Brain Pickings

May Sarton on Anger as Creativity in Reverse and a Safety Valve Against Madness

“The fierce tension in me, when it is properly channeled, creates the good tension for work. But when it becomes unbalanced I am destructive.”

May Sarton on Anger as Creativity in Reverse and a Safety Valve Against Madness

“All too often,” philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote in her incisive inquiry into anger and forgiveness, “anger becomes an alluring substitute for grieving, promising agency and control when one’s real situation does not offer control.” The poet and philosopher David Whyte, in reexamining the deeper meanings of everyday words, argued that anger is a supreme form of compassion: “The internal living flame of anger always illuminates what we belong to, what we wish to protect and what we are willing to hazard ourselves for.” The great Zen teacher Seung Sahn Soen-sa found a constructive side to anger’s four faces.

Across the canon of thought, two things emerge as constants: that however varied its manifestations and repressions, the fiery upswell of anger is one of the commonest human experiences; and that it often masks something else — beneath its boiling surface rest deep and murky waters of incredible emotional complexity.

That opaque complexity is what poet, novelist, essayist, and diarist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) explores in one of the entries from her Journal of a Solitude (public library) — the 1973 masterpiece that gave us Sarton on solitude as the seedbed for self-discovery.

May Sarton
May Sarton

In an entry from the early autumn of her sixtieth year, Sarton writes:

Sometimes I think the fits of rage are like a huge creative urge gone into reverse, something dammed up that spills over, not an accumulated frustration that must find a way out and blows off at some tiny irrelevant thing.


I have sometimes wondered also whether in people like me who come to the boil fast (soupe au lait, the French call this trait, like a milk soup that boils over) the tantrum is not a built-in safety valve against madness or illness. My mother buried her anger against my father and I saw the effects in her of this restraint — migraine headaches and tachycardia, to name only two. The nervous system is very mysterious. For the very thing that made her an angry person also gave her amazing strength with which to meet every kind of ordeal. The anger was buried fire; the flame sustained my father and me through the hard years when we were refugees from Belgium and slowly finding our place in American life. The fierce tension in me, when it is properly channeled, creates the good tension for work. But when it becomes unbalanced I am destructive. How to isolate that good tension is my problem these days. Or, put in another way, how to turn the heat down fast enough so the soup won’t boil over!

That delicate dialing of the temperature knob of temperament is, of course, among the great arts of living and among the artist’s central responsibilities to her or his art — for, as Joni Mitchell memorably put it, “an artist needs a certain amount of turmoil and confusion.” Not the cause of the raging turmoil but what we do with it — whether we use it to destructive or constructive ends — is what defines us. Who could forget Bertrand Russell’s abiding wisdom on construction vs. destruction? “Construction and destruction alike satisfy the will to power, but construction is more difficult as a rule, and therefore gives more satisfaction to the person who can achieve it… We construct when we increase the potential energy of the system in which we are interested, and we destroy when we diminish the potential energy.”

The artist is one who uses that energetic inner tension, that “divine discontent,” as fuel for creative work — as raw material for building up rather than ammunition for tearing down. Art, after all, is at bottom a coping mechanism.

Published November 4, 2016




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