IN THE COURSE of reading psychoanalyst Willard Gaylin's new book, The Rage Within, we witness several angry outbursts by Gaylin himself. He uses "ugly and uncivil" language with a surly ticket clerk; he physically strikes back at a street punk who has been taunting him, spitting in the boy's face; he seethes at students loitering in a luncheonette; and he loses his temper with his young and adoring grandson, dousing him with water. Somewhat more indirectly, he lashes out at an ignorant lay public for not understanding human physiology; he overreacts to the "naive critics" of psychoanalytic theory; and he takes to task the children of the 1960s who betrayed their parents by rejecting their (and Gaylin's middle class values.
In addition to documenting his own pent- up rage and short temper, Gaylin sees anger everywhere: "To live in the city is to be in a state of inexplicable anger much of the time," he writes. "The short fuse is a way of life in the city today, and the city today is not just New York, but Detroit, Toledo and even Middletown. And the city today is a portent of a rural mood barely one pace behind. We no longer live lives of quiet desperation. We are for the most part in a state of contained anger." What is the purpose of all this anger, Gaylin asks rhetorically, and he answers quite simply: It no longer has a purpose.
Anger, Gaylin argues, has become obsolete. Like fear, anger is an emergency emotion, a vestige of a period in our evolutionary history when survival meant successfully avoiding or confronting physical assault. But like the appendix, Gaylin suggests, anger has outlived its utility; once an adaptive behavior, it is now a renegade, destructive not only to the individual (who suffers the physical symptoms of repressed rage) but also to the very fiber of society.
Today, Gaylin argues, assault is largely psychological (Gaylin alludes to family violence, rape, street muggings and war but inexplicably dismisses these as rare); today's assailants are those who make indirect attacks on our self-esteem and pride through public disapproval or betrayal. Nevertheless, Gaylin says, we still react as if we are in for direct physical assault; we mobilize the body for a bout with some primitive beast. And because these psychological assaults have become commonplace, we have a constant oversupply of anger with which we must somehow deal.
Explaining how to deal with this excess of maladaptive rage would seem to be the goal of this little book, but regrettably Gaylin's analysis pulls apart once his thesis has been stated. Indeed, he mostly restates his thesis in various ways, suggesting that he doesn't know exactly what to o with it. He presents a peculiarly spotty review of the literature on anger and concludes, based on his review, that neither the repression nor the expression of anger is healthy. Gaylin is almost gleeful in announcing this second point; he is furious at what he labels the "cult of catharsis," which encourages extremes of self-expression and the "rampant individualism" of our time. Thus: "Catharsis was a 'discovered' solution foisted upon a receptive population during a particularly narcissistic phase of our culture. This solution should not be retired along with Primal Screaming, Esalen, est and their ilk."
If the solution is neither to repress nor to express anger (and his evidence for the latter conclusion is actually very skimpy), then it must lie with controlling the generation of anger in the first place; dealing directly, that is, with our outdated physiology. Considering the urgency with which Gaylin raises this important isue, he is strangely vague about what we as a society should do. He talks about redesigning our institutions and developing an "environment of hope," but just what he means by that is never made clear. He even discusses the possibilities of pharmacological and genetic interventions to control social anger, but he waffles on the wisdom of those strategies.
But even Gaylin's scattered hints about solutions are unnerving given the stubbornly conservative bias he brings into this analysis. As he points out, animals that live in groups have well established "pecking orders," social rules that allow them to coexist without excessive confrontation. But modern man, Gaylin notes, has challenged the order, diminishing the "biological imperative to get along." Gaylin believes that individual rights have gotten out of hand, and he yearns nostalgically for a time when there was a commonly understood order in the community and everyone knew his place in that order. But he leaves a lot of important questions begging. Who would establish the new order? Where, for example, would Gaylin position himself in that order? If we are to intervene biologically to control anger, whose anger should be our highest priority? When Gaylin says that "law and order" is becoming once again a "decent and respectable term," he would seem to be saying that only illegal anger needs controlling; but it is mostly common rudeness -- unpleasant but not illegal -- that makes him so peevish. Would he outlaw impolite behavior?
Gaylin's own ill temper is not a trivial matter here. He claims to have been inured to minor rudenesses through years of commuting to and working in upper Manhatten, but he clearly has not been inured. Recent research (not cited by Gaylin) suggests that anger is not a uniform trait in our species; some people seem to be born with a laid back personality, and others with a personality that is uptight, more prone to react angrily. Gaylin is clearly the latte; and one is tempted to borrow one of his own psychoanalytic constructs and suggest that the anger he sees in everyone else may be a projection of his own unresolved rage. If anything, Gaylin's anger seems to have grown to such proportions that he had to write this book as a release. Indeed, a major weakness of The Rage Within is that Gaylin spends more time and space ventilating than he does in close analysis. And I for one cannot make the distinction between his venting and the public demonstrations of emotion he condemns as "public littering." Venting your spleen in public is, to use Gaylin's own angry words, "a form of garbage".