Rage permeates every aspect of our lives. In this thoughtful series of case studies, Michael Eigen shows the ways in which rage is integral to human existence. Along the way, he explores the role of rage in art, religion and contemporary culture; his far-reaching examples range from "the murderous art" of Shakespeare to road rage to the wrath of God in the Old Testament to a consideration of the events of September 11, 2001. Eigen writes that "rage more than most states affords a sense of totality, experiencing one's being with all one's might." Eigen's breadth of cultural knowledge, combined with his respect for and attention to the individuality of a person, come together in providing the reader with a complex account of rage what it is, where it comes from and what we should do with it. This is a useful book for therapists and laypeople alike.
About the Author
Michael Eigen is a psychologist and psychoanalyst. He is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychology in the Postdoctoral Program in Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis at New York University, and a Senior Member of the National Psychological Association for Psychoanalysis. He is the author of a number of books, including Ecstasy (Wesleyan, 2001), Toxic Nourishment (1999) and The Psychoanalytic Mystic (1998).
Read an Excerpt
By MICHAEL EIGEN
WESLEYAN UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2002 Michael Eigen
All right reserved.
One day Devorah came into my office looking pinched, formless, collapsed. "It finally happened," she said. "Hell broke loose. The nightmare."
I took one look and without hesitating said, "Family. Family life."
"You knew-you knew." She nods, waits, sinks, pulis herself up a little. The past few months were good, maybe better than ever. She was saying things like, "I'm more myself, less intimidated, more like I've wanted to be. I can't believe it's happening."
Then her son's family came to stay for a month.
She was looking forward to it, an excited grandma, but dreaded losing time to herself. She was used to being able to walk, read, go to shows, write, just be. Now she was expected to be grandma, the baby-sitter.
No, it wasn't just baby-sitting. It was baby-loving, child-loving. The children weren't babies anymore.
The first seven days or so were OK. I think back over past visits. They begin well, end terribly, like clockwork. "You need to remember after a week or so, things fall apart. You're good for a week."
"Yes, ten days is about all I can take-all we can take. Gary, who loves doing things with the kids, breaks down too. He's impatient, screaming. Last night he let Sarah have it."
Gary is Devorah's husband, the grandfather, and Sarah is the daughter-in-law. "Sarahacts like we're slaves. She wasn't like that at first, but, as time went by, she became bossy. Now she's the big boss. She sleeps most of the day, gets up, meets friends, goes to events, and barks out orders. I feel badly for Lou. He takes it. He goes along with her, tries to smooth things over. It pains me to see this. Gary can't stand it." Lou is Devorah and Gary's son, a deep part of Devorah's heart.
"Lou gave the kids a bath and Jill was dancing around with a towel around her, and they were watching TV. Then Sarah woke up and started screaming-what was Jill doing naked in a towel, why were they watching TV, ranting on and on. Gary blew and shut her up. 'You're sleeping half the time, yell the other half and don't know what's happening and expect others to take care of the kids and then can't take it when they do!' He lit into her.
"The kids wet their beds that night. The next day Sarah was quieter, but you could see it building and nothing would change."
Sarah was raised ultra-Orthodox Jewish, and she and Lou lived by the rules, although Lou was more relaxed about it. He liked his kids to have a good time and didn't bristle when his daughter wrapped herself in a towel after a bath and hung out. He didn't feel watching extra TV on vacation would ruin his children's Torah health. The Torah and life's sweetness went together for him.
And his wife's rage? Was she the local Jahveh? Was she God's fury?
Such deep contradictions run through life. Religious people-shouldn't they be loving? It was as if Sarah's religion was an excuse for rage.
I know I was being ungenerous as I sat and listened. It wasn't Judaism's fault that Sarah was self-indulgent. Self-indulgent? Again -ungenerous, inaccurate. Sarah usually was hard-working, devoted, caring. But she was also bossy and given to tantrums. She excused herself-she couldn't help it, this is the way she was, the way God made her. She simply went along with her nature, lived it, gave into it. She offered no resistance to herself. She did not struggle with her being.
Again-wrong, inaccurate. She struggled somewhat sometimes. Without any struggle at all, things would be even worse.
Lou was sweet, forbearing, keeping peace in the family. His mother cringed inside, pained for him. His father wanted him to stand up to his wife, set things straight. Finally, Gary proved himself the greater God. The storm burst, and his rage was louder, stronger, more fierce and directed than Sarah's.
Did it cleanse the air? Did it right things? Gary and Devorah got sick and stayed in bed for a week after their son and his family left. Soon Sarah would be back to her Jahveh tricks-with no greater God to limit her.
Rage knows no boundaries. It sweeps across religions. But it is deep in the Jewish God I know and in those who love Him. Little Jahvehs everywhere, on street corners of New York, in teenage gangs, in synagogues, schools, sport arenas, and high offices. Jahveh fighting Jahveh-local gods vying for bragging rights, territory, a moment's omnipotence, boundlessness.
