Terry Eagleton is Professor of Cultural Theory at Manchester University. His latest book The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction is now out in paperback (OUP).

A righteous strop into thin air

People in a rage are said to be beside themselves, which is one reason I find it hard to get into one: there is always that ghostly self beside me cocking a sardonic eyebrow, observing with clinical precision the trembling of my hands, fastidiously disapproving of the coarse clichés tumbling from my mouth. Perhaps this comes from a life spent intellectualizing, or perhaps it's simply part of being a split postmodern subject. But rage, like any other human practice, has its element of performance even for non-self-ironic types. For all its volcanic spontaneity, it remains scrupulously scripted. One is supposed to throw things, for example, preferably with a view to smashing them. Turning purple is another imperative. Afterwards, as they lower you gingerly on to the couch, you're supposed to say "I don't know what came over me". You treat your raging self like another person, and so do they.

Anger can be noble, stern, righteous, even divine, and so can wrath. But rage lacks all such gravitas. Cold anger is conceivable, but not cold rage. Righteous rage sounds incongruous. Rage does not smoulder in the way anger can. It is farcical, dishevelled, and pathetically ineffectual, a stagey shaking of the fist and quivering of the knees. Rage is for toddlers, whereas anger is for adults. W.B. Yeats urges us to rage against old age and Dylan Thomas to rage against dying, but both recommendations capture the pointless, helpless, embarrassingly undignified nature of the emotion, its quality of childishly frustrated fury, since old age and dying are hardly going to yield to it. Rage is for spoilt fashion models, not those stirred to outrage by injustice. Wrath has its grapes; rage simply spits pips. It has both the purity and the paucity of things that are merely themselves.

There is, however, something to be said for rage as against anger. Anger can be a slow-burn or chronic condition, a permanent poisoning of the bloodstream, whereas rage is an ephemeral form of madness.

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