Beginning with Anger
By Eli Siegel
Perhaps the feeling that has been written about most in terms of reprobation, or disapprobation, or warning is the feeling of anger. In the Proverbs of the Bible much is said against anger. Seneca has a long treatise, De Ira, which is against anger. Montaigne has written against anger. So has Bacon. So has Emerson, in a fashion. So has Pascal. So has every theologian and every moralist. It is still with us, and is the strong representative of our customary discontent.
In 1773 Hester Chapone—who was of the Blue Stocking Society and is one of the intellectual women of the world—published a work called Letters on the Improvement of the Mind. Dr. Johnson knew Hester Mulso, as she was born, or Hester Chapone. These Letters were very popular. Girls seemed to have liked them, and perhaps benefited from them. Perhaps the book helped make ill temper in the 18th century less. I’m reading from the chapter called “On the Government of the Temper”:
The greatest outward blessings cannot afford enjoyment to a mind ruffled and uneasy within itself. A fit of ill humour will spoil the finest entertainment, and is as real a torment as the most painful disease. Another unavoidable consequence of ill temper is the dislike and aversion of all who are witnesses to it, and, perhaps, the deep and lasting resentment of those, who suffer from its effects....
Mrs. Chapone seems to be afraid of this feeling. She should be, because the 18th century was a victim to anger, as all centuries have been. It also was a victim to contempt.
I am discussing the feelings not in terms of monition but simply as they are. To be angry is to have a feeling. How do you feel? I feel angry and I want to get out of here. This was said in the 18th century too, and in the 17th, and the other centuries. Nearly every person in English literature was a victim of anger. Two of the few 18th-century writers not seen as victims of anger are Edward Gibbon and David Hume. Gibbon got lost in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and didn’t meddle with people too much—and I’m not sure that he wasn’t angry. David Hume, being an atheist, one of the earliest and most successful, couldn’t afford to be angry because people would say it was because of his atheism. David Hume also had a good temper.
There are a few other people who may have had a very good temper, but we can be pretty sure that Henry Fielding was angry. Tobias Smollett was angry, regularly, as one can see in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker and other novels. Oliver Goldsmith hid it, but he was angry. Samuel Johnson wouldn’t have been the writer he was without anger. He is angry very often in Boswell’s Life of Johnson. And he wrote the most successful letter of the 18th century, the letter to Lord Chesterfield—which was angry. Chesterfield, we can presume, was angry, though he was busy writing to his son and telling him not to be. The 18th century, as one can see in Hogarth, was decidedly angry. And one can feel that in this work of 1773.
We Get Something Out of It
Looking at the passage: “The greatest outward blessings cannot afford enjoyment to a mind ruffled and uneasy within itself.” Mrs. Chapone is merciful. She says it’s “a mind ruffled and uneasy.” What she doesn’t see is that being angry gives one a secret distinction.
“A fit of ill humour will spoil the finest entertainment.” So it will. And being in ill humor was recurrent in England in all the centuries. The 18th century has novels in which interesting beings in ill humor are principal. There’s Squire Western in Tom Jones: he is ill-humored for the good of his country. All of Smollett’s characters are ill-humored, including the heroes: Roderick Random is ill-humored; Peregrine Pickle is; Ferdinand Count Fathom is; Launcelot Greaves is. Humphry Clinker, being a servant, doesn’t have much time to be ill-humored, but we can presume that he was too. Ill humor is next to uneasiness, which is next to anger.
Most of our feelings have not been so good. Yet we have to have feelings. We have lots of them at every moment. The one we see is the one that gets the attention. But there are a lot just quietly sleeping, ready to be awakened. If we, for example, were in a canoe three summers ago and somebody splashed us, our displeasure because we were splashed is not gone. And if we met the person who splashed us so foully, we might even now give him a little grimace. Unless a bad feeling is changed to something beautiful or useful, it is still with us. It can be said that there are hundreds and hundreds of bad feelings in us—once we take that definition which I gave at the beginning: a feeling is any instance of pain or pleasure.
Another unavoidable consequence of ill temper is the dislike and aversion of all who are witnesses to it, and, perhaps, the deep and lasting resentment of those, who suffer from its effects.
Mrs. Chapone writes as if she knew. And she likely saw that though people got “the dislike...of all who [were] witnesses,” that didn’t mean they gave ill temper up. With most people, once they have ill temper, the only thing that rids them of it is the fatigue caused by the grave, or fatigue caused otherwise. If you’re very sick, you don’t carry on. That’s one of the advantages of being sick. And I’m sure some people get sick so that they can have a little vacation from their anger and change it into being worried about.
Knowing & Feeling: Inseparable
She writes: “We all...earnestly desire the esteem and affection of our fellow creatures.” One can use the word feeling with esteem: I have a feeling of esteem for him. That is a for feeling.
