I have an anger issue.
For several weeks now I’ve been trying to update one of my poetry books in Amazon’s KDP. I’ve done this a couple of times before without issue, but for some reason, inexplicably, the ghost in the machine is gone. The updated file never seems to get updated on the site itself, despite being updated on the backend. And this was going to be the last revision! I’d finally gotten everything perfect. Just the way I wanted it. I’ve been emailing the helpdesk for a week now, and so far I’ve received nonanswers. The most pleasantly benign of dismissals. It’s a “technical issue.” They are “looking into it.”
I received another nonanswer shortly before writing this. That was when it seized me. When the eagle talons of anger cinched around my brain, possessed as I was for a brief time by an insensate anger that negates and shuns and refuses. This is stupid, I thought. I’m sure of it. The people on the other end of this email are stupid. Amazon is stupid, too. There is stupidity lurking everywhere, around every corner. I am living inside a blackhole of stupidity.
I became hopelessly irrational.
It’s a hackneyed image, but I like to imagine my conscience sailing on a vast sea of consciousness: imagination and emotion, perceptions, memories, and deeper down, the unconscious deep. It’s a mostly tranquil sea, but anger seems to be the foulest weather I’ve ever encountered in my sailing. Anger roils and churns and makes waves choppy. Anger lowers visibility and confounds all navigation. And all one can do is weather it, wait it out. Anger is never “overcome” the way an emotion like fear is overcome. Anger is only ever “gotten through.”
The best defense against it, mentally, is inhibition. Shut off the mind, go exercise, perform manual labor. If you try fighting anger with the intellect, if you try to reason your way out of it, you instead become its accomplice. If you ask, “Why am I so angry?” while you’re angry, you enter an upside down world of hostility and resentment and injustice. You enter the world where you send the hateful reply to the helpdesk because it’s obviously their fault. And you refuse to play with your dog when he puts his head in your lap because he’s annoying you, when before he amused you. And you don’t pay attention to what your friends are saying because you haven’t vented to them yet about your problems. I’m not a fan of this way of being.
Despite my efforts, I’ve never been able to rid myself completely of my impulse to anger. Nowadays I’m suspicious of something like that even being possible, even amongst the most sagacious. I’ve only ever managed to minimize anger’s effects. I’ve gotten better at dialing down the intensity and shortening the length of time that I’m stewing. But anger always remains a reflex, when frustrations mount, when the unexpected or unplanned happens, when I feel slighted, embarrassed, ashamed. The Mental Health Foundation says that anger is sometimes considered a “secondary emotion,” a byproduct of another feeling like fear or sadness. Perhaps that’s why I find it so difficult to put down. It’s a mirage. It disguises its origins, obscures the way back as it plods forward angrily.
Anger hijacks the personality with its malware, infects reason with irrationality, and carries on calculating its illogic with the very mechanisms of logic.
Anger is also endlessly fascinating. It’s shiny like jewels and captivating as a car wreck. It captures our attention immediately when we see it. It’s no wonder why it shows up in our stories time and time again as a rich source of inner and outer conflict. Just think of all the action movies whose plots revolve around vengeance and retribution born of anger. Recall how an action scene starts out angry, or how it becomes angry as it goes on. Anger moves plots along. Displays of anger can punctuate scenes, as when, in the middle of a dinner between gangsters, an insult is said, and a violent act ensues. And how many scenes end with the gripping release of anger? An enemy defeated, a source of frustration undone.
Anger is an emotion out of which whole stories can be made.
In fact the very first story in western literature is a story about anger.
“Anger be now your song, immortal one,” says Homer at the beginning of The Iliad. If The Odyssey is the story of a clever man, Odysseus, The Iliad is the story of an angry man, Achilles.
"Anger be now your song, immortal one Akhilleus' anger, doomed and ruinous, that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss and crowded brave souls into the undergloom."
That’s Robert Fitzgerald’s translation, which I love for its traditional, ornate style. “Anger be now your song.” The syntax is so operatic! He even keeps the Greek transliterations (Akhilleus instead of Achilles) which makes the world seem more remote from ours, more bygone and arcane.
When I want a more modern sensibility, however, I turn to Stanley Lombardo’s translation:
"RAGE: Sing, Goddess, Achilles' rage, Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls Of heroes into Hades' dark, And left their bodies to rot as feasts For dogs and birds, as Zeus' will was done."
The sound is simpler, quicker. The language is more emotionally charged. I like “rage” better than “anger” here. The single syllable is more forceful. It pulls one into the story better than “anger.”
I’ve heard Lombardo takes more liberties with his translation. It’s not as faithful to the original Greek as Fitzgerald’s, precisely because it has shorter lines. Homer’s lines were made intentionally long and mellifluous. You were supposed to be out of breath by the end of them. This was part of Homer’s skill, his ability to weave complex sentences that sounded sweet to the ear. I don’t know ancient Greek, so I can’t offer an opinion on this point. I choose whichever translation I’m feeling in the mood for. Translations are like flavors of ice cream. One should try lots of different flavors, and have a few favorites.
The Iliad is a song about anger and its consequences. When it begins, Apollo is angry with Agamemnon for sacking one of his temples, and for refusing to return his priest’s daughter, Chryseis, who Agamemnon is keeping as a spoil of war. As vengeance, Apollo causes a plague to befall the Greek camp. (This particular Apollo is known as Apollo Smintheus, or Apollo of the Mice, meaning that the plague was in the form of an infestation of rats.)
