Departing from Nietzsche: The Breadth of Max Weber’s ‘Resentimment’


Max Weber’s secularization narrative of modern Europe has ramifications for the idea of salvation that was, until the pre-modern period of big governance, a specifically religious concern. His sociological insight allows him to grapple with Friedrich Nietzsche’s questions about salvation and oppression within a critique of modernity. In this paper, I outline how Weber’s departure from Nietzsche’s concept of ‘resentimment’ creates a framework for looking at Weber’s thought overall. There is surprisingly little literature which compiles Weber’s use of ‘resentimment’, and as such it is my intention to let this selection of Weber’s uses of this concept stand together with Weber’s ultimate attention to salvation ideas. Realizing different ‘life spheres’ were in conflict, and that the political sphere had taken the authority once held by the religious, Weber reacts to the change in self-reflexivity that must also occur when society’s hegemony is redirected.

Outlining the Weberian progression forward and what that means for understanding the individual in society, Weber scholar David Owen suggests:

“Nietzsche and Weber’s accounts deploy a principle of evaluation constituted by reference to a conception of the individual… [their] attempts to indicate those movements of modern culture which allow for the possibility of this type of individual.” (80)


I choose the concept of ‘resentimment’ because of its value to the “conception of the individual” as a political actor; I theorize that ‘resentimment’ plays a key role in the non-selection of powerful leadership, by way of its ability and inability to make political change. Weber emphasizes a great duality to this concept, which I seek to delineate. It is at once the defining element between social groups, and also their bonding agent. It is both a defining element of an individual unfit for leadership, and an integrated part of party politics.

It is first important to outline Weber’s departure from Nietzsche about the concept of ‘resentimment’, because he chooses this concept as the juncture at which to paint a societal picture of Nietzsche’s asceticism. Authors Gerth and Mills (1946) emphasize “In contrast to Nietzsche, Weber developed a sociology of utilitarian discipline and rationality as the origins of modernity.” (110) By reading Weber reading Nietzsche’s ‘resentimment’, the border of ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ privilege defines ‘resentimment’ among groups. Reading further, when Weber uses ‘resentimment’ without mentioning Nietzsche, Weber creates a spectrum of meaning for the word that extends from political parties to individual politics. He negotiates ‘resentimment’ within politics as a response to hierarchy, but dismisses Nietzsche’s notion that ‘resentimment’ can explain the entirety of these actions in the modern world.

Reading Weber Reading Nietzsche’s ‘Resentimment’

Only by marching through a dense and nearly untranslatable paragraph in Class, Status, Party (1922)[1] can one discover Weber’s most direct criticism of Nietzsche’s ‘resentimment’. Written with the intention to analyze the development of status groups from ethnic segregations, Weber differentiates the sense of dignity experienced by ‘positively privileged’ status groups from the ‘negatively privileged’; the ‘pariah’ – the outsiders, who are not subquotients of a monster group – are those ‘negatively privileged’, who challenge the “deportment” (191) of the ‘positively privileged’ main group by having a different social ethic, what Nietzsche called “a slave revolt of morals”[2]. Weber explains ‘pariah’ through European Jewry, which he says is “the most impressive historical example,” (ibid.); this suddenly calls forth both the European Jew’s transitory participation in society and their oppressed position under the monster group. The ‘pariah’ is a typology much larger than the European Jew, encompassing the greater meaning of ‘outsider’. Unlike the Lacanian ‘Other’ that focuses on individual ethics, the term ‘pariah’ is a metaphor for whole social groups who Weber delimits by ethic. ‘Pariah’ would be understood today as more polemical than analytic. Weber fastens the term ‘pariah’ to the presumptuously broad category of European Jewry and in so doing carries on a trope of early-modern rational analysis- the Jewish diasporal experience[3]. Professor Jeffrey S. Librett’s latest publication, Orientalism and the Figure of the Jew (2014), reminds us that Weber theorizes the Jews as outcasts in a world conceived in ‘pariah’s’ etymological meaning, “in terms of an ancient Indian- or Aryan- caste system. This strange structure inscribes Judaism as an internal exterior within Aryan culture.” (331) Weber’s discursive appropriation of Judaism allows him to exemplify the presence of ‘resentimment’ in a groups whose dignity is independent from the monster group’s political societalization:

“The ‘chosen people’s’ dignity is nurtured by a belief either that in the beyond ‘the last will be the first,’ or that in this life a Messiah will appear to bring forth into the light of the world which has cast them out the hidden honor of the pariah people. This simple state of affairs, and not the ‘resentimment’ which is so strongly emphasized in Nietzsche’s much admired construction in Geneaology of Morals, is the source of the religiosity cultivated by pariah status groups.” (Class, 190)


Citing the “simple state of affairs” one might recognize as Hegel’s dialectic[4], Weber suggests that the creation of identity by ‘pariah’ groups is made possible by its difference to the main group, and vice versa. He continues, “Very frequently a status group is instrumental in the production of a thoroughbred anthropological type.” (190) Weber thickened the conversation about ‘resentimment’ by finding the tension between dignity and identity creation. His analysis of dignity as an element of differentiation between Christians and Jews rests on lifestyle purportments, and he compares monster groups with interior-exterior ‘pariah’ on the basis of economic predominance:

“Political membership or class situation has at all times been at least as frequently decisive. And today the class situation is by far the predominant factor, for of course the possibility of a style of life expected for members of a status group is usually conditioned economically.” (190)


By suggesting that class situation is decisive and life-style based, he signals us to think of the ‘positively privileged’ whose, “kingdom is ‘of this world’. They live for the present and by exploiting their great past”; Weber parallels pre-modern German political membership with the ‘positively privileged’ by using a commonality of frequent decisiveness, conditioned economically. In this construction, membership of both a political party and the ‘positively privileged’ group is both lifestyle and class status determined. This claim enfeebles Weber’s prior example of European Jewry, who represented over half of Hamburg’s wealth at the time, but also highlights the angle of difference from Nietzsche’s understanding of ‘resentimment’; Weber intersects the concept of ‘resentimment’ with economic mobility. Gerth and Mills say that Weber’s difference from Nietzsche concerning ‘resentimment’ is constitutive of Weber’s sociology of religion and, “within a broader canvas, this theme determined Weber’s attitude towards morality and modernity.” (4) By maintaining an ancient difference between Christian and Jewish communities and signaling that their lifestyles are now socio-economically class-determined, Weber problematizes the discourse of Nietzsche by antagonizing socio-historical certainties[5].

Class, Status, Party has the most direct criticism of Nietzsche’s ‘resentimment’, but a descriptive insight into Weber’s account of Nietzsche’s ‘resentimment’ can be found in “The Social Psychology of World Religions” (1915):

“As is known, this theory [‘resentimment’] regards the moral glorification of mercy and brotherliness as a ‘slave revolt in morals’ among those who are disadvantaged, either in their natural endowments or their opportunities as determined by life-fate. The ethic of ‘duty’ is thus considered a product of ‘represented’ sentiments for vengeance on the part of banausic men who ‘displace’ their sentiments because they are powerless, and condemned to work and money-making.” (270)
Reading Weber reading Nietzsche will guide our understanding of their ultimate differences, but first we need to unpack what he means by “mercy and brotherliness”, consider the phrases ’represented’ and ‘displaced’ sentiments”. Weber’s Vocation Lectures hint at ‘brotherliness’, which is a que for understanding the role of ‘resentimment’ within political structures[6], but here “mercy and brotherliness” alludes to Nietzsche’s use of Judeo-Christian tradition as an example of “repressed” vengeance on the part of the oppressed[7], a process which he describes later in (The Sociology of Religion, 1965:110) as “the moralistic quest serves as a device for compensating a conscious or unconscious desire for vengeance.” This ‘compensation’ is the ‘representation’ and ‘displacement’ phenomenon mentioned as a “on the part of the banaustic men”. What’s important to understand here is the way Weber marks a difference in the sentiments held by to parts of society. Weber thinks that for Nietzsche, the “banaustic” men (who are mundanely working and making money) have vengeful sentiments against those who don’t prescribe to the same ‘duty’. They ‘displace’ this sentiment through a glorification of their own morale[8], which is the ‘resentimment’.

Continuing to dissect the phenomena of “replacement” and “displacement” as reactions to ‘resentimment’, Weber goes on to emphasize an element of rationalization within the act of sentimental displacement:

“In treating suffering as a symptom of odiousness in the eyes of the gods as a sign of secret guilt, religion has psychologically met a very general need. The fortunate are seldom satisfied with the fact of being fortunate. Beyond this, he needs to know that he has a right to his good fortune.” (271)


Posturing Nietzsche’s ‘resentimment’ as a need for legitimacy of perceived ‘fortune’ over others in society, Weber’s attention to human inequality is addressed as “suffering” which compounds into a social ethic that supports this need for legitimacy. This becomes a delayed reward: “…the sense of honor of disprivileged classes rests in some concealed promise for the future… What they cannot claim to be, they replace by the worth of that which they will one day become, to which they will be called in some future life here or hereafter… by their sense of what they signify and achieve in the world as seen from the point of view of providence” (ibid.) There is a righteous indignation at oppressors to compensate for disprivilege. Professor Jeffrey K. Olick develops the idea of theodicy’s compensations further in his book The Politics of Regret (2007):

“Though tempered by confidence in redemption of suffering; worthiness of this redemption is thus demonstrated, as Nietzsche made clear in book three of Geneaology of Morals, by asceticism, the international exacerbation of one’s own suffering and hence the ultimate preservation of Will.” (157)


Professor Olick’s contribution is important because it frames the theodicy of suffering in terms of asceticism. It is at the juncture of asceticism that Weber departs from Nietzsche in his understanding of ‘resentimment’. He divides religion and psychology at the juncture of guilt. By ‘deserving’ one’s fortune there is ‘ethical meaning’ assigned to it, making it valuable. The principled nature of ‘deserving’ is asceticism, which for Weber must be framed by the “increasingly rational” world in its progress towards ‘resentimment’:

“The need for an ethical interpretation of the “meaning” of the distribution of fortunes among men increased with the growing rationality of conceptions of the world… as magical notions were eliminated, the theodicy of suffering encountered increasing difficulties. Not ‘good’ but ‘bad’ men succeed-even when ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are measured by the yardstick of the master stratum and not by that of a ‘slave morality’.” (275)


Weber is still citing Nietzsche when he says that ‘resentimment’ is acquired from the ‘theodicy of suffering’, but here we see that Weber pivots at the point of “growing rationality”; the measurements of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ had become an issue of the ‘master stratum’ during the disenchantment of the world. Weber suggests that this politicization of society (away from religion) refigured the value judgements, though they remain in essence “legitimation of the religiously determined rationalism of the disadvantaged strata,” (276) in line with Nietzsche.  He is not disagreeing with Nietzsche’s assertion that the theodicy of suffering is “colored by resentimment” (277). Weber is trying to say that suffering is influenced by but not contrived from ‘resentimment’, creating a possibility of interpreting its “yardstick measurement”. The positive notion of asceticism is notable in Weber’s reading of Nietzsche’s ‘resentimment’ by Weber’s idea of it as a “theodicy of disprivilege”[9] alongside measurements of salvation.

