Postcolonial Ressentiment — the Ukrainian Case

Tamara Hundorova 04 May 2009
A "negative" perspective as a starting-point for the interpretation of identity began with Friedrich Nietzsche's "Genealogy of Morals" (1887), where he introduces the idea of ressentiment and interprets it as part of an "overturn of the value-oriented view" [Nietzsche 1992, 451]. With time this notion acquired a broader cultural interpretation as a particular kind of "imaginary revenge" on an opponent that became an inspiration in the development of an individual "counter-existentia", or counter-existence. Nietzsche modified the habitual affirmative, self-assertive form of identification and talked instead about ressentiment as a method used by those who are incapable of counteraction in any practical way but rather choose to reward themselves with an imaginary revenge. This moment is positively creative, according to Nietzsche: the moment when the appraising look turns away from oneself and towards the outside. During the 20th century the context of ressentiment itself underwent certain changes though its core aspect remained the opposition between the strong and the weak. As Max Scheler observed, the environment in which ressentiment grows is primarily that of those who serve somebody, who are subordinates to somebody else's rule or somebody else's views [Scheler 1999]. This method of liberating oneself from others' views (or rule) may be considered to be a constitutive principle of ressentiment in so far as it affects relations between the subordinates and the ruler and feeds on emotional intensity, revolt, and insult. According to Scheler, ressentiment is the retention, [the residue] of certain emotions that have a negative nature. Ressentiment is a self-poisoning of soul that grows from counteraction into feelings of offence and impotence and is directed towards the outside, beyond individual being. Scheler tends to interpret ressentiment almost as an existential envy of "somebody else's" being. For his part, Albert Camus with his theory of "l'homme révolté" affirms that the dominant feeling of ressentiment is not offence but rather passionate self-assertion and one's own creation of "the Self" [Camus 1990, 128]. Man remains the master in an absurd world, he insists, and his/her suicide consents to the absurd as final and limitless, while revolt is seen as a struggle against the absurd and brings with it man's redemption.
Ressentiment in the treatment of Nietzsche, Scheler and Camus may be considered as a form of the development of modern Western consciousness. As Camus states, ressentiment as an existential revolt is a constituent of Western society with its elaborate theories of political freedom, on the one hand, and dissatisfaction with the real level of individual freedom, on the other. However, Jean Baudrillard also associates ressentiment with the development of the postmodern consciousness - he calls postmodernism the period of "ressentiment and repentance" [Baudrillard 1994, 22], when it is not revenge or revolt that becomes the constructive principle but the conquest of somebody else through the simulation of her/his desire.
If we take into account the significant creative potential of ressentiment, which serves as an affirmation of "the weak" in its relations with "the strong", it is feasible to also use it in the analysis of postcolonial consciousness, in particular, in the case of the self-assertion of the colonized, subordinated subject who, metaphorically speaking, intercepts the views of the colonizer and inverts them. Of particular interest is the build-up of postcolonial consciousness in the post-Soviet area, and, in particular, in the Ukrainian situation where the postcolonial experience functions alongside the anti-colonial one and where the trauma of the colonial past caused by the long years of oppression under the Russian and later the Soviet empire, still manifests itself. The object of our analysis will be the manifestation of postcolonial ressentiment in Ukrainian fiction at the end of 20th century, in particular, in the novels of Yurii Andrukhovych, one of the most representative figures of recent, postmodern Ukrainian fiction.
Ukrainian postcolonial consciousness at the end of 20th century is marked by the overcoming of cultural provinciality and marginality and as such is infected to a significant degree with imaginary revenge and the emotions of ressentiment inspired by anti-colonial protest. Ukrainian fiction, for its part, is a field where the postcolonial imagination is articulated and various forms of cultural identification are tested. In particular, the postmodern trend in recent Ukrainian fiction serves to a large extent as a socio-cultural reflection; it tries to understand the relations between a metropolitan country and a colony; analyses the extents of "one's own" and the "alien"; dispels the intensity of relations between the dominant and the subordinate, between intimate and social spaces; symbolizes the establishment of a new postcolonial consciousness and a new integrity; and, in general, signals the overcoming of the state of anti-colonial ressentiment - i.e. the desire for revenge for the former, forced subordination.
