I could be angry if I wanted to be…

(31-Oct-08)

     I’ve always been a little bit unsure about sharing this page in the newspaper. I feel like the psychiatric patient who’s been thrown into the wrong wing of the asylum: I’m the gentle manic depressive who hears voices (played by Tom Hanks, perhaps – or a young Dustin Hoffman) suddenly surrounded by the paranoiac sociopaths one particularly rapid heartbeat away from an apoplectic fit.

     Anger seems to be of the essence in writing a comment piece today. Jeremy Clarkson, who in many ways has come to represent what a 21st Century columnist should be like, seems to have found the elixir of middle-age with his unique cocktail of gasoline, vitriol, loud metaphor and overblown, unconventional simile. Gordon Ramsay also seems to have soared to popularity on similar wings, as the first chef to simultaneously fricassee and say a frick on live television.

     Now I just don’t get that angry about life. I wish I did – God knows it would make these pieces easier to write and, I imagine, more enjoyable to read. It’s very easy to summon anger, and though channelling it into humour is harder, it’s always effective. So here I am, with a rich, bellicose vein of comic material that I just can’t access. Because either I don’t care enough about things to let them irritate me, or I care too much to resort to cheap, knee-jerk reactions to get a laugh.

     But this week I seem to have hit the right frame of mind. Various grotesque acquaintances of mine have been getting on my goat (a cheap joke about Welsh sexual practices was wisely removed in the edit). The reasons are entirely unimportant: in fact, my flatmate dared me to infuse all 800 of today’s meticulously-chosen words with the full Satanic force of my rage, and not once mention the reason for my fury. Going round in such vicious circles is, unfortunately, beyond my rhetorical skills. 

     I have also managed to calm down considerably. The thing with me is that my natural state of equilibrium is distasteful apathy. People and situations might initially get on my nerves, but it will always end in a wry smile of the greatest possible passive aggression and a general hatred for humanity. Lectures on Monday afternoons, for instance, are particularly good at getting me into that mood. Spending three hours in a crowded room with 200 physicists after the freedom of the weekend is enough to drain me of all respect or affection for our misguided species. But not enough to get me angry.

     On rare occasions, however, a particularly febrile anthropoid can succeed in denting the calm shell of my mental stability. And this week, you guessed it, was one of those times. So my temper has been rising. My blood, as darling Gordon recommends, has been set to a gentle simmer. The milk of human kindness, which ordinarily flows through my veins like spring water running across Swiss countryside, has been curdling.

     And, Jesus, it’s amazing how morally satisfying rage can be. Even vacuous, pointless anger is a guaranteed pick-me-up. It sharpens the senses and heightens awareness: it gives you something to focus on. The thing about human psychology is that focus is a guaranteed path to happiness. Eastern meditation emphasizes focus on emptiness as the path to nirvana, but total investment in any of our materialistic Western substitutes works well enough. Some people are satisfied by total commitment to another person, others devote hours on end to work of one kind or another, and some dedicate themselves to collecting experiences, books, points in an online game, academic awards or rare 1920s stamps from the Outer Hebrides. 

     It is much easier, however, to be focused on an emotion. Many lovers derive greater consolation from being in love than they do from each other’s company, and God knows how many teenage or tweeny sods have powered their internal motors on the consolation they derive from a good wallow. I, and I know I am not alone, am able to go for days on the power of fury. While there is certainly something cathartic in writing an amusing article about some erstwhile irritant, there is more than emotional cleansing going on.

     Rage, like self-pity and, to a lesser extent, love, is hugely self-indulgent. A good fume makes us feel important. It makes us feel as though our opinions matter and that we have enough experience to make judgements that count. To be able to condemn something or someone and raise a criticism or a compliment indicates the value of our own opinions and heightens our feelings of power. Getting angry over trivialities is a way of patting ourselves on the back for how well we think and how insightfully we can analyse situations.

     Hence the mileage we comic writers (‘we happy few’, indeed) are wont to squeeze out of frustration. And, hypocrite that I am, though I’ve covered ground on the same issue, at least today rage and frustration were riding in the passenger seat and not powering the car.

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