‘Resentimment’ and ‘Privilege’

Legitimation of vengeance through social ethic depended, for Weber, on their class status. Now that we have an idea about Weber’s reading of Nietzsche with sight to his positive ascetic idea, it is possible to outline Weber’s differentiation between theodicies of suffering between the ‘positively privileged’ and the ‘negatively privileged’. Weber’s positivist conception of ‘resentimment’ implies a change in social ethics that shape the dominant group’s praxis in relation to the ‘pariah’ group’s non-praxis. His differentiation between ‘positively privileged’ and ‘negatively privileged’ social ethic is noticeable immediately after his definition of Nietzschean ‘resentimment’ in “The Social Psychology of World Religions”. He notes ‘resentimment’s’ “bearing (mindern[10]) on social ethics” (270), and warns his reader about the fatal consequences of ‘resentimment’, as a sentiment that has resulted in ancient sacrificial feasts. Little did Weber know (but likely did he suspect) that an expulsion and sacrifice of the ‘pariah’ group would be committed by his not-so-ancient milieu shortly after his death! Weber continues,

“All that can be said is that resentment could be, and often and everywhere has been, significant as one factor among others in influencing the religiously determined rationalism of socially disadvantaged strata. It has gained significance… in accordance with the nature of the promises held out by different religions.” (276)


The “religiously determined rationalism” of the socially disadvantaged – the ‘negatively privileged’ – is influenced in part by ‘resentimment’. This rationalism is for Weber the change in dominance from the religious sphere of life to political sphere of life, which is still rooted in the concepts of salvation provided by that religion. His main example of this history is the popularization of different social ethics with the introduction of Calvinism and Protestantism, and on the ‘negatively privileged’ level, the difference in salvation between Christians and Jews[11]. Within the modern age of ‘master strata’ uniformity in the ‘iron cage’ of economic development, Authors Gerth and Mills remind us that “the utilitarianism aspect of economic ethics and actions was transformed into the positive notion of inner-worldly asceticism and it was this notion which became the basis of Weber’s whole sociology.” (111-12)

The entanglement between inner-worldly asceticism and ‘resenntiment’ is outlined most clearly in “Economy and Society” (1922, post-humous), when Weber suggested the intellectual salvation of Christianity as opposed to the outer-worldly salvation principles of the Jews. Authors Stauth and Turner (1988) agree, suggesting, “Weber separates this intellectual form of rational control – those maintained by Priests, Monks – from the discipline characteristic in Judaism.” (115) Beginning his discussion by reminding the reader of the necessity of meaning derived from salvation, Weber says,

“The meta-physical needs of the human mind as it is driven to reflect on ethical and religious questions, driven not by material need but by an inner compulsion to understand the world as a meaningful cosmos and to take up a position towards it.” (Economy and Society 499)
Stauth and Turner turn to Economy and Society to address Weber’s differentiation from Nietzsche’s concern with the material base of the everyday world, and that ‘resentimment’ was not exclusively explained the deprivation of material needs, but also the internal compulsion to understand the world[12]. Stauth and Turner say about ‘resentimment’, “In Econonmy and Society he connects it [‘resentimment’] to social revolutionary ethics and proletarian instincts of the subordinate working classes,” (115). Weber takes a rational disposition towards social ethic’s basis in salvation and describes the positive inner-worldly ascetic of ‘resentimment’ at its dislocating juncture with intellectualism of religious doctrine:

“The limited significance of the factor of resentimment and the dubiousness of applying the conceptual system of ‘repression’ almost universally, appear most clearly when Nietzsche mistakenly applies his scheme to the altogether inappropriate example of Buddhism. Constituting the most radical antithesis to every type of resentimment morality, Buddhism clearly arose as the salvation doctrine of an intellectual stratum, originally recruited almost entirely from the privileged castes, especially the warrior caste, which proudly and aristocratically rejected the illusions of life both here and hereafter.” (ibid.)


While thematising Buddhist ‘intellectualisation’ of salvation opposite ‘resentimment’, Weber also equivocates Buddhism with the ‘master strata’, and parallels intellectualism with inner-worldly salvation. He separates Buddhism’s type of rational control over salvation – as maintained by Priests and Monks, who found salvation through lifetime duties – from the ascetic characteristic (which he later says is present in Judaism), whose salvation is other-worldly. Weber suggests that intellectuals did not develop a social ethic because of repression, but rather because of the desire to rationalize the world in itself.  Judaism, which “preached immediate revenge” in the context of Judaism’s revengeful God during the first struggle against Romans and later against Gentile subordination (ibid., 112) is different than Christianity or Buddhism, which “developed a more subtle, higher a more indirect and culturally more productive form of revenge in the doctrine of spiritual love.”

Stauth and Turner say, “his idea for salvation in Christianity became associated with intellectualism, which he called ‘another source besides the social condition of the disprivileged’,” (113) reminding us again that ‘resentimment’ is only one factor of the social ethic produced by theodicy. Strauth and Turner continue, “Weber, therefore, implicitly protected Christianity and its drive for salvation against the argument in Nietzsche that the highest religious ethic is the outcome of resentment in morals,” (115) leaving the “burden on social ethic” (207) of ‘resentimment’ to the European Jews. This does not mean that Weber denies the existence of ‘resentimment’ within Christianity, as we will see in his analysis of its place in politics. But rather, this difference in salvation argument foregrounds his understanding of ‘resentimment’ as merely an option in the creation of social ethic, not the cause of all social ethic.

‘Resentimment’s’ Place in Politics

Weber’s citation of Nietzsche’s ‘resentimment’ serves the purpose of describing ‘brotherliness’ and vengeance sentiments in not only society, but in politics. In “Suffrage and Democracy in Germany” (1917) Weber clearly delineates the existence of ‘resentimment’ even in the political literati, the littérateurs:

“The ignorance of the litterateurs who do not recognize the difference between the unearned fortune of the coupon-cutting investor and the productive capital of the entrepreneur, and who show as much ressentiment towards the latter as they do covetous benevolence towards the former, have heard something of the ‘finance capital’, both in regulations of a material kind (taxes) and in the selection of ministers, and they think of course that this is a consequence of the ‘parliamentarism’ they fear.” (Political Writings, 86)


Weber again brings up the idea of ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ within the salvational idea of success; The ‘finance capital’ inspires the ‘resentimment’ of the literati, the class exemplified by Weber as potential demagogues and charismatic political leaders such as the Socialist, Kurt Eisner (“Economy and Society”, 1978:242), which in turn implies Weber’s interest in the struggle between financiers and the political literati. The dominance of ‘parliamentarianism’ on the effect of finance capital’s influence in the market triggers the literati’s ‘resentimment’, because their truth-concept of the ‘good’ coupon-clipper winning over ‘bad’ risky investor is challenged, and they are instead dominated by an outside force – “the ‘parliamentarianism’ they fear”. What this tells us is: there are two levels of regulation, the material and the political, which are both controlled by policy. The polity making the policy is the parliament, whose ‘master’ status gives the literati ‘resentimment’ against success they can’t explain with their salvational scheme. What Weber doesn’t tell us is how this ‘resentimment’ plays out; what are the ascetic consequences? Or, does the ‘negatively privileged’ social ethic permit the literati to seek vengeance and a revolution?

He doesn’t give the answer directly, but points in the same direction when discussing balances within parliament. He seems to support the effect of ‘resentimment’s’ inner-worldly influence by saying: “On the other hand, the resentimment of party and co-operative offialdom is ideally suited as a counterbalance to any danger of the parties coming under plutocratic leadership,” (Political Writings, 113). Assigning ‘resentimment’ with the task of counterbalancing the danger of plutocracy, Weber also tells us that he believes in its primacy within political systems. In “Suffrage and Democracy in Germany”, Weber uses ‘resentimment’ as an essential concept for understanding political struggle within the literati and the parties, reflecting his discussion on Nietzsche’s ‘resentimment’ as adaptable by way of salvation theory and therefore operating in modern identity politics.

It is not until Weber’s essay “Parliament and Government in Germany” (1917) that he reveals the way ‘resentimment’ works within the political struggle. Addressing ‘resentimment’ as both possibly feeble (135) and as a “will to powerlessness” (158), Weber tells us that ‘resentimment’ is not always an effective force of balance, leaving us to wonder how it is otherwise expressed; in to which social ethic does it go? In this essay, Weber describes ‘resentimment’ as a “congealed Spirit” (158); a concept introduced by Georg Simmel as the potentiality of use. Weber highlights the minority of German literati, and therefore also the gap between political actors and citizens. To this end, Weber suggested an “occupation based model” with law governing the formation of trade unions, like in America (150), but not dissolving them because of their oppositional Weltanschauung, like under Bismarck who “excluded all other political minds besides his own” (161) to the effect of a “night-watchman state” (165). Bismarck’s followers, mere officers (Untertan) and not politicians themselves, did not have the political prowess to challenge him, and those with such leadership capacity were demobilized under Article 9.

Resentimment’ extends for Weber beyond the Nietzschean conception of a reactive “slave morality”, though he does address it as the reactive force exerted by the Untertan. Situating the literati’s “raging against the idea of a patronage of office [as] an open responsibility of the parties” (194), he signifies the reactionism of ‘resentimment’ against that which is “un-German” (ibid.), that which is outside the Prussian hegemony. Weber’s concern with the literati, the leading statesmen of the Reich, is that “political honour” is only a pretext to stay in power, in office, and harms Germany’s foreign affairs through “politically quite useless” publications[13], which sever “any possibility of substantive understanding” with England and France on mutual interests (203). He suggests that publication of beliefs be left to politicians who can “weigh the potential significance of public statements,” for which “everything depends on” (207). In this construction, he has exposed the tool of the literati is not their publications, but the political honour they uphold as a “pretext to stay in power”. Weber would describe this social ethic of political honour as the path to salvation of the ‘negatively privileged’ literati.