Agamemnon then gets angry with Achilles, their best warrior, who has the nerve to tell the king, to his face, that the plague is all his fault, because he refuses to return the priest’s daughter. Agamemnon, whose anger makes him vindictive, does eventually return Chryseis, but only after he’s taken Achilles’ prize, Briseis, as his replacement. Now Achilles is angry, which brings us back to the opening lines of the poem:
"RAGE: Sing, Goddess, Achilles' rage, Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks Incalculable pain"
Achilles decides he’s no longer going to fight alongside the Greeks. This is a big blow, since he’s their best chance of winning the war, a war that’s been going on for almost 10 years now. It’s a dick move on Achilles’ part, although it’s worth pointing out that his first instinct was to murder Agamemnon in front of everyone in the court.
“A pain like grief weight on the son of Peleus, and in his shaggy chest this way and that the passion of his heart ran: should he draw longsword from hip, stand off the rest, and kill in single combat the great son of Atreus, or hold his rage in check and give it time?” (tr. Robert Fitzgerald)
Achilles manages his temper thanks to Athena, who descends from heaven at that moment and whispers in his ear “to check this killing rage”. Thus, he’s talked down from bloodthirsty violence to petty spite.
No one else in the room sees or hears Athena doing this. It’s almost as if it’s happening in Achilles’ head. Thanks to people like Jung and Julian Jaynes, I can’t help reading a moment like this psychologically. The way the gods often interact with mortals in The Iliad and The Odyssey suggests that they’re something like embodied consciences. This is a point I’d like to come back to eventually.
So instead of stabbing Agamemnon to death, Achilles decides to sit out the fight and let his Greek allies die at the hands of the Trojans. He gives a forceful, enraged speech that begins by calling Agamemnon a “sack of wine,” a truly excellent insult.
“I swear a day will come when every Akhaian soldier will groan to have Akhilleus back. That day you shall no more prevail on me than this dry wood shall flourish—driven though you are, and though a thousand men perish before the killer, Hektor. You will eat your heart out, raging with remorse for this dishonor done by you to the bravest of Akhaians.” (tr. Robert Fitzgerald)
What follows in the rest of The Iliad is the consequence of Achilles’ anger. His refusal to fight prolongs the war and culminates in the Trojans driving the Greeks back to the beaches and nearly setting fire to their ships, at which point Achilles agrees to let his friend and lover, Patroclus, wear his armor into battle to scare the Trojans away.
Achilles sympathizes with the plight of the Greeks, enough to send Patroclus into battle, yet he refuses to help directly. Even stranger, he admits that he’s no longer angry with Agamemnon.
“All that we can let pass as being over and done with; I could not rage forever.”
He admits that his anger has passed, and yet…
“And yet, by heaven, I swore I would not rest from anger till the cries and clangor of battle reached my very ships!”
Achilles is bound by the illogic of his anger, which lays out a path before him as tragic as Fate, as if it were not even he who’d made the choices that led up to this moment. All he can do is accept the consequences that were laid out for him, when he was a different person, a person possessed by anger. He must go on letting his friends die, until the oath, born in rage, is fulfilled.
Clearly, Achilles is being very stubborn. Doesn’t that mean that the real problem is one of excessive pride, and not anger? After all, as Achilles himself admits, his rage is gone. He’s not angry anymore. It’s stubborn pride that makes him refuse to give up his oath.
That was my first thought, although I’m skeptical of saying that Achilles’ weakness is his pride. I don’t want to let anger off the hook that easily, especially since anger, as noted earlier, often disguises its origins.
What I see in Achilles’ commitment to his oath (“I swore”) is a sense of honor, honor that, in another context, might be a virtue. I assume it’s part of what makes Achilles a good leader to his Myrmidons, and a good voice to have in an assembly of leaders (especially when your leader is Agamemnon!) Achilles values the oaths he makes. He takes them seriously. That impulse seems to me to be a good one. What’s tragic here is how an otherwise honorable person can become poisoned by their anger, so that their honor begins to appear outwardly like arrogant pride.
I believe Achilles is an honorable person. His harmartia is his proneness to anger. The way anger overtakes him, and ultimately the way he’s released from it by the end of the song, is the primary narrative thread that runs through The Iliad.
Harmartia, you might recall, means ‘tragic flaw.’ The ‘flaw’ part isn’t quite right, though. It’s less a bug and more an essential feature of the character (this much I do know about Ancient Greek!) I suppose that’s why, in my own moments of anger, I’m reminded of Achilles. He’s the archetype of anger that leads to ruin. I’ve learned to temper my anger because of his example. Achilles lets anger overtake him, and afterwards he must live with its consequences. I thankfully did not send an angry email to the Amazon Helpdesk people. Achilles, on the other hand, sends Patroclus into battle, where his friend and lover is impaled in the back with spears, first by Euphorbos, then by Hector. He dies, as Homer describes it, like a “tireless boar” brought down by a pride of lions. (Sidenote: I’d love to do another post that looks at Homer’s metaphors; they’re incredibly exquisite.)
Patroclus’s death will set in motion yet another engine driven by anger that Achilles will ride inexorably. This time it will end in the gruesome death and desecration of Hector, which is what I’d like to talk about next time.
Thanks for reading