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Jewish World Review
Dec. 12, 2007
/ 3 Teves, 5768
What is aggression?
Students of words enjoy the way in which adjectives normally used to describe reprehensible actions are whitewashed to become terms of praise. One instance, which has caught my eye recently, is 'aggressive'. In the past few days I have seen a firm's brochure praising its 'aggressive approach to the worldwide sale of megayachts', a reference to a writer of semi-pornographic novels as 'skilfully and slyly aggressive' and a rising politician as 'charming Congress with his verbal aggression'.
Such usage is not all that new. 'Aggressive' can be defined (OED meaning 2c) as self-assertive, pushful, energetic and enterprising. As far back as 1930, a Vancouver newspaper advertised for 'an aggressive clothing salesman with ambition to manage a large store. Good salary.' This did not mean, I think, a salesman of aggressive clothing, for such garments are rarely seen in Vancouver, a notably peaceable city, but of clothing in general. Freud pioneered the way in rehabilitating aggression. Writing on hysteria in 1912, he said he was no longer dealing with sexual passivity 'but with pleasurably accomplished aggressions'. He thought 'the sexuality of most men shows a taint of aggression'. Well, mine doesn't, I'm pretty sure, and I sometimes wonder whether old Sigmund ever experienced sex, though to judge by the number of obnoxious Freuds around today, he or some members of his family must have done. Adler was another fellow who tended to rebrand aggression into a positive image: he praised a certain type of neurotic for using his skills so successfully 'to dominate and torture others' (The Neurotic Constitution, 1921). Child psychologists and education experts are also in this game. Thus that old know-all A.S. Neill laid down (1962): 'Well, every child has to have some aggression in order to force his way through life.' We might agree with that had not Neill spoilt it by adding: 'The exaggerated aggression we see in unfree children is an overprotest against hate that has been shown towards them.'
Strictly speaking, aggression, a French word in origin, merely means to approach, to march forward. Then it acquired opprobrium: 'To make an attack, to set upon.' In legal circles it meant 'to commit the first act of violence, to begin the quarrel'. An aggressive is essentially an unprovoked attack. The question of provocation, a favourite Marxist-Leninist term, means that aggression has a precise meaning in communist theory. Hence the Comintern statement: 'Aggression can be predicated only of Imperialist powers.' This is the Marxist version of the Christian distinction between 'Just' and 'Unjust' wars, and you can read all about it in R.N. Carew Hunt's monograph Guide to Communist Jargon (1958). Adam Smith, interestingly enough, believed it was quite wrong for a country to get involved in wars where no clear act of invasion had occurred. In his preface to The Wealth of Nations (1776) he wrote: 'The business of government is to check aggression only.' But then, what exactly in practice constitutes aggression? After the Suez business in 1956, the UN General Assembly appointed a committee to define aggression 'once and for all time'. The last that was heard of this endeavour was in 1959 when the committee itself voted unanimously to delay for three years the attempt.
You would think that writers, being interested in words and their meanings, would be particularly concerned about defining aggression. I am not so sure that they are. Many of them are certainly aggressive. I am reminded of this by the recent death of Norman Mailer, and I will come to him in a minute. In Shakespeare's day, writers actually killed each other in tavern duels. I have never seen a writer's murder but well recall the early 1950s, when the annual party of the TLS might well end in a series of fisticuff bouts between poets, well fuelled by neat whisky and dry martinis. Come to think of it, it is only four years since I saw two poets, having drunk nothing more inflammatory than white plonk, stage a donnybrook in a Mayfair entresol. I would like to read a serious book, quoting sources, on fights in the cause of art. Charles Lamb's elder brother John, described variously as 'rude', 'genial' and 'burly', detested cruelty to animals, and in 1810 wrote a pamphlet on the subject, with particular reference to the boiling alive of eels. But he was pretty ruthless in using his big fists with men. He once knocked down Hazlitt, 'following an argument about the colours of Van Dyck and Holbein'. Of course Hazlitt could be provocative. He took the incident well, saying, 'I do not mind the blow. Nothing but an idea hurts me.'
That was not the attitude of Mailer, who was all for 'setting upon' (primary definition of aggression) people long before they got in with a blow or an idea either. He was in a mood to thump me on two widely separate occasions. The first was when he was on wife number two. He had attacked her with a knife and had spent some time in the slammer, in consequence. I was appearing in Ken Tynan's lunchtime TV programme on books, interviewing a politician. Just before (live) transmission Ken appealed to me, in a panic, to do Mailer as well, as the interviewer had not turned up. I agreed, though I did not know much about Mailer, then not so notorious as he later became. In fact I confused him with James Jones, author of From Here to Eternity, a better novel, in my view, than The Naked and the Dead. I did not know much about Jones either, though I was aware he had recently been to a school for writers run by Mrs Adlai Stevenson. So I began by asking him about it. 'Mr Mailer, did you find it helpful to your writing, to be in this, er, institution?' His eyes narrowed to slits. 'No, I did not. Why should it?' 'But, Mr Mailer, I thought that was the whole object of your being there?' He slowly leant forward, like a small Balkan army. 'That's not what the judge said.' I now realised something was seriously amiss, so I hastily switched the topic to the comparatively safe subject of battle adjectives, and precariously got through our five minutes on air. Afterwards, I saw Mailer five vodkas later in the hospitality room, eyeing me in a hostile manner, and moving towards me to renew the encounter. So I hastily called for my studio car and driver, and left.
Some harmless encounters followed over the decades. Then I found myself attending a supper party in Upper East Side Manhattan with a now white-haired Mailer and wife number six. She came from Arkansas and I thought her delightful, until she began complaining of the media treatment of her friend Bill Clinton, then in the White House. 'Why,' she moaned, 'the New York Times reporter had the nerve to say that at his press conference this week the President made gas.' The verb intrigued me. 'Mrs Norman Mailer the Sixth,' I said formally, 'are you actually saying that those cads on the Times went so far as to state that the President farted!?' 'There's no call, Mister, to be so gross!' she replied. She went over to Mailer to complain, and in due course I saw the old white-haired chimp or champ begin to knuckle himself towards me. So again, I called for my driver and left. My policy is never to get into fights with writers. Who wants to give a black eye to literature?
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© 2006, Paul Johnson