FORGIVENESS: Anger by Mary Gordon

Anger by Mary Gordon

From Deadly Sins

There would be no point to sin if it were not the corridor to pleasure, but the corridor of anger has a particularly seductive, self-deceiving twist.  More than any of the other sins, anger can be seen to be good, can perhaps even begin by being good.  Jesus himself was angry, brandishing his whip and thrillingly overturning tables: coins, doves flying, the villainous sharpsters on their knees to save their spoils.  It would seem to run in the family; by far the angriest character in the Old Testament is God.

Of all the sins, only anger is connected in the common tongue to its twinned, entwined virtue: justice.  “Just anger,” we say.  Impossible even to begin to imagine such a phrase made with the others: try as you will, you can’t get your mouth around the words, “just sloth,” or, “just covetousness,” to say nothing of the deadly breakfast cereal that sticks to the ribs for all eternity, “just lust.”

Anger is electric, exhilarating.  The angry person knows without a doubt he is alive.  And the state of unaliveness, of partial aliveness, is so frequent and so frightening, the condition of inertia common, almost, as dirt, that there’s no wonder anger feels like treasure.  It goes through the body like a jet of freezing water; it fills the veins with purpose; it alerts the lazy eye and ear; the sluggish limbs cry out for movement; the torpid lungs grow rich with easy breath.  Anger flows through the entire body, stem to stern, but its source and center is the mouth.

Its taste draws from those flavors that appeal to the mature and refined palate: the mix of sour, bitter, sweet, and salt, and something else, something slightly frightening, something chemical or at least inorganic, something unhealthful, something we suspect should not be there, a taste that challenges us because it might be poison – but if not, think what we have been able to withstand, then crave.  Gin and Campari, the vinegary mint sauce alongside the Easter lamb, a grapefruit ice to cleanse the palate between heavy courses, a salad of arugula and cress, the salt around the margarita glass, all of them seeming to promise wisdom and a harsh, ascetic health.

The joy of anger is the joy – unforgettable from childhood – of biting down on a loose tooth.  The little thorn (our own!) pressing into the tender pinkness of the gum, the labial exploration, the roughness we could impose on the thick and foolish tongue (a punishment for the times it failed us by refusing to produce the proper word?), and the delicious wince when we had gone too far.  The mouth as self-contained, containing oracle.  The truth: pain is possible.  The freedom: I can both inflict and endure.  The harsh athletic contest, ultimately satisfying because of the alarming and yet deeply reassuring taste of blood.

Even the ancillary words, the names of anger’s sidekicks, are a pleasure on the tongue.  Spite, vengeance, rage.  Just listen to the snaky “s,” the acidic, arrowlike soft “g,” the lucid, plosive “t” preceded by the chilled long “i,” then dropped.  The onomatopoeia of drawn swords.  Nothing muffled, muffling, nothing concealing, nothing to protect the weak.  To live in anger is to forget that one was ever weak, to believe that what others call weakness is a sham, a feint that one exposes and removes, like the sanitizing immolation of a plague-ridden house.  The cruelty essential for the nation’s greater health, because, after all, the weak pull down the strong.  The angry one is radiant in strength, and, blazing like the angel with the flaming sword, banishes the transgressors from the garden they would only now defile.

Deadly anger is a hunger, an appetite that can grow like a glutton’s or a lion’s, seeking whom it may devour.  Once fed, the creature grows hypnotized by itself.  The brilliant Ford Madox Ford created an unforgettable character almost entirely moved by anger, Sylvia Tiejens, the beautiful, sadistic wife of the hero of his tetralogy, Parade’s End.  Sylvia’s mother explains her daughter’s rage by using herself as an example: “I tell you I’ve walked behind a man’s back and nearly screamed because of the desire to put my nails into the veins of his neck.  It was a fascination.”

This fascination begins in the mouth, then travels to the blood, then to the mind, where it creates a connoisseur.  One begins to note the intricate workmanship of one’s own anger and soon to worship it, to devote oneself to its preservation, like any great work of art.  Simple anger, the shallow, unaddictive kind, starts with a single action, and calls forth a single and finite response.  You have done this to me, I will do that to you.  An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  In this bargain, there is hope for an end: eventually there will be no more eyes or teeth.  But deadly anger is infinite; its whorls, emanating from themselves, grow ever smaller, but there is no end to the possibility of inward turning, inward fecundation.