Weber moves on to discuss ‘resentimment’ as dependent also upon the individual, not only their class status, by drawing a line of difference between powerful leaders and those who involve themselves with ‘resentimment’:

“a man with a strong instinct for power and all the qualities that go with it would have to be a fool to let himself be drawn into the pitiful business of resentimment amongst colleagues when there is a field of activity waiting to welcome his abilities and desires… Men of that type prefer to finance pan-German newspaper and to allow the littérateurs to churn out their nonsense in them. All the men of this nation with any talent for leadership have been diverted down this path, into the service of private capitalist interests as a consequence of negative selection, which is what our so-called ‘monarchic government’ boils down to, once one has stripped away all hypocritical verbiage.” (172)


Extending beyond slandering those “fools” who allow themselves to participate in the “pitiful” business of ‘resentimment’, Weber also suggests that no powerful leader belongs to the class of those with ‘resentimment’. Considering Weber’s importance to the collection and analysis of Jewish history, he is probably not singling out European Jewry’s ‘resentimment’ as disabling their powerful leadership. Rather, it must become apparent that Weber is pointing towards interpersonal resentimment’ “amongst colleagues”. The spectrum of ‘resentimment’ extends from individual all the way to religion, with political parties in between. Weber insists that men with leadership power are driven away from political office by “negative selection”, a phrase that annihilates the humanity of employment into efficiency ratios; the monarchic government doesn’t facilitate the recruitment of powerful leaders, those unfazed by ‘resentimment’, which is “directed against anyone who strives for and achieves power by any route other than the legitimation bestowed by examination diplomas.” (173) Clearly Weber perceives the monarchic government’s social ethic as regulated by standardized testing.

Continuing to dissect ‘resentimment’ within party politics, the verbiage of ‘resentimment’s’ “harmonization” with bureaucracy sheds further light on his opinion about its governmental involvement:

“The resentimment which men who are party officials by nature feel towards the genuine political leadership is a powerful element in the attitude of some parties… Of course, their resentimment harmonizes perfectly with the like-minded interests of the bureaucracy.” (191)


Allowing resentimment to be natural for powerless officials to feel against the “genuine” leadership, he also “harmonizes” ‘resentimment’ with party bureaucracy, again indicating that the social ethic falls in line with their process of legitimation – bureacracy. The party performs their internal duties as an ascetic praxis under the same ‘slave morality’ as political honor while oppressed by a ruling order. By equivocating the need for legitimation with bureaucracy, Weber is also giving an ontological evaluation of legitimate existence as a harmonious praxis, apparently assuming that all parties experience ‘resentimment’ if they are to be legitimated. The powerful leader would be able to survive this ‘negatively privileged’ environment as long as he doesn’t deal with ‘resentimment’ “amongst colleagues”.

Weber’s “Politics as a Vocation” (1917) discusses the operational background of ‘resentimment’ in politics, putting the “modern” class-warfare at issue, and eventually warning that ‘resentimment’ in politics is not an effective means of achieving salvation and agreeing with himself about powerful leadership staying away from it:

“Under the modern class-warfare, the inner rewards are the satisfaction of hatred and revenge, of resentimment and the need for a pseudo-ethical feeling of being in the right, the desire to slander one’s opponents and make heretics of them.” (364-5)


Weber positioned modern ‘resentimment’ as a desire to slander opponents, furthering his insistence of ‘resentimment’ as a driving force of the literati, those oppositional charismatic leaders like Kurt Eisner. He reminds the reader that the fervor of ‘resentimment’ has the potential of being useless rhetoric, or the future of oppressing others:

“the emotionalism of the revolution is then followed by a return to traditional, everyday existence, the hero of the faith disappears and so, above all, does the faith itself, or it becomes (even more effectively) a part of the conventional rhetoric used by political philistines.” (365)


Then, he continues to align the hopes of ‘resentimment’ with its task of salvation, but in a


negative way:


“The ‘salvation of the soul’ is endangered by each of these [hopes for the future of the Fatherland] whenever men strive to attain them by political activity, employing the means of violence and acting on the basis of an ethic of responsibility… People aren’t responsible for the success of their belief.” (366)


Weber’s picture of ‘resentimment’ in politics is on one hand effective, because of the balancing effect bureaucracy has against plutocracy, and on the other hand quite modern, because the “ethic of responsibility” is always involved. By this, I mean that the “ethic of conviction” is, for Weber, a-political, because the rationality of politics insists that there are inner-worldly convictions. The “ethic of responsibility”, appropriated from the Torah as a description of Judaism’s most distinctive idea, emplies a causal relationship between actions and the world we live in, the inner-world. Weber’s forewarning about “political” ‘resentimment’ in the context of violence brings us back to his warning about its “bearing on social ethics”, including a value-judgement that one’s soul couldn’t be saved if you act violently in hopes of salvation. His argument against violent political ‘resentimment’ rests on the lack of agency one person or one political group has, because revolt depends on more things than just them. His warning to this end both diminishes the reputation of those revolutionary literati and reprimands the “ethic of responsibility” in its potentially violent shortcomings. Weber’s political ‘resentimment’ exists within the modernity of ‘monarchic government’ embodied by bureaucracy, peer ‘resentimment’, and most dangerously, revolutionary tendencies. The powerful political leader does not act with ‘resentimment’, but his followers (Untertan) and supporting party structure do. This makes ‘resentimment’ a functional force within social order but not the only force.


Resentimment’ creates a framework for understanding Weber’s nuanced depiction of society and polity. In this essay, I have selected every descriptive use of ‘resentimment’ by Weber, allowing this concept to stand outside of the Nietzschean discourse. The ultimate difference is the negotiation of ‘resentimment’ within politics as a response to hierarchy, but without Nietzsche’s notion that ‘resentimment’ can explain the entirety of these actions in the modern world. This difference from Nietzsche doesn’t give ‘resentimment’ a back-seat to political action, though. Quite on the contrary, Weber continues to use the concept as a mechanism to determine sources of violence by the polity on society, the potential of leaders, the legitimation of a regime. It is integral to Weber’s understanding about evolving concepts of salvation within the increasingly ‘disenchanted’ world, and yet ‘resentimment’ also represents an enchantment by ideology. It is a concept that contributes to the sociology of politics and religion by virtue of its breadth and prominence.

[1] The title of this translation changed to “The distribution of power in the community: Classes, Stände, Parties” in 2010 by New Zepplin University Waters, Tony, and Dagmar Waters (2015)

[2] Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Geneology of Morals. 1887.

[3] Just two years before Weber published this essay, Martin Buber’s study “The Spirit of Judaism” followed up on the success of Édouard Dumont’s study La France juive (1886).

[4] “Although the earth forms a sphere, history performs no circle around it, but has on the contrary a determinate East. Here rises the outward physical sun, and in the West sinks down: here rises the sun of self-consciousness, which diffuses a nobler brilliance.” The light cast on the West by its origination in the East allows the West to be reflective and aware of its own identity. George Fredrick Hegel. Lectures on the History of Philosophy. 1805-6, trans. E S Haldane, 1892-6.

[5] Gerth and Mills. From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. Oxford University. 1946. (62)

[6] This is addressed by an analysis of “Politics as a Vocation” and will be addressed briefly.

[7] Morris, Brian. Anthropological Studies of Religion. Cambridge University. 1987.

[8]  The song “Minority” (Green Day, 2000) offers a compelling elucidation of this effect.

[9] Orlick, J. The Politics of Regret. 2007 (157)

[10] In German, the word ‘mindern’ means ‘to minimize’, the illusion of which is lost in a translation that emphasizes the characteristic of oppression.

[11] As discussed in Weber’s Sociology of Religion.

[12] Stauth and Turner. Nietzsche’s Dance. Basil Blackwell. 1988. (114)

[13] The German word for publication, Veröffentlichung, is much more compelling because it expresses an element of timing and exertion, closer in meaning to the word “release” [of thoughts unto the world]. Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time discusses this.

Aetiology of Hysteria in Ingeborg Bachmann’s Das Buch Franza



The plot unfolds as Martin Renner receives a confusing telegram from his sister Franza, who begs him to help her. She has been married to an aged psychiatrist, her “großartiges Fossil” of a husband who has begun to psychologically torture her, like a subject in one of his experiments. Martin finds her in their hometown, Galicia, a former Austro-Hungarian empire now known only as a border-region, and attempts to help his tormented sister by inviting her on his vacation to Egypt. On the way to Egypt, first on a boat to Alexandria, and then by bus, Martin and Franza discuss the origins of her perceived illness. Suddenly, Franza begins a hysteria that leads to her death. The first chapter provides background for Franza’s ultimate death, with a retrospective on her youth during the Austrian Anschluß, the Nazi annexation of Vienna in 1938. The second part is a collection of fragmentary (but chronological) thoughts that are analytical of the world but introspective at the same time.

With two distinct genders, a polarization between families and lovers, set in the first generation post-War era, with a travelling period between the northern and southern hemispheres, and ending in death, the dualities of Ingeborg Bachmann’s Das Buch Franza are many. Criticized and analyzed in the discourses of colonialism, feminism and identity politics, Bachmann’s post-mortem publication has received critical attention that is often related to its position as the second part of her unfinished novel series Todesarten. Bachmann’s unexpected death by apartment fire did not prevent Das Buch Franza from being completed, rather, as she notes in a letter to Klaus Piper in November, 1970, she shelfed (or rather, drawerd) the transcript for “different reasons”:

Das Buch Franza ist zudem in einer Schublade verschwunden und wird von mir, aus verschiedenen Gründen, noch lange  nicht oder überhaupt night veröffentlicht werden, ich weiß es selber noch nicht,” (Women Writers, 13)


From a letter written to Bachmann from Giséle Celan, Bachmann’s close friend and ex-wife

to her extra-marital lover, Paul Celan, it is possible to see that content of Das Buch Franza

was likely not the only thing troubling Bachmann. On May 13th, 1970, Giséle Celan states,

“Paul threw himself into the Seine. He chose the most anonymous, lonely death.”[1] Between

these letters in 1970 and Bachmann’s early death in Rome, 1973, Das Buch Franza was never

published, but its narrative predecessor (though written as a successor to Das Buch Franza) in

the Todesarten series was – Malina (1971).

Das Buch Franza was written around 1966[2], almost 15 years after Paul Celan dedicates his poem “In Egypt” (In Ägypten) to Bachmann[3], and only one year after Paul Celan attempted to murder his wife, Giséle[4]. In the ‘Poetological Afterward’ of Hans Höller and Andrea Stoll’s compilation of Bachmann’s Correspondence (2008) they note, “Bachmann views the title character’s journey to Egypt in Der Fall Franza (TA II: Das Buch Franza ) as a “journey through an illness,”” citing her Büchner Prize acceptance speech for Todesarten, “[…] she uses it [the word illness] in a sense invoked by Paul Celan in order to render visible the word’s implicit dialectic between the outer and inner situations of a first person.” (335) Because of these close connections between Bachmann and Celan’s verbiage and orientation towards Egypt, and because Das Buch Franza is the earliest finished transcript in the Todesarten Projekt, this research will focus exclusively on Das Buch Franza without relation to reoccurring themes throughout Todesarten.

