Anger, Melancholia, And Distraction

Anger is a funny business; it’s an unpleasant emotion for those on the receiving end, and very often, in its effects, on those who are possessed by it. And there is no denying that it affords a pleasure of sorts to those consumed by it; it would not have the fatal attraction it does if it did not. That kind of anger, of course, is a righteous anger; we feel ourselves possessed by a sense of rectitude as we rail against those who have offended us; we are in the right, they are in the wrong, and the expression of our anger acts as a kind of confirmation of that ‘fact.’ But anger’s hangover is very often unpleasant, and among its vivid features is a crippling melancholia. We became angry because we had been ‘wounded’ in some shape or fashion, and while the expression of our anger is often a powerful and effective palliative against the pain of that injury, it is almost always a temporary one. What is left in its wake is a complex welter of emotions: we are sad, of course, because the hurt of the injury is still with us; we are fearful too, because we dread the same kind of injury again; our anger might have fatally wounded an important personal relationship or friendship; we might well have ventured out into unknown territory, fueled by anger, trusting it to guide us, but instead find ourselves at an unknown pass, one whose contours we do not know yet to navigate. (I used the word ‘possessed’ above deliberately to indicate a kind of capture or hijacking of the self; to describe a person ‘suffering’ from anger might be equally accurate in terms of describing the sense of being a patient, one helpless in the face of an emotion running wild.)

I write about anger and distraction and anxiety here because I suffer from all of them; they are my psychic burdens, my crosses to carry. On one view, anger and distraction both bottom out in a kind of anxiety and fear. As I noted recently, I do not think I will ever rid myself of anxiety; it is a state of being. Because of that, I do not think I will rid myself of anger either. Anger cripples me–not just in personal relationships but in another crucial domain as well; it corrodes and attenuates my ability to do creative work. This failure induces its own melancholia; my sense of self is wrapped up quite strongly in terms of not just my personal relationships and social roles and responsibilities–like being a husband and father and teacher–but also my reading and writing. (I’m loath to describe this activity of mine as ‘scholarship’ and am quite  happy to describe my intellectual status as ‘someone who likes to read and write.’) Reading and writing are well-nigh impossible in the febrile states induced by anger; among the terrible costs of anger this one brings with it an especially heavy burden for me. When I sought out a meditation practice a few years ago, one of my primary motivators was to ‘tame’ or ‘master’ this terrible beast somehow; it remains an ongoing struggle, one not helped by a falling off in my commitment to my meditation ‘sits.’ I write here, of course, as part of a process to try to reintroduce that in my life. More on that attempt anon.

Oscar Wilde’s Nietzschean Notes In De Profundis

In ‘Suffering is One Very Long Moment‘–part of a series of essays on prison literature–Max Nelson writes on De Profundis–“a letter written by Oscar Wilde during his imprisonment in Reading Gaol, to “Bosie” (Lord Alfred Douglas)”–and makes note that:

Certain passages in De Profundis do seem to credit prison with strengthening and deepening their author’s nature, but only to the extent that, by subjecting him to intolerable, constant, and thoroughgoing misery, it gave him something against which to muster all his creative energies and all his verbal powers. “The important thing,” he writes himself telling Douglas at one of the letter’s turning points, “the thing that lies before me, the thing that I have to do, or be for the brief remainder of my days one maimed, marred and incomplete, is to absorb into my nature all that has been done to me, to make it part of me, to accept it without complaint, fear or reluctance.”

There are two Nietzschean notes at play here.

Nelson suggests that for Wilde, prison has become that form of adversity which enables a kind of ‘overcoming’; it is that zone, that space, within which Wilde is able to express himself through ‘his creative energies’ and ‘verbal powers,’ thus enhancing them, and thus too, enabling a kind of self-discovery or transformation on his part. It is within this space–with its provisions for ‘testing’ him–that Wilde might find out whether he is a ‘noble soul’ or a ‘slave.’ (This is a point made in many forms and locations in Nietzsche’s writings; in the The Gay Science for example, Nietzsche had made note of the relationship between pain and profundity, suggesting that ‘great pain…the ultimate liberator of spirit’ could make us ‘more profound.’)

The Wilde quote that Nelson points to seems to invoke Nietzsche’s ‘amor fati‘: Wilde is determined to integrate into himself his experiences, his fate and to not reject them; these experiences are part of his life, they are matters of record, they have left their imprint, one which must be reckoned with and incorporated into his life’s economy. To walk away from them, to fail to acknowledge them, is to merely initiate pathology: perhaps of repressed memories, sublimated into self-destructive behavior, perhaps of futile, life-wasting rage. We must accept all that is our lot, all that is a component of our lives; to do otherwise is to be inauthentic, to be unfaithful to oneself. Wilde must have been aware that anger and bitterness and resentment could continue to imprison him even after he had left Reading Gaol; the very thought of that continued incarceration of his mind, must have struck him as a terrifying burden for the creative person to carry; it would mean the end of his life, or at least, that component of which mattered to Wilde, its productive, artistic one. Perhaps it might also have occurred to Wilde, even as he wrote De Profundis, that his attempts to integrate his life’s experiences to his notion of himself had already proved creatively and artistically fruitful; after all, it was making him write about that attempt.

