I wrote this in 2013, before the age of the Troll King. It was prescient, or at least I’d claim that it put its finger on some damn thing in the national consciousness.
It concerns 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 wrangle 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, Cemeteries 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 friendly feelings or with anger, I don’t care”. He recognizes that this desire for a pure reaction is a vice, which must be repented. It is no good trying to make the heathen rage. It is no good trying to rouse up the “anger of imbeciles”. The difference between using your polemical talents for good and for bad is the difference between dentistry and simply licking a sore tooth.
And one sees Bernanos’s point. What is the gain from arousing “imbeciles” to anger against you? Or, to put it in 2020 terms, owning the libtards? 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.
So: there are two ends to the experience of anger and literature, in the broadest sense: one is in the writing, and one is in the reading. 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 something to specifically anger a certain type, a certain audience one has in one’s mind like the buzzing from a mosquito one might have in one’s ear.
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, recently, 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.