In this wide-ranging and provocative study, Tom Lutz looks at the ways people have understood weeping from the earliest known representations of tears in the fourteenth century B.C. to the tears found in today’s films. Drawing on works of literature, philosophy, art, and science from the writings of Plato and Darwin to the paintings of Picasso to modern medical journals, he unearths the multiple meanings and uses of tears.
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About the Author
Tom Lutz lives in Los Angeles and Iowa City, where he teaches at the University of Iowa. He is the author of American Nervousness, 1903: A History of Nervous Illness at the Turn of the Century.
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Tears of Pleasure,
Tears of Grace,
and the Weeping Hero
An anonymous British pamphlet from 1755, Man: A Paper for Ennobling the Species, proposed a number of ideas for human improvement, and among them was the idea that something called "moral weeping" would help:
We may properly distinguish weeping into two general kinds, genuine and counterfeit; or into physical crying and moral weeping. Physical crying, while there are no real corresponding ideas in the mind, nor any genuine sentimental feeling of the heart to produce it, depends upon the mechanism of the body: but moral weeping proceeds from, and is always attended with, such real sentiments of the mind, and feeling of the heart, as do honour to human nature; which false crying always debases.
In this text and throughout human history, some tears have been considered good, and some, like those that are not "genuine," have been held in contempt. Some tears do honor to human nature, some debase it. This distinction is one of the perennial strands of the cultural history of crying, found in ancient fables, medieval monastic treatises, court culture, and our own films and sitcoms. But while it is fair to say that the "good cry" and the debased cry have always been with us and always will be, what constitutes a good cry changes over time. If a young woman were to fall on the ground weeping in a restaurant, say, and wash her father's feet with her tears while begging for his forgiveness, few people would find it as appropriate or heartwarming a sightas a group at an eighteenth-century British inn might have, or as eighteenth-century novel readers clearly did. And the same is true for the other judgments we make about tears, as when we deem them to be normal or excessive, sincere or manipulative, expressive or histrionic.
As historians of everyday life know well, the mundane does not lend itself to historical recovery the way politics or diplomacy or technological change does. The minutiae of daily living, documented only in passing, leave less of a paper trail. Food historians, for instance, need to pull descriptions of meals from journalistic accounts, fictions, diaries, and other sources that are primarily interested in what was said at the table between bites. The historian of emotion is further hampered by the fact that so much emotional interaction relies on implicit knowledge, on rules of appropriateness and meaning that most people never consider, much less articulate, however well adjusted and eloquent they may be emotionally. As Johan Huizinga, the great historian of everyday life in the Middle Ages, points out, representations of emotion are also prone to exaggeration (or, we might add, understatement), so that direct statements about people falling on the ground sobbing may or may not mean that people actually did so. Add to this the fact that in all places, and all times, any given emotional reaction or expression can be interpreted in vastly different ways, even by people who share the same culture and values, and we have a historian's nightmare. Roast beef is roast beef, but the line between weeping and sobbing is unclear, crying is not always sincere, and when it is sincere it is not always a sign of sadness.
What follows, then, is less a history than a series of related anecdotes, designed not so much to recapture the specific meanings of tears in different historical epochs as to defamiliarize them, to disrupt this century's belief in the naturalness of tears, and to allow them to appear strange, odd, anomalous. I have relied in part on the few historians who have done extensive work: Fleming Friis Hvidberg's study of Old Testament tears, Sandra McEntire's history of "holy tears" in the third through tenth centuries, Marjory Lange's study of seventeenth-century England, and Sheila Page Bayne's and Anne Vincent-Buffault's studies of crying in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century France. And I have concentrated on just three aspects of crying, three kinds of "good" tears: heroic tears, tears of exceptional sincerity, and tears of pleasure.
"Drinking of Them Like Wine"
The earliest written record of tears is found on Canaanite clay tablets dating from the fourteenth century B.C. Named after the village in northwestern Syria where they were found by archaeologists, the Ras Shamra Texts are a series of clay tablets and fragments of tablets from the ancient city of Ugarit, which was destroyed by an earthquake in the early thirteenth century B.C. Although ancient Greek and other texts spoke of Ugarit as a fabled city of advanced civilization and learning, no one was sure of its exact location until an Ugarit tomb was uncovered in Ras Shamra in 1931. The tablets found in the ensuing excavations contain a narrative poem about the death of Ba'al, an earth god worshiped by several ancient Middle Eastern cultures. One of the fragments tells the story of the virgin goddess Anat, the sister of Ba'al, as she hears the news of his death. Quite naturally, she weeps at the news. The accepted scholarly translation is that Anat "continued sating herself with weeping, to drink tears like wine." This, the earliest mention of tears in history, suggests that they are induced by grief, and that they offer satiety, even a kind of intoxication.