In light of the connection between Celan’s poem In Ägypten, one of his earliest pieces of correspondence with Bachmann, and Das Buch Franza’s plot crescendo at her hysterical episode in Egypt, as well as Bachmann’s own commentary that the book is about illness, this research will focus on the duality of sickness and health, concluding that Bachmann situates Egypt in its duality as Franza’s wellness vacation and her cause of death. I analyze the aetiology of Franza’s death, maintaining the importance of Austrian historical background in as much as Bachmann insists upon it in her unpublished introduction to Das Buch Franza:

“I come from a country, without showing off about its geniuses, which has always concerned itself with those unknown beings, human beings their unfathomability, profundity. I also don’t have any explanation for why a number of revolutionary discoveries have taken place in my country. I’m just acknowledging it. From the undiscovered Sacher Masoch to the greatest pioneer, Sigmund Freud, however historical he may also have been, this line has never broken off, this recherche.” (TP 2:16)


Following the line of Austrian authors, I insist that Das Buch Franza follows the paradigm of hysteria in Sigmund Freud’s Seduction Theory, as outlined in “The Aetiology of Hysteria” (1896) by three groups of hysterics: 1. assaults by adults, concerning Franza’s infatuation with “Sire” in “der schönste Frühling” during the first chapter; 2. relationships between an adult and child, concerning Franza’s marriage to her “großartiges Fossil” Leo Jordan in the second section, “Jordanische Zeit”; and 3. Relationships between two children, usually brother and sister, presuming that one child has already had a relationship with an adult, like Franza and Martin in Egypt.[5] Bachmann’s Das Buch Franza is a piece of literature produced in the wake of Freud’s theories and the death of her own love affair at the hands of Celan’s mental illness.

In the published introduction, Bachmann writes that “This book, however, is not simply about a journey though illness. Ways of death also include crimes. This book is about a crime.”[6] She then suggests that it is the virus of the crime remains even after the end of the Second World War. Bachmann scholar Sara Lennox says, “Instead, in our society, the attitudes of the mind which produced National Socialism now exercise their brutality in the realm of consciousness,” (Murdered Daughters, 162), she quotes Das Buch Franza, “the slaughter is granted a place within the morals and customs of society,” (Franza, 4). The aetiology of the hysteria that caused Franza’s death is, for Bachmann, a crime that manifests in “morals and customs of society”; this situates Todesarten in its literary importance as a psychological case-study, and more importantly, sheds light on Bachmann’s configuration of narrators. Killing one off at a time, Das Buch Franza begins in the first chapter with three narrators: Franza, Martin, and the omniscient narrator, who is intermixed between the two. Martin’s narration drops off in the second chapter, likely because it is a reflection on her time with Jordan. She answers questions from Martin, but it is her and the narrator’s perspective. In the first two chapters, the narrator recounts the “schönsten Frühling” and her marriage to Jordan, about which Sabine Grimkowski suggests that the narrator is in fact another voice of Franza herself. This unity-yet division becomes increasingly noticeable throughout the novel, as the distance between I-narration and omniscient narration becomes unclear. When considering this in a Freudian context, we can relate the birth of the narrator to the initiation of latent hysterical systems, “triggered” by the psychoanalysis of her psychiatrist husband’s experiment. This unconscious memory begins to narrate, ending in Franza’s narration dissolved into the fragmented omniscient narrator.

The narration of Martin’s thoughts aside the hysterical Franza set the scene. His thoughts are narrated as reflections on life situations, “thinking about warts as a reason for marriage” (22), chewing some bread, and reflecting on the value of his parents’ old house, and the type of fossil the professor would be. Suggesting his training as a geologist, the narrator hints at memories “traces” through feldspar fossils, then immediately saying: “his sister was cut through by pain and by something he was unable to explore, given his specialty, for he had no desire to identify or describe his sister’s dissected soul, which was from the Modern Era and not form the Mesozoic.” (29) Immediately we are aware of the tension between the dawn of the Modern Era, and a conflict happening within Franza; Bachmann asks us to think of themes of the Modern Era surrounding Franza’s erratic return to Galicia.

How does Galicia relate to the theme of Egypt, or to hysteria? In both cases, Galicia was during the time before the traumatic event that caused or triggered the hysteria and the dying in Egypt. The narrator establishes spatial information that relate to Franza’s aetiology of hysteria: “The point where three countries converge. Three languages. From here we can retrace our steps backward…” (21); “she had married her father, or at least that’s how he thought of it on first impression, reducing things to the lowest denominator, though later he revised it to “father figure”,” (22). Suddenly Franza’s world is apparent to us, her hometown of Galicia is a retraced step, and her marriage to someone older is referred to by the Freudian Father Complex. Martin even notices the mirrored image of warts on the father’s face and wart on Jordan’s face, a mark of repetition compulsion at the hands of Franza (22). This opens up two possible avenues towards hysteria, both not exclusive of the other: 1. Galicia no longer exists as a city, removing her from her identity and producing a mourning that could end up as melancholy, one form of which would be the Father Complex and ultimately hysteria[7]; 2. she was sexually abused by her father, or perhaps he was absent, hence her attraction to Jordan as Father Complex. The first, suggesting her object-cathexis, is alluded to as both caused by the loss of her Galician culture due to war, and her need to acquire that of the victor: “He was then eighteen and she was twenty-three, about to give up her studies, allegedly having fainted in a hall of anatomy, or in an equally romantic tale she fell into the Fossil’s arms,” (7)  and later, after narrating that there are things in her “tyrannical brain” that she cannot fully uncover, she reverts to solace in her marriage to Jordan, “he’s more contemporary than I am, for I, I, I am from a lower race, and I have known it since it began that it’s one that has wiped itself out. That’s what I am, and he is the type that rules today,” (79). Her distrust of herself as a result of the Father Complex is later alluded to in the novel, when she knows for the first time why she feels “such angst”:

“I saw a graveyard at sunset, and the dream told me: That is the Graveyard of Daughters. And I looked down at my own grave, for I was one of the daughters, and my father was not there. But because of him I was dead and buried there. Maybe in your waking life you know something about a graveyard of children and who is guilty of your death. You’ll never know for sure, but you think about it, as hard as you can, though it will never come to you,” (78)


It is clear in this paragraph that Bachmann has situated fathers in opposition to daughters and responsible for the deaths of some, encouraging a reflection about the real world by using “you” to address the reader, and the ultimately fictive, that of dreams. This passage is ultimately striking because of its attention to patriarchal structures as potential causes for her “angst” and “death”, but also in its allusion to a daughter’s latent memory of fatherly abuse or fatherly neglect.

Franza’s “sickness of the past” (34) is another que to an aetiology of hysteria, placing Franza’s illness (and “destruction”) distinctly on the possibilities of trauma and identity politics:

“She still insisted on keeping hold of Galicia, despite so much having been taken from her, an inclination that was revealed by her forged passport… [he] promised himself to acknowledge who she was, even her faults, because she was being destroyed, yet he hoped she would discover just what had caused her destruction.” (35)


Just as Freud’s subject Dora tells stories in order to “excavate” her hysterical symptoms, so does Franza as they walk in the graveyard, where their father’s grave is absent. After noting that this spring was not the nicest, “but the second nicest,” (34) Franza collapses in a way Martin regards as symptomatic of the past. She is unable to walk, a cue of the expression of a repressed memory, and a textbook hysterical symptom for the traumatic eroticization of the foot, with the dormancy period called the “condition of suitability”. This instance, coupled with the baths she received from her brother, just like the one’s she used to give him, suggest that her repression is triggered towards hysteria. Freud notes that baths from already-sexualized children can also be considered sexual experiences. The brother-sister relationship as the third type of hysteria is assigned here. After the graveyard and her leg paralysis, her “dreamlike trance” changes the narration to be omniscient and retrospective, reflecting on when she met “Sire”. Here, Bachmann adds greater spatial dimension to the narrated past, giving more evidence that Franza is experiencing hysteria.

“Sire”, a British soldier that secured the area of Galicia, was the “first time in her life, [that she] demonstrated her instinctive discernment, a quality that later would help her make her way outside of Galicia… she said to him with confidence and for the third time: Sire!” (41) Her confidence and her pubescent romance come at the same time. “Sire” was the “first man in her life” (42), “who didn’t want her, or to rape her, there was no thought of that” (ibid.), though he did “violently” kiss her mouth before leaving back to England. After Franza sees “Sire” again at a conference in London, the narrator adds:

“And no one stood anymore at the edge of a road, somewhere in Europe, feeling as if she would collapse while trembling, or simply stand there forever in a cloud of dust, as the four tanks rolled on – which could no longer be seen” (48)


Here we can read the encounter between “Sire” and Franza as one of the childhood memories that is related to hysterical symptoms later in life. Could she no longer remember the sexual abuse, or was she experiencing object-cathexis because “Sire” didn’t remember her? Franza’s retrospective narration about eventual sexual approval by an older man is opposite Dora’s Case; Franza is aware that she desired the kisses, awarding her more cognitive agency than Freud allowed Dora, though she, like Dora, still experienced the kissing passively, a requirement for the Freudian idea of hysteria.

The case of Franza and “Sire” could be read as a polemic against Freud’s abandonment of the Seduction Theory in 1897. After protests from his colleagues and the general populace at the idea that childhood sexual experiences with adults were so widespread, Freud dropped the theory by suggesting that the pathological effects from sexual trauma can also be products of imagined encounters. In the Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis Freud says, “The phantasies possess psychical as contrasted with material reality, and we gradually learn to understand that in the world of neuroses it is psychical reality which is the decisive kind.” In the book Assault on Truth (1984) Jeffrey Masson suggests that Freud’s abandonment of the theory also “abandoned the scientific basis of his own work”[8]. In my opinion, Bachmann’s Das Buch Franza also presents a non-definitive answer to the question of rape and by leaving this question open within the context of Modernity, she references the patriarchal demand for Seduction Theory to be silenced.