The mechanism of ressentiment depends on the fact that a painful emotional state, caused by an intense mix of different emotions - envy, offence at the external world, the desire to appropriate somebody else's being combined with a feeling of impotence, which is usually overcome and passes, may linger and poison the consciousness of the marginalized individual who has been subject to a destructive process of self-humiliation and self-criticism. According to Scheler, emergence from the state of ressentiment occurs when the object of even imaginary envy transforms or shifts. Albert Camus proposed another interpretation of ressentiment - not from the perspective of transformation or substitution of the object of envy, but from the perspective of the subject: the feeling of offence that burned everything to ashes is dispelled by existential revolt, in which the dominant feeling is that of one's own dignity and desire for freedom.
Anti-colonial offence and postcolonial revolt determine the amplitude of the emotional manifestations of ressentiment. It is said more and more often that a social, national, gender, or racial ressentiment frequently becomes a foundation for terrorism, thus marking the protest of the "weak" against the "strong". Ressentiment may be viewed as an integral part of anti-colonialism with its desire for revenge. The dynamics of the unfolding and overcoming of ressentiment also appears, however, to be consistent with the development of the postcolonial consciousness. This is why the concept of ressentiment allows us to return to the issue of co-existence of anti-colonialism and post-colonialism and provides a possibility to track in theory as well as in practice in what ways the anti-colonial and postcolonial critics of the imperial center are distinct from each other.
The theory of ressentiment developed in the epoch of modernism and may be correlated with the overturn of values of the center. Postcolonial consciousness, in contrast, has another mechanism of retribution between the subordinate and the dominant - through the deconstruction and reversal of the values of the center. Does this mean that postcolonial consciousness is devoid of ressentiment? Let us presume that ressentiment remains an important constituent of the postmodern consciousness, while the anti-colonial and postcolonial consciousnesses should not be regarded as mutually exclusive concepts but as phenomena that may be combined. It is this that we shall try to demonstrate in the case of Ukrainian fiction that deals with the overcoming of the colonial subject's envy of the "other" - envy of the metropolitan country, of the center, and desire for one's own stolen past and unrealized history.
According to some points of view, anti-colonialism and postcolonialism are correlated as are modernism and postmodernism. At least, we can find such an interpretation in Marko Pavlyshyn's works. Pavlyshyn clearly associates ressentiment with anti-colonialism and interprets the latter through the structure of overturning, "a down-up reversal of the previous colonial arguments and values" [Pavlyshyn 1997, 227]. Postcolonial thinking, on the contrary, according to Pavlyshyn, is developed on the basis of postmodern deconstruction of the colonial experience and self-consciousness. Thus, the opposition anti-colonialism/post-colonialism is analogous, for this critic, with the opposition of modernism/postmodernism. However, such parallelism is somewhat too abstract and does not take into account the complex structure of postcolonial thinking which, in our opinion, does not in any way reject either colonialism or anti-colonialism; rather it overcomes them at the same time by reconstructing the situation of subordination and then deconstructing it. Accordingly, an anti-colonial ressentiment may be considered to be a constituent part of a postcolonial complex. This is illustrated by the experience of Ukrainian fiction.
The fact that ressentiment is present in the postcolonial world of Ukrainian authors may be demonstrated by comparing the ways in which "my Europe" is described by the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk and by the Ukrainian writer Yurii Andrukhovych.
"My Europe" for the Pole Andrzej Stasiuk is neither a virtual nor a historical phenomenon. It is not encompassed either by "postmodern (...) freedom of choice" or by the "modernist aspiration for limits" [Stasiuk 2001, 46]. Migration or travel "is always an escape", states the Polish author, that is why moving from Warsaw either to the East or to the West is an identical thing for him. "In the first case we are defeated by space, in the second - by time", concludes Stasiuk [Stasiuk 2001,15].