As I said earlier, the opposites of knowing and feeling are present whenever there is feeling, and we can see that in the following sentence: Reading this letter makes me have a feeling of esteem for the writer. So the feeling is based on knowledge, knowledge of the letter. But certainly the knowledge exists at the same moment that the feeling does. The knowledge and the feeling are simultaneous. A person looks at the sky in the west and says, I feel we should hurry home. This relation of feeling and knowledge is, from the point of view of mind, the greatest oneness of opposites existence has.
Occasionally the word feel is used in a way that definitely has knowledge in it. One can say, I feel it is necessary. When we feel that a thing is necessary, the relation of feeling to another term of mind—judgment—is very close. We have there the cognitive aspect of feeling.
I feel sad about it but I feel this is the necessary thing to do: the word feel in the first part of the sentence is used about the affective phase of feeling, with the word sad; but as soon as the word necessary is used, there is the cognitive phase. All feeling has the cognitive and affective phases, just as all knowledge has. To know that money is running short is knowledge. But the implication is that you may not like it, particularly if it’s your money. So the relation of the two is of one moment, is tremendously deep—how deep, I don’t believe any human being has surmised yet—and is with us at this time. —Proceeding:
We all...earnestly desire the esteem and affection of our fellow creatures; and indeed our condition makes them so necessary to us, that the wretch, who has forfeited them, must feel desolate and undone, deprived of all the best enjoyments and comforts the world can afford.
Mrs. Chapone uses the phrase “feel desolate.” Obviously, if you feel desolate you know something. The awful thing about a tortoise is that though it’s desolate—it may be the one tortoise on an island—it doesn’t have the sense to feel desolate, because to feel desolate you have to know something—know that you are alone and that you are the only tortoise on an island. So desolate has some knowledge—sad knowledge, but knowledge. Mrs. Chapone says:
The [ill-natured] wretch...must feel...unpitied and scorned. But this can never be the fate of a good-natured person: whatever faults he may have they will generally be treated with lenity; he will find an advocate in every human heart.
The word nature in “good-natured” shows that feeling has to do with the world. Nature is a term for the world as growing and being born. Nature can be seen as equivalent to the world. When we say someone is a good-natured person, the word is particular, but there’s a feeling too that nature endowed this person with a like for it.
Anything Can Be a Cause
Anything that can give pain or pleasure can make for a feeling. We can have a feeling of discomfort because there’s not light enough, in the ordinary sense of the word light. One can have a sense of discomfort in saying, I still don’t understand how the Civil War happened. I have an uncomfortable feeling when I try to put the causes together and make them coherent to my satisfaction. Any discomfort, any pain—whether it comes because you step on a bit of glass or don’t like the arrangement of the planets—any discomfort, any comfort, is a feeling. If it exists, it can cause feeling. There is not a thing in this world that cannot. A feather lying in Frisia (which is near the Baltic) in the 10th century, fallen from a raven not seen—that feather gives you a feeling now. It can be called the unknown-raven-10th-century feeling. Whatever you call it, you have it. It may not matter to you too much, but you have it. Compare what you have about this feather in Frisia to all the rest of Frisia, and you’ll see that you have a feeling.
The reason we can read a story of any land and be affected by it is that there’s a possibility of feeling which we don’t know until it meets something. A child can really get worried about Aladdin, about whether the wicked magician will defeat him; that is a feeling. And at this moment, if you read The Iliad, you can hope that Achilles will be just a trifle less stupid, even though you know that he’s going to be stupid because you know how The Iliad goes.
This, again, can be said: if it exists, it can cause feeling. The purpose of art is to have something cause more feeling rather than less. If, for example, somebody wrote about a button, or painted a button, or let a button fall in a modern musical composition, the desire would be for the button to make for feeling. I hear that’s going to be the new mode in avant-garde music: various things are going to fall, and in the meantime you’re going to have bugles. A button will fall and a bugle will blow, and it will remind you that a button fell. And out of that you’ll have bugle-and- button feeling. I’m giving you a hint of what the new music will be like. There will be various ordinary domestic happenings attended by an instrumentation that will be dazzling. So both worlds will be satisfied.
We come back to this principle: things cause feeling. A combination of things is a thing. Things are of all kinds. A dirty dish can affect one the way the sad outcome of Waterloo affected a Frenchman. There is a feeling of disgust in both instances.
Mrs. Chapone writes, about a good-natured person:
His good humour, without the help of great talents or acquirements, will make his company preferable to that of the most brilliant genius, in whom this quality is wanting.
Good humor and good nature can be defined as a preponderant tendency to like a thing rather than dislike. There’s a story on the subject: The devil was talking to someone, and the someone was silent. The devil asked, “Do you have anything to say?” And this someone said, “I’m trying very hard to like you.” If you have a disposition to like things, your feelings will be of a certain kind, because feelings at their beginning are always for or against, like or dislike. And Mrs. Chapone is saying what many people have said since: that a person who is dull but is trying to be pleased is better at a party than some brilliant guy who is a grouch.
Good humor and good nature are the tendency to have feelings for, rather than feelings against. A child is born with a tremendous desire to have a good feeling about the world, but an equally tremendous desire not to have—to find it a disappointment.