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I have now spent fifty five years in resolving, having from the earliest time almost that I can remember been forming schemes of a better life. I have done nothing; the need of doing therefore is pressing, since the time of doing is short.
--Samuel Johnson, September 18, 1764
About six in the evening
I have a friend, a retired professor, who relieved some of the poverty of his postgraduate years by working as a night watchman on the Harvard campus. Books were a luxury for him then, and the kind of big book that comes off the scholarly presses in limited hardcover editions was way over his budget. So for a few minutes of each shift, he went into the library, searched with his flashlight for the volume containing Samuel Johnson's journal, carried it to the photocopier, and reproduced several pages. Then he resumed his watch. Eventually he had the whole volume, which means he also had the quotation on the page facing this one.
He would have had a number of other entries much like it, usually penned on Johnson's birthday or on the first day of the new year, or on the anniversary of his wife's death. Each one laments the failure of his previous resolutions; each one professes his intention to resolve again. It moves me to think, not only of Johnson resolving and resolving, year after year, just as I do, but of my friend assembling his photocopied pages like the fragments of a treasure map, matching his dark nights to Johnson's, his poverty, his tenuous hopes to those of the writer. I love to conjure up that image even more than I love to conjure up the image of himshocking his dinner guests one evening not long ago by noting that he detected "a good deal of anger in our friend Garret." Not Garret surely! "Oh, yes," he averred. "That's a very angry boy."
Perhaps I would have been offended by the comment, which I was not present to hear, except that my friend confided it to me. He was not needling me, either--I had told him what I was writing, and then he told me what he had said. He meant that I knew the material. He meant to say, and by way of reassurance, that I may have fooled others, but I had not fooled him. There is a distinct comfort in being known, is there not? I shake my head whenever I hear some well-meaning cleric argue for removing still more of the penitential language from the Book of Common Prayer: "Why do we have to keep beating people over the heads with the idea that they're bad?" she will say. Because, I reply, they already know they're bad and thus can take comfort from the acknowledgment. The only thing more painful than the remorse of feeling wicked is the loneliness of being told that you're good. All that "I'm okay, you're okay" means to me is "I'm completely oblivious, and you're completely alone." Praise me for nothing but my struggle.
And there was my consolation: If my friend could sense my anger, then perhaps he sensed my struggle as well. What had led him, after all, to photocopy those pages--not of Rasselas or The Rambler, The Lives of the Poets, or even Boswell's entertaining Life, but the journals--if not his profound appreciation of Johnson as one who took stock of himself in the night, the better to soldier on in the morning. (Or I guess it would have to be the afternoon: Johnson had a notoriously hard time getting out of bed in the morning.) Every so often some purveyor of reheated iconoclasm attempts to get our attention by claiming that the hero of Boswell's biography might not have been such a nice man. He was not a nice man. Even Boswell knew that. He was a good man, and if you really want to get a rise out of people nowadays, try suggesting that the two things are not necessarily the same. In fact, I suspect they are very rarely the same.
And yet isn't it wicked to believe that they are never the same? How many forms of self-righteousness are based on just that belief? Which brings us to what I think was the essence of Johnson's inner struggle: the effort to avoid all the self-swindling--the "cant" as he liked to call its verbal form--that inevitably results, depending on one's predisposition, in either a "nice" hypocrite or a shallow curmudgeon.
Johnson seemed born to struggle, and not only with his petulance, though that is the main reason for celebrating him here. He was partially blind, partially deaf, possessed of various nervous tics and peculiar mannerisms as well as an appearance that many found ugly (a childhood infection with scrofula having scarred his face). He suffered bouts of depression so severe that at one point he seems to have bought a lock and chain in anticipation of his being carted off to the madhouse. Recalling one such period of "melancholy" that had seized him in his youth, he said that he could stare at the church clock in his hometown for the better part of a morning without being able to tell the time.
He also struggled for much of his life with poverty--sometimes walking the streets of London all night because he had no place to sleep--and even his harshest critics have never denied his lifelong concern for the poor. For years he maintained a household of quarrelsome dependents that included a blind woman poet, a tentatively reformed prostitute, a freed African slave (and in time, his dependents), and a doctor whose indigent patients paid him, when they paid at all, with free drinks he did not have the heart to turn down. ("Perhaps the only man," Johnson noted, "who ever became intoxicated through motives of prudence.") At its best, Johnson's anger, like all the best forms of anger, was aroused by any show of callousness toward human misery. His famously scathing review of a book suggesting that human beings were the unwitting play-things of superior powers is but one example. His rebuke of the fastidious Mrs. Thrale when she turned up her nose at the foul odors coming from the cookshops of a poor neighborhood is another. "Hundreds of your fellow-creatures, dear Lady, turn another way, that they may not be tempted by the luxuries of Porridge-Island to wish for gratifications they are not able to obtain."