The postcolonial thinking of Stasiuk reveals the time when instead of geopolitical and ideological colonization on part of the East or the West, his country is threatened by a new vector of domination - namely, a globalized mass culture that without any barriers crosses each and every border and unifies the whole European space. This simulacrum, as Baudrillard argues, "is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself" [Baudrillard 1988, 66]. From now on Stasiuk appeals to his own space - "going in circles" around his native town and in this way defining the limits of his aspired journey. His small, local homeland, described as "going round in circles", is also an "ideal geography" that casts aside the need for transcendence as such, in other words - the striving for another, better and desired world. "Ideal geography" is an expression of self-sufficiency understood in the postcolonial situation, in which the feeling of offence toward "somebody else" is overcome, the landscape and the map merge into one, the reality and the ideal as well as eternity and the moment become identical.
The vision of "my Europe" of the Ukrainian writer Yurii Andrukhovych does not lead to such imaginative self-sufficiency but raises instead a need for "revision", or rather central and eastern European revision, and does not lack shades of ressentiment. The idea of "Central Europe" becomes one of the basic arguments in the postcolonial criticism of Andrukhovych.
From the end of the 18th century the concepts of Europeanization and modernization were combined in the Ukrainian national idea, and the process of modernization itself was related to the incorporation of Western identity. To be European, to be in and part of Europe - this imperative strongly defines the modern Ukrainian cultural consciousness of the 20th century. The intention of Ukrainian modernists of different persuasions was to replenish national culture, which was viewed as "not-complete" (Dmytro Čyževskyj), and to make it similar to or identical with the universal Western canon. Mykola Zerov's translations of Latin authors, Mykhail Semenko's gravitation towards Italian futurism, Ievhen Malaniuk's sophisticated reflections on the subject of a Ukrainian Hellas, Ihor Kostetskyi's attempt to tame Ezra Pound, and engraft Stefan George into Ukrainian - all those attempts were intended to make Ukrainian identity a European one.
It is only at the end of 20th century, within the framework of postcolonial ressentiment, that the ideal is transformed, that fragmented images of Europe appear and different Europes are discovered. The new postmodern vision of Europe is observed not from the civilized center as Hegel or Herder observed it in the Romantic era, but from the margins. In his Eastern European revision of the European idea Andrukhovych uses the Habsburg myth in order to affirm the Europeanism of his native Galicia as a territory that used to be a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. At the same time he feels offended by another myth - about Galicia belonging to the "Soviet people". If Stasiuk finds identity without aspiring for revenge against the "somebody else", Andrukhovych divides the "somebody else" into "one's own" and "other", and is offended that his native city Stanisław (now - Ivano-Frankivsk) may be thought of in the same space as the "alien" Tambov or Tashkent. "Just think," he remarks, "there were times when my city belonged to one state along with Venice and Vienna, not Tambov and Tashkent!" [Andrukhovych 1999, 8].
Affirmation of European identity through the Habsburg myth cannot be separated from the reversal of the unfair - that is until recently - colonial history of Ukraine. His feeling of offence in relation to Ukraine's unrealized history means implicitly that Andrukhovych accepts the thesis about the incompleteness of his own history, which he now reconstructs using imagery and narrative. The ruins of the past, fragments of family life, fetishized objects, stories of witnesses, fill the void that is the existential body of the new Ukrainian subject oriented towards Central Europe. Visions and fetishes compensate for his envy of the fulfilled history of his country's neighbors; fetishism becomes a means of relief from his colonial ressentiment.
