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The meaning of anger | Aeon

Photo by Espen Rasmussen/VG/Panos Pictures

Photo by Espen Rasmussen/VG/Panos Pictures

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The meaning of anger

Is anger like energy, forever changing form but never dissipating, or part of our repertoire of desires, the cry of a need unmet?

by Josh Cohen + BIO

Photo by Espen Rasmussen/VG/Panos Pictures

A psychoanalytic consulting room is a crucible for a rich array of emotions. But perhaps none appears more insistently as anger, nor in so many guises. For example, a woman finds her apparently inexplicable rage against her partner manifesting in asthmatic attacks so severe she becomes fearful of being in the same room with him. In the first weeks of psychotherapy, a man expresses his fury over a professional betrayal by withholding from me almost all relevant information about himself. Again, a man with a respiratory illness is so angry at the doctors policing his behaviours – and at my imagined finger-wagging complicity – that he smokes heavily in supposed retaliation. The morning after Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States, a woman begins to cry furiously as soon as she sits down. When I wonder aloud if this revives memories of her own bullying, bigoted father, she shouts that she is crying about one thing and one thing only and doesn’t want to hear my boring shrink bullshit.

A psychoanalytic consulting room proves an apt place to observe an essential paradox about anger. As almost anyone can confirm, manifest anger is by its nature felt and received with an intense immediacy, bringing to life the bodily and emotional resonances of the word ‘feelings’. And yet it is also peculiarly slippery, liable to hide and dissemble, to disguise itself in myriad other ways – in reticence, nervousness, politeness or over-friendliness. If anger isn’t making itself felt openly and immediately, it is lurking somewhere in the vicinity, hiding itself under cover of some other, less conspicuous emotional state, biding its time and waiting to spring.

In clinical discussions with my colleagues, anger never fails to come up. Often it imposes itself by sheer force; patients complain, criticise and curse their intimates, their colleagues, the guy on the bus, bad pop songs, overpriced grocery shops, sometimes explicitly and almost always implicitly inserting the analyst himself into their row of targets. At other times, anger insinuates itself more surreptitiously, perhaps without the conscious awareness of the patient, who may protest (angrily) to the suggestion that this is how he’s feeling. Anger is everywhere and nowhere in clinical work, overwhelmingly present and ominously absent. But its prominence in collegial discussion has never been matched by conceptual interest. We tend to think of anger as a piece of content, one emotional state among others.

So why then, sitting in the consulting room, not to mention reading and watching the news, is it hard to avoid the sense that anger is more than a colour on the emotional spectrum? Why does it seem to manifest as a force that moves the world, directing the unpredictable flows of private and public life?

In Sigmund Freud’s case histories, theoretical papers and cultural commentaries alike, anger appears as one of the great motive forces of the self and the world. The Oedipus complex, for example, cornerstone of his theory of psychic development, is premised on the formative power of murderous rage. Although Freud nowhere offers a discrete and integral conceptual treatment of anger, he hints at the structural place of anger in psychic life, notably within a very brief clinical vignette from a founding text of psychoanalysis, the ‘Preliminary Communication’ (1893), written with his older colleague, the general physician Josef Breuer, which outlined the pair’s therapeutic innovations in the treatment of hysteria.

A man consults a young physician at his newly established practice for the treatment of nervous disorders. He has been suffering from spontaneous hysterical attacks, during which he falls into frenzies of wordless rage. Under hypnosis, he reveals that he’s been ‘living through the scene in which his employer had abused him in the street and hit him with a stick’. Returning a few days later, the patient tells of a second attack, which hypnosis reveals as a staging of the event that had triggered his illness: ‘the scene in the law-court when he failed to obtain satisfaction for his maltreatment’. Freud and Breuer tell us almost nothing about the man. He might be a factory worker or a waiter, but I always imagine him in the mould of an emerging stock type: the pinched, anxious clerk, soon to be immortalised in Franz Kafka’s Josef K or E M Forster’s Leonard Bast, men whose apologetic facade conceals a quietly roiling anger and resentment.

Such iconic fictional figures fit the classic neurasthenic profile that Freud was beginning to treat and write about. A phenomenon of the rapidly urbanising, industrialising society of the late 19th century, neurasthenia was the consequence of a sudden and excessive load of sensory and emotional stimulus bearing down on mind and body, inducing symptoms of irritability, fatigue and depression as well as headaches and spikes in blood pressure. The employee’s silent pantomimic fury suggests a nervous system traumatised and overwhelmed, unable to bear the burden of humiliation induced by the public beating and the subsequent public repudiation of his legal case for compensation.

