)

Another problem: Ressentiment generates an aggressive ugliness that radiates and discolors everything and everyone around it. Sadly this ugliness is not confined to the eye of the beholder, but somehow reflects into the eyes of those beheld, which leads directly to the next point.

Ressentiment is counterproductive. The objects (the alleged causes) of ressentiment are only agitated and energized when approached with ressentiment. Resentment breeds resentment, and the infection spreads and intensifies. In combatting ressentiment it is necessary to cultivate lightness, cheer and buoyancy, and to resist succumbing to ressentiment’s natural darkness, dourness and deadweight. (Does this smell like Nietzsche to you? That is because it is Nietzsche. It is the cornerstone of his moral vision.)

All this should make it clear why I’ve recommitted to rooting out ressentiment in my own soul. Unfortunately, I have accumulated a great deal of it over the last decade. It will take some work to clean myself out. One key element of this effort has been to limit my exposure to other people’s ressentiment, especially those two antithetical ressentiment philosophies which have seemed into the mainstream from the fringes, and which have become the substance of popular politics. Staying away from social media has helped a lot.

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Shells and pearls

This is a series of rewritten, streamlined posts on the theme of shells and pearls, which I’m considering incorporating into my pamphlet. I’ll link to the originals. If you have time to compare, let me know if you think anything was lost in the chipping, sanding and polishing.


Announcing an exciting new vocabulary acquisition: evert. I have needed this word many times, but I’ve had to resort to flipping, reversing, inverting, turning things inside-out.

Evert – verb [ with obj. ] – Turn (a structure or organ) outward or inside out: (as adj. everted) : the characteristic facial appearance of full, often everted lips. DERIVATIVES:
eversible (adj.),  eversion (n.). ORIGIN mid 16th cent. (in the sense ‘upset, overthrow’): from Latin evertere, from e- (variant of ex-) ‘out’ + vertere ‘to turn.’

With this wonderful new word I can say things like this:

“An oyster coats the ocean with an inner-shell made of mother-of-pearl lined. Anything from the outside that gets inside is coated, too. A pearl is an everted oyster shell, and an everted pearl is a shell’s inner lining. Outside the shell is ocean, inside the pearl is ocean. Between inner-shell and outer-pearl is delicate oyster-flesh, which ceaselessly coats everything it is not with mother-of-pearl. It is as if this flesh cannot stand anything that does not have a smooth, continuous and lustrous surface. We could call the flesh’s Other — that which requires coating — father-of-pearl.”

Irridescent Irritants

Minds secrete knowing like mother-of-pearl, coating irritant reality with lustrous likeness.


You are absurd. You defy comprehension.

That is, you defy my way of understanding. I cannot continue to understand my world as I understand it and understand you.

That is, you do not fit inside my soul.

I am faced with the most fundamental moral choice: Do I break open my soul? or do I bury you in mother-of-pearl?


(A meditation on Levinas’s use of the term “exception” in Otherwise Than Being.)

We make category mistakes when attempting to understand metaphysics, conceiving what must be exceived.

Positive metaphysics are objectionable, in the most etymologically literal way, when they try to conceptualize what can only be exceptualized, to objectify that to which we are subject, to comprehend what comprehends — in order to achieve certainty about what is radically surprising.

In my own religious life, this category mistake is made tacitly at the practical and moral level, and then, consequentially, explicitly and consciously. Just as the retinas of our eyes see things upside-down, our mind’s eye sees things inside-out. We naturally confuse insidedness and outsidedness. By this view, human nature is less perverse than it is everse.


Imagine, with as much topological precision as you can muster, expulsion from Eden as belonging-at-home flipped inside-out.

Now focus on the sense of galut in the pit of your gut? What is it, exactly?


A garden is an everted fruit, and a fruit, an everted garden.

The nacre inner lining of a shell is an everted pearl, and a pearl, an everted nacre lining.

The exception is the everted conception, and the conception, the everted exception.

The earliest mention of pearls from this blog was posted on December 14, 2008.


Pearls are inside-out oyster shells. Or are oyster shells inside-out pearls?

