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On Rage

It’s been over a week since I first failed to sleep normally. My sleep has been shallow. I’ve tossed and turned in bed, awake and asleep. Or, at other times, I was simply an insomniac, almost never missing the first soft beam of sunlight shining through the curtain cracks.

My insomnia suggested that everyday life had collapsed. Other body functions had also suddenly gone wrong. Aside from the usual health issues, my heart often beat unnaturally fast, which made me feel that I shouldn’t procrastinate anymore. I rushed to the Chinese herbal doctor. The wait there, as usual, was long. He observed me and felt my pulse. He asked me to stick out my tongue, put it back, and slowly stick it out again. Then, with a frown, he asked, “What have you done lately? Are you in a rage?”

I showed a forced smile and thought, what kind of question is that? Who isn’t enraged these days? In Hong Kong, we’re about to have a collective heart attack.

Back in my novel-reading days, I often encountered the phrase 急怒攻心 (“rapid rage seizing the heart”). Some characters would even vomit a mouthful of blood after a scream—what a vivid scene! Through the character’s body, readers could almost see rage twisting the organs like an electric blender at high speed, forcing the body to react in seconds. In reality, however, I’ve never seen anyone vomit blood as a result of rage. Like it or not, though, like everyone else living in a stressful city, I have had the experience of witnessing angry outbursts. One time, on my way to visit a big, graceful and quiet bookstore, I was crammed into an elevator in Causeway Bay. A middle-aged woman standing next to me with her daughter suddenly got mad at another girl, a teenager and total stranger. From close up, I saw her eyes bulging, green veins showing on her yellowed face, as if she were a charging, red-eyed bull. Everyone canned up in the tiny space was shocked by her sudden rush of rage. It didn't seem proportional, but simply awkward in these circumstances, and they didn't stop the woman until she seemed ready to hit the girl.

In The Book of Human Emotions, Tiffany Watt Smith argues that, in the past twenty years, a new form of rage has emerged, one which American psychologists call “intermittent explosive disorder.” The term describes extreme rage that explodes suddenly, like lava, with the person experiencing the emotion completely losing their self-control. During the outburst, they are likely to break something and injure others; anti-depressants are the common medical prescription. That day when I looked at the woman’s daughter I thought, perhaps, she’s not unfamiliar with this kind of scene. Then, my heart sank. Would she ever be able to escape this looping circle of rage? Or is her mother grabbing the fire and passing it into her daughter’s hands, burning new wounds into her palms day after day?

Everyone has rage; only the means of manifestation differ. People like me aren’t good at expressing rage: I’m unable to display my enraged, beastly face in front of others. So, in moments of anger I remain silent, my face mostly veiled with dullness. This has been my habit since childhood: the rage accumulates, slow-cooked within my body. The substances boil in this steaming pot until it tips and overflows, and then my skin smolders with clusters of red flowers.

The American artist Barbara Kruger started her career in the late sixties, specializing in collages that double as propaganda. Kruger is best known for her 1989 work, Untitled (Your body is a battleground), made at a time when American women collectively protested for reproductive rights. The work features close-ups of a woman's face, with bold white words against a red background, telling women that their bodies are the battleground. For me, seeing the female body as a battlefield seems a nearly universal notion, but only recently have I discovered traces of that battle within my own body. Since June, the pain and fright I’ve suffered, the grievances and violence I’ve given birth to, along with the city’s fury, sadness, hopelessness, intensity, excitement—all that is locked up in my body. Every battle takes place within my body. Every wound is a mark on my skin. The red flowers are ravishing, and there’s no clear sign when their blooming season will end.

Rage sometimes causes injury to other lives, but, more often than not, it begins as a self-harming spear—stabbing the holder before it stabs others. Even so, rage isn’t necessarily our enemy. In On Violence, Hannah Arendt mentions that “only when our sense of justice is offended do we react with rage.” For Arendt, intense rage is a reaction to injustice, and so it can also be a force for changing individuals and societies. Rage should not be dismissed. It’s neither God nor devil. Like mercy, it’s part of our self.

Prometheus brought fire to humankind, but fire has no definite form. It can destroy as well as create. What matters is who lights it. This May, in a London exhibition hall, I was blown away by how Jenny Holzer, an artist, coexisted with rage. For decades, Holzer’s work has been made from various materials and media: outdoor projection, T-shirts, stone benches, posters, and even condoms. Yet words always remain as her primary creative output; she wants her work to be accessible to the common public. Countless women raped during the wars in former Yugoslavia, politicians’ incompetence in controlling the spread of AIDS, the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan by American troops: every new era has its own powerbrokers who order the tanks to roll, without blinking an eye. Every era has its people run over, burned into ashes.

Compassionate artists grieve and are enraged by injustice, both close to them and distant. The rage turns at last into words of different textures and tonalities. On the skin of female volunteers, Holzer wrote the viewpoints of assailants, victims, and bystanders of wartime sex crimes. “I WANT TO FUCK HER WHERE SHE HAS TOO MUCH HAIR.” “I AM AWAKE IN THE PLACE WHERE WOMEN DIED.” She engraved the thoughts of dying AIDS patients on stone coffins. She dived deep into U.S. national security archives, where she found statements of war criminals, autopsy reports, and documents that described the means of interrogation that were used. From these she extracted the seemingly neutral language of war, and calmly revealed the brutality of American troops in the Middle East.

Holzer’s rage is different from the fractious elevator woman’s. Holzer converts rage into a cool flame scorching the heart of the witness; she spreads the tinder of just rage everywhere across the years. Humans, as beings, should all hold this kind of rage. 


Evelyn Char is an art critic and independent researcher based in Hong Kong, with a focus on regional cultural exchanges, feminine aesthetic in Hong Kong and politically engaged art practices.

Nicholas Wong is the author of Crevasse (Kaya Press, 2015), the winner of Lambda Literary Award in Gay Poetry. Also a recipient of Australian Book Review’s Peter Porter Poetry Prize (for his poem “Taipei, 101”), he teaches at the Education University of Hong Kong.

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