The baby’s scream announces a gap between a need and its satisfaction

Freud’s clinical interest in the nervous afflictions of the moment was accompanied by more fundamental enquiries into psychic life, equally relevant to the case of the beaten employee. In an unpublished text of 1895, known as the Project for a Scientific Psychology, Freud speculates on the baby’s earliest experience of satisfaction, describing a being beset by excess internal tension brought about by hunger or some other vital need. Unable to provide this for herself, the baby cries, communicating her distress and so drawing the attention of her caregiver. The full circuit of tension, external intervention and relief constitutes ‘an experience of satisfaction’. The efficacy of the baby’s hungry scream leads Freud to the startling inference that ‘the initial helplessness of human beings is the primal source of all moral motives.’ Morality, that is, begins in the distress of the creature who calls on her carers to provide satisfactions she cannot supply for herself. For as long as they fail to do so, she screams her angry proto-moral protest.

The hypnosis of the beaten employee had revealed a similarly helpless scream, this time unvoiced, when he ‘failed to obtain satisfaction for his maltreatment’. The verbal echo is more than coincidence. The humiliating incapacity to gain satisfaction puts the employee in contact with his original infantile helplessness. His reaction, like the baby’s, is a wordless scream of rage, now driven into the silence of unconscious memory.

Hysteria, neurasthenia, infantile need: underlying these very different psychic phenomena is the same experience of helplessness. The baby’s scream announces a gap between a need and its satisfaction, which becomes harder to bear the longer it is sustained. Ordinarily, our physical and emotional development distances us from this state of helplessness; as we grow in mental and bodily autonomy, we are able increasingly to help ourselves, to seek and find the food or love we crave. But as the employee’s case reminds us, an experience of traumatic shock or humiliation can revive in us the desperate vulnerability of the infant. And as my psychoanalytic practice reminds me each day, even much more ordinary experiences – real or perceived insults, slights, rejections, disappointments, frustrations – can bring us into contact with this primary layer of helplessness. More often than not, we manage these feelings of helplessness by means of that state of agitated enervation we call anger.

As soon as we’re born, we are consigned into the care of adults on whom we depend for our survival and our physical, cognitive and emotional growth, and who thereby inevitably draw onto themselves our fluctuating and intermingled love and hatred. From a psychoanalytic perspective, anger cannot be disentangled from these earliest affective experiences.

These experiences bring us up against one of the fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, namely the drive. But what is a drive? Freud’s most complete statement on the subject can be found in his paper ‘Drives and Their Vicissitudes’ (1915). His first point is that the drive is a source of stimulus from within the organism, rather than outside it. The difference is crucial in that the impact of an external stimulus – say, a bright light or loud noise – is always temporary. The stimulus exerted by a drive, on the other hand, is ‘always a constant one’. And, because it issues from within, there is no escaping it.

We are forever subject to this internal force of the drive. The impulses to love what satisfies us and to hate what frustrates us are always exerting themselves, sometimes pressing closer to the surface of consciousness, sometimes bubbling away unnoticed. Since the organism can never eliminate the stimuli that issue from the drives, its primary task, one that places a considerable and perpetual burden on the nervous system, is to master them.

For Lacan, anger is the consequence of a failure of a desire to be realised in reality

One of Freud’s most enigmatic claims about the drive, and the source of much commentary and disputation, is that it lies ‘on the frontier between the mental and the somatic’. It is the psychical representative of a bodily stimulus – what an itch might look like if it were a mental rather than dermal entity. Freud ascribes four components to the drive: pressure, the quantity of force a drive exerts in asserting its demand on us; aim, which Freud identifies, in a clear echo of the hungry baby of the Project, as being ‘in every instance satisfaction’; object, the thing required to achieve satisfaction (a breast, a touch, a voice); and source, the somatic location in which the drive originates.