The flood recedes and things go back to normal, although kids continue to sleep in fetal positions and wet beds. Part of normal means rage will come again, suddenly, alarmingly-earth will be threatened, then the rainbow will come afterward for a time. Rage and rainbow, inextricably mixed.
Perhaps peaceful Lou and rageful Sarah are two parts of a system, each with functions. Lou can't be so innocent and Sarah so wrong, but what the ins and outs are I don't know. They are in family therapy, and things are better than they were. They are terribly caring, loving people. They will probably stay together for the rest of their lives, and one can only hope they will evolve. Growth is possible in nearly all circumstances, and these are far from the worst I've ever heard about.
Listening to Devorah, I got absorbed in my own fantasy. I pictured Moses bringing stony laws from God's lips, laws surely meant to rein in rage. If Sarah followed the Law, could she let herself go so easily?
There was no commandment, "Thou shalt not rage." But there were commandments to love God, respect parents, curb behavior and states of mind with regard to neighbors (don't murder, commit adultery, envy what others have). Can God give permission to take feelings out on children? On those closest?
I think of Freud's writing on Michelangelo's Moses, the intensity of mind, spirit, and body, pressure exerted against rage. For the moment, all-out war on rage, rage against rage. We have an urge to transcend ourselves, a need not simply to give in to the lowest denominator. Does law try to fill the gap when the drive to transcend ourselves weakens?
Law is ennobling. But rabbis say Moses had a problem with rage and could not enter the Promised Land because of it. Perhaps his brother, Aaron, the peacemaker, had a problem with meekness. Again, counterparts, like Sarah and Lou. Even the lawgiver has lawless moments.
Perhaps lawless moments follow higher, lower, or other laws.
Sarah's lawlessness, giving in to a blinding surge. What is it? Can we take it apart, see how it works? Can we expect her to try to hold it back, as Moses often did and sometimes didn't?
I've never met Sarah, so cannot know. I speak only from the Sarah in my mind, one planted by Devorah, matching something in my nature.
What happens in the red or white flash, the moment when one cannot wait? Sarah awakens, hears sounds, laughter, nonsense, people enjoying themselves-TV, a godless business. She is groggy, stumbles out of the bedroom, sees her daughter's nakedness wrapped in a towel-that is, sees nakedness in her mind, raw imaginings, inflammatory images. Her family dances around the golden calf. She is Moses bringing the Law. Her flare-up breaks people rather than tablets.
Rage cuts revelers in half, quarters, pieces of all sorts. At once, laser sharpness and shotgun splatter. It rushes through bodies, which contract, freeze, strike back, while numb eyes stare in disbelief.
TV is the golden calf. Laughter is the golden calf. A girl's naked body wrapped in a towel is the golden calf.
What enables a person to feel so right, to let oneself go, to inflict psychic fluids on others (rage = furious orgasm, spittle, psychic blood pouring out, turning to ice)? In this case, one splatters those closest to one, one's very own, those one almost feels to be oneself.
I am a jealous God. You must have no other gods. The I or self gets mixed with this.
Is there always megalomania in rage? Animals can be goaded to rage, and sometimes rage spontaneously for the hell of it. Rage may be expressive of primal energy, a baby's scream, a sun's explosion. Explosive processes are part of our universe. Do we know how to evaluate rage? Can we learn?
Yet something in me and Gary and Devorah says Sarah's rage is wrongly wounding, misplaced, in fundamental error. It interrupts and ruins good moments. But is it really blind? Is blind rage a seeing rage?
The pop-white, black, red flash-what does it see and think and feel? What does it stop? What does it hide?
Rage substitutes for growth, fills holes in self, masks deficiencies. It is allied with a sense of helplessness, disability, frailty. It hammers others into helplessness. Sarah's rage is a showstopper. It freezes others' spontaneity, immobilizes and attempts to control others. It tries to squeeze reality into one's own narrow frame of reference.
A baby screams when beset by trouble. It lacks a frame of reference for mounting discomfort, pain, hunger, thermal changes, waves of circulatory sensations, irritating wetness, frightening images, sights, sounds, and "feels." A scream mixes rage with terror to offset the latter. It can be blindly reactive yet have communicative value, attracting help, seeking change. Screaming expresses fear and helplessness and makes one feel stronger. It can express a sense of primal might and effort. Mixtures of terror and rage also go beyond what we can articulate.
Rage can lead to change. It can force others to hear that something is wrong, call attention to oneself or one's cause, stimulate the need to help. Rageful cries of pain sometimes have social value. Noise attracts notice and makes aspects of one's state visible to others.
But Sarah is a grown-up. Her rageful cry for help is at her children's expense. She blots out deficiency and helplessness by paralyzing others. She is at the point in life where she should be dealing with her outrage, not simply inflicting it on others. At the same time, she needs a place-like therapy-where screams can gain a hearing.
