88 Freud: On Anger

In his new book “The Anatomy of Influence,” Harold Bloom suggests that we should read Sigmond Freud the same way that we read Montaigne. Not wanting to disappoint the Oracle of New Haven, I spend much of the day reading Freud.

Well, that’s not exactly true — most of the day I spent yelling at my three young boys: get inside, get out of the kitchen, put on your shoes, stop kicking the baby (he’s actually 13 months, but still the baby to us.) I did find some time at the gym and after a nap (my wife and I permit each other an extra 90 minutes or so of sleep time on Saturdays, which is one of the highlights of the week for me) to read about 100 pages of Freud.

Maybe it’s all of youthful energy around me, but the thing that sticks with me about Freud is how hard it is to be a parent in his universe. Every action is bound to lead to a painful repressed memory that leads to neurosis 20 to 30 years down the line. And actually, Montagne isn’t much better when it comes to child rearing advice:

With shrill wounding voices, they scream at children who are often barely weaned. Children are crippled and knocked stupid by such batterings: yet our judicial system takes no note of it, as though it were not the very limbs of our State which are thus being put out of joint and maimed.

Yeah, okay, my voice can get a bit shrill the fifth time I have to tell one of my sons to stop turning on the bathroom faucet and flooding the room. As for “knocked stupid,” I wish … it seems like whatever I give I get back ten fold.

Montaigne had a real problem with people who lost their temper … which is fitting with his age and all those who follow Stoic philosophy. I’m in agreement with him on this point that physical violence is never an effective form of punishment, but Montaigne’s view of childhood seems awful idyllic to me … no doubt his wife and the servants were responsible for the hard work while he toiled in his solitary tower:

No passion disturbs the soundness of our judgement as anger does. No one would hesitate to punish with death a judge who was led to condemn his man as a criminal out of anger: then why is it any more permissible for fathers and schoolmasters to punish and flog children in anger? That is no longer correction, it is vengeance.

Moving on to those servants, Montaigne now starts to offer up some useful anger management advice:

We ourselves, if we would act properly, should never lay a hand on our servants as long as our anger lasts. While our pulse is beating and we can feel the emotion, let us put off the encounter: things will really and truly look different to us once we have cooled off a bit and quietened down. Until then passion is in command, passion does all the talking, not us.

And this advice is even more interesting … punishments applied after tempers have cooled on both sides is more readily accepted. I think Montaigne is right about this:

Punishments applied after being judiciously weighed are more acceptable and more useful to the sufferer. Otherwise he does not think that he has been justly condemned by a man shaking with anger and fury; he cites in his own justification the inflamed face of the schoolmaster, his unaccustomed swearing, his mental disturbance and his precipitate haste.

So when it comes to child rearing, a parent is probably better off sending the child into an extended time out, letting tempers cool, then applying a punishment. That might be advice worth trying. Thanks Michel … Freud is never that helpful.

Montaigne then moves on to analyze anger itself. He has some insights on its nature that are worth considering. First, he suggests that anger is a self-important emotion, one that pushes all other human feelings aside:

Anger is a passion which delights in itself and fawns on itself. How often, if we are all worked up for some wrong reason and then offered some good defense or excuse, we are vexed against truth and innocence itself!

He then writes about the various reactions to anger — particularly the way an angry person can grow more upset if confronted with passivity or silence:

Those who have had to deal with obstinate women may have made an assay of the raging madness that they are thrown into when you confront their agitated minds with silence and coldness and do not condescend to feed their bad temper. Celius the orator was of a marvelously choleric nature. There was, dining in his company, a man of mild and gentle manners who, so as not to provoke him, decided to approve of everything he said and always to agree with him; but Celius could not tolerate that his evil temper should thus pass unfed and exclaimed: ‘For the gods’ sake challenge something that I say, so that there can be two of us!

Montaigne suggests that if you really want to strike back against an angry person, let him exhaust his choler and then ignore it:

Phocion, when a man kept interrupting what he was saying with bitter insults, simply stopped talking, giving him enough time to exhaust his choler; when that was over, without mentioning the disturbance, he took up his speech just where he had left off. No retort goads a man more sharply than disdain such as that.

But as T.S. Eliot wrote — and I quoted yesterday — Montaigne is always the great charmer and just when it seemed like he was on the edge of preaching about the horrors of anger, he admits that his temper is a problem:

Personally I know of no passion of mine for which I could ever make so great an effort to hide and withstand. I would not care to rate wisdom at so high a price as that. I do not so much look at what that man does, as what it costs him not to do worse.

He tries to keep it under control — and his anger does not lead to physical violence — but he has a short fuse:

When I get angry it is as lively, but also as short and as secret, as I can make it. I lose control quickly and violently, but not with such turmoil that I go gaily hurling about all sorts of insults at random and fail to lodge my goads pertinently where I think they can do the most damage: for I normally use only my tongue.

Montaigne then gives advice for people who want to deal with him in this state … and to everyone reading, please follow this advice for me as well! I doubt that anyone would because our culture prefers to cast judgment against behavior rather than figure out ways for people to get along better:

This is the bargain I strike with those who may have to contend with me: when you see I am the first to get worked up, just let me go on, right or wrong: I will do the same in return. The storm is engendered only by the confluence of cholers, both prone to beget the other: and they are not both born at the same instant. Let us allow each one to run its course: then we always have peace.

All of this is very wise and workable for adults … but getting back to children, I have to point out that Montaigne doesn’t have the same degree of realism for the emotions of parents. And my personal opinion is that Freud and Montaigne are simply wrong, that children aren’t so fragile and easily warped, they are resilient and, at least in the last of my three guys, have huge personalities that would assert themselves no matter what emotions their parents throw at them.

The emotional realism and understanding that Montaigne counsels for adult relationships applies just as well to parent-child relationships, in my opinion. Love and attention are what matter most. It all gets frustrating from time to time and anger spills out from both sides.

For a lifelong relationship, endless love, continued work and built up trust are what matter the most … not your tone of voice.

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