As they start, so too do relationships end: emotionally. The initial attraction, curiosity, and anxiety towards another person is (hopefully!) reciprocated and contentment soon settles in. At this point, relationships diverge in destination. Some lovers mimeograph each other well: their beliefs, eccentricities, and pacing converge over time. Most others are less fortunate. Compromises are won and lost, dates are made and rearranged, sutures ripped out before healing. The emotional riptide crashes progressively weaker, until one realizes what was once turbulence has become little more than lurid staleness. There is always something ridiculous about the emotions of people whom one has ceased to love.
The tragedy in all of this lies in our fickleness of perspective: we go from love to (self-)destruction so quickly. While one day, our hearts might leap into our throats at the sight, sound, touch of the other, a few months of bitterness can transform that passion into deep-seated resentment. Some proclaim they would die for their love while others profess that they would kill (who?) during some fit of rage. In too many cases, all that separates these disparate portraits is time.
One could argue that the other person has changed or that the relationship brought new information to light. In the minority of cases, maybe. But usually, what has changed is us. We come to view our lover’s flaws and features in a different light: what was once an adorable clumsiness becomes a hair-trigger for argument, what was once sweet timidity becomes an object of scorn. We cannot even imagine our previous joy: how silly we must have been!
What we are reacting to is not the actual physical object — what we are reacting to is our own particular mountain of hubris and neurosis. Her habits were always there, but now they are ladled with unconsciously assumed meaning. Resentment is not created in a day: it is the product of many small moments that together serve to remind us, when she is there, that we should be happy, sad, lonely, or angry.
The Iliad begins, “Sing, O Goddess, of the Rage of Achilles, son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans—” It has been nine years since the beginning of the war between the Trojans and the Achaeans and neither side has come close to victory. Achilles has successfully besieged and taken several Trojan towns and islands, the latest of which has yielded the two beautiful maidens Chryseis and Briseis.
While Agamemnon, the supreme commander of the Achaeans, takes Chryseis as his prize, Achilles claims Briseis. The Iliad opens by describing the vengeful Achilles threatening to duel and kill Agamemnon over Briseis. Agamemnon has foolishly insulted Chryseis’ father, a priest of Apollo, who has sent a plague upon the Achaeans. In return for giving Chryseis back, he demands Achilles’ prize, Briseis.
Homer’s epic is usually read as primarily depicting Achilles’ struggles with his own pride and wrath. In giving up Briseis, he invokes a hex upon his own countrymen and refuses to help them against the Trojans. In doing so, countless men die and the Achaeans come close to defeat. They are saved only when Hector kills Patrocleus and misdirects Achilles’ anger back at Troy. The performance anticlimactically ends not with the fall of Troy or the death of Achilles, but with Achilles coming to terms with his rage.
A secondary subtext exists in the machinations of the gods. They can be seen at once goading the two sides into bloodshed: Zeus stepping into the actual battlefield to rally the Trojans at Achilles’ behalf. Other times, they act as protectors and peace-bringers: Hermes guiding King Priam into the Achaeans’ camp to finally ease Achilles’ grief and anger.
One interpretation is that they serve to magnify our hero’s struggles and attach to him greater power to inflict revenge, thus heightening the drama. This interpretation pushes them out of the limelight as merely supporting characters. It misses the primary role that religion played in ancient Greek life: the gods were seen as capricious creatures, much mirroring the mortals that sought to worship them. In picking heroes to champion, they played out their own eternal drama. Indeed, the entire war starts out of a vanity contest between Athena, Aphrodite, and Hera.
In this reading of the Iliad, we see Achilles not as the central character but as an illustrious pawn. He is held captive to his own emotions by cosmic forces that control the battle raging around him. If we were Achilles, recognizing our own smallness, would it be nobler to entertain the gods by taking part on their stage or recognize their humanity by refusing to indulge their whims? And if we refuse to acknowledge their stage, would any mortal one matter?
In Yukio Mishima’s masterpiece, Spring Snow, the empirical and rationalistic Shigekuni Honda is paired with the anxious and passionate Kiyoaki Matsugae. The center-point of the story is in depicting the lens through which each view their shared circumstances of life:
Kiyoaki and Honda were perhaps as different in their makeup as the flower and the leaf of a single plant. Kiyoaki was incapable of hiding his true nature, and he was defenseless against society’s power to inflict pain. His still unawakened sensuality lay dormant within him, unprotected as a puppy in a March rain, body shivering, eyes and nose pelted with water. Honda, on the other hand, had quite early in life grasped where danger lay, choosing to shelter from all storms, whatever their attraction.
Just as all roads lead to Rome, it seems the ultimate destination of all rage is melancholy and regret. At least one system of religion seeks its banishment: Zen Buddhism focuses on shifting one’s perspective to accommodate external circumstance. All that we are is the result of what we have thought. It is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts.
In practice — zazen — one focuses entirely on breath: simply breathing in and out. The meditator strives to be aware of his or her stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference. In doing so, one discards ego and overcomes personal emotions.
The one tragedy of this lifestyle is that in turning the eye inward — in taking shelter from all the storms — one risks, at once, simultaneous indictment and absorption into the rest of the world. If one has no individual emotion or attachment to objects discrete from oneself, then what makes one one? The practitioner is simultaneously there and not there, but all-in-all, ultimately non-existent.
Is it possible to have deep love without throwing everything into the ring? Passion risks vulnerability, rationality risks passion. In rage there is glory: we become the hero-character. In rationality, we risk dooming ourselves to passive irrelevance. ‘Tis nobler, indeed.