Revenge has no Boundaries - Psychoanalytic Considerations About an all-too-Human Impulse

“Revenge is an activity in which justice shall be regained!” Writing for the IPA blog, Angela Mauss-Hanke looks at why we feel a need for revenge and what makes this so dangerous.

On the 20th November 2006, 19-year-old Bastian Bosse entered his ex-school and shot around wildly. His case is still of special interest because he was the first school shooter in Germany whose crime was completely intertwined with the internet. Bastian bought his weapons through the internet and it was only due to their poor quality that he did not become a mass murderer. Years before his suicide he published a huge amount of posts about his despair and his hatred against human beings, especially against his former classmates and teachers, in internet blogs. He spent most of his time playing shooter-games and chatting in web communities about them. The night before his suicide, he posted his farewell-letter and farewell-video on the internet.
After his suicide, his case was widely discussed in Germany. But there was one thing that was not addressed in any of the comments, though it could be followed like a red threat through all his posts: Bastian had obviously been in love with a girl named Nadine - but he never managed to get close to her and in the end Nadine started to go out with an old friend of his. Perhaps everybody understands the impulse for revenge at this point.

But let us first consider some etymological-mystical fundaments: The English word revenge (or in French: revancher) comes from the old French language of the 15th century: re-vengier. This had been put together from Latin ‘re’ meaning ‘back’, and ‘vindicare’ meaning ‘to claim, to punish’. But the Ius Talionis; i.e. the right to take revenge for something unjust, is even older. It belongs to our phylogenetic heritage. In the Torah as well as in the Old Testament it says: "Life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, brand for brand, wale for wale." (Exodus) 

Greek mythology leads us even further into the past. There was a group of revenge goddesses of the Matriarchy, called the "Erinyes", who since Homer have become the goddesses of revenge who protect the ethical order. Whenever someone - especially a relative - was murdered, or when parents or elderly people had become victims of crime, or when holy customs or laws were violated, then these goddesses became terrifying instruments of revenge, usually through damnation.

In Greek-Roman society, there was even a hereditary duty to revenge: "He is a fool who kills the father and lets his sons go without punishment." And, of course, usually an act of revenge caused another act of counter-revenge. This made the process go on and on over generations. The 'motor' for this revenge-spiral was not the damage itself, but the humiliation within it, the loss of honour. It was the honour that had to be re-established. 

Now, let's come back to our here and now. Today we speak about revengefullness, the thirst for revenge - it seems that our language is well aware of the instinctive layer of revenge; if you feel hit or hurt, you want to hit back. But there is more to it: "Revenge is an activity in which justice shall be regained" said a 16-year-old adolescent in a study I made on this subject. And: “The perpetrator must feel what he did to me!”

What makes us feel that something is justified? What gives us a feeling of satisfaction or reparation? If you think about moments in which you felt a need for revenge, you might feel a certain pleasure and rightfulness. But at the same time, you might also feel uncomfortable because the act of revenge is usually worse than the act through which it was provoked. This can become dangerous, it might become endless! But how can this be if it's only about regaining justice?

Any revenge is a combination of ego-, super-ego-, and Id-impulses. It's an amalgam between an impulse for self-defence, moral revolt and archaic rage. The fundament for revenge is a need for retaliation through an act that can balance the injustice that had caused the need for revenge. But if an individual really puts an impulse for revenge into action, then there must be some sort of inner thirst for revenge, a very strong feeling of disappointment, of betrayal, perhaps even hatred. Nobody would revenge on someone without this strong affect (‘hot’, or, even worse, ‘cold rage’), without this feeling of narcissistic offence, without this instinctive layer.

Revenge emerges in order to fight against the pain of shame and humiliation. The situation in which an impulse for revenge appears, is usually triangular - someone feels excluded from a couple relationship or from a group. Revenge has to do with turning something passively endured into something actively done. Within the act of revenge, my feeling of being a loser transforms into a triumph upon those who before had been the ones who looked down on me. The more someone is capable of working through intensive emotions in their inner psyche, the more it is enough to only fantasise revenge without having to put it into action. 

The impulse for revenge is something unique and contains deep excitement. This excitement may have to do with the fact that revenge is, as we heard in the beginning, one of the immortal expressions of the earliest, archaic Eros - the human life instinct and impulse for self-assertion - which, in its original archaic form, entails something cruel. In short, we could say that revenge serves the archaic Eros' pleasure principle. 

Let us ask from here what happens when the oedipal resentment - the disappointment of our childlike omnipotence - is not being contained 'good enough' by the parents/the child itself?

In case this resentment cannot be worked through, a deep disturbance in the human being and their relationships may occur. This can then be the start of a disastrous vicious circle - I am disappointed and cannot digest these disappointments, therefore I am hurt and angry and must project my anger onto others, especially those from whom I feel excluded. Then others seem more and more like enemies, they turn into a closed group that does not want me. Therefore, I retreat more and more into my resentment – which will then cause more and more hostile feelings towards the others….

The night before his school shooting, Bastian Bosse posted his farewell letter on the internet: “…. I want my face to be burned into your heads! … I want revenge! … I hate you! … You will all have to die! … “. The next morning, he entered his ex-school and injured 37 pupils, teachers, policemen and the caretaker before he took his own life.

Angela Mauss-Hanke is a psychoanalyst for adults, groups and children in private practise near Munich, Germany. She is a training analyst and supervisor of the German Psychoanalytic Association and the IPA. 

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