The oyster coats its world with layers of iridescent calcium. With the same substance it protects itself from the dangers concaving in from the outside and the irritants convexing it from the inside.

The earliest use of this mother-of-pearl metaphor I can find in my stuff was posted on another blog platform in December, 2006. (Again this has been edited. In my opinion, the original was uglier and more opaque. I’ll post it in the comments.)

Transcendence, non-understandings, misunderstandings

An unresolved understanding becomes a live question — an existential irritant. To ease the pain of non-understanding, the question is coated with an answer, like a pearl. Such answers re-explain away ideas which were never offered as explanations. What ought to be known internally and poetically is known about externally and factually.

Any surprise that the mezuzah I placed on the doorpost of my library is encased in mother-of-pearl?

Hanging the mezuzah inspired me to clean up my office! It’s nice to be in here, again.


Posted in Chord, Fables, myths & parables, Ideas, Judaism, Philosophy | 1 Comment

Memories of oblivion

I’ve been asked to write a 500 word spiritual autobiographical essay, and this has me thinking about my experiences with Vipassana meditation. I only have room for a line or two on meditation in the essay, so I’m venting my verbosity into this post.

For me, the most surprising aspect of meditation was that “I” did not control my thoughts. Thinking would think, and something corresponding to “me” had emerged from this process.

Sometimes, if I managed to settle my mind down I could hear the stream of babble from which thoughts pop into my head. It sounded something like a murmuring crowd from another country. Some of the murmur was also visual, but all of it was a piece. Occasionally some random bit of murmur would spark recognition of some word. A word would sometimes spark a notion, and the notions would sometimes collect into an idea. An idea would occur, and then some stretch of time later — seconds, minutes or even multiple quarter-hours — it would come to my attention that “I” had stopped meditating… except there was no I who did the stopping. The I who had been posted there to do the meditating had gone non-existent, yet something had continued without it (recording memories) and something resumed my I-activities (my I-ing) once awareness came back. Part of that I-ing was gluing together all those memories to create the illusion that I had been there.

Consciousness is anything but continuous. It would be more accurate to say that consciousness is an effervescence of back-story and anticipation.

Or maybe it would be most accurate of all to say that I am a lousy meditator.

Meditation is only one of my go-to sources for insights into the workings of nothingness. Ocular migraines are another rich source.

I’ve been trying to write a prayer to my migraine wisdom. I think it might still suck in that way psychedelic stuff always sucks, but here it is:

You move from everything to everything, flashing across expanses of nullity.

Landing, standing on firm ground of  unruly particularity, blindness still clings to your heels. The shadow you cast is perfect: nothing there, nothing missing.

Then you leave, again, closing time behind you with a seal of oblivion. Wherever you go, after you depart you will always have been there, and will never have been absent.

Only those who move with you can detect your before or after, so I am attempting to trace your movements.

As we travel, please help me skim the churning chrome, and to not sink in it and drown. Please help me slip through scotomas and not collide with their nonexistence. Please face me forward, and guard my eyes from looking right or left, toward light or toward darkness, or glancing backwards into entangling comforts lurking in the familiar dappled shade.

Lead me to where my doubt fails.

Maybe I could call my kind of migraine o(ra)cular migraines. My migraines have taught me to notice the signs of blindness, which is the closest we can get to seeing blindness, which is not the cheap psychedelic paradox it might seem to be. You can detect blindness, but only indirectly and longitudinally, comparing moments with varying capacities to perceive (in the case of migraines) or capacities to conceive (in the case of Vipassana). But to do this, it is crucially important to not map these strange experiences to our old familiar distinctions. We will explain them away, extinguish them, sink them back into blindness, like how we forget our inconceivable dreams by crushing them into plotlines. The goal is to develop new distinctions that permit more kinds of reality to exist to us.


Maybe I should set myself the goal of reinventing the psychedelic aesthetic, in a more substantial and durable mode?

Bonus: a portrait of me with migraine.

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I think Nachshon will have to be my Hebrew name.