Idealization of the past in the form of the Habsburg myth compensates for his dissatisfaction with current history and serves as a therapeutic means of overcoming the envy accumulated throughout the long years of the colonial past. The colonial trauma influences to a significant degree the disposition of Andrukhovych's hero and his postcolonial reconstruction of Europe. Both geographically and historically he does not set out, as Stasiuk does, the limits of his transgression. He also does not get over his painful envy of the "other" and continues to live in a romantic and infantile ideal world. A romantic vision of self-realization in a "new world" together with the image of a happy West represent an absolute ideal to the colonial subject injured by unrealized history. It is Andrukhovych's little boy who becomes an archetypal image of this colonial subject as well as the author's alter ego:
I return to the picture that still appears to me," he confesses. - "A little boy observing the river. There is a New World across the river. Across the Danube lies America, which means the future, across the Danube lies everything that will (and won't) come true in the future [Andrukhovych 2001, 84].
The image of the Danube as a river beyond which lies another world, where the hero travels in search of a happy motherland, has served since the period of Ukrainian Romanticism as a metaphor for the desire that makes the hero strive for heroic deeds and transports him to foreign lands. It is typical that Andrukhovych's postcolonial protagonist carries within himself not only an infantile desire for self-realization but also the desire to be the other. It is not by chance that in getting over his postcolonial trauma, Andrukhovych's protagonist compensates for the loss of his dream by transforming himself into a postmodern player - the hero-trickster, the eternal itinerant bohemian who passes freely across times and borders, by putting on in turn the mask of a Venetian Orpheus and being reborn as a mythical Ryb.
Overcoming his ressentiment in this way, Andrukhovych's postcolonial individual differs from his fellow citizens - people who are "confused, angry, tired" and whom the author does not forget to recall, thus building up a romantic hierarchy of "self" and "others". At the same time even intellectuals, such as Andrukhovych, feel alienated from Westerners, the others, such as when they return from the ball in Stadshuset (where the Nobel award ceremonies take place):
majestically, in pairs, old and young, honorable "Westerners"; they floated by paying absolutely no attention to us and the only way we could attract their attention - was to fall down on all fours, howl in despair and painfully bite someone's leg [Andrukhovych 1999, 60].
Despite his aesthetic dream of an ideal, virtual Central Europe, Andrukhovych the postmodernist knows that the offence he feels for the unrealized past represents a gap, that the past "prevents the future from becoming possible", that the past "holds time in its grip". Obsession with the past, which is after all incomprehensible to normal Europeans, has fatal consequences for Europeans as well. The unrealized past carried inside by post-Soviet individuals also draws Europeans into the void of somebody else's past, prevents them from taking pleasure in the present, interrupts the great narratives of European history.
Thus, in contrast to his Polish peer who himself defines the limits of his desires and does not have any complexes about the past, Andrukhovych is fatally dependant on history and he is well aware of this. At the same time he wants to escape from it and calls on himself his fellow citizens to live "inside" the actuality. "This being "inside"," he asserts, "is always superior, more grateful and honorable because it means your involvement, engagement, presence - in contrast to your separated, rejected, thrown away being "among others" [Andrukhovych 2001, 98].
The visions of "my Europe" according to Stasiuk and Andrukhovych are therefore fundamentally different. For Stasiuk ressentiment is compensated for by its own "ideal geography", while for Andrukhovych it is reinforced by the traumatic experience of history, which has led to a conflict between one's own and somebody else's, now and then, "us" and "them". Lingering in the existential present, living "inside", as declared by Andrukhovych, is evidence of the postcolonial state characterized by quite ambivalent feelings, in particular by:
a) reconciliation with one's colonial history;
b) cutting oneself off from the "great West";
c) suspension at the so-called mirror stage of self-identification that leads to narcissism;
d) acceptance of an absurd revolt (suicide) as a possible means of relief from ressentiment;
e) acknowledgement of the end of "paternal time" and of being in "maternal" cultural space - "inside", in the continuum of "the present".