After the ambiguous attempt to drown herself, from which she was saved (unlike Paul Celan), Franza exhibits another sign of Freudian hysteria, promiscuity, by leaving with the man on a motorcycle for the night. This counts for Freud as a “trigger”; Franza’s condition worsens considerably after that night. In chapter two, “Jordanian Time”, Martin’s narration drops out and Franza’s becomes deeply introspective, and wound together with the omniscient narrator: “Why was I hated so much? No, not me, the other within me. There are many possible explanations, and you’ll have them as soon as I tell you three stories, but as yet I don’t have them myself.” (62) In this instance, the omniscient narrator’s voice takes over for Franza’s self-talk. This shift in narration is particularly striking because it comes right after another “talking cure” narration episode, in which she thinks critically about Jordan’s ex-wives for the first time:

“Only now do I wonder about the other women and why all of them disappeared without a sound, why one no longer left the house, why another turned on the gas, while I myself am the third who amended herself with this name, becoming the third Frau Jordan. It’s as if over the entire time that lies sunken in the darkness a spotlight now shines… full of evidence that can’t be overlooked, and yet how willing I was to believe them dumb, ignorant, at fault-” (62)


Bachmann’s subject Franza cites Jordan as the cause of her breakdown, with evidence that victimizes herself and other women, effectively making Jorden the perpetrator. She describes her condition, with choke marks and peeling skin, claiming to not know where it is coming from except the, “result of a diabolical experiment. Oh, why didn’t he simply kill me. It’s just so unjust.” (63)

The second chapter draws out Bachmann’s attention to historical trauma, particularly the problem of patriarchy. Her explanations of in-house trauma depend on her husband’s mistreatment and because of her own latent condition of “suitability” as a “lesser race”. She says to him, “I think completely differently than you do.” To which he replies, “Ah an enemy in my own house.” (65) Polarizing the high-class Viennese man, to whom Martin describes by his “haughty tone” (18), ascribing the responsibility for Franza’s “changed hairstyle, dropped Galician accent, exchanging it for a different accent in Vienna.” (20) Jordan’s apparent insufferability alongside his cultural superiority forced Franza to conform. This still conforms with a traumatic latency, until her ego is shaken by her perceived erasure from the work she had been helping him with. Would this mean that he was going to divorce her, like the others?  In her article “Female Subjectivity”, author Ingrid Stipa adds to the discourse on Franza experiencing object-cathexis. She says:

“Franza’s psychic destruction in The Franza Case, her social exclusion, begins with the elimination of her name from the manuscript on which she and her psychiatrist husband has been working on together. In addition, Jordan begins to take notes on Franza’s behavior. With these two gestures, he effectively reduces Franza from the status of an autonomous individual participating in public-discourse, to an object of scientific observation or to a psychoanalytic case-study” (Tracing Bachmann, 164)


Even Franza herself notices that her ego is in trouble, she narrates, “my own zeal and sense of conviction had given meaning to my life” (64). By addressing Franza’s status within the public-discourse, Stipa suggests that the loss of perceived “place” in the world objectifies Franza as a case-study. After her husband’s questioning, she stood up and noticed her teeth chattering, and knew she had to leave because she would not get human sympathy from him. This is also a hysterical event listed in Aetiology of Hysteria that is symptomatic of unwanted oral stimulation, and brought up in Das Buch Franza as a conversation and glass of whiskey, then a bout of him screaming at her, all of which she took passively.

Her objectification in this chapter carries on through an invitation to the movies with Prohaska, Jordan’s colleague, which she declines but then accepts after he says it would bring him pleasure. Bachmann’s discussion of Franza’s loneliness is quickly evident of her hysterical condition going untreated. About her husband’s negative treatment of her, she says:

“The wolf doesn’t kill a humiliated opponent, for he simply can’t kill him. Did you know that? He’s simply incapable of biting the throat when it’s held up to him. How wise, how lovely. Yet mankind, possessing the strongest weapons, the strongest beast of prey, has no such qualms.” (70)


Her depiction of the wolf opposite mankind harkens back to Bachmann’s introductory remarks for Das Buch Franza, when she says that these crimes are so subtle that we can hardly perceive them, but we can certainly feel them[9]. Aligning Franza’s dehumanization with death in a gas chamber, Bachmann writes of Franza dreaming Jordan is turning on the gas. In this way, she is exploring female narrative within the context of the Holocaust. Jordan has deemed Franza unfit, no matter what she does, and for this reason he is terminating her, potentially from their marriage. On this topic, author Kirsten Kirk approaches Bachmann’s Todesarten with an idea that Franza’s psychiatric case is here more important than the male-female discourse. She says, “It becomes evident that Bachmann’s primary concern was not only the plight of those murdered in war, but the situation of psychiatric cases, as well as the mentally ill and the insane.” (Bachmann’s Death Styles, 117) The motif of fascism within interpersonal relationships, the husband divorcing the wife for her societal inadequacies and deeming her as “insane” reminds us of the history of hysteria as a disease. Franza herself references the female nature of hysteria: “The flight from reality, female behavior, typical woman.” (The Book of Franza, 69)

Franza herself admits to having “post-traumatic stress” (70) and that her memory is like a bumpy, scratched record – that is, unable to reveal the real music. But, Franza also thinks that her trauma began with Jordan, she says: “I wasn’t sick at all, I didn’t come to him as a patient.” (ibid.) Bachmann scholar Stephanie Bird argues that it is in the second chapter that the narrator invites the reader to adopt a critical position in relation to Franza questioning the validity of her values (Women Writers, 18), which I argue ultimately reflects on Franza’s need to idealize and project a higher moral authority than her perceived own. She recognizes the “norm” that everyone, even those with eczema, are pressed into (73) and says, “I tried to do it, I tried to understand it all, though such attempts were bound up with pain.” (ibid.) Her attempts to be what he wants are futile because he has already planned her destruction: “F.’s self-confidence, something that still needs to be shaken.” (77)

After finding the Fossil’s notes about her, Franza’s narrated sentences become more hectic, and more often in the form of questions. The omniscient narrator suddenly comes in, revealing that she’s talking to Martin. She is telling stories of coughing and choking, two more signs of latent oral trauma, and taking pills to negate the hysterical symptoms. Despite Martin’s self-proclaimed inability to think of things in the Modern Era, he is in the position of her psychologist, letting her talk through the trauma she has experienced. She asks Martin to forgive her for crying, relating it to the forgiveness requested at the Nuremberg Trails in their “disgusting banality” (86). Should Martin be compared to the men who are violent to Franza? I don’t think so, because although he is skeptical about taking Franza with him to Egypt, he still does, and has also promised to take her for who she is. He is also not indoctrinated into the patriarchal ring of psychology that Franza is now afraid of. Egypt is positioned as an offering by her brother in order to leave the fascist society for a while, a sort of cleansing.

In the first two chapters of Das Buch Franza, Bachmann checks off every symptom of hysteria mentioned by Freud in Aetiology of Hysteria, every possible source of the traumatic memory or cathexis, and even veils it under the sub-conscious, the omniscient narrator, as latent and death-causing. Psychoanalysis for Bachmann marks not only traumatic memory, but also the psychological terror that comes from Jordan’s will to power over his object of study, Franza. The motif of a “cure” is also at the same time wrapped up with an institutionalization of her ailment, which Franza reflects on as the displacement of fascism into personal relationships (The Book of Franza, 75). Franza’s panic attacks continue in the third chapter, characterized by trembling, difficulty breathing, moving, and speaking: “The Nile rose and sank quickly, the entire length of it. Franza leanes hard against the small table, her knees feeling weak, and then sat herself down on the stool that Martin shoved beneath her.” (122)

Discussing the way fear operates within her fragile state, scholar Simone Klapper addresses Franza’s inability to “name or judge” her illness symptoms, because she is afraid of conforming to features that would make her abnormal[10]. Lennox also describes the fact that both Franza and the narrator avoid diagnosing the protagonist, making them “unable to transcend racist discourses” (Murdered Daughters, 51). On the other hand, Klapper suggests that the aesthetic experience of Bachmann’s reflexive writing crosses the border of the symbolical order (Aesthetics, 10).  She also points out that the third chapter, “The Egyptian Darkness” alludes to Frued’s statement of the ‘woman as dark as the continent’. She cites Derrida, “Indeed, the desert resembles the characterization of the female (poststructuralist) theory as the open, structureless and indescribable”. It does seem that the desert allows Franza some control over her hysteria: “There was no doubt that her skin had begun to heal as a result of experiencing real necessity. Something (what?) was helping her to gain control over herself, for she no longer trembled for hours on end and was becoming brown and fit.” (103) And: “everything is empty and yet more immediate than anything that claims to exist. Not simply nothingness speculated on by the holders of endowed professorships. It escapes definition.” (89) The desert is not long her cure, but exists in its “otherness” as a safe place for her for some time. Franza is momentarily able to free herself from the experience of the professor, until she encounters the “crimes” she had experienced also in Vienna. Many texts try to localize her psychoanalytic condition in this change, concerning Franza as anorexic, hysterical, neurotic and suicidal[11]. Other texts accuse Bachmann as “othering” Egypt as a cure for the European banality of evil; Monika Albrecht argues that she is pre-destined to die, and the trip to Egypt evokes her lethal spirit[12]; Hermann Weber call her trip to Egypt “Überhöhung und Zelebration der Krankengeschichte einer Europäerin[13] ; Professor Sabine Wilke writes:

diese Genre stelle sich nähmlich heraus, dass es für die (allein oder auch mit Begleitung) reisende weiße Frau nur eine Stellung gibt, die beiderseits (von den weißen Reisenden wie auch vonden afrikanischen Eingeboren) als akzeptable empfunden wird,” (“Wenn Du nach Afrika gehst, vergiss die Peitsche nicht”, 58)


and even criticizes Bachmann’s allusions to colonialism in the context of feminism:

wenn sich der gebildete Wiener, Martin, über die ungebildete, laute, penetrante, rosa Hüte tragende amerikanische Kolonie in Kairo mokiert, ohne auf die europäische Verwicklung mit der kolonialen Geschichte diese Landes zu reflektieren. Que Opferidentifikation wird Franza zu einer Kolonisierten, ihr Mann Jordan zum Kolonisator – ein position, die in der feministischen Kritik der achtziger Jahre noch vollkommen unproblematisch als Beschreibung einer patriarchalischen Prealität rezipiert wurde.” (ibid., 60)


I agree with the critiques of Albrecht, Weber and Wilke about the overuse of Egypt to serve a Western plot, especially concerning the appropriation of Egyptian burial as a metaphor for self-reflection of the white woman’s experience of being judged. When she approaches the “scratched-out symbols of Deir al-Bahari within the temple of Queen Hatshepsut” it dawns upon her that “though [the pharaoh] had deleted her, she was still there. It [the hieroglyph] can still be read, because nothing is there where in fact something should be” (109), that is, by being erased she has already earned her place there. The tombs provoke her as a relatable act of violence, of being read and dissected to the point of destruction just for the idea of science, and for the pleasure of the scientist.

The third chapter’s archeological metaphors of expeditions, ruins, artifacts, ancient signs and digging all relate to the book’s commentary on psychoanalysis. They also express a shift from her foreign privilege of interest in the culture, until the Nile mud bath, during which she was reminded of some rules to prevent her skin from burning and suddenly had an attack. At this point in the book, the reader is invited to question Franza’s status as a victim; is she unable to live in a world with rules? Freud would notice here that Martin had been rubbing the mud on her body, an indication of sexual contact that would result in Franza’s complete paralysis. Author Shanmuganathan draws attention to this episode in the mud as Freud’s consideration of people being buried alive to be the most “uncanny” (unheimlich), because it is a transformation of the fantasy to live in the womb.[14] After participating in the womb with her, the symbolism expressing the brother-sister relationship that occurs in the latter third of hysteria patients in Aetiology of Hysteria just as it occurs in the latter third of this novel, Martin considers either himself or another having sex with her as the cure: “He had to get rid of the Fossil” (108) Her body, fossilized in mud, is undergoing narrative dissociating the body from Franza’s mind. The eroding structures of her mind during the reiteration of birth in the mud suggest that in Egypt she no longer lives under the pressure of memory, or her identity or otherwise, but now under the pressure of her status to Martin as a fossil that needs to be gotten rid of, rather than helped.

