Researching the novel I am writing, I have been going over magazines and newspapers in the 2002 and 2003 period, and – just as I remembered – they are frighteningly insane.
This leads me to a question: in what ways does anger distort one’s reading”
Anger, of course, is sometimes purposely provoked by a text. Sometimes that provocation is meant to align the reader and the writer in a shared indignation. Aristotle, in the rhetoric, defines anger in social and pragmatic terms:
Anger may be defined as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight directed without justification towards what concerns oneself or towards what concerns one's friends.
According to Aristotle’s definition, then, anger is the felt correspondent of the law of talion – the law of eye for an eye. Its intentional structure is not: I feel hot, I can’t breath, I have to scream, but – I have to strike out to even up the slight I have received. This way of construing the feeling, then, is the business of the the author who wants to arouse indignation. This author wants, in other words, for the reader to be on his side.
There is, of course, another side to making angry – for writing can be exactly the kind of ‘slight’ that Aristotle mentions. From teasing to open insult, this, too, is one of the uses to which a text may be put. It is, however, a stranger use, in a way, for reading, unlike being subject to some verbal abuse, requires complicity on the part of the reader. The reader, here, must remain with the text in order to receive the slight.
This latter requirement creates a certain hecticness in the second kind of anger-arousing text. The text must fascinate and slight at the same time.
Marcus Aurelius, from a stoic position, considered anger as one of the fundamental passions that must be disarmed by the sage. It is not, for Aurelius, a matter of being good so much as a matter of health: “the anger and distress that we feel at such behaviour bring us more suffering than the very things that give rise to that anger and distress.”
However, anger there will be – Aurelius accepts that this, too, is one of the impulses to which we are subject. But he does not accept that subjection absolutely. In the twelfth book of the Meditations, he advocates, as a counter-power to anger, the power of remembering. It is an extraordinary and I think quite beautiful passage:
“Whenever you take exception to something, you have forgotten that all things come to pass in accordance with the nature of the whole, and that the wrong committed is another’s, not your own, and that everything that comes about always did and always will come about in such a way and is doing so everywhere at this present moment; and you have forgotten how close is the kinship which unites each human being to the human race as a whole, for it arises not from blood or seed but from our common share in reason. You have forgotten, moreover, that the intellect of each of us is a god and has flowed from there,* and that nothing is our very own, but that our child, our body, our very breath have come to us from there, and that all turns on judgement; and that the life of every one of us is confined to the present moment and this is all that we have.”
The cognitive counterpart to anger, on this reading, is not just ‘forgetting’ your better self, the self that is above the eternal rangle for privilege – it is a cosmic forgetting, or forgetting the cosmos: forgetting the eternal return of the same, forgetting who you are related to, forgetting reason itself.
From the Aristotelian and Stoic traditions, then, we would expect that the angry reader is the defective reader, and that the writer who tries to make his reader angry – or at least, the writer who tries to provoke the reader, instead of making the reader indignant – will be unread. In other words, that provocation is futile.
And yet, and yet... provocation is, in fact, one of the hallmarks of modernity. Georges Bernanos begins his polemical work, Immense Cemetaries Under the Moon, by quoting another of his polemical pamphlets in which he wrote: “J’ai juré de vous émouvoir, d’amitié ou de colère, qu’importe! – I’ve sworn to move you, with friendship or with anger, I don’t care”- in order to repent of trying to rouse up the “anger of imbeciles”. One would think that, obviously, there is no gain in arousing “imbeciles” to anger against you. But in fact, provocation – rousing the reader to anger – is perhaps the extreme test of style. For the imbecile who stays, who continues to read, even as the reading makes him angry, must stay for some reason. Must, in the end, find the slighting of his opinions, his lifestyle, his existence worth staying with. Of course, one could say that this simply proves how much of an imbecile he must be – just as rancid meat attracts the fly, insult attracts the injured.