The meaning of anger

Anger is a state of agitated enervation that moves the world | Aeon Essays
Photo by Espen Rasmussen/VG/Panos Pictures

Is anger like energy, forever changing form but never dissipating, or part of our repertoire of desires, the cry of a need unmet?

by Josh Cohen is a psychoanalyst in private practice and professor of modern literary theory at Goldsmiths University of London. His books include How to Read Freud (2005), Not Working (2019) and How to Live. What To Do. (2021).

Apsychoanalytic consulting room is a crucible for a rich array of emotions. But perhaps none appears more insistently as anger, nor in so many guises. For example, a woman finds her apparently inexplicable rage against her partner manifesting in asthmatic attacks so severe she becomes fearful of being in the same room with him. In the first weeks of psychotherapy, a man expresses his fury over a professional betrayal by withholding from me almost all relevant information about himself. Again, a man with a respiratory illness is so angry at the doctors policing his behaviours – and at my imagined finger-wagging complicity – that he smokes heavily in supposed retaliation. The morning after Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States, a woman begins to cry furiously as soon as she sits down. When I wonder aloud if this revives memories of her own bullying, bigoted father, she shouts that she is crying about one thing and one thing only and doesn’t want to hear my boring shrink bullshit.

A psychoanalytic consulting room proves an apt place to observe an essential paradox about anger. As almost anyone can confirm, manifest anger is by its nature felt and received with an intense immediacy, bringing to life the bodily and emotional resonances of the word ‘feelings’. And yet it is also peculiarly slippery, liable to hide and dissemble, to disguise itself in myriad other ways – in reticence, nervousness, politeness or over-friendliness. If anger isn’t making itself felt openly and immediately, it is lurking somewhere in the vicinity, hiding itself under cover of some other, less conspicuous emotional state, biding its time and waiting to spring.

In clinical discussions with my colleagues, anger never fails to come up. Often it imposes itself by sheer force; patients complain, criticise and curse their intimates, their colleagues, the guy on the bus, bad pop songs, overpriced grocery shops, sometimes explicitly and almost always implicitly inserting the analyst himself into their row of targets. At other times, anger insinuates itself more surreptitiously, perhaps without the conscious awareness of the patient, who may protest (angrily) to the suggestion that this is how he’s feeling. Anger is everywhere and nowhere in clinical work, overwhelmingly present and ominously absent. But its prominence in collegial discussion has never been matched by conceptual interest. We tend to think of anger as a piece of content, one emotional state among others.

So why then, sitting in the consulting room, not to mention reading and watching the news, is it hard to avoid the sense that anger is more than a colour on the emotional spectrum? Why does it seem to manifest as a force that moves the world, directing the unpredictable flows of private and public life?

In Sigmund Freud’s case histories, theoretical papers and cultural commentaries alike, anger appears as one of the great motive forces of the self and the world. The Oedipus complex, for example, cornerstone of his theory of psychic development, is premised on the formative power of murderous rage. Although Freud nowhere offers a discrete and integral conceptual treatment of anger, he hints at the structural place of anger in psychic life, notably within a very brief clinical vignette from a founding text of psychoanalysis, the ‘Preliminary Communication’ (1893), written with his older colleague, the general physician Josef Breuer, which outlined the pair’s therapeutic innovations in the treatment of hysteria.

A man consults a young physician at his newly established practice for the treatment of nervous disorders. He has been suffering from spontaneous hysterical attacks, during which he falls into frenzies of wordless rage. Under hypnosis, he reveals that he’s been ‘living through the scene in which his employer had abused him in the street and hit him with a stick’. Returning a few days later, the patient tells of a second attack, which hypnosis reveals as a staging of the event that had triggered his illness: ‘the scene in the law-court when he failed to obtain satisfaction for his maltreatment’. Freud and Breuer tell us almost nothing about the man. He might be a factory worker or a waiter, but I always imagine him in the mould of an emerging stock type: the pinched, anxious clerk, soon to be immortalised in Franz Kafka’s Josef K or E M Forster’s Leonard Bast, men whose apologetic facade conceals a quietly roiling anger and resentment….


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