“This urge to destroy, carried out with great chisels, this desire to erase a great figure. […] She only said, he was not able to destroy her.” (110) After Martin’s assumption that Franza needed sex, the patriarchal nature of the story becomes vivid; the theme of death among ruins and among weddings both mirrors and perpetuates the theme of scientific maintenance of ruins. The narrator has taken over for both Martin and Franza, expressing details about their surroundings’ hopelessness against the “whites” (112), referring to a building project that was occurring along the Nile at the time. These dualities of death and life are more predominant in the third chapter, and between the two so is blame. As Franza charges the “whites” as the cause of suffering, she is also referring to the “white” of a fossil, the intricate past structures that make up its sturdy core, and if broken, cannot be reassembled.[15]

While Martin is partying with his friends instead of concerning himself with Franza, he becomes a violent actor. By allowing her to be raped by the beach cretin, and insisting that she smoke hash, he negates her needs and instead imposes his ideas upon her. “She began again to smoke, obedient, sensing nothing,” (115) “the hemp had taken them to different places.” (117) The world of patriarchal dominance existed in Cairo, too, and without Martin’s help, he was effectively participating. This resonates as a conversation about guilt during National Fascism. In this particular wave of hysterics, the narrator begins to focus not on the Egyptians, but on the Europeans around Franza. As her subconscious, the narrator exposes Franza’s distance from the world and her seeking to understand it. Wilke writes:

“Die Erzählerin fantisiert sich in eine Welt hinein, in der die Ich-Grenzen verschwimmen und stattdessen eine Verschmelzung der einzelnen Körper im sexuellen Akt stattfindet, als die Heilung von der individualisierten europäischen Kultur empfunden wird.” (64)


This particular distortion, of finding one’s self in a stranger as a process towards healing is significant by way of Franza’s recognition of the Egyptian woman who is seemingly enslaved by the man, and also in its Freudian context, as a “healing” from the iron cage of individualized European culture through the dissolution of her own body. Her attention to the strange woman and the narrator’s attention to the flooding and the “whites” coming cannot be discussed without the contribution of Paul Celan’s poem In Ägypten. He writes:

‘In Egypt’
For Ingeborg

June, 1948

Thou shalt say to the eye of the woman stranger: Be the water!
Thou shalt seek in the stranger’s eye those whom thou knowest are in the water.
Thou shalt summon them from the water: Ruth! Naomi! Miriam!
Thou shalt adorn them when thou liest with the stranger.
Thou shalt adorn them with the stranger’s cloud-hair.
Thou shalt say to Ruth and Miriam and Naomi:
Behold, I sleep next to her!
Thou shalt most beautifully adorn the woman stranger near thee.
Thou shalt adorn her with the pain for Ruth, for Miriam and Naomi.
Thou shalt say to the stranger:
Behold, I slept next to these!


The poem sets up the feminine, Torah- abiding heroines of Jewish literature, Ruth and Naomi. Ruth, who inspires us to transcend the negativity in life after losing her husband, represents feminine grace[16]. Naomi, her friend, seeks to marry Ruth to her brother, a similar story to Martin’s desire to find someone to sleep with Franza. And Miriam, a separate story, is the sister of Moses who is “associated with bringing husband and wife back together again” through the ritual of Mitveh, which purifies the body[17]. Her name, as well, means “bitter sea”, connected with the bitter salt water that killed the traveling Israelites and drowned the Egyptians. This resonates with us as the conversation about water and flooding, which I will address briefly.

The beloved Jewish figures are set against the “stranger” who saves as vessel for them. There is no point of recognition of the stranger except through the identification of these three – even the acknowledgment “Behold, I sleep next to her” of the stranger is made directly to the three spirits. The poem is a process of conjuring – it is not the stranger who is talked to, but the “strange woman’s eye” which is commanded to be the water. It is this water, perhaps the water of the unconscious given that the eye reflects us back to ourselves, which allows for the interaction to take place. The poem moves from the command to acts – seeking, calling forth, adorning… it is in lying with the stranger that the three spirits are adorned, which reads as both a ceremonial and an act of love. They are adorned with the “cloud-hair” moving from the eyes in which they are to the frame, making the stranger an instrument to them and incidental in herself. “Behold I sleep next to her” follows – an act of giving, of conquering, for the sake of the spirits. But the poem ends with a focus turned back on the stranger, as she is beautified more with the presence of the pain over Ruth, Miriam and Noemi than her hair could provide for them. The importance is in the memories, in the subconscious the speaker is bringing to sleeping with this strange woman, and she is lit up in the beauty of his own imaginings. The poem ends on a declaration made to the stranger – still a stranger – after having lain with her. “Behold, I slept next to these.” The spirits have left, the moment is gone, but there is beauty in what has happened and the revelation is able to take place now that the spell is broken.

Coming across Dr. Körner, a man who ascribes to the Western treatment of illness and wears a white coat like her husband, Franza participates in her own subjugation by asking him to complete her process of death. Martin symbolically facilitates this process because she stels $300 from him to bribe the doctor with. Dr. Körner didn’t know her husband in the tight Viennese circles after having fled before denazification, so Franza began to feel agency due to her knowledge from her husband’s work, but her independence without his reputation. She already had the notes on Dr. Köner, but he did not have them on her; she knew that he had murdered sick women in the camps, “the immediate eradication of the unwanted sick, the assisted deaths, the mercy killings.” (The Book of Franza, 129) Rambling on to him only facilitates his aggression towards her, as he shirks off responsibility by saying, “I was never that high up” (ibid.). Demanding her to specify her illness, she instead demands a lethal injection. He denies her and escapes. She has been rejected by both her brother and the Dr. Kröner while in a hysterical state. The sadism of the oppressive males, and those who traumatize her through rape, cause the masochism of Franza’s suicide. Freud would suggest that we interpret this as an exaggerated and self-brutalizing ego. As readers, we are left only with Franza’s reconstruction of the story, the same as Martin.

Without a discussed incest-taboo, Martin is a figure not unlike Robert Musil’s Mann Ohne Eigenschaften, Man Without Qualities (1948) or his Ises and Osiris (1923), in which the sister rebuilds her brother’s body[18]. After killing herself, the narrator tells us of Martin: “He hoped that she had not resented staying in the room at the Semiramis or his lack of concern about her condition, and that she did not die conscious of any of these,” (144) proving his guilty feelings, and also reflecting on the intimacy that they maintained. Her relationship with Martin is the only love-relationship in the story with the exception of “Sire”; like Naomi, Martin wants to help Franza find “feminine grace” in her separation from Jordan, potentially through the cleansing effect of going somewhere else, but unlike Ruth and Miriam, the beautiful figures of myth, Franza exists in the Modern Era, fossilized as a victim of trauma.

His further conundrums about lying her back to Galicia speak to the meaning of Egypt as a place for hope but eventual death. He thought that “Wadi Halfa would soon be flooded. That’s where she should lie, because that was where she had been the happiest.” (ibid.) And yet, he says that Egypt would have been a mistake for him, because it is “so similar to the present.” (145) He is rejecting the romanticization of Egypt for himself, but would like her to be in the flood there. Bachmann situates Egypt in its duality as Franza’s wellness vacation and her solidification of death. The narrator continues and ends:

“It wouldn’t be swept away, for nothing can be swept away. It couldn’t be dragged under, for there was no current. Instead, a great flood. Rising.

The Egyptian darkness, after all, is absolute.” (146)


Coming back to Paul Celan’s poem on Ingeborg, the realization of what has happened and what could have been is only apparent once the spirits of Ruth, Naomi and Miriam are gone; once Franza has died, the narration of Egypt’s flood by way of “the whites” who built a canal there is symbolic of the Modern Era’s negation of those who are different. Situating Franza as the fallen hero of this flood myth, Bachmann puts her in conversation with the Jews enslaved in Egypt and achieving Exodus. By recognizing Bachmann’s influence from Paul Celan’s poem, and from his suicidal illness, we are given the framework for understanding Franza’s Aetiology of Hysteria, and also her reflection on fascism and human negation. Bachmann’s illusion to the Jewish heroines written about by Paul Celan is a framework in itself, set within the larger discourse of the crimes of fascism and the illness of hysteria caused from it.


[1] Höller, Hans. Stöll.  Correspondence. Seagull Books. 2010. (295)

[2] Lennox, Sara. Cemetery of the Murdered Daughters. University of Massachusetts. 2006.

[3] Höller, Hans. Stöll.  Correspondence. Seagull Books. 2010. (324)

[4] Timeline. Höller, Hans. Stöll.  Correspondence. Seagull Books. 2010. (351)

[5] Gray, Richard. Lecture Notes. University of Washington. GER 390. Winter 2016.

[6] The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldman. 1999. (3)

[7] “Object-cathexis”. Freud, Sigmund, “Mourning and Melancholia”. Pg. 245.

[8] Gray, Richard. Lecture Notes. University of Washington. GER 390. Winter 2016.

[9] Filkins, Peter. Introdcution: “Darkness Spoken”. The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldman. ix. January, 1999.

[10] Klapper, Simone. “The Aesthetics of Fear in Ingeborg Bachmann’s Novel Fragment Das Buch Franza” 2000.

[11] C.F. Kunz. Postmoderne Literatur in deutscher Sprache. (142)

[12] Albrecht, Monika. “Esmuss geschrieben werden” Kolonisation und magische Welt-sicht in Ingeborg Bachmann’s Romanfragment Das Buch Franza. Würzburg, 1998. (68)

[13] “Zerbrochene Gottesvorstellungen: Orient und Religion in Ingeborg Bachmann’s Romanfragment Der Fall Franza.” Ingeborg Bachmann – Neue Beitrage zu ihrem Werk. Internationales Symposium Münster. 1991.

[14] Shanmuganathan, V. “Time, pain and myth in Ingeborg Bachmann’s Das Buch Franza and Anne Duden’s Übergang.”

[15] Klapper, Simone. “The Aesthetics of Fear in Ingeborg Bachmann’s Novel Fragment Das Buch Franza” 2000.

[16] Kohn, Leah. “The Book of Ruth: An Exploration of Jewish Femininity” Women in Judaism. ProjectGenesis, Inc. 2000.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Lecture Notes. Professor Henrietta Herwig. GER 297. UC Davis. 23. May 2017.

