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‘Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles’ is the opening prayer of Homer’s , but in the original Greek, the word μήνιν, ‘wrath’ or ‘anger’, comes first, in the place of emphasis.The anger of Achilles is the central theme of our civilisation’s first and most powerful epic.Achilles is angry because Agamemnon has grabbed his girl, his booty in the war against Troy.
But it was Lu Xun’s madman, more than any other, who ultimately became the emblem of the modern era.
While the protagonists in Lao She’s and Xu Zhuodai’s stories offer no hope for future redemption, Lu Xun’s madman at least extends its possibility.
“Perhaps there are still children who have not yet eaten men? “Save the children…”Criticizing the barbarism of his fellow countrymen, the madman simultaneously evokes hope for a more humane future: one in which the lucidity of his “madness” is exposed for the sanity that it truly is.
It is an injunction that, one hundred years on, continues to feel .
When real and fake, right and wrong have appeared to become hopelessly enmeshed, it can be difficult to remember where the line between madness and sanity lies.
‘We should flatten a country or two,’ said a young man to the television camera on 11 September last year.Convinced that his parents are engaging in cannibalism – and are grooming him to be cannibalized in the near future – the madman progressively loses his grip on reality. Indeed, the brilliance of the story is that the protagonist, though ostensibly insane, is actually the only character to see the inhumanity of his “man-eat-man” society with an unimpeded view.Cannibalism does, in fact, appear with disturbing frequency in the literature of Chinese antiquity: aside from the expected cases of survival cannibalism during times of famine, filial children were praised for (often perpetrated by rebels against state magistrates) occurred during periods of instability.By ‘anger’ he meant the desire for vengeance against an enemy that has inflicted injury on one’s people: ‘No entire people has ever burned with love for a woman, no whole state has set its hope on money or gain; ambition seizes individuals one by one; only fury plagues whole communities at once.’ We do not need to endorse this claim (grief is an obvious rival) to appreciate that anger and revenge are back in the news today, precisely in connection with whole communities at war with each other.Not only in the potential war against Iraq, but also on both sides of the conflict in Israel, territory of the Roman province of Palestine.‘Anger’ is the first word of Western literature.This study of rage restraint in classical antiquity must have been completed before 11 September.In the shadow of that trauma, it has a topicality its author can hardly have expected.In Xu Zhuodai’s 1923 satirical short story ‘The Vain Lunatic’ (), meanwhile, an arrogant, spoiled schoolgirl is unwilling to confront her unfounded feelings of superiority, and subsequently descends into madness.In all three cases, madness appears less as pathology than as a metaphorical signifier of a stultifying and supercilious tradition.Harris’s neglect of the military aspects of his subject (just two brief entries in the index under ‘war, warfare’) is a surprising lapse.In his (‘On Anger’), Seneca claimed that anger is the only passion that can at times grip a whole nation.