But not all of his retorts were so philanthropic. Some of his more choleric remarks are painful for an admirer to read; on occasion they also seem to have been painful for Johnson, who would go out of his way to make amends when he judged himself to have spoken too harshly. Several of his put-downs have taken on the patina of legend--"I have found you an argument; I am not obliged to find you an understanding"--but for the person who was their object, they may have taken on the patina of a permanent scar. A lot of Johnson's anger strikes one as the result of a seething impatience, a kind of intellectual road rage that flared up at the slow pace of the traffic, the sly detours and self-serving maneuvers of the other drivers. "The woman's a whore, and there's an end on it," he growled during a conversation about a certain lady's marital adventures. I wonder if he was talking mainly about the woman, or if he was merely challenging the others to say what they really meant. In either case, the man who once carried a passed-out prostitute home on his broad back, and whose powers of association seem virtually unmatched by any English speaker on record, could not have uttered such a remark without instantly recalling the savior who supped with "harlots and publicans." He could not easily have reproached others without suffering reproach from himself.
The inner struggles of Johnson boil down in many cases to the plight of a man who was a Christian by conviction, but not by disposition. Or we might rather say, who was a Christian by settled conviction much less than by a desperate existential faith. Johnson's convictions, I think, were more classical, and perhaps more agnostic than those of most saints. He would have found the company of Seneca more congenial than that of St. Francis. Before his death he hastily destroyed a section of his journals that some of his biographers have suggested may have pertained to misgivings he had in regard to religion. The conjecture seems very plausible to me. The journal entries that we do have suggest that the simple act of attending church was often more than Johnson could bear; he repeatedly chides himself for his "neglect of services." Johnson's life is of great interest to me, not only because of a similar tension between my own temperament and my religion, but because I believe that the religion itself is based on a certain inner tension--and I think that Johnson grasped that latter tension at its very best.
In Johnson we see a simultaneous insistence on the sinful state of humanity and on the duty of human beings to be better than they are. He is neither an optimist nor a pessimist; he is what you get when you cross a humanist and a realist with no dominance given to either set of genes. Though the eighteenth century has sometimes been called the Age of Johnson, he stands opposed to many of its more optimistic assumptions, including those that led the century to also be dubbed the Age of Reason. As one of the characters in his short novel Rasselas says: "There are a thousand familiar disputes which reason can never decide, questions that elude investigation and make logic ridiculous, cases where something must be done, and where little can be said." He sounds very modern, almost post-modern there. Once in a gathering of forward-looking, educated white men proud in their rejection of the "superstitious" past and confident in the promise of an "enlightened" future, Johnson raised his glass and said, "Here's to the next insurrection of the Negroes in the West Indies!" I doubt that the rising up of the Negroes offended the men so much as the implicit putting down of their imperial achievements.
Still, you cannot believe in uprisings without believing in some possibility of positive change, and you cannot believe in positive change without believing that some things are morally preferable to others. In other words, for all his pessimism about the human condition, Johnson refuses to despair of it. He refuses to retreat into cynicism or nihilism. Those poignant resolutions in his journal--"to avoid idleness.... To go to Church every Sunday.... To keep a journal" [my italics, his irony ]--are all doggedly progressive in their belief that "something must be done," and can be done. That was the achievement of Johnson, no less than any other of his many literary accomplishments. He continued to struggle, as all of us must, with minimal gains but with optimal faith.
Of course, the relevant application of these struggles is to anger. Some of Johnson's last words before dying speak of the tentative balance he had achieved between the fierce man he had necessarily to remain and the kinder man he had struggled to become. To one of his visitors he said, "Iam Moriturus," "I who am about to die," the salute of Roman gladiators before fighting in the arena. And to a young woman visitor, he spoke what may have been his last words: "God bless you, my dear."
That beautiful combination of gladiator and godfather is also found in the story of Johnson and two young friends who decided, after a night on the town, to pay the older man a call. They showed up at his door in the wee hours of the morning and began pounding on it. Believing he was about to be set upon by robbers, Johnson took up the stout walking stick he was in the habit of carrying. He appeared at the door in his nightclothes ready to crack a head or two. But when he saw the two young men (and can't you see them as well?--hats on cockeyed, smiles slightly awry), he responded in a way that sets him forever apart from Agamemnon, Saul, and those other figures of Olympian rage to whom he bears a superficial resemblance. "What, is it you, you dogs?" he said. "I'll have a frisk with you."
And so Johnson dressed himself, and the three men spent what remained of darkness drinking and conversing in their favorite pubs. At dawn, when the grocers were setting up their stands, Johnson thought it a good idea to help. Not meeting with much welcome there, the three revelers found a boat and went out rowing on the Thames until the two young men excused themselves to keep a breakfast date with some young women. Imagine how far they might have rowed otherwise.
That image of Johnson roused from his bed in the middle of the night is one of the images I try to keep always before me. There he is, both armed and hospitable, as ready to frisk with a young dog as to brain a mad one; not the best man who ever lived, but an example of the best that a man like me might manage to become. How I wish I could have sat down with him, if only for an hour.