Arrested Narrative in Pierrot Le Fou; The Fine Line Between Reality and Absurdity


We leave him on the beach. One must imagine Ferdinand happy. Also known to his femme-fatale as “Pierrot” and maybe to the viewer as “le Fou”, Jean-Luc Godard’s Ferdinand rejects the disillusionment of Parisian society and embraces life on the run as he searches for meaning in the countryside. The realistic cinematography and escape of the absurd in Pierrot Le Fou (1965) involves intellectual, moral and narrative ambiguities[1] emblematic of the ethos belonging to French New Wave auteurs like Godard[2]. About Pierrot Le Fou, Godard remarked, “One should not describe people, but what lies between them and the world”[3]; our melancholic hero’s struggle with inauthenticity results in his disassociation with Parisian society and ultimately his mélange with death. In this account of Pierrot Le Fou, I argue that cinematic realism is asserted briefly through the cinematic landscape’s spatial unity and mise-en-scène, while Godard asserts realism through Ferdinand’s battle to find authenticity. Preempted by asocial feelings, Godard’s fragmented narrative of Ferdinand’s melancholy sees some progression, but results in self-murder.

The Unheimlich Party

“We’re living in an age of rump,” suggests Ferdinand in preparation for the evening cocktail party, mocking the banalities of his wife’s preparations. Very tightly scripted, which is perhaps why the absurd portion of Pierrot Le Fou is so fascinating, the cocktail party’s technicolor and staged theatricality show an inventiveness that breaks boldly from straight-laced historical dramas or melodramatic adaptations of literature. The women inside the party, however seemingly liberated by their bare breasts and partner-switching, resonate no differently than a traditional advertisement. Unimpressed by the rump-shaping fascination of his wife or the aqua-net commerciality of the nameless party-goer, Ferdinand can only blow smoke at the shallow discussions until his entrance into the room without a color filter, with an American film director.  I think that Godard’s use of hypercolorful filters suggests the commodity culture of pop art of the 1960s, moreover, blue and red, the primary colors of Godard’s attention, assert themselves as an extension of the French flag that encompasses Ferdinand from the beginning of the film, in his comfortable blue and red striped robe, to the end, when he wrapped his blue-painted face in red dynamite. This attention to color as a social commentary is addressed by Edgar Morin in his book The Cinema, Or The Imaginary Man (1978):

“Color is only a luxury of perception but any luxury, taking root, becomes a need. It does not have the powers of black and white, but it develops others. Color goes hand in hand with sobriety and splendour[…]

So, if color is on the way to becoming necessary to film, it needed twenty years of perfecting and insistence to begin to devitalize black and white, which had not waited for its arrival to institute a total universe.” (The Cinema, 138)


Morin insists that film aesthetics are a “history of perpetual adaptation… always adjusting itself to the ebbs and flows of spectatorial expectation and subjective needs,”[4] and suggests that color can be attributed to both technology and social desire, revealing the historical significance of uses in cinema which “have today become needs,” (The Cinema, 142).

This aestheticization of Godard’s attention to then-contemporary French society through Pierrot Le Fou’s existential journey could potentially answer Ferdinand’s question, “What exactly is cinema?” To which Godard would answer about Pierrot Le Fou in particular: “It is a film about painting, well not really painting, but a film that resembles a work of art.”[5]  Posed to the American director filming an adaptation of Baudelaire’s attestation to the decadent plague of Parisian society, Le Fleurs Du Mal (1857), the response “like a battleground,” full of blood, violence and love, doesn’t fulfill Ferdinand’s query, prompting his exit to the party. Should André Bazin have been cast as the director, rather than Samuel Fuller, perhaps the answer would have pleased conflicted Ferdinand: “[Cinema is] to reveal the hidden meaning of being and things without breaking up their continuity,” (What is Cinema?, 104). Like Godard, Bazin is inscribing himself into a debate about cinematic form that is ontologically valenced. This makes Ferdinand’s comment, “A person ought to feel unity… They [the party attendees] are like separate machines, there is no unity,” applicable within the scene of the party, staged without realistic character movement and exclusively scripted, mechanical interaction, but compliant with a photographic unity of space by way of full shots and logical montage. The realistic cinematography of Ferdinand walking from room to room is offset by the absurdist conversation.

The cocktail party is the only sequence in Pierrot Le Fou that proceeds with a realistic temporal slowness and logic inherent to Bazin’s idea that cinema should substitute for what is real, which “must have spatial density on the screen… or you run the risk of threatening the very ontology of the cinematographic tale,” (What is Cinema?, 47). The single event of the party is presented fragmentarily, with scrolling shots that maintain Ferdinand as the only moving referent among people sitting and smoking in what is a believably suffocating Parisian atmosphere. Godard’s manipulation of Bazinean realism is clear; the full-shots and logical montage maintain a verisimilitude to realistic movements throughout a party, but the content of the attendees’ interactions is inane, banal and therefore, absurd.

Godard’s juxtaposition of realism and absurdity extends throughout Pierrot Le Fou, but the party scene heightens and elicits Ferdinand’s existential angst that spurs the rest of his journey and eventual death. In my opinion, the disjointedness of his experience culminates in the snap change to green in a previously blue room, at which point Ferdinand mutters through his gros bédo, “Olympio’s melancholy” – no doubt an allusion to Victor Hugo’s “Melancholy of Olympio” (Beams and Shadows, 1840). In this poem, Hugo’s realization is that nature’s endless beauty is cruel to human beings, whose happiness is unsustainable: “How little time it takes for you, Nature, with your unwrinkled brow, to change everything, disregardingly, and, in your acts of transformation, to snap the mysterious threads that bind our hearts.”[6] This bit of foreshadowing before Pierrot Le Fou’s transcendence of the absurd Parisian lifestyle to his death in the countryside is another gesture towards the social as an unheimlich space.

To address the party as unheimlich is to give Ferdinand the hero’s role, apart from the others, including even his wife. Ferdinand confirms this distance and estrangement from society when he says “A man alone always talks too much,” and, with a jump-cut change, he throws cake in his wife’s face and retrospectively narrates the plot change as “Next chapter, despair”. What is important about his admittance that the next chapter is despair, is that we can differentiate the first chapter as something other than melancholia; the omniscient viewer and the perturbed Ferdinand are the only privy to the strangeness and absurdity of Parisian society, privileging the viewer’s empathy with Ferdinand’s existential angst, that ultimately leads to his following melancholia, or sense of loss[7]. Heidegger says that while experiencing angst, it “does not signify that the world is absent, but tells us that the innerworldly entities are of so little importance in themselves that on the basis of this insignificance of what is innerworldly, the world in all its worldhood is all that still obtrudes itself,” (187) that is, being in the world is all that is left, and everything else becomes the unheimlich[8], the strange. This angst leads Ferdinand to search for meaning in the world, a sense of comfort that something is still left: “Some days are like that. You meet nothing but squares. So you start to look in the mirror and have doubts about yourself. Come on. I’ll take you home.” At this point, Ferdinand and his former lover Marianne embark on his journey to find a heim, a comfortable home, his unity, transcending the absurdity of Parisian society from which he feels estranged.

Ferdinand’s search for unity, he says, “between his eyes and ears” is also his search for belief in the world. In Cinema 2, Deleuze comments, “Only belief in the world can reconnect man to what he sees and hears. The cinema must film, not the world, but the belief in this world, our only link.”[9] This resonates with Godard’s suggestion of cinema as the relationship between man and the world, rather than the focus on man as the subject. Thereby, Godard departs from Bazin’s necessary verisimilitude for the remaining Pierrot Le Fou by juxtaposing the real and the absurd through the relationship between Ferdinand and the world, rather than focusing on Ferdinand as a subject in a linear narrative. After the escape from Paris under Bastille Day fireworks, concrete scenes are no longer synthesized into a temporal logic, but move as a “disjointed synthesis”[10] no longer subsumed under the imposition of innerworldly entities. Instead of the linear melancholic psychoanalysis we might expect in “Next chapter, despair,” Pierrot Le Fou’s narrative is arrested by a chain of signifiers relating to the engendered diametric opposition of Ferdinand and Marianne, and of filmic illusion and actuality.

Engendered Opposition

Ferdinand and Marianne were lovers, confirmed by the singular intimate contact between them while Ferdinand drives her home after he leaves the “boring” cocktail party. Placing his hand lightly on her shoulder, the viewer’s expectations become that of a typical romance – let their love cure his angst! Instead, Godard continues the unheimlich eeriness for the viewer (but not for Ferdinand): a strangely silent, unrealistic, diegetic sound of car movement; swirling iridescent colors unlike any street lamps I have ever seen; the unembodied but spoken sexual encounters, “I put my hand on your knee.” “Moi aussi, Marianne,” while leaving both hands on the wheel. It is important to note here, that his promise “I’ll do whatever you want, Marianne,” foreshadows Marianne as the force that propels the narrative forward. It is her desire for freedom, both with and from Ferdinand, that promotes his interaction with the world. Without her, would he embark on his journey to transcend the absurd? Had she survived at the end, would he have killed himself? The passive-active opposition of Marianne and Ferdinand display Godard’s penchant for the existential-ontological cinema, while their fragmented adventures resist a Bazinean condition of realistic cinematic spectacle.

Though driving the car, Ferdinand’s passivity is initially expressed by his conversation with Marianne about life’s difference than books. Marianne suggests that she wishes life were easier to understand – like books – “clear, logical, organized,” to which Ferdinand says life is. She responds, “Non, Pierrot.” This is the first of many moments of disagreement between the two, and the instance of naming Ferdinand “Pierrot”, which refers to the Commedia dell Arte clown-figure who imitates the absurdity of others[11], but also to the adventurous nature that Marianne loves about Pierrot-Ferdinand. The initial car scene is significant, because in Ferdinand’s attempt to escape the absurdity of Parisian life, he clarifies that he believes in the “clear” authenticity of the world he wishes to find, a desire seen as foolish, “le fou”, by active Marianne.

Laura Mulvey, author of Visual Pleasures and Narrative Cinema (1975), would reject the understanding of Marianne as active, saying: “Presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in the normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a storyline, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation,” (Visual Pleasures, 84). Considering Marianne as the passive figure in this narrative about Ferdinand’s quest for authenticity is possible by considering that she punctuates his intellectual progress by her capricious governance. Increasingly throughout the film, Ferdinand attempts to propound his ideas in his journal, embellishing the static nature of his physicality and yet asserting the forward-moving linearity of his intellectual journey.

