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From Phyllida's Desk

Wrath of Achilles

“Sing, muse, the wrath of Achilles…”

I still remember the first words of the Iliad this way, from the Richmond Lattimore translation. I read it years ago, when I became aware of the part of the story that interests me (no surprise to friends and fans of my fiction): the love between Achilles and Patroclus, and the tragic arc that led from Achilles’ loss of his battle prize, the (literal) trophy wife, Briseis; through Patroclus’ death; to Achilles’ inevitable choice of the short life with glory over the long, uneventful life.

The ancient Greeks who first told each other this story admired Achilles for something we despise today: anger.

Several months ago, when we had that discussion in the Jane Austen book group in which we recognized Mr. Darcy as the “darkest” of Austen’s heroes, the trait that we most associated with this characterization was his anger. In the first half of Pride and Prejudice, he’s a good man who shows himself in a bad light. We sense his temper, his anger, seething under the surface of his admirable self-control, his tendency toward “resentment,” his “good opinion once lost is lost forever.”

Until recently, this was part of the makeup of every brooding, Byronic, gothic hero. Now we prefer the Patrocluses; if not the overly sweet and yielding Mr. Bingley, then at least the man who is, as Patroclus was, a favorite of the women, one who is friendly and kind.

How and why did this change? Why was anger once admired, a positive masculine attribute, and is now something to be controlled through anger management courses?

The obvious answer: violence. Achilles’ anger is a metaphor for the violence of an entire army, the motivating energy that sends men armed with lethal weapons to kill other men, to rape women and children, to enslave populations and reduce beautiful cities to rubble, and at the end of it all, to celebrate the triumph of spreading so much destruction and death with epic poems and works of art.

Nowadays, we see the link between national violence and “domestic” violence, between the military culture of a fascist state and the angry husband with the victimized wife and family.

I don’t know what is taught in boot camp these days, or in ROTC or military academies (although I’ll be curious to find out when I go with JASNA to a weekend at West Point next month), but I doubt they teach enlisted men or officers that “wrath” is the essential quality of a good soldier.

Armies and navies and air forces are now considered to be a country’s defense, just as the official name of the department has changed from “War” to “Defense.” Wars are theoretically fought, not for glory, but for “rational” objectives: to stop terror; to prevent one ethnic group from slaughtering another; or to defend one’s own borders. This blog is not political, so I’m not going to get into the reality behind today’s wars other than to acknowledge the individual soldiers and sailors and airmen and women, who, in a rotten economy, so often enlist because there are no other jobs, and who, so far from winning glory, are ignored by their fellow citizens when they return home, maimed and wounded, denied or stinted of their hard-earned benefits; and who, most ironically of all, have been dishonorably discharged for loving each other.

My only point is that we no longer claim to admire anger yet we openly worship violence. We provide ourselves with every form of violent entertainment imaginable: movies that are an endless succession of horrific images of blood and torture and severed limbs; graphic novels with similar images; and of course, video games encouraging “players” to rape, murder and loot. We enjoy watching rough sports--boxing, football, wrestling—some of which feature real violence that leads to serious injuries and death.

So my question is, and I know I’ve been a long time getting there: is anger ever a good thing?

Of course it is: when we stand up against a wrong, when we say “enough” to tyranny and oppression, when we recognize an injustice and work to correct it.

People will claim that you don’t have to be angry to do the right thing, but I think there are many cases where, without anger, nobody acts. If we don’t get angry, whether on our own behalf or someone else’s, we go on accepting the status quo because inaction is easier. Anger gives us the energy to act, just as Achilles’ wrath led him to come out of his tent where he’d been sulking and resume his place as the leader of the Greeks in battle.

I’m asking because I’m angry. In my comedy routine, which I’ve performed all of three times now, I have segments that are openly angry. There’s the proverbial link between comedy, especially standup, and anger, and my comedy is no exception.

For me, anger has been the most liberating emotion. I’ve been angry all my life, for personal, serious reasons, but it was only when I started celebrating my anger as a necessary part of me, a strength that kept me from being ground down into nothingness by a life of empty, endless tedium, that I unleashed my creativity. I wrote Phyllida partly on anger, and I put some of it into the character of my hero, Andrew, and more of it into my “villain,” the disturbed Philip Turner, who has his own serious reasons to be angry.

I made my Mr. Darcy (“Fitz”) in Pride/Prejudice very angry indeed, to the point that many readers don’t like his harsh treatment of his lover and friend, Charles Bingley. All this time later, I’m still in love with my Fitz, the bastard child of Austen’s vision and mine, an angry, sexy, masculine man, who mitigates his rage by the force of love, who finds peace, with himself and the world, through the hope of winning the love of Elizabeth Bennet. In the ultimate metamorphosis, not a change in essence, but a decision as to which aspect of his nature will predominate, he achieves what Achilles could not: the equal love of man for man that can end happily only in a comedy.

As I told my therapist recently, anger is not bad in itself. It’s like nuclear power: used one way, it can provide an entire city with electricity; used another, it can destroy an entire city, like Hiroshima.

It’s the use we put it to that determines whether anger is a good or a bad thing. While it’s one of the Seven Deadly Sins, it seems to me that its antithesis can be another Deadly Sin: the inertia that is called Sloth.

My first comedy performance, at the Bilicious Show, wasn’t especially angry. But in my second, at Transcriptions, and certainly this last one, at Dating While Feminist, I incorporated some very angry material. It’s not at Hiroshima levels, but it’s past the power-plant level. Most of it gets laughs, though, and that’s the important thing for any comedian.

Like my (anti)hero Achilles and my own imaginary romance heroes, I‘m hoping to find the balance between the wrath that leads to heroism and the anger that leads to death.

It gives new meaning to my favorite cliché: Dying is easy, comedy is hard.

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