Deadly anger is fanatic of embellishment.  The angry person, like a Renaissance prince with endless coffers, travels the world in search of the right gem, the most exquisitely tinted snatch of silk, the perfect quarter-inch of ivory, the most incandescent golden thread, the feathers of the rara avis.  The original cause of anger, like the base metal below the ornament, may long have been obscured by the fantastic encrustation.  Even the plain desire to hurt may be lost in the detail of the justification for the hurting or the elaborations of the punishment.  Anger takes on a life of its own, or it divorces itself from life in the service of death dealing, or life denying, or the compulsion to make someone’s life unendurable simply for the sake of doing it, simply because it has become the shape of the angry one’s life to punish.

The habit of punishment is quickly acquired and self-supporting.  It has one food, plentiful and easily obtained: the need for blame.  In this, it is a really very comprehensible attempt to render a senseless universe sensible.  Everything that is, particularly everything that one wishes were otherwise, must have its cause, and so its causer.  Perhaps the person taken over by deadly anger is for this reason, at bottom, pitiable, like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, who demanded death on a large scale so that suffering could be reduced.  We destroyed the village in order to save it.  I destroy you because all that is wrong must be your fault.  Accident is a concept of the weak-minded: what is wrong is someone’s fault.  Yours.  And I must punish you.  Furthermore, I demand that you see the rightness of your punishment.

This is the difference between the good, the necessary anger, the enlivening anger, and the deadly kind.  The first is tied to justice, the death-dealing kind to punishment.  This is the reason that the Greeks, who assumed their gods to be irrational, killing men like flies for their sport, wrote about anger so differently from the writers of the Old Testament, who assumed God to be a partner in their covenant.  Saul’s irrational and jealous rage, prompting him to seek David’s death, is punished by the Lord.  Moses’s higher rage, causing the Levites to murder thousands of the children of Israel who had worshiped the golden calf, was prompted by their violation of the law.  But Achilles, dragging the corpse of Hector around the walls of Troy, was acting from no impulse of justice or law.  Only from an insistence upon mastery, upon a display of power, which makes a defiled thing of its object.  Thinking it is fixed on its object, deadly anger actually forgets him, and is carried up in the black cloud of its own dominion.  The country of deadly anger, with its own cultures, its own laws.  A country ruled by a tyrant so obsessed with the fulfillment of his desire that all else is lost.

I am reminded of a story the Polish writer Ryszard Kapushcinski told me once about Idi Amin, Amin ordered, as he often did, one of his ministers to be summarily executed.  The man was hanged.  The next day, Amin said, “And where is my friend the minister, who is so amusing?  Bring him here, I wish to see him.”  When he was told the man had been executed, he ordered the execution of those who had complied with his original orders.

Anger, in feeding on itself, creates around itself the overfed flesh of limitless indulgence.  At the same time it emanates a styptic breath that withers hope and youth and beauty.  So the angry person is at once two creatures: gross and bestial in the fulfillment of his appetites, desiccated, fleshless, nearly skeletal with the effort to keep active the tiny coal that fuels his passion.

If the word “sin” has any useful meaning at all in a time when there is no possibility of redemption, it must speak about a distortion so severe that the recognizable self is blotted out or lost.  Many current thinkers wish to abandon the idea of a continuous self; novelists have always known that selves are fleeting, malleable, porous.  Nevertheless some recognizable thing, something constant enough to have a name sensibly fixed to it, seems to endure from birth to death.  Sin makes the sinner unrecognizable.

I experienced this once myself, and I remember it because it frightened me.  I became an animal.  This sinful experience occurred – as so many do – around the occasion of a dinner party.  It was a hot August afternoon.  I was having ten people for dinner that evening.  No one was giving me a bit of help.  I was, of course, feeling like a victim, as everyone does in a hot kitchen on an August day.  (It is important to remember that the angry person’s habit of self-justification is often connected to his habit of seeing himself as a victim.)  I had been chopping, stirring, bending over a low flame, and all alone, alone!  The oven’s heat was my purgatory, my crucible.

My mother and my children thought this was a good time for civil disobedience.  They positioned themselves in the car and refused to move until I took them swimming.  Now my children were at tender ages at that time, seven and four.  My mother was seventy-eight and, except for her daily habit of verbal iron-pumping, properly described as infirm.  They leaned on the horn and shouted my name out the window, well within hearing of the neighbors, reminding me of my promise to take them to the pond.

