I’ve always been angry. Why? I don’t know. I got into a lot of fights as a kid, and was a difficult child to bring up. As an adult, I’m still angry, but I haven’t been in a fight since high school. Once you lose control you lose, full stop. Sure, I shout a lot, and get into long drunken arguments, and have taken a couple of good blows to the face for my insolence. But that’s as far as it goes. Violence is a terrible and dangerous thing, that should only be used to defend yourself and others and as an absolute last resort. People do not understand the dangers. You can die from a blow to the temple; and if you’re the one that flung the punch, that’s almost as bad – you’re in jail!
Sam Harris writes, in his essay on violence, that ‘When a conflict turns physical, there is always a risk that someone will be severely injured or killed. Imagine spending a year or more in prison because you couldn’t resist punching some bully who dearly deserved it, but who then hit his head on a fire hydrant and died from a brain injury.’ So yeah, I’ve taken Harris’s advice, and avoided conflict; when conflict’s found me I’ve managed to resolve it through words alone.
Like all other citizens of Airstrip One, Orwell’s doomed antihero Winston Smith has to take a regular part in the regime’s Two Minutes Hate events, where they stand in groups and scream murder and bloodlust at official enemies displayed on a screen. The following passage shows Orwell’s visceral talent as a writer:
The horrible thing about the Two Minutes Hate was not that one was obliged to act a part, but, on the contrary, that it was impossible to avoid joining in. Within thirty seconds any pretence was always unnecessary. A hideous ecstasy of fear and vindictiveness, a desire to kill, to torture, to smash faces in with a sledgehammer, seemed to flow through the whole group of people like an electric current, turning one even against one’s will into a grimacing, screaming lunatic. And yet the rage that one felt was an abstract, undirected emotion which could be switched from one object to another like the flame of a blowlamp. Thus, at one moment, Winston’s hatred was not turned against Goldstein at all, but, on the contrary, against Big Brother, the Party, and the Thought Police… It was even possible, at moments, to switch one’s hatred this way or that by a voluntary act.
Of course, part of Winston’s problem was sexual frustration: after he begins a love affair with fellow dissident Julia, his rages begin to fade and the Two Minutes Hate becomes a harder thing to get into. Julia is more perceptive than Winston and understands the role that curdled desire plays in their society. She tells Winston that ‘If you’re happy inside yourself, why should you get excited about Big Brother and the Three-Year Plans and the Two Minutes Hate and all the rest of their bloody rot?’
Contemporary fiction recognises the power and risks of rage. Crime drama often features police protagonists – James McNulty or Sarah Lund – who come to a bad end because they cannot keep a handle on their fury. The immortal Sam Vimes from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books fights a running battle with the darkness inside himself. ‘He knew he had hidden depths. There was nothing in them that he’d like to see float to the surface. They contained things that should be left to lie.’
My own aggression is fairly general; my life is fairly free and relaxed and doesn’t have the problems and demands faced by many people I come across. I get angry, sure, when I read the papers and listen to the radio, because this seems at many moments to be a shitty, fucked-up country where nothing works and the good people go to the wall. Sometimes, the aggression I feel seems clean and fine and good, and I think of Carl Hiaasen’s words: ‘Nothing shameful about anger, boy. Sometimes it’s the only sane and logical and moral reaction.’ Other times it’s like I’m being poisoned from the inside out.
Possibly my problem is the same as Winston’s, but I don’t know. However much you get in life, there are always going to be problems, and I suspect that I would be angry even if I was a happily married multimillionaire. Anger and contentment are more compatible than people think.
Is it just me? Apparently not. I don’t like the way that anyone who kicks off in public is immediately assumed to be suffering mental distress – like the racist tram woman, or that piece of shit who was stalking Julie Anna. Mental health people generally are not violent, but Mind lists anger as a mental illness. A Mental Health Foundation survey found that 28% of adults worry about how angry they sometimes feel, and 32% know someone who has problems with their anger.
So what can you do? Running and exercise is a help and a buzz. I’m more sceptical about formal anger management classes. I instinctively feel that sitting in some church basement on plastic chairs on a midweek evening would make me more angry, not less. The contemplative idea that you can simply think all your negative characteristics out of existence is a delusion. It’s up to all of us to find the ways to handle our own internal darkness.
As the great Persian poet Omar Khayyam wrote (perhaps anticipating Stephen Crane): ‘Today is the time of my youth/I drink wine because it is my solace/Do not blame me, because although bitter it is pleasant/’It is bitter because it is my life.’