Ferdinand’s journaling serves as fragmented intertitles to the otherwise questionably linear plot development. I assert here that Godard expresses realism through Ferdinand’s existential-ontological journey through long-shots during Ferdinand’s leadership in the relationship with Marianne, much like Ferdinand values his intellectual pursuits until she interrupts them, at which point Godard fragments the verisimilitude to innerworldly activity through abstracted montage and action. Take, for example, the chunk of discussion beside the bridge with no beginning, where they intend to burn their car after an escape from the gas station brawl. Marianne, directing Ferdinand’s driving to make their death from a car crash “look real, this isn’t a movie!”[12], is still infatuated with her obliging Pierrot, though he is clearly in disagreement with their activities. He states, “Always fire, blood, and war,” alluding to Samuel Fuller’s description of cinema at the cocktail party, to which she responds by exploding the car with a shotgun and saying, “Pretty, isn’t it?” This scene is not only a source of disagreement, but important to the development of the plot: Ferdinand has purposefully left Marianne’s gun-running money inside the car, an attest to his disavowal of society and a separation between Marianne and Ferdinand’s ideas about progress. Ferdinand says, “Travel broadens the mind, let’s go,” taking the active role during the middle section of the film, in which Godard’s cinematography changes from fast jump-cuts of action, to long-shots through rivers and forests, and voice-over narrative.

Leaving the absurd piece of bridge behind in a long-shot of a them walking through a field, “like shadows,” “through a mirror,” Godard’s auteurism shows itself. The theme of the mirror can be addressed as a cinematic reflection back to the viewer of what they already know[13]. Godard’s framing of Ferdinand and Marianne during their traversal of France is distinct from the distracting jump-cuts of their criminal life, which, according to Jean Mitry in The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema (1963), “produces a sort of preoccupying fascination which confines the impressions of consciousness within a frame”[14] and eliminates the viewer’s ability to contextualize that the film isn’t reality. Godard’s assertion of narrative linearity in this middle portion allows the viewer to relax from the anxiety of trying to piece together suggestive montage, and allows us to participate in Ferdinand’s voice-over narrative realization of his impulses[15]. Their captivating, romantic journey is cut off by Marianne calling Ferdinand a “liar”, and a non-linear jump to the pair in a city, discussing the make of a car while Ferdinand reads a children’s book. I argue that Marianne is the active character because the film does not end with Ferdinand’s discovery of authenticity, rather, Marianne wins the struggle against him by throwing his books into the ocean and asking herself “What am I going to do?”, a precursor of her leaving Ferdinand and forcing his attention to divert from static writing (but active thinking) to actively finding her (and ceasing his quest for authenticity). This cessation of Ferdinand’s journey and ultimately his death could allude to Marianne as a femme-fatale.

In the next scene, Marianne says, “show me you’re a man,” to which Ferdinand responds, “let me read this.” Unlike the Mulveynean assertion of the masculine gaze making a female character passive, their engendered difference exists only in the world of Marianne as the leader. The dialogical difference between the two is engendered, notable in Marianne’s statement, “You talk to me with words, and I look at you with feelings,” and the sexualized appropriation of Marianne’s “ejaculatory force of the eyes”[16] with which she lies to Ferdinand with words “I won’t leave you” but looks directly into the camera. Looking at the viewer, she reveals that she is lying, breaking the fourth wall without addressing the camera with words. Marianne’s presence takes up more time than Ferdinand’s journaling, possibly to his dismay, and their dialogue with the viewer about the other arrests the narrative through this fourth wall’s break. Scenes in which Marianne is the active character comprise the majority of the film and cut off Ferdinand’s quest for authenticity, resulting in his suicide.



Illusion and Actuality

On the drive away from Paris, Marianne comments on the radio’s announcement of the deaths in Vietnam, an awkward intrusion of then-contemporary news media into their romance’s revival. She says: “115 killed. Yet each one is a man, and we don’t even know who he is.” She connects the unheimlich feeling of the Barthean “blind field” of the photograph, which captures its referent but leaves out the activity of the referent’s life[17], with contemporary events that affect society but take place outside of her experiential world. This intrusion of actuality[18] arrests the opposing narrative of their romance and receives a response from angsty Ferdinand, “Oui, c’est la vie.” Life, for Ferdinand, and cinematic realism for Godard, is interrupted by society’s absurdity of external actions taking precedence in an otherwise linear narrative. Godard’s existential-ontological cinema includes the intrusion of external matters (Marianne’s gun running business) on the consciousness (Ferdinand’s quest for authenticity).

The next morning, inside Marianne’s apartment, the montage of art takes visual precedence over the murdered man, continuing to skew the conventions of linear narrative and verisimilitude in film. The attention to art is Ferdinand’s, as we can tell by his commitment to Elie Faure’s Histoire de l’Art (1921), but also Godard’s, he says: “It’s a film about painting, well not really painting, but a film that resembles a work of art, a landscape, like the painters do in both a portrait and a landscape. At the beginning my goal was the same as that of a painter”[19]. I think that Godard meant to express that his film has a chain of signifiers, a representation of both society and the self. Author Robert Kinsman suggests that painting in Pierrot Le Fou has political intention, the same as Godard’s “counter-cinema”[20], by virtue of art’s ability to prescribe actuality within the illusion of the cinema. Kinsman cites Barthes’ discussion of Brechtian theatre, that “techniques of the stage,” in this case, the montage of art, “are themselves committed to history” (Radical Form, 25). I agree with this, and suggest that the chain of signifiers between socio-historical actuality and cinematic fiction arrests the narrative by way of breaks in the film’s intention and suggestive montage.

Each time Vietnam is thematized, through the radio, the movies discussion and their impromptu skit, actuality crops up and there is a fissure in the otherwise existential mood. Unlike the wholly postwar concern of Alain Renais in Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959), Godard evokes a Deleuzian concept of the “world-memory” of wartime suffering. Deleuze would recognize the shoreline relation between dissociated Ferdinand and the American soldiers as, “quite different characters and unconnected places which make up a world-memory,”[21] a memory which is addressed through the asocial position of Ferdinand and Marianne, and Ferdinand’s chosen reality. Like Godard, Deleuze incorporates the importance of consciousness into the globally-shifted postwar world, “the world has become memory… but the brain itself has become consciousness,” (Cinema 2, 121).

Shifting focus from the streets of Paris to the shorelines of soldier presence, Pierrot Le Fou doesn’t make banal the international influence of war, but shows its externality to the “real” quest of Ferdinand’s authenticity. Likewise, attending to the imposition of real feelings on Ferdinand, Godard demands his progression from angst- to mourning- to melancholy with the loss of his objet-petit-a, Marianne, when she runs off. Though alone, without Marianne’s distraction, Ferdinand’s melancholic disposition fragments his efforts in his quest for authenticity, resulting in non-linear narrative throughout the remainder of the film. Sigmund Freud discusses how mourning can lead to fragmentation and melancholy in his seminal article on the progressive stages of angst, Mourning and Melancholia (1917). He says, “Mourning is regularly the loss of a loved person, or to the loss of some abstraction which has taken the place of one, such as one’s country, liberty, an ideal and so on” (243). I add emphasis to abstraction as the fragmentary work of mourning.

“So what is the work that mourning performs? I do not think I am stretching the point is I present it in the following manner: reality testing has revealed that the beloved object no longer exists, and demands that the libido as a whole sever its bonds with that object… Each memory and expectation in which the libido was connected to the object is adjusted and hyperinvested, leading to its detachment from the libido.” (Mourning and Melancholia, 204)


Ferdinand’s hyperinvestment in finding Marianne leads to his murder of her and her lover, which affirms the loss and drives him to suicide. The use of art and Vietnam as social illusions also fragment, or “abstract”, the narrative linearity because they represent a loss of the conscious ego to the imposing socio-historical memory, the concept which Ferdinand attempts to transcend in its absurdity.


Pierrot Le Fou is an excellent example of cinematic realism taking a different shape in the Nouvelle Vague. Godard’s attention to his referent’s consciousness and fragmentation of the narrative linearity provokes the viewer’s involvement with the film, to which Godard has said, “Yeah, well, sometimes in life if children are asleep and you make a noise they wake up, but if they’re already awake it doesn’t do anything at all,”[22] emblematizing his “countercinema” positionality. Pierrot Le Fou maintains an adventurous chain of signifiers between conscious discovery of one’s self and the arrest of consciousness to society. He problematizes Ferdinand’s relationship with his worldliness is provoked by his necessary entrapment within an unheimlich society, the love for Marianne, and socio-historical details that make up his surroundings, making Godardean cinema that of existential-ontological value.


[1] “Interview “Pierrot Le Fou”. Cahiers Du Cinema Oct. 1965: “Godard: The film, alas, is banned to children under eighteen. Reason? Intellectual and moral anarchy.”


[2] “French New Wave – Cahiers Du Cinema.” Review. Audio blog post. Fuds on Film. (2016)


[3] “Interview “Pierrot Le Fou”. Cahiers Du Cinema Oct. 1965

[4] Schoonover, Karl. “The Cinema, or The Imaginary Man and The Stars by Edgar Morin.”

Senses of Cinema. (2010)


[5] “Jean-Luc Godard Raconte “Pierrot Le Fou” – Archive INA.” YouTube. Inaculture. (2012)

[6] “Olympio’s Sadness – Summary” Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition Ed. Steven G. Kellman., Inc. 2009
[7] Freud, Sigmund, Mourning and Melancholia. (1917). I will discuss this point under the section “Illusion and Actuality”.

[8] Heidegger, Martin. Sein Und Zeit. Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1979. Pg. 188.


[9] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. Hugh T. and Robert Galtea (London and New York: Continuum, 2005) Pg. 172.


[10] Ibid.

[11] Wills, David. Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot Le Fou. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge UP, 2000. Pg. 101.


[12] The irony of this scene is a source of humor, given the artificial-looking crash alongside the chunk of bridge, which inspired me to use Pierrot Le Fou for this paper.


[13] Mitry, Jean. The Aesthetics and Psychology of the Cinema. Bloomington: Indiana U, 1968.


[14] Ibid. Pg. 82.


[15] Ibid. Pg. 84.

[16] Bresson, Robert. Notes on Cinematography. Copenhagen: Green Integer, 1997. Print.

[17] Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Noonday, 1988. Pg. 57.


[18] I use “actuality” instead of “reality” in order to maintain the differentiation between the absurdity of society and Ferdinand’s perceived reality of the mind.

[19] “Jean-Luc Godard Raconte “Pierrot Le Fou” – Archive INA.” YouTube. Inaculture. (2012)


[20] Kinsman, Robert Patrick. “Radical Form, Political Intent: Delineating Countercinemas beyond Godard.” ProQuest Document View. University of Michigan Press, 2007. Pg. 25.


[21] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time Image, trans. Hugh T. and Robert Galtea (London and New York: Continuum, 2005), 113.

[22] “Jean-Luc Godard Raconte “Pierrot Le Fou” – Archive INA.” YouTube. Inaculture. (2012)