The concepts of aim and object make clear why a drive is distinct from an instinct. An instinct is a piece of programmed biological knowledge that ensures the attainment of vital needs, for example, a bee’s gravitation towards nectar and pollen. Where an instinct is concerned, the path between aim and object is a short, straight line. In a drive, that path is typically more tortuous and uncertain. Its aim is still satisfaction, but just what satisfaction consists in is more ambiguous. This is what the controversial French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan is getting at when he says that ‘the use of the function of the drive has for me no other purpose than to put in question what is meant by satisfaction.’ I may feel hungry, for example, but will a slice or two of dry bread provide the satisfaction I seek? It will answer to my vital need, but not to the sensual desire that calls urgently for a fried egg, butter and Tabasco between the slices.

Nor is this ambiguity a late development in the human being. When the baby cries hungrily, is it merely milk she wants? Or is she seeking the more elusive pleasure that might arise from the smell and feel of her mother’s skin, the flood of warmth that breaks over her lips when the milk flows? The aim and object of a drive, in short, are both subject to infinite variation. Drives, Freud says, can be ‘inhibited or deflected’ in their aim, diverted from the path they started down. Is it a fried egg I want, or smoked salmon, or an obscenely thick smear of peanut butter? Is it her I love, or her, or him, or them?

The relationship between aim and object in the bee is reliably constant. Only one object serves its aim. No bee has ever felt the urge to try ginger ale or vodka today, just for a change. For the human, such changeability defines the drive. In his earlier sustained treatment of the drive, the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905), Freud notes that enduring romantic myths – for example, that two people are, as we might put it, ‘made for each other’ – persuade us that the relationship of the sexual drive to the object is ‘more intimate than it in fact is’. In reality, ‘the sexual drive and the sexual object are merely soldered together.’ Drives are fundamentally mobile, subject to fluctuations, displacements, reversals and detours. When they threaten the stability of the organism, they can be inhibited or turned back on us; feeling hate for an object I’m meant to love, for example, may induce such fear and guilt in me that I choose to hate myself instead.

For Lacan, anger is the consequence of a failure of a desire to be realised in reality. Alluding to the French writer Charles Péguy, he remarks: ‘It’s when the little pegs refuse to go into the little holes.’ Drives, in short, destine us to at least some degree of dissatisfaction, soldering our desire to objects we only belatedly realise cannot fulfil it. And the primary language of that dissatisfaction is anger.

Perhaps it is anger’s unpredictability, its unnerving capacity to be ignited by disparate, often fiercely opposing causes, that most disturbs and confuses us (and certainly me) about anger. This confusion often leads thinkers on the subject to seek clarity by separating out preservative (or ‘good’) from destructive (or ‘bad’) forms of anger. We see a move of this kind, for example, in many recent feminist and antiracist writers and activists who celebrate the power of anger to motivate social change and address structural forms of injustice and division.

This idea of anger as an essentially affirmative and life-preserving affect finds some support in the scant psychoanalytic literature on the subject. In a 1949 paper on normal and traumatic experiences of birth, the British paediatrician psychoanalyst Donald W Winnicott suggests that the cry of a baby following a normal birth is a rudimentary form of self-assertion: ‘in the form of the cry anger can be ego-syntonic [that is, supportive of our internal equilibrium] from very early, an expulsive function with clear aim, to live one’s own way and not reactively.’

But when the newborn’s vital needs of warmth, nourishment and love are frustrated by delay or by environmental difficulties, the effect is far more dystonic. When a cry achieves its aim, it helps a baby learn what her anger is for. Whereas if a cry has little or no effect, its purpose gradually becomes less ‘definite’ for the baby, leaving her in a state of despairing uncertainty, with significant consequences for the person she will become: ‘the individual is always left with some confusion about anger and its expression.’ A key implication of Winnicott’s distinction here is that anger promotes growth and helps define selfhood when it attains the satisfaction it demands – that is, when the needs it expresses are fulfilled. But when those needs go unanswered, it has the opposite effect, implanting confusion and despair in the heart of the self.

When a claim for justice is dismissed, anger is liable to take on a life of its own

This latter form of anger puts me in mind of Gordon, a man in his 40s whom I saw in intensive psychoanalysis for six years. Gordon was prone to crippling headaches and extended periods of insomnia that made him feel as though he were coming apart at the seams. These symptoms were always most prevalent at times when a romantic relationship was becoming more serious. The prospect of fulfilling his longing for love and a family was a source of overwhelming panic, which expressed itself in the form of sudden verbal outbursts against his partner for failing to understand what he was going through. Sleeplessness and pain would exacerbate his brittleness and fragility, perpetuating a grim cycle of rage and apology until the relationship collapsed under the strain.