"Someday you will." So says the woman I love, having read the preceding words--she who has tried twice now to read my favorite biography of the great man and found it too much of a slog, even for my sake. She whose faith is so far from being worn on her sleeve that she would sooner go sleeveless in January than say a table grace out loud. Women in Afghanistan do not veil their faces any more than she veils her faith, yet it shines on me always, and even after so many years of living together, it continues to amaze me. "Someday you will"--as if to say, "Did you ever doubt it?"
Before this book had a title, I usually told people it was about anger and faith. At other times I said only that it was about anger. But without faith of the kind my wife possesses, I would have no subject. I would have anger, but I would have no subject. I could write about faith by itself, but what point would there be in writing about anger by itself?
For the premise behind the book--a premise I cannot claim to prove in its pages, or demonstrate reliably in my life--is that anger can be redeemed. The belief behind everything I have said is that anger can be controlled without being destroyed, and expressed without necessarily leading to destruction. "A bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly-burning wick he will not quench," says the prophet Isaiah. I can read that two ways. First, that God herself stands as proof that wrath and mercy can coexist. The One who breaks the rocks does not break the bruised reed. And second, that the Consuming Fire Who Is God allows us our own fire, however much it fumes and stinks at times. We are permitted our share of honest fury. This is my faith, and like all faith, it falls as far short of certainty as it goes beyond mere speculation. On the one hand, it proves nothing. But on the other hand, it determines the way I spend my money, cast my votes, and read the signs of my times.
I am writing this just weeks after the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon. By the time you read these words, the United States may be at war. We may have suffered an even more devastating attack. We may have devastated other nations. It is tempting to say that anger no longer has a place in such a world at such a time, and there are those who do say it, just as there are those who say that in view of the suffering brought upon us by religious fanatics, religious faith has no place in the world either. But statements like these also strike me as fanatical--for what is fanaticism, after all, but a war against faith, a campaign to replace faith with unbending certainties and the fallible humanity God created with a perfect creature of our own making. Contrary to conventional wisdom, fanaticism does not demand blind faith; it takes offense at faith. It attempts to abolish faith. And its first step is always to abolish faith in ourselves and our possibilities. Talk to a fundamentalist and tell me if I'm wrong.
Faith comes hard, in trying times as in tranquil ones. Our follies loom so large. But amid so much that dismays me of late, so much sentimentality, self-righteousness, and saber-rattling, I see any number of people trying to arrive at an honest answer to the question, "What should we do?" And part of the question translates as "How should we act on our emotions?" How do we make some kind of peace between anger and hope, between pity and self-preservation? If suicide is the best way to serve God, then perhaps it does not matter if we also kill our own emotions. But if the service of God is life, and abundant life, then emotions matter very much.
What should we do? The question is not separate from asking what we should do with our anger. Denying our anger at a time like this may prove every bit as dangerous as giving it free rein. What difference is there between refusing to acknowledge a child and failing to set him any rules? He comes to the same dead end either way. Besides, I'm not sure it's anger so much as a deadly dispassionateness that is terrorizing and tempting us now. I do not see rage so much as the cold-eyed calculation of patient assassins and "measured" responses. The calmer the rhetoric of the mullahs and the generals, the more nervous I get. The cruelest people I have ever known were nothing if not calm. An angry torturer is a liability; he always botches the job. The art of exquisite torment, like that of mass destruction, comes of the practice of perfect equanimity, whether in a dungeon or a marriage, a secret cavern or a congressional hall. Might it be anger that actually comes to our rescue in the end, like an indignant mother, perhaps in the literal form of indignant mothers, wringing their hands at the heaps of corpses and the dusty lines of refugees and crying out, "Enough, enough, enough!"
"Someday you will." When she said that to me, I felt as if I were looking faith square in the face. It was better than seeing Dr. Johnson. As I imagine it now, that meeting would be beautiful mostly for the delight of hearing her whisper in my ear, "Didn't I tell you?" and remembering all of a sudden that, yes, she did. Against the background of suicide missions and apocalyptic fantasies, one hears acquaintances talking as though the world was now neatly divided between those who believe in a life here and now and those who believe in a paradise to come, as though lovers could similarly be divided between those who believe in tenderness and those who believe in ecstasy. More and more, I believe in the intersection of today and someday; and I don't only mean this in a metaphysical sense.It can be put in the most pedestrian terms. "Someday you will master your anger." Yes, and some days you do.
|Where I Come From||5|
|The Wrath of God||15|
|Christ the Tiger||25|
|The Deadly Sin||39|
|Even in the Desert||55|
|Anger as Mentality||69|
|Anger as Fear||81|
|Anger as Privilege||97|
|Anger as Grief||111|
|Anger as Grace||125|
|The Chronic Angers of the House||137|
|Angry Men: Agamemnon and Saul, Michael Henchard and Wade Ward||149|
|Angry Women: Clytemnestra and Boudica, Medea and Sethe||167|
|Anger and Children||185|
|They That Are Sick||211|
|Loving the Enemy||251|
|Anger at God||267|
|Someday You Will||351|
Posted August 1, 2002