 

Brexit, Shmexit: Schadenfreude And How The Old Eat The Young

Old habits die hard. I like watching England lose: in soccer and in cricket mainly, but I’ll admit to cheering for Napoleon too. (I morbidly continue to study the Battle of Waterloo, hoping again and again that that damn fool Grouchy will show up.) English self-destructiveness–think David Beckham during the 1998 World Cup, and the national self-flagellation that follows, has always provided great entertainment for distant observers.

And so it has been with some truly ghastly interest that I’ve followed the epic meltdown of the European dream’s English chapter: first, the Trumpish silliness of the Leavers’ rhetoric, which became remarkably unfunny once Jo Cox was murdered, and then, the apoplectic fury unleashed by the insanity of the final referendum results: fifty-two percent of the English population voted to turn their backs on Europe–perhaps to stand facing, all the more resolutely, an America which threatens to emulate their xenophobic, racist, nativist, populism.

But I stopped chuckling soon enough, for as in the US, it turns out the old will eat the young:

57 percent of Britons between ages 18 and 34 who intended to vote in Thursday’s referendum on the European Union wished to remain in the bloc….In contrast, an identical proportion — 57 percent — of Britons over 55 who intended to take part in the referendum signaled that they wanted to leave, Survation found.

European labor markets will now become more inaccessible to English workers, a fact which will not bother those who voted to leave, because the majority of those who did so had few years left in the workforce; in general, the economic and political costs of this vote–a stock market crash, a decline in the value of the pound–will be felt more acutely by those who have more years left to live with it.

Equally damaging is the signal that England sends to the rest of the world: that its politics has been captured by the mean and the narrow-minded, by the spiteful and the vicious. This morning, on Facebook, I quoted that old man, John of Gaunt, and his epic complaint:

This land of such dear souls, this dear dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out, I die pronouncing it,
Like to a tenement or pelting farm:
England, bound in with the triumphant sea
Whose rocky shore beats back the envious siege
Of watery Neptune, is now bound in with shame,
With inky blots and rotten parchment bonds:
That England, that was wont to conquer others,
Hath made a shameful conquest of itself.

Lamentations over the fall of England are, as can be seen, not new. But this paranoid pulling up of the drawbridge is especially astonishing when witnessed in its historic context: in an ever-more connected world, England, frightened by strange accents and brown faces, has voted for pathetic isolation, all the better to rummage about in corners, muttering vaingloriously about days of empire and exclusive Englishness.

Flood the Chunnel; form squares. The good old days are back.

On Driving Drunk: Bloody Idiot

In the terrible, often carefully hidden, mental category of ‘things I have done in the past that I am not proud of, and indeed ashamed of,’ my driving drunk–on many occasions–must take dubious pride of place.

I learned to drive as a teenager, and often drove during my college years–through New Delhi’s even-then chaotic roads–borrowing our family car from my mother. These were short trips, and I did not ever, it seems, drive to and from a party where alcohol was consumed. Matters changed once I moved to the US for graduate school.

Shortly after I secured myself my first teaching and research assistantship, I decided the time had come to buy a second-hand car for commuting. I bought a Toyota Corolla, and used it to drive to campus, to my classes and my work at a campus research lab. I also used it to drive back home after an evening spent drinking in pubs–either on or off campus.

I was not a light drinker (international students were notoriously prone to heavy drinking.) I drank beer by the pitcher; I liked to keep drinking till I could tell the alcohol had changed my perception of myself, the people I was surrounded by, the world I lived in, my take on states of affairs around me. That is, I drank till I was good and drunk. As I continued to drink, I would discover the wisdom of the old adage, ‘you don’t buy beer, you rent it.’ And then, when I was done drinking–in all probability, because I had run out of money, or because the campus pub was closing, or because I had become ravenously hungry–I would stagger out, head for the parking lot, get into my car, and drive home.

This pattern continued after I began working at Bell Laboratories in Middletown, New Jersey. I drove thirty miles each way to work–in a Toyota pick-up truck–and often went out for drinks after work with my colleagues. We drank beer for hours, and sometimes closed out the night with a whisky or two. We snacked during our drinking–something I did not do in my graduate school days–but there was no doubt that our BAC was still alarmingly high when we left to go home.