Gordon had been raised from shortly after birth by maternity nurses and nannies who instituted a strict regime of sleep training and timed feeds. At seven, he was sent to boarding school, a further blow to any aspiration, as Winnicott has it, ‘to live one’s own way and not reactively’. Gordon’s initial protests against boarding school were met by his parents with assurances that he would grow to like it – they, after all, had been sent away at his age, and had grown to appreciate the experience. Gordon’s problem with forming lasting relationships was that he could never trust that he would enjoy what Freud calls an ‘experience of satisfaction’, where cries of need are heard and attended to in good time. The more he put himself in the hands of someone else, the more fearful he became of being ignored or abandoned. Because he’d never found words or a receptive listener for his anxieties, they came to be expressed instead in bodily symptoms, the pain from which would eventually find an outlet in uncontrolled rage.

Gordon was aware of being angry, but this anger felt like a possession by some demon over which he had no control; he had no idea what he was angry about at these moments, nor what he wanted. Unheard, unanswered anger is apt to become diffuse and uncontrolled, to become master rather than servant of the person.

Perhaps Gordon’s predicament speaks to the public anger that has made itself so palpable in recent years. The protests of the Movement for Black Lives and MeToo and Extinction Rebellion, and those of the movements for Trump and Brexit, so vastly different in content, have in common the complaint that their cries for recognition and response have for far too long been ignored.

We want to believe that our anger can be clearly directed and localised – that we can, as Judith Butler puts it, ‘craft and cultivate’ it. But as the beaten employee reminds us, when a claim for justice is dismissed, anger is liable to take on a life of its own. We are living in a world of proliferating and often conflicting angry demands for recognition. In terrorism, populist authoritarianism and online hate, we see some of the consequences of their denial.

Insofar as unsatisfied needs and unattended demands are endemic to life, so is anger. This insight, central to Freud and Breuer’s approach in the ‘Preliminary Communication’, is also the basis for their therapeutic remedy, which they call ‘abreaction’, or catharsis. It is a way of cleansing ourselves of the suppressed anger that accretes in us in the course of a life. Certain memories, they suggest, behave like ingested foreign bodies; instead of passing through the mental digestive system, they lodge in us and are preserved intact. Memories torment us with all the force and freshness of the present moment because they ‘correspond to traumas that have not been sufficiently abreacted’.

Under hypnosis, the beaten employee acted out the silent rage he had been forced to suppress, both in the street and in the court. This is the basis of the abreactive technique – as the repressed memory rises to the surface of consciousness, so does ‘its accompanying affect’, enabling the patient to describe the distressing experience and the feelings it aroused as fully as possible. This is the psychotherapy of ‘energetic reaction’, of a release of a quantum of emotion proportionate to the injury suffered. It is a technique whose rationale is implied in such idiomatic phrases as ‘crying oneself out’ or ‘blowing off steam’ [the German is sich austoben, literally ‘to rage oneself out’], as well as in folk anger-management techniques such as pillow bashing. Without such hydraulic release, the distress and anger felt by the victim is only an ongoing burden on the nervous system.

The idea of a treatment directed at unmetabolised pain lodged in the deepest strata of mind and body has since been revived in various therapies, most famously in Arthur Janov’s ‘primal therapy’, popularly known as primal scream therapy, which enjoyed a brief vogue in the early 1970s. After some months of therapy with Janov – an encounter brilliantly imagined in Kevin Barry’s novel Beatlebone (2015) – John Lennon declared: ‘I am myself and I know why.’ Like Freud and Breuer, Janov saw psychic pain as located in suppressed traumas of early childhood. The proposed cure was to discharge the trapped reactive anger in uninhibited and spontaneous screaming and ranting.

The very fact of living together forces on us a renunciation of our erotic and aggressive drives

The theory of abreaction assumes that feelings are stored in finite quantities, such that they can be cried or raged out until they have been fully discharged. But as he developed his thinking and gained clinical experience, Freud came to see his belief in abreaction as a mistake, albeit a productive one. What it misses is the dogged persistence of feelings, their stubborn refusal to disappear on demand. The screams of the baby or the traumatised adult register a state of dissatisfaction, a gap between a need or desire – hunger, love, justice – and its fulfilment. But dissatisfaction is not simply a temporary state awaiting relief through appropriate action; it is an ineliminable condition of human life.

