Should Men Understand Anger?
By Bennett Cooperman
I learned from Aesthetic Realism, and it changed my life, that a man needs to do all he can to understand his anger in order to be proud of himself. And the main thing we need to know is what Eli Siegel explained in his lecture Aesthetic Realism and Anger. He showed that anger is of two different kinds:
In a good anger we are fighting for the beauty of the world. In a bad anger we don’t give a damn about the beauty of the world. The anger that is good is really an anger that is the desire to be pleased. But the anger that is bad is the desire to see the world as bad. [TRO 896]
That desire to see the world as bad is contempt. When it fuels a man’s anger—though for the moment he feels decisive and tough—it makes him reckless and mean. And it undermines his life because it is against his deepest desire: to like the world.
Anger in the Sunshine State
Growing up in Miami, in a large way I did not want to show myself as angry. What the Aesthetic Realism Chairman of Education, Ellen Reiss, once said about me humorously and critically was so: that I presented myself as “the most affable youth Florida ever produced.”
But I was angry. The way my mother and father were for and against each other didn’t make sense to me. They were warm and affectionate one moment, and irritated, cool, and sarcastic the next. I learned that every person, though we don’t know it, has a crucial choice to make: will we use what we can’t make sense of to feel the world is something to understand; or to feel it’s a mess, people are phony, and you'd better just take care of yourself?
I did the second. I also used my parents’ pain to be a little politician—currying favor with one, then the other, so they would get me things I wanted. And if I didn’t get what I wanted, I would sulk and be moody for days.
I once did that with my mother until she bought me two new pairs of pants. They were beautifully made, but when she would not let me get them tailored in the style of the day—tight—I threw a fit and they sat in the closet, hardly ever worn.
“What differentiates a handsome anger from an ugly anger,” Mr. Siegel explains,
is whether the anger is narrowly personal, is all for the advancement of ego in its separation, or is for something beautiful and just, sustained by space, time, and history. [TRO 188]
My angers were “narrowly personal.” I don’t remember ever being angry in behalf of justice or something large in the world. I didn’t even know there was such a thing.
In college, as an acting major at Syracuse University, I was cast in a production of William Inge’s Summer Brave, a rewrite of his early play Picnic. At rehearsals, the director kept criticizing me because he couldn’t hear me from out in the audience. When he wouldn’t stop, I got furious. “What the hell does he want from me!” I said to myself. “Doesn’t he know I’ll come through on opening night?! I’m ‘acting’ the part right—what’s the big deal about not hearing me every once in a while!”
That was representative of my anger generally. If someone didn’t treat me like a wonderful, special being, and had the gall to criticize me, I was enraged.
The way my angers were small and vain held up my life and stopped me from having big, expansive, proud emotions. It certainly interfered with my acting. I had a very hard time showing anger on stage and dreaded any scene that required it. Once, in a role on a TV soap opera, I had to get furious with someone and threaten her life. I had a lot of trouble on the set that day, and felt ashamed of my performance.
I spoke about this in an Aesthetic Realism class, and Ellen Reiss, in one simple sentence, explained the main cause: “If you hoped to be less angry, you’d be able to express it.” That was so surprising but so logical: if I didn’t want to cherish my anger, hold on to it, I’d be able to express it outwardly. Asked Ms. Reiss, “Do you think anger belongs to the world, or just to you?” “I don’t know,” I answered. And she said, “I think you’ve seen it as a personal treasure.”
That was true. Inside, I harbored scathing thoughts about how this person was inept, that one unintelligent.
The education about the self I’ve been getting from Aesthetic Realism has freed me as a man and actor to feel and express emotions I never thought would be possible for me.
In Aesthetic Realism Consultations
John Dugan is a 28-year-old actor. Handsome and outgoing, he spoke in a consultation about how, though he presented himself as not having any problems, he didn’t feel that way.
He wanted to understand a deep change that had taken place in him when he was 14. “I had no confidence,” he said. “It was zero.” Previously he’d been an A student and “the funniest guy in the class.” But then, “My parents were fighting a lot verbally, and I thought they would break up.” When we asked, “Did you feel that reality was against you in some way?,” Mr. Dugan said, “Yeah, I thought the whole world was against me.”
Consultants. Do you think if a person feels the world deals him a bad hand, he can do two things—go into himself, and also explode angrily? You go away from the world and also lash out at it? Can you make sense of those two things in yourself?
JD. I don’t think so.
Mr. Dugan described how he’d felt his classmates were making fun of him “even if l didn’t have any reason to believe that.” It made him want to punch the walls. We asked why he was so ready to see everybody as an enemy: “Did something in you leap to it?”
JD. Yes. I wanted to protect myself.
Consultants. We learned that the relation of contempt and respect in a person is a ferocious battle. Do you think if there’s a hope in a man to find that the world is a disgusting mess, and then you get a little evidence, you go “Aha!"—you’re miserable, but do you think you were also triumphant?
JD. Yeah, I was. Right.
Consultants. So in the way you saw your classmates, were you looking down on them?
JD. Maybe I was. I felt people were superficial.
Consultants. And you made a kingdom of your own?
As John Dugan questioned his own purpose in being angry, he began to change. There was much more to respect in the world and men and women than he had seen. Instead of imagining that people were out to humiliate him, he began—and this was so useful to him as an actor—to see their feelings, their thoughts, as interesting and deeply dramatic. Some time later he wrote to us:
Thank you for the criticism you gave me. It helped me make sense of things that confused me and hurt my life. I feel more and more that the world is my friend, and have much more hope.
I change dramatically from consultation to consultation....I see things differently: like a beautiful tree, women, a play, people.
Anger about Women & Love
I wanted a woman to treat me like a prince whom she was lucky to have found, and when she didn’t, and had the nerve to show she had some criticism or objection to me, I was furious.
Aesthetic Realism taught me the purpose that can really make a man proud of himself in love: to use knowing and being close to a woman to care more for the whole world, for people. Learning what that means can turn a man’s life around. It did mine; and I’m still learning.
There is that in a man which wants to be swept by the powerful loveliness of a woman and feel she completes him. But that very thing has made men angry: “I need something not me to be more myself? It’s insulting!” With that state of mind, men have looked for something wrong in their girlfriends or wives and picked fights with them to justify not having feeling.
I learned about this in an Aesthetic Realism class some years ago, when I spoke about the woman who is now my wife, Meryl Nietsch. I was having very big feelings for her, but suddenly I found I was suspicious, telling myself she was out to capture me. Ellen Reiss said:
ER. You are a keen, sharp, nobody-is-going-to-pull-the-wool-over-my-eyes person. But you also want to see a sunrise. Do you think your suspicion of Ms. Nietsch is at one with your big feeling about her?
ER. Does that make you mad at her?
ER. She’s got some nerve—you’ve got her number! But then you find you have a large feeling about her.
That was true.
I wanted everything clear and uncomplicated, and I was angry Meryl had a whole life of her own, which I couldn’t easily understand. Ms. Reiss asked whether I liked Meryl’s being, as every woman is, complex, deep, subtle—or did I want to “shape her up.” And she continued: “Are you more comfortable being swept by her or finding things wrong with her?” She asked me how I would do with the line about the grandeur of a woman from Marlowe’s play Dr. Faustus: “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships?”
Seeing vividly that I had a hope to be angry, which would have undermined everything, taught me something and changed me. I love my wife, her kind, beautiful face, and the impulsion she has to have good will for the people she knows and also to be a critic of herself. Studying Aesthetic Realism together is the greatest gift for any man and woman.