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.
‘Justice, not revenge,’ the Roman Catholic bishops warned that same day.
They were not given time to explain the difference, nor was the young man asked to name a country or two for flattening. It would be going too far to say that 11 September undid centuries of Christian teaching and made revenge respectable again, just as William Harris is over the top when he opines: ‘In the United States, views about revenge seem to have sunk to a level appropriate to a neolithic village.’ But it is troubling how much public talk of revenge there is at present.
Despite a somewhat rambling organisation and quirky remarks like the one just quoted (what’s the evidence for neolithic views on revenge? Harris’s only serious omission is anger in the context of war.
The ancients had much to say about anger both as a major cause of war, including civil war, and as a potent factor in the fighting.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.“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 .Achilles is angry because Agamemnon has grabbed his girl, his booty in the war against Troy.A great insult to his honour and prestige, which Homeric values count as injury to the person.In Lu Xun’s writing, the madman is the only character to offer a sober analysis of his family’s deep moral failings – and the only character, moreover, to extend a prescription for redemption.By acting as a foil to the benighted masses, madmen in the literary imagination have often been used to expose the rotten marrow of their political and cultural institutions, particularly in the Republican period (1911-1949) in which Lu Xun was writing.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.