In Civilization and Its Discontents (1930), Freud posits that the very fact of living together forces on all of us a renunciation of our erotic and aggressive drives. In order to make room for everyone else, I have to curb my own extravagant appetites for love, power and pleasure. While the theory of abreaction locates our discontent in the external world – the painful experience is a ‘foreign body’, like the employer’s stick, breaching our physical and psychic skin – the appetites Freud describes in Civilization and Its Discontents are felt as insistent internal tensions, permanent itches demanding the relief of a scratch. They issue not from outside but from within, in what he calls the drives. Anger, in other words, is the primary way a drive expresses itself when it is pressing for satisfaction.

‘Rage’, writes the American psychoanalyst Michael Eigen, in a pithy summation of Winnicottian thinking, ‘seems built into an infant’s scream’. In her book The Violence of Interpretation (1975), the French psychoanalyst Piera Aulagnier offers the most sustained and radical elaboration of this link between rage and helplessness. She distinguishes between two basic ways the infantile psyche represents its relation to another being (what psychoanalysis calls an ‘object’), which exist alongside one another. In one, which Aulagnier calls love, the baby unites with its object in perfect unity. In the other, which she calls hate, the baby experiences the object (say, the mother’s nourishing breast) as what it lacks and depends upon for survival. In being brought up against its dependency, the baby’s psyche, writes Aulagnier, is forced into awareness of its own liability to ‘find itself in a state of lack’, in which mind and body are in a state of helpless desire for what they do not have and cannot acquire for themselves.

Take my patient Gordon: his drive to love and be loved propels him towards a partner. But love has laid down certain pathways in his deep memory; it means betrayal, abandonment, disappointment. The conflict between the pressure of the drive and the psyche’s need to contain that pressure becomes unsupportable, as the headaches and sleeplessness attested.

Homer began the Iliad with a celebrated apostrophe to the Muse: ‘Sing, goddess, of the anger of Achilleus, son of Peleus, the accursed anger which brought uncounted anguish on the Achaians …’ The place of such elemental anger in the subsequent course of cultural history can hardly be overstated. Greek, Norse and Hindu mythologies and theogonies abound with avatars of pure rage, echoes of which can be heard in writers and artists down the ages. Anger beyond measure – the annihilating vengeance of Medea and Hecuba, the jealous delirium of Othello, the blind fury of Captain Ahab, the unbound ranting of Ice Cube and Eminem – has exerted a fascination over writers and readers down the centuries.

It seems difficult to encounter these figures today without being reminded of the public anger that seems to define our political present, of the fierce agitations for justice across the world, provoked by the injurious and ongoing histories of racialised and misogynistic violence and discrimination, as well as of environmental despoliation, not to mention the reactive rage of nationalists and racists, of militant men’s rights activists, climate change deniers and COVID-19 conspiracists. Rage of this kind encapsulates the logic of the drive. It seems to emanate from a source deep in the soul, the force or ‘pressure’ it exerts bursting the bounds of any possible container. Such rage aims for satisfaction, yet there seems to be no object that can satisfy it.

The Iliad could be described as a failed quest to bring Achilles’ accursed anger under the rule of reason and proportion. When the warrior Aias reproaches him, during the failed mission to persuade him to join the battle against the Trojans, for the ‘savagery in his breast’ and lack of ‘thought for the love of his companions’, Achilles doesn’t deny the charge: ‘all that you have said seems much after my own feeling’. ‘But,’ he goes on, ‘my heart swells with anger whenever I think of that time, how the son of Atreus treated me with contempt in front of the Argives.’

As Homer and Achilles remind us, it isn’t easy to keep anger on the side of reason and proportion

‘In front of the Argives’: I can’t help feeling that Achilles’ humiliation puts him in the wildly anomalous company of the beaten employee. Achilles is forced to watch tearfully as his concubine Briseïs, a ‘prize’ of war, is taken from him by Agamemnon’s forces, just as the employee must submit to the power and violence of his boss and the word of the court. Both are made to feel helpless before larger powers, and their shame before a crowd of witnesses. Nor can either man command or contain his anger. Achilles acknowledges Aias’ characterisation of his anger as ‘implacable and perverse’, only to imply that this implacability is the very heart of the problem; rage has taken possession of him, to the point that he cannot gainsay it. It isn’t in his gift to forgive or let go the offence against him, even to save his benighted companions from the marauding Trojans.

