Recently, I read a quite remarkable book, Pankaj Mishra’s “The Age of Anger”. In it Mishra traces the many forms of anger we see erupt in today’s societies back to the fight between enlightenment and romanticism. The book has many interesting aspects and Mishra is an extremely well-informed writer so I can recommend the book.
What’s however missing there is somehow an explanation of what anger actually is.
Surprisingly, modern psychology and philosophy don’t seem to give very thorough answers (or then I haven’t found them). As with all of our emotions, we can assume some evolutionary purpose for the feeling of anger and it has been proposed that it is a kind of defensive focusing mechanism. If that is so it would be related to stress in helping us to concentrate energies on deflecting a threat. Anger does this by masking out, or caging, other possible distracting emotions, like fear or hurt. This works probably well, when the threat is a bear outside the cave but works less well when we perceive threats we can’t do much about because they happen far away or are out of our sphere of control. And like stress, a locally, temporarily useful emotion turns self-destructive and harmful if prolonged.
For myself, anger has always had a destructive effect on creativity. I’ve never been able to channel anger into something creative, for me it always was in the way of something better. While anger has its place, I think it is not an adequate response to the world as such. We can’t live for long in an emotional cage. There is a wonderful antidote, though, to this emotional caging, exemplified in the work of the Japanese poet Misuzu Kaneko (1903-1930).
Misuzu grew up in the bookshop of her mother in a small Japanese country town. She began writing poems at an early age and became first published in 1923. But her marriage to a clerk of the bookshop was unhappy. Her husband was unfaithful and transmitted her a painful venereal disease. When she divorced, Japanese custody laws allowed her ex-husband to take away her then four-year old girl. On the evening before her daughter should be collected by the father, Misuzu ended her life by poison at the age of 26.
Apart from the few published poems, most of Misuzu’s works were destroyed in the bombing of Tokyo during WWII. Then, in 1982, a second copy of the poems were discovered and since then these poems have become a staple in Japanese schools. Finally, in 2016, some of the poems were translated into English in a wonderful little book by David Jacobson, translations by Sally Ito and Michiko Tsuboi and illustrations by Toshikado Hajiri (also available as e-book on the Apple bookstore). The book is named after one of Misuzu’s poems “Are You an Echo?”.
These poems are among the loveliest things I’ve ever read. Take for example one of my favorites:
Let’s not tell anyone.
In the corner of the garden this morning,
a flower shed a tear.
If words of this spreads
to the ears of the bee,
it’ll feel it’s done wrong
and go back to return the nectar.
You’ll find more about the book, including some of the poems in this review. The cruelty with which Misuzu herself was treated, and which in the end defeated her, is something we could rightly respond to with anger. Anger about the injustice and the waste of such a talent. But Misuzu’s response was indiscriminate compassion, gentle humor and undiminished wonder about the world. And that makes her for me a great source of inspiration.
In 2011, after the Fukushima catastrophe, Japanese television stopped sending commercials and instead broadcasted in intervals the following clip based on Misuzu’s poem “Are You an Echo?”. Treat yourself to this, especially on a rainy autumn day like it is today here in the far north.
‘Til next time.