Nemesis: Resentment, Revenge, Justice

Nemesis: the goddess of revenge, the spirit of divine retribution. Apparently the Greek work originally meant “the distributor of fortune, neither good nor bad, simply in due proportion to each according to what was deserved.” Then nemesis became “the resentment caused by any disturbance of this right proportion, the sense of justice which could not allow it to pass unpunished.”

Below are two excerpts from Jo Nesbø’s Norwegian police thriller, Nemesis (2008), followed by an excerpt from Stephen Gardner’s essay “Rene Girard’s Apocalyptic Critique of Historical Reason” in Contagion (issue 18, 2011), which is concerned primarily with ideas raised in  Girard’s book Achever Clausewitz (in English, Battling to the End), an unusual analysis of war theorist Carl van Clausewitz’s writings.

1. From Nemesis: Exchange between Harry and Beate, two police officers:

“‘What about grudges? Do you suffer from them, too?'”

“She looked up at him ‘What do you mean?’

“Harry shrugged. ‘Look around you. Humanity can’t survive without it. Revenge and retribution. That’s the driving force for the midget who was bullied at school and later became a millionaire, and the bank robber who thinks he has been short-changed by society. And look at us. Society’s burning revenge disguised as cold, rational retribution – that’s our profession, isn’t it?’

“‘That’s the way it has to be,’ she said, avoiding his gaze. ‘Society wouldn’t work without punishment.’

“‘Yes, of course, but there’s more to it than that, isn’t there. Catharsis. Revenge cleanses. Aristotle wrote that the human soul is purged by the fear and compassion that tragedy evokes. It’s a frightening thought that we fulfill the soul’s innermost desire through the tragedy of revenge, isn’t it?'(pp. 188-89)

2. From Nemesis:  Writings of an anonymous someone bent on revenge:

“I knew what was required before I put down the phone. Revenge. Primitive? Not at all. Revenge is the thinking man’s reflex, a complex blend of action and consistency no other animal species has so far succeeded in evolving. Evolutionally speaking, the practice of taking revenge has shown itself to be so effective that only the most vengeful of us have survived. Vengeance or death. It sounds like the title of a western, right, but remember it was the logic of retaliation that created the constitutional state. The enshrined promise of an eye for an eye, the sinner burning in hell or at least dangling from the gallows. Revenge is basically the foundation of civilisation, Harry.” (pp. 334-35)

3. From Gardner’s essay:

“…[t]he rise of victimology and its forms is the decisive cultural event of the last century and the moral idiom of our time, emerging from the disintegration of historical Christianity under the weight of the Holocaust, the civil rights battles of the 1960s, and women’s equality. … Victimology does not rehabilitate history’s victims so much as authorize their retaliation and justify their resentments, racheting up social tensions. It does not free genuine victims from the moral and psychic toll of being victims, but imprisons them all the more unbreakably in the fetters of their resentments. Instead of dampening the spirals of victimary resentment, victimology escalates them and inspires new victimizations, as in the purge trials of political correctness. Even the victimizer (real or imagined) contagiously picks up the spirit of victimology, when he observes how ’empowering’ it is to be a victim. He jealously envies his ertswhile mark. And so victimology robs sacrificial order of its efficacy, as victims (real and imaginary) demand satisfaction. Every act of scapegoating creates as many divisions as it heals. The scapegoater always feels that he is the victim, and as the perpetual object of accusation, he may be.

“What is lost in these postmodern ideological duels, according to Girard, is that no one is any longer in a position to accuse, for the destruction of the sacrificial victimage in Christ also properly reveals that guilt is universal. There are no privileged victims, and the distinction between victims and victimizers collapses. No one can claim any special authority, the unassailable moral ground of the pure victim, by which to accuse and stand in judgment. Under these conditions, pursuit of justice can only lead back to the war of all against all. … For human justice inevitably rests on unjust (sacrificial) foundations. … Pure justice does not ensure peace; it makes it impossible.

“Human freedom … demands that one abandon the crutch of victimology and by the same token forgo the right of retaliation. Christ demolishes all sacrificial ethics (victimology included) once and for all, and is thus effectively beyond good and evil in any conventional sense…. He is free from resentment and so from the need to punish or judge. … Christ’s freedom is so liberating that it is typically experienced by human beings as an impossible burden or a profound threat. Human beings take comfort in their sense of injury, and Christ robs them of that.

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