The failure of Homer’s heroes to contain their emotions is at the heart of Socrates’ argument to banish the poets from the Republic. Singing the anger of Achilles seduces the listener with perverse indulgence in vice and bad character. Poetry ‘fosters and waters’ feelings that corrupt the soul; it ‘sets them up as rulers in us when they ought to be ruled’.

Plato evidently doesn’t wish to abolish anger. The broader meaning of the Greek word thymos that the Homer translator Martin Hammond renders ‘anger’ is spiritedness or passion. In Plato’s Republic, thymos is the intermediate level in his tripartite division of the soul. As the faculty of self-assertion and the desire for recognition, its highest function is to direct anger against our own tendency towards moral laxity and licence. It is, we might say, an ancient version of what psychoanalysis might call an internal parent or superego function. As thymos, anger can be pressed into the service of moral self-discipline, helping to ensure that we remain rulers over, and not ruled by, our feelings. But, as Homer and Achilles remind us, it isn’t easy to keep anger on the side of reason and proportion.

Kept under the rule of reason, anger has its educative uses. But as the historian Barbara Rosenwein has shown in her recent study of the history of anger, other philosophical and religious traditions are rather less sanguine about the prospect of keeping anger under reason’s command. Intuiting anger as inherently excessive, various religious and philosophical traditions, both Eastern and Western, seek nothing less than the banishment of anger from the repertory of psychic states.

The Buddha enjoins us to ‘abandon anger’ as a primary cause of needless suffering. It inflates the ego’s deluded self-importance, tormenting the mind of the angry person as much as it persecutes the objects of his anger. Unsurprisingly, Western iterations of Buddhism have been a major influence on the development of modern anger-management techniques. The same can be said for Stoicism, perhaps the Western philosophical tradition that most closely parallels Buddhism. Seneca’s treatise De Ira, published around 45 CE, portrays anger as a force that deranges the soul, distorting our faculties of right perception and judgment, and propelling us to self-destruction with its untameable momentum. Like the body of a man falling over a cliff, anger’s onrush cannot be checked – ‘its own weight and the downward-tending nature of vices must – must – carry it along and drive it down to the depths.’

The Stoic repudiation of anger has inspired much recent philosophy and psychology, notably the American philosopher Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum doesn’t deny that our world provokes daily and abundant moral outrage, but she insists that this outrage must be fully directed towards practical resolution, while its emotional remainders – the wish to inflict retaliatory suffering on the offender, the persistence of bitterness and rancour – must be eliminated. The cognitive registration of grounds for anger, in other words, should never spill over into actual angry feelings.

These more radical positions on anger – that it has no useful function and demands renunciation – have in a certain sense a closer affinity to the psychoanalytic perspective than the Platonic or Aristotelian view that anger has its uses when kept in bounds. Seneca’s vivid portrayal of anger as a force with its own fatal momentum gets much nearer to its drive character than Aristotle’s notion of a judicious or proportionate anger. The wholesale repudiation of anger follows from the insight that anger is inherently excessive. Angry feelings may seek satisfaction, but there is always some doubt as to what, if anything, will satisfy them. In insisting that it be channelled wholesale into righting the wrongs that provoke it, Nussbaum misconceives the essential logic of anger.

Anger becomes a structural force, a permanent body political source of urgent agitation for change

The American philosopher Agnes Callard seems to edge much closer to that logic in her essay ‘On Anger’ (2020), which sees the stubborn indelibility of anger as its defining characteristic. Anger, she argues, is as permanent as the offences that provoke it; steal from me, and you will have stolen from me irrevocably. Whatever restitutive efforts you might make to assuage my anger, the original theft cannot be undone; thus, ‘once you have a reason to be angry, you have a reason to be angry forever.’

We might wish to object to Callard that the afterlife of an injury unfolds in the fluid and changeable medium of memory and in live relationships. While reparative efforts cannot change what was done to me, they can change the meaning and significance they hold. The remorse and restitution of the offender may well lower my estimation of the offence’s gravity. But can this prospect of pacification and forgiveness avoid what we might call the Achillean roadblock?

