The Fury of Achilles, Charles-Antoine Coypel, 1737

published 3.06.2017

Off Center, Vol 3. No 1—A World of Emotions: Anger

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Onassis Cultural Center New York’s exhibition A World of Emotions: Ancient Greece, 700 BC – 200 AD, opens this week with over 130 artifacts and artworks that, collectively, raise vital questions about the relationship between emotions and reason, both in ancient Greece and in the contemporary world.

In this volume of Off Center, we focus on one emotion, anger—menis in ancient Greek, believed to be the first word of Greek and European literature—and look back at how it’s been portrayed and understood throughout history by writers, philosophers, artists, and activists.  


The Iliad (8th century BC), Homer’s poem about the Trojan War, opens with the word menis--usually translated as wrath, rage, or anger. In his reading of Robert Fagles’ translation, the actor Derek Jacobi brings to life this foundational passage, which also marks the birth of Greek literature as we know it:

Rage - Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles…

For some, like comedian Lewis Black, anger helps generate ideas. In this radio interview, he explains the role of anger in his life, both onstage and off:

There’s a fine line between playing anger and being angry.



Roxane Gay is an American writer best known for her 2014 essay collection Bad Feminist. In an op-ed in The New York Times called “Who Gets to be Angry?” she explores the double standard applied to minority women, especially when they seek to express and articulate their emotions:

I am an opinionated woman, so I am often accused of being angry. This accusation is made because a woman, a black woman who is angry, is making trouble. She is daring to be dissatisfied with the status quo. She is daring to be heard.

The Death of Seneca, Manuel Domínguez Sánchez, 1871

For the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca (4BC-75AD), anger is a form of irrationality and madness, which he therefore recommends avoiding altogether:

The best plan is to reject straightway the first incentives to anger, to resist its very beginnings, and to take care not to be betrayed into it: for if once it begins to carry us away, it is hard to get back again into a healthy condition, because reason goes for nothing when once passion has been admitted to the mind, and has by our own free will been given a certain authority, it will for the future do as much as it chooses, not only as much as you will allow it.

Seneca’s opinion is one Marina Abramovic appears to share. Though best known for dramatizing painful emotions in her performances, Abramovic has described her recent memoir Walk Through Walls as aspiring toward the “absence of anger.” In this wide-ranging interview with The European, she looks back, without anger, on her life and career:

We should die without anger, without fear but fully conscious. Too many people are dying in anger or in fear but we deserve to die well. We have to understand that life is just a temporary thing. But we waste so much energy trying to forget or ignore that.


In his essay “Of Anger,” Montaigne (1533-1592) explores the various uses and abuses of that emotion.

When the pulse beats, and we feel emotion in ourselves, let us defer the business; things will indeed appear otherwise to us when we are calm and cool. ’Tis passion that then commands, ’tis passion that speaks, and not we. Faults seen through passion appear much greater to us than they really are, as bodies do when seen through a mist.


Kailash Satyarthi is an Indian children’s rights activist whose work earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2014. In this TED talk, he makes a case for the productive use of anger:

Anger is a power, anger is an energy, and the law of nature is that energy can never be created and never be vanished, can never be destroyed. So why can't the energy of anger be translated and harnessed to create a better and beautiful world, a more just and equitable world?

Fishing, Jean-Michel Basquiat, 1981

The painter Jean-Michel Basquiat once referred to his work as “about 80percent anger.” A selection of his paintings can be seen here, perhaps illuminated by that characterization:

Occasionally, when I get mad at a woman, I'll do some great, awful painting about her.

Also worth revisiting is this short clip from the film Downtown 81, in which Basquiat takes his art into New York’s streets: 


Kendrick Lamar is widely considered to be among the most talented musicians of our time. His song “The Blacker the Berry,” which he performed at last year’s Grammys, deals with various types of overlapping anger—at his country for its racism, at a neighbor for murdering his close friend, and ultimately, at himself for perpetuating the cycle of violence he condemns:

It’s for myself, this is therapeutic for myself because I still feel that urge and I still feel that anger and that hatred for that man next door because I gotta get a call knowing that somebody around the corner done did this to my partner