Life & Culture

Review - Radical Revenge: Shame, Blame and the Urge for Retaliation

Renée Danziger is alert to the impulse towards revenge, which she regards as more or less universal, writes Stephen Frosh


Radical Revenge: Shame, Blame and the Urge for Retaliation,
By Renée Danziger
Free Association Books, £17.99
Reviewed by Stephen Frosh

Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not acknowledge You,” we recite in the Passover Seder when we open the door to welcome Elijah, “for they have devoured Jacob and laid waste his habitation.”

This call for vengeance is not very popular among modern Jews and has spawned some torturous attempts at justification. Rabbi Sacks’s Haggadah rather extraordinarily claims that what is notable about it is its “restraint” and then goes on to comment on the Jewish commitment to justice, a neat reinterpretation that sidesteps the emotional tone of “Pour out Your wrath,” which is forged in the bitterness of suffering and aims at revenge.

Renée Danziger is a British Jewish psychoanalyst, the daughter of Holocaust survivors who moved their family back from the USA to Germany in the 1960s. For them, this was a constructive way of taking revenge: “You tried to kill us off, you tried to get rid of us, but you didn’t.” Perhaps this parental model is how Danziger manages to turn her “fascination with revenge” into a balanced, accessible, inquiring and instructive text.

She is alert to the impulse towards revenge, which she regards as more or less universal. However, the book is mainly about revenge that is extreme and destructive, or to use Danziger’s terminology, “radical” in being disproportionate to the offence against the revenger, in overriding any consideration of intentionality on the part of the “offender” and, most significantly, in ignoring culpability. What this last point means is that a characteristic of radical revenge is that the avenger pours out his wrath (almost all violent revengers are men and misogyny looms large) on people who are not responsible for whatever has hurt him; basically, victims of radical revenge tend to be blameworthy only in the revenger’s mind and not in reality at all.

Danziger’s short book examines radical revenge in three main areas, each given a clear and lively treatment that shows a psychoanalytic sensitivity without getting overly technical. These areas are mass shootings, cyber revenge and what she calls “Groups and Radical revenge”, which is largely about how Ex-President Trump mobilised hatred and frustration in his supporters and directed it against targets marked out particularly by race.

In this chapter, Danziger is impressed by the suggestibility of the mass; the earlier chapters deal more with the psychology of individuals affected by shame, envy and resentment in particular social contexts that promote radical revenge (the easy availability of guns in America; the anonymity mixed with extremity that characterises cyberspace).

There is also a more optimistic chapter in which examples are given of people who suffered real hurts and managed to find socially constructive ways of gaining revenge on their tormentors. These people are impressive, but raise a problem, at least for me. Their approach to revenge is what we should hope for and is as different as can be from the shooters and cyber stalkers and tyrants of the previous chapters. But their revenge is a bit dissatisfying: emotionally and unreasonably, there is something to be said for “Pour out Your wrath.”

Stephen Frosh’s most recent book is ‘Those who come after: Postmemory, Acknowledgement and Forgiveness’, (Palgrave, 2019).

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