Friday, 26 February 2010

Wrathiads: Epic and Anger

This monograph proposes to read epic primarily as a mode of the articulation and exploration of anger. Theories of the epic have long recognised that anger is an important component of epic, of course; that the Iliad is a poem about ‘the wrath of Achilles’ for example. But this study will make and sustain a number of radical new theses:

• That epic is primarily about anger; about rage itself; which is to say, about both the expression of and the containment and repression of rage and the literary manifestations of rage. That epic poems are, before they are anything else, ‘wrathiads’.

• That epic anger is a uniquely paradoxical quantity, simultaneously admirable and contemnable. For Homer, Achilles is both the greatest warrior the world has ever seen and a creature driven to inhuman violence and barbarity by the enormity of his anger. In Milton, anger is both one of the seven deadly sins embodied by Satan and one of the attributes of God Himself (‘the Wrath of God’). This double quantity destabilises the epic text in radical ways.

• Yet anger has been almost entirely overlooked in literary and cultural studies, because anger itself cannot be invoked without a cognate repression of anger. Anger – the central theme of epic – becomes ‘that which must be repressed’. It is certainly puzzling that, given the obvious prominence of anger in epic poetry, there has been so little criticism that deals exclusively with it. It is doubly puzzling that, in the arena of psychoanalytic criticism and theory, there has been so very little work done on anger. It is, after all, a key and fundamental human emotion. But in the absence of a thoroughly worked-through theoretical discourse of ‘anger’, this monograph will also function as one of the first serious attempts to construct a psychoanalytic theory of this emotion in a literary context.

Chapter 1. Introduction. A survey of the relatively sparse body of psychoanalytical writing on ‘anger’ that elaborates a notion of anger as simultaneously 'about' breaking boundaries and also as that-which-is-already-repressed; as an emotion which cannot figure in literary context as a single thing, but which is always doubled. Unlike other emotions, anger is radically and indeed infuriatingly folded in upon itself.

Chapter 2. Iliad. Working out from Seth Schien, Jenny Strauss Clay and Watkins, who have demonstrated that of the two main words used for ‘anger’ in the Iliad, one (meenis) is used only of the gods, and describes an undying implacable wrath that is awesome and terrible, where the other (cholos) refers to a more human, ordinary, passing anger. Many people in the Iliad experience cholos, but the only mortal to experience meenis is Achilles himself. From here the argument draws out a number of considerations to do with the status of Achilles and his wrath, the appropriateness of anger to a war situation, the proximity or otherwise of anger to other ‘negative’ emotions such as hate, pride, envy and so on. Not only is Achilles in the Iliad wholly conditioned by his radically split emotional investment in anger, but the poem as a whole can be read as thoroughly interpenetrated with wrath – from the environment of the Trojan war and the divine realm, to formal features such as epithets, lists, epic similes and ekphrasis. As at one and the same time burstings-out and as points of repressions, these embody the main theme of the epic.

Chapter 3. Aeneid. Aeneas is presented, certainly in the first six books of the Aeneid, as the embodiment of the Roman virtues, of pietas – a word meaning ‘piety’, ‘duty’, ‘goodness’, ‘respect for authority and for the values of the home’. His self control is a crucial part of this characterisation, and in an important scene in book 2 he forgoes his wrath at Helen, holding back from killing her because his mother, Venus, tells him to. But in the second half of the epic Aeneas loses control, giving way to a series of violent and wrathful actions on the battlefield. Critics have long puzzled over the status of this later Aeneas, whether this represents Vergil’s secret critique of Augustan values. This chapter advances a different argument; that anger is characterised in the first six books as a female quantity – the anger of Juno is the motor for the whole book – and as this is carried through into the second six books we witness a gradual feminisation of Vergil’s hero. The gender implications of ‘anger’ are the main focus for the chapter.

Chapter 3. Paradise Lost. It is presumably only its very obviousness that has obscured from generations of Milton critics that Paradise Lost is centrally about anger. Nonetheless, whilst critics have sometimes talked about the ways Milton has characterised the obvious anger of Satan, none have yet noted how completely wrath permeates this poem. Books 1 and 2 describe Satan’s anger at God, and his plans to vent his anger on humanity; but they also describe in a direct, material way, the Wrath of God – Satan, in Hell, is literally inhabiting the Wrath of God. This is what God’s Wrath looks like. Here we have Milton’s dilemma, because whilst Wrath is one of the Seven Deadly Sins it is also one of the defining characteristics of God – something simultaneously very bad and very good. This dilemma shapes the whole poem, and Milton’s muscular attempts to bring the twin aspects of wrath – through his reading of his epic antecedents -- together determine many of the famous cruxes and problems in the work.

Chapter 4. Browning. To start with Daniel Karlin's reconfiguration of the poem in Browning’s Hatreds (1996) away from seeing him as primarily a poet about love by drawing out how powerfully he was drawn to characters who ‘hated’. This chapter will draw on this work by stressing the ubiquity of ‘anger’ in Browning’s poetry, and how his specifically epic project, The Ring and the Book, becomes dominated by the angriest character in it, the Satanic (in the Miltonic sense) Count Guido.


Bluejo said...

The Odyssey, Dante, Aristo and Spenser will be omitted for reasons that will be obvious to the reader -- they fail to support the thesis and are thus unworthy to be considered truly epic.

fredösphere said...

Check out the writings of Rene Girard. He sees most, or even all, myth making (not to mention epic) as acts of justification or covering-up incidents of mob violence against a scapegoat.

Adam Roberts Project said...

Bluejo: we'll make an international academic scholar out of you yet!

More seriously: Dante would probably be best considered in relation to Milton. There's plenty of anger in the Inferno and Purgatorio; but in the Paradiso D. has a real problem with the Wrath of God. Ariosto is a problem for my thesis, except insofar as all the knightly prancing and lancing functions as a kind of ritualised pastiche of the war-fury of the Iliad (Spenser, too). But tonally Ariosto is very far from the wrathiad vibe. The Odyssey needs a whole other book (but, you know: the rage of Poseidon...). Tasso's a bigger problem, though. And Camoens, too.

Fredosphere: I've read some Girard. Will read more.