Were Nussbaum to propose to Achilles that the thief’s restitutive efforts easily nullify the grounds of his anger, he would respond with a derisive snort. Via the embassy of warriors led by Nestor, after all, Agamemnon offers Achilles recompense wildly exceeding the one concubine he took from him. Not only will he return Briseïs, Odysseus assures Achilles, but he’ll throw in a dazzling array of gifts: abundant gold, prize horses, skilled and beautiful women, fertile cities and one of his own daughters for a bride. For the tradition from which Nussbaum speaks, anger can be satisfied by a specific quantum of reparative action. But for Achilles, the meaning of his anger is precisely that it cannot be satisfied, that no restitutive gesture could be adequate to it. Agamemnon’s initial injury has opened a wound of humiliation for which there is no remedy.

To say that anger is impelled by the force of the drive is to say it has no straight path to satisfaction, that it cannot be sure what it seeks or demands. This is why it is liable, as Seneca observes, to be carried by its own momentum into gratuitously destructive action.

In his study of the politics and economy of thymos, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk argues that rage has both shaped and derailed the course of Western history precisely through its refusal of any logic of balance and proportion. With the thymos of Achilles explicitly in mind, he points out that the West’s cherished remedies for bringing to a halt the ‘endless pendulum of hit and retaliation’, from private spiritual exercises to public justice to foreign policy, are liable to run up against their own limits:

just as a festering wound can become both a chronic and general malady, psychic and moral wounds also may not heal, which creates its own corrupt temporality, the infinity of an unanswered complaint.

Once we understand anger to be an expression of the drive, ‘the infinity of an unanswered complaint’ becomes a permanent possibility. The implications of this understanding for the conduct of social and political life are forbiddingly large. More than one feeling among others, anger becomes a structural force, a permanent body political source of urgent agitation for change (Black Lives Matter), and enervated resistance to disruption (Blue Lives Matter) in the structure of society and the texture of everyday experience.

Is there a source of anger more immediate and violent than the raw force of biological need? Necessity – hunger, cold, acute pain – ensures that the pressure exerted by a drive is absolute and immediate. It is under the compulsion of necessity that we most keenly feel our original helplessness, and that anger is consequently most liable to escape all our efforts to bring it under control and assume the force of an infinitely unanswered complaint.

History suggests this is as true for mass political as for individual emotional life, as Hannah Arendt has shown above all. In On Revolution (1963), Arendt seeks to account for why the French Revolution (and almost all subsequent revolutions) ultimately descended into unbounded terror.

For Arendt, the most basic condition of life is human solidarity – that is, a common space for the engagement of contesting voices. The primary enemy of solidarity is thus that form of human misery peculiar to unsatisfied biological needs, which press upon us with a violence Arendt calls ‘prepolitical’. The conduct of politics assumes its participants are fed and sheltered. Where this assumption is not met, these elemental needs become the motive force of political action, and need can find public expression only in violence. Once the force of elemental necessity was let loose into political life, writes Arendt, ‘the malhereux changed into the enragés, for rage is indeed the only form in which misfortune can become active.’

There is a violent and unedifying history of movements Left and Right exploiting the drive character of anger

The enragés come into being when the poor and hungry can endure their suffering no longer, when, in the language of psychoanalysis, the pressure of the drive has reached its highest pitch. The enragés are the fruit of a despair of attaining satisfaction by any other means, a despair that finally licensed and impelled Robespierre’s limitless Reign of Terror in the 1790s. ‘This rage,’ Arendt writes:

carries with it the momentum of true suffering, whose devastating force is superior and, as it were, more enduring than the raging frenzy of mere frustration.

Rage is the annulment of any political process. It is hard to imagine an insight more resonant with our own moment. Not for nothing did the 2016 Trump campaign, in an ingenious strike against Hillary Clinton’s widely perceived elitism, doctor the iconographic poster of Les Misérables, transforming Victor Hugo’s Paris Commune ragged fighters and flags into the rowdy band of the MAGA faithful – Les Deplorables. And yet the reference is ambiguous to say the least. If it invokes the Commune, it also insinuates a chasm of ironic distance from it. Our moment, the Trump poster implies, is less a revolutionary spring than a cynical parody of one, a mobilisation of rage with no determinate aim or object.

Robespierre’s Terror was the culmination of a zealous rage that could only consume itself along with its targets. The demagogic politics of Trump and Brexit recognises that rage, and makes of it an endlessly renewable resource. It does not need to achieve its stated aims – to build a border wall or provide the best access to cheap healthcare, for example. In fact, it is far more politically advantageous for the base to be maintained in a state of mounting dissatisfaction that can be handily blamed on its vast array of enemies and discharged when expedient in the most dangerous quantities – at Charlottesville in August 2017, say, or at the US Capitol in January 2021.