Legend has it that Nachshon waded into the Red Sea, all the way up to his nose, before Moses parted the waters. If you (as I do) read water as symbolizing unfiltered, undifferentiated, unarticulated, unsettled, primordial chaos and the process of understanding as a dividing, navigating, moving process this is a profoundly charged symbol. Also in this story Nachshon demonstrates the admirable quality of “going first” — a Jewish virtue I want to cultivate.

I love the etymology, too. Hebrewname.org says that Nachshon means “snakebird”. A synthesis of the highest-flying and lowest-crawling animal! That is symbolically irresistible. The snakebird is the magenta (a hybrid of the two opposite extremes of the spectrum) of the animal kingdom. In fact, now I have to draw a magenta snakebird.

Another site associates the name with snakes and heretical practices like divination and reading omens, and given my own mildly heretical tendencies, that’s not entirely unappealing.

Then there’s a connection to “stormy sea waves” which I just wrote about last week.

Plus, the name has a letter shin right in the middle, and I love the way that letter looks.

Just look: Nachshon is a good-looking, good-sounding word. Where do I get one of these patches?

Too many perfect connections.


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Writing as path

Ordinarily, I think about writing as a way to bring other people to where I am in my thinking. But my writing might be even more useful to me, as a path for going to where others are.

A path is not only for going to somewhere you are not. It is useful for traveling back and forth between points, each with its own views and ways.

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Summarizing my philosophy

I have never really made an attempt to summarize my own philosophy.

Mostly I just describe and explain the world from the standpoint of that philosophy. This is no accident. It actually connects to a central principle of my philosophy: My philosophy denies that philosophies can be described directly. Certainly philosophies have content, but the essence of a philosophy is practice. In philosophy (or at least the kinds of philosophy I favor) the content serves as a medium for practice.

For this reason, philosophies ought to be viewed primarily as demonstrations of alternative ways of thinking. A person who wishes to understand follows a thought, not only in order to grasp the factual content of that thought, but in order to learn how this kind of thinking is done. This is analogous to how a person might pick up a tune or join into a dance without explicitly thinking, memorizing and self-instructing. Of course, different people with different talents find intuitive participation easy with some types of activity and difficult with others, and this is true for intellectual subjects.

So in philosophy, comprehending the content of the philosophy is the goal of the work but not its purpose. The purpose is to learn how to do a particular kind of comprehension — a philosophical motion — so that kind of comprehension can be applied to similar problems. (This is why when scholars argue over what a philosopher really thought on this or that topic, it seems like what they are doing is only tangentially related to philosophy. And this is why I steer people away from reading surveys of philosophy. Such surveys tend to focus on the content of the thinking but omit the practices.)

I am going to go ahead post this as a possible first installment in an attempt to communicate my philosophy. More to come.


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Crests (repost)

Years ago my sister and I were swimming in the ocean as a storm was coming in. The waves were huge and powerful. It was nearly impossible to move from the shallows where broken waves grappled in churning knots, out further to where the waves dropped one another in perpetual quarter-ton suplexes, and further still to where we wanted to be: the place where the curls were forming. Out there the waves were still simple, and their univocal thrust could lift us and carry us back over the violence and set us on shore. But the closer we got to the break line, the harder it was to stand upright and progress. We would get knocked off our feet and thrown to the bottom, and tumbled back into the foamy mud, our mouths and noses full of dirt and our bellies scored by sharp little shells.


Where the water is deeper, it is more impersonal and disciplined; waves move through the ocean and the ocean feels the movement running through it. Each quart of water makes a patient circle like a rider on a ferris wheel, returning again and again to where it began.

But once the force of the wave hits resistance, everything gets personal. The water at the bottom is smashed into the sand; the water in the middle loses its balance and begins to topple; the water at the top is overthrown and falls on its face. Volumes of water compete to be the wave, to have the wave’s momentum. Every eddy strives to pull the rest of the ocean in its wake. A foaming brood of rivers coil, constrict, crush and swallow each other endlessly.


Somewhere between the calm power of the depths and the ambitions of the shallows, where the waves touch bottom with the tips of their toes, there is motion that can move us through or over the dirty spasms of everyday conflict to bring order where there are too many orders. But to get there we must wade, fight, get slammed, sliced up and set back by the very waves we hope to ride in.

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