So yesterday I tried to approach an experience I have – an experience I have on both ends, actually. One is the experience of reading something that made me angry, and that I felt was designed to make me – as a certain type of person – angry. The other is the experience of writing to anger.
If we take Aristotle as giving us a social definition of anger, and Marcus Aurelius as giving us a description of the cosmic damage anger does, what are we to make of the modern character of provocation?
Why would an author want to provoke his readers?
In a sense, I’d argue that modernity is tied to provocation – or I should say the aesthetics of modernity. If one way of writing is to lure the reader to an act of identification, another way is to lure the reader by the rather strange via negativa of alienating him – but attaching him nevertheless to what reading has to be, an act of following. William Gass talks about the sort of visual ‘wind” that blows through the written page – the invisible movement of the eye, which is called upon to deliver an image that immediately transcends itself in a concept. The image, then, of the written word is not exactly like our tradition of the idea – which in the empirical tradition is simply a sort of copy of a sense impression – since the written word exists as a meaning, first. Its shape is meaning laden and led. And not only is this so for the bare atom of the word, but for the way the eye follows in some line or another the accumulation of words. Left to right, right to left, up to down, down to up – it is all a matter of following in some direction. To pull away is to break that movement, and this is what one would expect when the movement is directed towards slighting or insulting.
That instinctive pulling away is, in fact, part of the reason that giving offense is a high stylistic challenge. I began thinking about anger and reading when I was going over what was written in 2002 and 2003, mainly about politics, so let’s take an example from that set. When I read, for example, some article by Christopher Hitchens from 2002, arguing – ostensibly – for the war in Iraq, but really committed simply to slagging those who are against the war, I break off contact. I was against the war, so what is the point? It is not that I am unpersuaded as much as persuasion is not the issue. The issue is whether or not I am going to participate in my own lynching. And yet... if the savagery that I was subjected to had something fascinating in it, would I have stayed, would I have followed?
It is, perhaps, more understandable that a writer would want to offend. Or at least that one might write something to offend in order to project one’s own anger. But the writer who actually wants a reader who is among those whom one wants to offend has to think for a bit about what he is doing. Oftentimes, this second thought sublimates the insult in the prose, turns it into an accusation, and the text into something vaguely like a courtroom. Anger favors the courtroom as much as love favors the bedroom. In the courtroom, the defendent has no choice but to undergo the injury of the charge.The angry writer tends naturally to make a courtroom out of his text. This still poses the problem of what the reader is supposed to get out of it. Perhaps the reader is caught by a spell – or by a curse. Josef K. never attempts to flee, although the system of the courts and the police seem incomprehensible to him, and the charge against him is never pronounced. Perhaps if it had been, perhaps if he’d known the charge, the spell would have broken and he would have fled. But the difference between The Trial and the trial one might seek to impose in a text is that the reader can flee. It is, after all, a kangaroo court. But even a kangaroo court stages a mock exection, a symbolic death, and perhaps it is this that both angers the reader and keeps him from breaking off contact. He revolts at his mock effigy, he revolts at being hustled towards a final condemnation, and in his anger he stays.
This is, of course, the hope of the writer whose texts derive ultimately, secretly, perhaps without his even knowing it, from the village talent for cursing. .