I never got pulled over; my only ticket for speeding came when I was stone cold sober. I never ran across a DWI check on a local road. I got lucky, very lucky. But I flirted with death and negligent homicide nevertheless. Two horrifying recollections from that period: on one occasion, I drove into the divider on a state route, badly damaging my front tires; somehow, I managed to pull the car to the side of the road, walk to a pay phone, and call a tow truck before a police car showed up. On another, I woke up in the morning, unable to remember where I had parked my car.

I do not know why so many of ‘us’ drove drunk. We were young and male, and that had something to do with it. Bad things happened to other people, not to us; and besides, we knew what we were doing. Or so we thought. Drunk driving was not approved of by many around us; but we forgot about that social norm once we were three sheets to the wind. One of us got busted for drunk driving, and lost his license; he was a repeat offender. We clucked our tongues and went right on driving drunk. Sometimes, I would chastise myself and resolve not to do it again. But I think I broke down all too often.

Shortly before I quit my job and went back to graduate school, I sold my truck. Thanks to insurance hassles, I was sick of driving that damn thing. And I was going to go live in New York City; I did not need a car. From that point on, a night of drinking would end with me in a subway car, or, when I could afford it, a cab. And when I didn’t drive, the horror of what I had done in the days when I drove drunk sank in.

But nothing quite reminded me of the distance I had come and of the catastrophes I had been singularly fortunate in avoiding like a Brooklyn College student’s thesis, written on the topic of New York State’s efforts to combat drunk driving–through a combination of laws, market pressure, and social norms. She was writing it in memory of her uncle, killed by a drunk driver on a highway. Sitting in my office, talking to her as she struggled to maintain her composure while she explained the impact of that tragedy on her father, her family, her cousins, I confessed to having been a drunk driver in my past, even as I could not look her in the eyes.

Never again.

Note: The title of this post is derived from an Australian anti-drunk driving campaign slogan: If you drink and drive, you’re a bloody idiot.

The Pleasures Of Anger

Anger is toxic, corrosive, and damaging; it is the poison we imbibe to hurt others. But like other substances described as ‘poisons’ anger is also intoxicating. As those who have ever felt ‘the red mist’ draw down over their eyes will readily testify, an outburst of anger is wholly controlling; a terrifying loss of self-control. But not one that is wholly unpleasant. And thus anger may be addictive too.

As the experience of happiness can be pleasurable, so can that of anger. This aspect of anger may partially explain its resilience in our emotional frameworks; part of the adaptive character of anger, its continuing survival, might be the pleasure it affords its ‘sufferers.’  Anger is difficult to control, to ‘reign in’; an acknowledgement of the pleasure anger provides may enable us to understand why ‘pointless anger’ and ‘raging’ and ‘venting’ exercise the hold they do. Those driven to drink wake up with hangovers; it is the price they pay for the pleasures of the night before. Those driven to anger may pay the price of broken relationships to experience the pleasures of the red mist. Those who require anger management require treatment in much the same way substance addicts do; they have found a source of once-pleasurable indulgence that has ‘gone wrong.’

There is little doubt about anger’s constructive qualities;  we are exhorted to ‘get, and stay, angry’ if we want to bring about change in this world; we are asked to cultivate an emotion supposed corrosive. Anger appears as a vital tool of our emotional arsenal; a good slave and a bad master. Anger makes us uncomfortable; in seeking to rid ourselves of it, we find the motivation to bring about desired moral and political change. But anger provides too, a space for indulgence of exhilaration. The experience of anger can be feelings of power and moral superiority. These are not unpleasant emotions.

Anger, a primary moral emotion, cannot play the vital constructive role it plays in moral condemnation and outrage unless it provided an affective state that was ‘welcoming’, one that provided more ‘comfort’ than the state of non-arousal from which it represents a departure.  Moral anger has the motivational and affective force that it does precisely because moral anger is pleasurable too. To feel that anger is to feel alive; to deny that anger is to anesthetize ourselves. The angry person told to ‘work through’ his anger, to ‘get over it,’ to ‘overcome it,’ is asked to substitute a bland, affect-less state for a pleasurable, emotionally charged one. Anger is not just frustration or fear writ large; anger is an uncontrollable itch, indulgence in which brings relief and pleasure. In anger we let ourselves be overcome, taken over. Such occupations will not proceed as smoothly as they do if they were taking place in an unreceptive environment.

We condemn some forms of pleasure-seeking—perhaps free soloing, which is dangerous, encourages reckless copycats, and leaves families anxious and scared. We might condemn the angry in similar terms.  The addict’s pleasure seeking is condemnation-worthy when it interferes with life projects; his own and those of others. These are the grounds on which we may condemn the addict. And the angry.