Overcoming one's ressentiment, rejecting one's colonized identity and lingering "inside" orientate the postcolonial subject towards appraisal of marginality. Andrukhovych creates his postmodern Galicia as a country of marginalia and would appear to be a faithful inheritor of the hybrids and phantasms of Bruno Schulz, an incomparable master of marginalia - "side rooms that have not been moved into (...) a great farce of the night", that "have their own separate time measured by the clatter of clocks, monologues of silence" and the sleep of "mammas spread and swollen with milk", forgotten rooms, backyards, side streets, peripheries of lands luxuriating with "hasty blossoms", "playing with colors and decaying" [Schulz 2004, 54, 268].
Andrukhovych creates his own fantastic vision of the old Galicia by restoring it from old maps, memories of elderly persons, and fragments of other people's stories:
Much more expressive than any moral maxims for me, are the fragments of old family life - artificial flowers, pots, Christmas-tree angels with lambs, worn coins, pieces of decadent jewellery, moldered garters for stockings, musical boxes, birds' nests. I'm interested in old aquariums, [...] whistles, reeds, porcelain reindeers. Of course, I'm excited by bottles [...] [Andrukhovych 2001, 77].
In this way Andrukhovych's protagonist, who also serves as his alter ego, is confined in a world of fetish images. In Jacques Lacan's terms, we could say that his hero is suspended at the mirror-image stage of identification. At this stage of development libidinal relations establish the ego through a fantasized identification with others, particularly the mother. The postcolonial Ukrainian subject feels a lack of self and is dissatisfied to discover that the (m)other's culture is a separate object and not a fulfillment of his needs. In order to acquire fullness of self, the bohemian individual populates the (m)other's culture with object-fetishes and fetish-narratives.
Absorbed by the "present", cut off from the past, Andrukhovych acknowledges the end of paternal time. However, at the same time as he is absorbed in the postcolonial "actuality" and practically refusing to participate in any great histories, his colonized subject cannot fully tolerate this position. He is offended by (m)other and this constantly provokes an imaginary anti-colonial protest from him against this "somebody else", on the one hand, and leads at the same time to a painful deformation of his "self" as betrayer-and-victim, creator-and-observer, colonizer-and-colonized, on the other.
Andrukhovych creates a hero who is many-sided, polymorphous, multinominal, and this polymorphism signals the absence of any defined identity. The masquerade of roles and identities can only exist when there is no strong and powerful center that manages, supervises and patronizes, in other words, when "the Father is dead". Generally speaking, the past associated with the father's power is consciously cut off by Andrukhovych. It is significant that his essay "Central-Eastern revision" also on the subject of "My Europe" was written soon after his father's death and we can find reminders of this in the essay's text.
Reflection of a postcolonial nature is not devoid of anti-colonial emotions, and in Andrukhovych's works it takes the form of the superman-bohemian-son's revenge against the mother's body (its hypostases, understood in a broad sense, are culture, history, empire, nation, and woman). The commanding authority is feminized, perceived as impaired, decentralized; hence it seems it could be overcome by imagination, compensated for by mythology. The imperial center no longer exists as an institution of power; it is not in vain that the hero of Moskoviada undertakes a trip to the very heart of the Soviet Empire - Moscow, where he feels quite at ease with himself and sees himself almost as a rapist of the already dead imperial capital.
From the psychoanalytic perspective, modernism ambivalently distinguishes an Oedipus complex - the struggle against a symbolic Father who embodies established tradition. It is above all Taras Shevchenko who has been such a Father in the Ukrainian cultural space, and any attempts to renew or modernize the tradition have been classified as the actions of the "fatherless". Postmodernism, however, emerges in Ukrainian literature after the "Father's death". Significant in this connection is the discussion concerning Shevchenko's homoeroticism provoked by George Grabowicz's book The Poet as Mythmaker: A Study of Symbolic Meaning in Taras Ševčenko [Grabowicz 1982]. The subversive images of a "nanny Ukraine" have become popular; a maternal culture is now associated with unfilled and tabooed niches; the infantile passions of the protagonists of postmodern authors have become expressively evident. There even occurs a desacralized inversion of the very image of maternal Ukraine; Oleksandr Irvanets, for example, alters the idea of the well-known patriotic verse by Volodymyr Sosiura "Love Ukraine!" by urging, "Love Oklahoma!"