There is, then, a violent and unedifying history of political movements Left and Right exploiting the drive character of anger – harnessing its pressure, directing or manipulating its aims, switching its objects (immigrants, Democrats, experts) in accordance with the needs of the political moment. In private and public life alike, the destructive potential of anger is rooted in its drive character. Anger is always at risk of being propelled to a level of pressure it cannot sustain. The uncertainty of its aims and objects makes it perpetually vulnerable to external manipulation as well as blind action.

And yet, if the drive character of anger is dangerous, it can also be peculiarly enriching. Precisely because its aims and objects are changeable and uncertain, it is capable of a questioning curiosity towards itself. Because they arouse feelings I cannot master and desires I cannot satisfy, drives make me strange to myself. That strangeness, as we’ve seen, makes us ripe for emotional manipulation at the individual as much as the collective level – if we always knew exactly what we wanted, we couldn’t be manipulated into wanting something else. But it also makes possible the kinds of self-reflection facilitated by art, philosophy and science – of which psychoanalysis is at once all and none.

If there is a basis for a distinction between destructive and just anger, it surely lies here. The rhetorical style of Trump and his avatars rests on the elimination of even the smallest hint of self-doubt, a tendency that becomes more total the more its content outrages truth and human decency. Trump’s refusal to recant or correct one of his numberless proven falsehoods, like the continued denial by Congressional Republicans of the abundantly documented violence of the January 6th insurrectionists, are prime instances of a strictly enforced embargo on self-examination.

Authoritarian and demagogic anger derives its force from a refusal to question itself. It feeds not on propositions but on the assertion of an undivided and incontestable reality, which the demagogue alone has the right to describe. It is an anger that can never confront or question itself, that expresses itself as though it knows with immaculate certainty its own aims and objects. This is the spirit of Achillean anger, the blindly righteous outrage of a man robbed of a woman he himself has robbed.

As Arendt showed us, this tone of self-certainty is as endemic to the history of the revolutionary Left as of the reactionary Right. Authentic and meaningful political anger, as opposed to the confected anger of dictators and populist leaders, must include within itself a kind of vigilant self-suspicion. We see an instance of this self-suspicion in the work of the Black feminist theorist and activist Audre Lorde, who writes in her essay ‘The Uses of Anger’ (1981): ‘I have tried to learn my anger’s usefulness to me, as well as its limitations.’

The annals of history are stalked by sufficient injustice, brutality and stupidity to feed our lifelong anger

When anger is examined from inside a self-suspecting practice of thinking and feeling, its momentum is slowed and made available for observation, reflection and play. I am wary of making this sound like a simple matter, when few things could be more difficult. I cannot listen to the sinister amalgam of cruelty and nonsense streaming from Trump and his acolytes without becoming severely enervated with rage. It is hard to imagine any witness to the murder of George Floyd, or any other of the innumerable offences against racial justice of recent years and decades and centuries, taking reflective distance from the burning anger they feel. The annals of history are stalked by sufficient injustice, brutality and stupidity to feed our lifelong anger.

But the peculiar advantage of art and psychoanalysis (which may well be construed, from the standpoint of philosophical reason or scientific objectivity, as a disadvantage) is that they provide ways of experiencing such extreme feelings while making them available to curiosity and open exploration.

In the course of our years of work, Gordon came to feel relief that I could receive his rages without falling prey to the twin temptations of dismissal and retaliation, as though a different mode of relating had been opened up for him, one not defined by the same compulsive panic. Psychoanalysis slowly and falteringly mitigated his tendencies to reactive panic and its snowballing consequences. I think this change was facilitated above all by the dual stance of psychoanalytic work, which meant he could at once feel his anger and sit alongside it, remaining inside it while wondering about it from a short distance.

Reading the Iliad or Medea is a very different experience, it has a similarly doubling effect on us, situating us both inside and apart from the passionate furies of the protagonists. Perhaps this doubled position, beyond surrender to it and beyond the illusion that we could simply abandon it, is our best hope of learning to live with anger – our own and everyone else’s.

To read more on the history of emotions, visit Psyche, a digital magazine from Aeon that illuminates the human condition through psychology, philosophy and the arts.

Mood and emotionHuman rights and justicePsychiatry and psychotherapy

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