There are certain times when a popular cliché disgorges itself from the dulled setting of overuse and comes to life, and this was one of them.  I lost it.  I lost myself.  I jumped on the hood of the car.  I pounded on the windshield.  I told my mother and my children that I was never, ever going to take any of them anywhere and none of them were ever going to have one friend in any house of mine until the hour of their death, which, I said, I hoped was soon.  I couldn’t stop pounding on the windshield.  Then the frightening thing happened.  I became a huge bird.  A carrion crow.  My legs became hard stalks; my eyes were sharp and vicious.  I developed a murderous beak.  Greasy black feathers took the place of arms.  I flapped and flapped, I blotted out the sun’s light with my flapping.  Each time my beak landed near my victims (it seemed to be my fists on the windshield, but it was really my beak on their necks) I went back for more.  The taste of blood entranced me.  I wanted to peck and peck forever.  I wanted to carry them all off in my bloody beak and drop them on a rock where I would feed on their battered corpses till my bird stomach swelled.

I don’t mean this figuratively: I became that bird.  I had to be forced to get off the car and stop pounding the windshield.  Even then I didn’t come back to myself.  When I did, I was appalled.  I realized I had genuinely frightened my children.  Mostly because they could no longer recognize me.  My son said to me: “I was scared because I didn’t know who you were.”

I understand that this is not a sin of a serious nature.  I know this to be true because it has its comic aspects, and deadly sin is characterized by the absence of humor, which always brings life.  But because of that experience and others I won’t tell you about, I understand the deadly sin of anger.  I was unrecognizable to myself and, for a time, to my son, but I think I still would have been recognizable to most of the rest of the world as human.  Deadly sin causes the rest of the human community to say: “How can this person do this thing and still be human?”

The events in the former Yugoslavia seem to me to characterize perfectly the results of deadly anger.  We outsiders are tormented and bedeviled by unimaginable behavior from people who seemed so very like ourselves.  They didn’t look like our standard idea of the other: they read the same philosophers as we, and we vacationed among them, enjoying their food, their music, their ordinary pleasantries.  And yet, a kind of incomprehensible horror has grown up precisely because of an anger that has gone out of control and has fed on itself until all human eyes are blinded by the bloated flesh of over-gorged anger.  People who five years ago ate together, studied together, even married, have sworn to exterminate one another in the most bloody and horrifying ways.  Hundreds of years of mutual injustices, treasured like sacred texts, have been gone over, resurrected, nurtured, so that a wholly new creature has been brought to life, a creature bred on anger to the exclusion of vision.  Hypnotic, addictive vengeance, action without reflection has taken over like a disease.  Thousands upon thousands of women have been raped; impregnation has become a curse, a punishment.  The old are starved, beautiful ancient cities destroyed.  The original cause of the anger is less important now than the momentum that has built up.

This is the deadly power of anger: it rolls and rolls like a flaming boulder down a hill, gathering mass and speed until any thought of cessation is so far beside the point as to seem hopeless.  It is not that there is no cause for the anger; the heavy topsoil of repressed injustice breeds anger better than any other medium.  But the causes are lost in the momentum of the anger itself, and in the insatiable compulsion to destroy everything so that the open maw of rage may be fed.

The only way to stop this kind of irrational anger is by an act of equally irrational forgiveness.  This is difficult to achieve because anger is exciting and enlivening, and forgiveness is quiet and, like small agriculture or the domestic arts, labor-intensive and yielding of modest fruit.  Anger has the glamour of illicit sex, forgiveness the endlessly flexible requirements or a long marriage.  Anger feeds a sense of power; forgiveness reminds us of our humbleness – that unpopular commodity, so misunderstood (Uriah Heep is not humble; Felicité in Flaubert’s “Simple Heart” is).  To forgive is to give up the exhilaration of one’s own unassailable rightness.  “No cause, no cause,” says Cordelia at the end of King Lear, enabling the broken father to become a “foolish fond old man.”  “The great rage. . . is kill’d in him,” says the doctor.  But Cordelia’s words turn a dead place into a garden where they can sit, “God’s spies,” and wait for what we all wait for, the death that we cannot keep back.

Only the silence and emptiness following a moment of forgiveness can stop the monster of deadly anger, the grotesque creature fed and fattened on innocent blood (and what blood is not, in itself, innocent?).  The end of anger requires a darkness, the living darkness at the center of the “nothing” that Lear learns about, the black of Mark Rothko’s last panels, a black that contains in itself, invisible, the germs from which life can reknit itself and spring.  Its music is the silence beyond even justice, the peace that passes understanding, rare in a lifetime or an age, always a miracle past our deserving, greater than our words.

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