Naguib Mahfouz On Forgetting And Habit

In Naguib Mahfouz‘s Autumn Quail, Isa, the corrupt bureaucrat whose long, slow, and painful decline after a purge following the 1952 revolution in Egypt the novel tracks, brings back Riri, a woman of the night, to his home. The next day,

He woke up about noon and looked with curiosity at the naked girl sleeping next to him. Recollections of the previous night came back and he told himself that as long as oblivion and habit still existed, everything remained possible. [Anchor Books, 2000, pp. 374]

Many a student of human nature is puzzled by the subject of his study. Why do humans behave as irrationally and self-destructively as they do? Why do they hurt the ones they love? Why can they not learn from their mistakes?

Perhaps because they forget; perhaps because they are compelled.

If memory can be so constitutive of identity, then forgetting gives us the chance to make ourselves anew. Forgetting ensures pain and joy once experienced are consigned to the past, and cannot act as guides to the future: they cannot inhibit, they cannot impel us to repeat a once-experienced pleasure, they cannot make us shrink from the venue of an older disaster. The burnt child fears the fire, but the forgotten fire provides no instruction for action when a flame is encountered again. Then the child becomes the moth; our expectation of its behavior is reconfigured. We may too, pass by a previously experienced domain of pleasure, now strangely reluctant to sample its joys again; we have already buried, pushed out into oblivion, memories of our times within its confines. We carry on, unaware that we have foregone an opportunity to experience that which once enthralled us so. This blithe ignorance may take us elsewhere, toward experiences and interactions, which are provocative of novel responses from us.

Habits, conditioned and impressed, sent deep into the innermost recesses of our being,  continue to drive us on too. They may become more than mere regularities in behavior; they may appear as instincts, innate and congenital. We may mark out zones of catastrophe, and expect no one will venture into their precincts, but the persona habitually conditioned to push open its doors and enter will continue to do so. And habits may send us, again and again, long after the shocks and the pleasures of the new have worn off, seeking old exaltations and ecstasies, hoping they will be as productive of joy as they once were. The resultant inevitable disappointment, so clearly visible to the observer, and which should seem to act as inhibitor, does not have that effect; the habitual commissioner of acts continues to do so long after all assessments of his actions as reasonable have ceased.

Forgetting and habit send us on into this world as a curious mixture of the new and the archaic. Such a creature is curiously open to possibility while simultaneously entrenched in older ways of being. The interaction between the two can be productive of much that might appear initially implausible.  ‘Everything remains possible’ indeed.

On Not Recommending One’s Choices

Recently, all too often, I catch myself saying something like the following, “I took decision X, and I have my fair share of regrets and self-congratulation about it but I would not recommend X to anyone” or “In all honesty, I couldn’t recommend that you take decision X as I did.” Or something like that: I took this path, and I’ve reconciled myself to it, but I cannot recommend that you do the same. Even with the express caveat to be prepared for mixed blessings, which would seem to provide all the ‘cover’ needed.  (The kinds of decisions I have mind included some of the most momentous of my life: immigrating, choosing a graduate education and then an academic career, entering a monogamous relationship, and having a child.)

Some of this hesitancy is, I think, quite straightforward. Many of these reasons–cultural, intellectual, psychological–are familiar and infected with a favorable assessment of ourselves and others. We are reluctant to preach and proselytize; we are modest, and think it inappropriate to convey the impression of having gotten things right; we do not want to oversell the good and we do not want to understate the bad–we do not want to brag, we do not want to whine; we want others to take on the terrible responsibility we felt when we took those decisions; we value the boundaries of the autonomous protective space that others have built up around themselves (see: ‘reluctance to preach…’ above.). And lastly, I think, a less exalted, but related, reason: we do not want to saddled with the burden of having pointed out the path to someone, we do not want to be ‘blamed’ when things go wrong.  (There are dozens of web sites, or at least pages, which are dedicated to getting ‘modern, sensitive’ parents to overcome their loathing to preach to their kids, urging them to ‘just do it’ and ‘say something’; don’t be afraid of being a ‘hypocrite’ or a ‘preacher’ if your child’s safety is at stake, and so on.)

I experience my hesitancy as grounded in all these reasons, of course. But there is also another quite fundamental grounds as explanation for my–and possibly others’–failure to preach. I am never quite sure if my interlocutor and I are talking about precisely the same thing: too many dimensions and facets of their existential choices remain hidden, unclear, or ambiguous to me. I do not know whether all the paths of conduct that are entailed by these decisions are understood as such by them; I do not know if they mean, or refer to, the same objects and states and affairs as I do. These differences, always minor in the context of conversations with most we know, acquire an added facet when we encounter something like a truly crucial choice–made by someone else, another possessor of a unique, only partially accessible perspective.

That is, much like in another state of ignorance that I described in an earlier post about not interfering with others’ self-conceptions, I am reluctant to act for fear of blundering into an unknown space with inadequate navigational aid.