Why therapy, not simply life? Because she goes on screaming in life to no avail. She blots out the self-protective responses of others. Those near her do their best to survive. Their distress does not get through to her. She is not deeply changed by what she does to others. Yet she sees the pain she inflicts out of the corner of her eye and feels badly too, but she cannot stop. It would be worse if she did not see and felt no pain at all.
She blows up-explodes. We need to keep meditating on our explosive capacity. We've made beginnings-religion, philosophy, psychology, literature, art-multimillennial meditations on processes that make us up. We need to keep picturing what we imagine these processes to be, talking about them, turning them this way and that.
Rage is part of social justice, the urge to right inequity and abuse. But it is also part of abuse and continues the affliction. It runs deep in all directions, allied with righteousness and cruelty, dominance-subservience, freedom-slavery.
We think we understand that a baby cries when distressed and that the cry is meant to make things better. We cannot avoid mixing fantasy, observation, interpretation, and we think that screams are meant to right a wrong, that rage is part of an elemental attempt to right things. Perhaps this elemental response is with us all life long and transfers to events that cause distress or difficulty.
The poet teaches that we rage against death as well as life, death as a great affront, an injury to life, an injustice, a wrong.
What image of wrong beset Sarah, one wonders? Whatever was she thinking when she stumbled out of bed and saw/imagined things were not as they ought to be? What violation called forth rage? Was it real or imaginary violation?
Gary surely put his finger on something by saying that others cared perfectly well for her children while she neglected them. Perhaps "neglect" is too strong. While she took time off on vacation, let go of control, others filled in nicely. Did she fed guilty for taking time, sleeping, letting her kids go? Did she imagine she was burdening others, that she was shirking? Did rage partly drown out guilt?
Perhaps Sarah's rage goes back to a time when she squeezed into a personality that worked for Orthodox Judaism, rigidly conceived. She was subject to massive dos and don'ts, superstition (if you step on a discarded fingernail fragment when pregnant, you are subject to miscarriage), tightly organized rules. If you can die or lose a limb or a baby for not following a smaller rule, what might happen for disobeying a big one? God may forgive, but what price one pays with fear. One never knows when God's rage will beat out compassion.
Lou seemed to embody God's kinder side. Humble, caring, mild. Didn't he squeeze into the same system as Sarah? Actually, he was raised by secular parents with much more freedom. It wasn't until college that God struck him. He turned to Judaism out of love. Laws were lifelines from God, ways of uniting with Him, mystical vehicles. He felt released by Judaic laws because he clung to the numinous center they radiated from. To be bound by law is to be bonded to God, and lovers shiver as they get closer.
Lou spent a lot of time studying and teaching the Torah. He helped at home, but the major burden fell on Sarah to take care of the kids and find ways to do her own creative work. No wonder she spent time on vacation collapsing in bed. No wonder she was angry. She had to fight for every inch of freedom she could manage, while her husband flew through life in mystical ecstasy.
There are always milder and angrier people in any social system. Orthodox Judaism is no exception. We can speak of genetics, circumstance, temperament, division of sociopsychological labor, aspects of the psychic body. Compassionate and furious God. His Christian son, Jesus, is also humble and angry, passing on the rage-love gene. We do not really know how to conceptualize differences and variability, although we take some pretty good cuts at it. We put tags on what we see and feel, and trace their tracks through history.
Sarah was the rager in her family, Gary the rager in his. Sometimes rager meets rager and explosions reach new peaks.
Excerpted from RAGE by MICHAEL EIGEN Copyright © 2002 by Michael Eigen
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Table of Contents
More Radioactivity, Licking, Beating, Chewing
White Rage of Beauty
Sex of Sorts
Rage Against Self
Penis Falls Of
Underneath Exploring Nothings
True Self and Murder
Mischievous, Malignant Rage
Scrubbing One's Toe
Notes and References
What People are Saying About This
"Dramatically memorable and emotionally powerful. Eigen has reclaimed the significance of rage and its centrality to the human psyche."
Walter A. Davis, author of Deracination: Historicity, Hiroshima, and the Tragic Imperative
"Textured, rich and riveting, Michael Eigen's work occupies a unique position in the contemporary psychoanalytic conversation. Rage sheds new light on the shadowy world of rage, aggression and the psychic underpinnings of violence."
"Dramatically memorable and emotionally powerful. Eigen has reclaimed the significance of rage and its centrality to the human psyche."Walter A. Davis, author of Deracination: Historicity, Hiroshima, and the Tragic Imperative
"Textured, rich and riveting, Michael Eigen's work occupies a unique position in the contemporary psychoanalytic conversation. Rage sheds new light on the shadowy world of rage, aggression and the psychic underpinnings of violence."H. H. Covitz, author of Oedipal Paradigms in Collision