Already in the Romantic period, Ševčenko feminized a colonial image of Ukraine and symbolically identified its fate with the archetypal mother, especially with the image of the pokrytka - the seduced girl, the unmarried mother. It is worth noting that the poet's self is clearly identified with marginal figures (such as the kobza-player-prophet and the pokrytka) while the hero's drama is regarded as the author's own. An anti-colonial symbolism of Ukraine was developed in the 20th century, for example, in the poetry of Ievhen Malaniuk, which also addresses the mother's image; however, it takes on the form of appealing against the infidelity of the woman and of the mothers who have surrendered themselves to the foreign. Malaniuk's poetry reverses the image of an unfaithful "steppe Hellas" raped by the steppe and the nomads, a kind of anti-Maria who might have given birth to a new messiah - the Empire, a Roman child, but instead has let herself be crucified. This gives rise to an apocalyptic and, in essence, a phallic vision of history. The author as a poet-conquistador has faith in the time when a colonized Ukraine will itself become an empire. "And Rome will grow as an iron oak / From out of the firm bosom of the Scythian Hellas," he prophesies [Malaniuk 1954, 57].
The postmodern authors do not express such a direct anti-colonial pathos. However, they do retain ressentiment with regard to the maternal symbolic. A colonial trauma - discontent with the past - leads to the dismemberment of the postmodern subject into several persons, while the masquerade of roles attests to the instability of his identity: he by turns imagines himself as a superman and seeks an androgynous union with his beloved woman. "All of you know only yourself," says Martha, the wife of the hero in Andrukhovych's novel "Recreations", who simultaneously plays the role of mother to her infantile husband, summing up the narcissistic complex of the postcolonial hero.
Existence in the maternal field of the colonial culture, history, and language feeds feelings of ressentiment for many of Andrukhovych's characters as they search for a substitute for the symbolic father, either in the image of a Diaspora master or in the semi-mythological Ukrainian king. Finally, a postcolonial subject, as we have seen in the case of Andrukhovych's "My Europe", resorts to an existential revolt which cuts him off from the past and locks him into present reality. In this way the hero of his novel "Moskoviada" ends his journey through the metropolitan country by committing a ritual suicide - he returns home with a bullet in his temple. Words from a poem by Hryhorij Chubaj are used as an epigraph to "Moskoviada": "Let them not hunt down anything on our land again". It is possible to interpret the epigraph in terms of postcolonial criticism. This postcolonial reversal of the values of empire implies erasing "them" (the colonizers) from "our" past, denying colonialism and releasing oneself from it even if this means suicide.
All in all, a postcolonial appropriation of the empire's values does not appear only as an inversion of those values, but as a painful process that includes the self-destruction of the colonial subject, his trying on of the role of colonizer-aggressor, as well as his continued existence in an area where the deterministic influence of the semiotic mother can still be strongly felt. The last requires a revision of the primeval narcissistic relations between the semiotic mother and the child. Among all this, the anti-colonial revolt, of which an initial mood is the feeling of ressentiment (offence and discontent), appears as one of the key moments in the development of postcolonial identity. In the process of its development it is often suicide that leads the postcolonial individual towards the restoration (recreation) of his "self".
The postcolonial consciousness that was consciously constructed in Ukraine at the end of the 20th century and, in particular, in the prose and essays of Andrukhovych, as one of the active writers of a new wave whose works have been translated into many languages, is not an imported consciousness. Cut out on the basis of its own colonial history, it does not break with and does not reject the past but actualizes the basic cultural codes and symbols already formed in Ukraine within the framework of colonial and anti-colonial thinking. The rewriting of such codes and symbols in the period of postmodernism revives the intense emotional and psychological conflicts that affect the moods and desires of the colonial subject. Ressentiment, in my opinion, is one of the concepts that reveal the ambivalence of the postcolonial condition.


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