Hvidberg, the scholar who produced this translation, argues that this version of the story of Ba'al and Anat is related to a ritual of laughing and weeping in ancient pre-Hebrew Canaan, traces of which show up in the Hebrew Bible and a number of other sources. In this springtime ritual, a whole tribe would remove themselves to the desert and together begin to slowly moan and cry, moving from whimpering to weeping to wailing and then, over the course of several days, to frenzied hysterics and finally to laughing exhilaration before dissolving into giggles and resuming everyday life. In these rituals, frantic crying and raucous laughter are not opposed emotional displays but part of a continuum, a continuum based on a belief in emotional expression as a source of fundamental pleasure and social cohesion.
Crying also has a powerful effect in the story, for Anat's tears bring Ba'al back to life. In the Egyptian story of the death of the god Osiris, something comparable happens: the goddess Isis finds her brother Osiris dead and weeps over him. Her tears, too, bring the dead god back to life. Similar stories are told of the Mesopotamian gods Marduk and Tammuz and of Ishtar and Gilgamesh. Each of these myths, scholars have long assumed, is related to specific seasonal rituals, in which the death of the god represents the autumn and its harvests, and the tears represent, among other things, the renewal that comes with spring rains.
But the association of tears with renewal and new life went well beyond equinox celebrations. We can see in the Hebrew Bible traces of these crying rituals which the Hebrew immigrants to Canaan adopted from the worshipers of Ba'al. "May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy!" as the writer of the Psalms put it, "He that goes forth weeping bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him." The Old Testament belief that "they that sow in tears shall reap in joy" is repeated with new emphases in the New Testament. In the Gospel of Luke"Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh"and John"your sorrow will be turned into joy"the ideas have been lifted out of their mythic context and reintroduced as axioms for everyday life. The sowing and reaping in these passages suggest sustenance, as in Psalm 42, which claims that "my tears have been my food day and night." The psalmist here is not just constructing a complex spiritual metaphor but suggesting a general attitude toward emotional tears, one that assumes them to be nourishing, sustaining.
Transformative rituals and axioms about the sustaining pleasure of crying are found in many Greek sources as well. In The Iliad, Homer talks of the "desire for lamentation" and "taking satisfaction in lament." According to classicist W. B. Stanford, the function of poetry in Homer is to give pleasure to the listener even if the audience finds the story painful. Odysseus cries in pleasure, for instance, when the bard Demodokos tells the story of the Trojan horse, despite the pain he experiences in remembering lost comrades and lost time. And the pleasure of tears goes beyond such aesthetic response. Meneláos tells Odysseus that when he thinks of the men who died in the war, "nothing but grief is left me for those companions. While I sit at home sometimes hot tears come, and I revel in them, or stop before the surfeit makes me shiver." The tears here are somehow compensation for grief, and are the opposite of purgationMeneláos was empty of everything but grief until his tears came, and then he reveled in them until he was surfeited, satiated. Euripides is even more explicit in The Trojan Women:
How good are the tears, how sweet the dirges,
I would rather sing dirges than eat or drink.
Here the "desire for lamentation" is a desire for pleasure and sweet satisfaction, more satisfying than food or drink. Weeping is so pleasurable that it can make one "shiver" with delight.
In the Latin love elegies of the first century A.D., the pleasures of tears were linked to the pleasures of romance. Virgil was perhaps the first, in The Aeneid, to make tears a mark of beauty, suggesting that lacrimaeque decorae, or decorative tears, make the crier more beautiful to a lover. Ovid was the first to suggest tears as a form of seduction for young men: "Tears are a good thing too; you will move the most adamant with tears. Let her, if possible, see your cheeks wet with tears.... Let her dry mouth drink your tears." Ovid also suggests that women who cannot easily cry should learn to fake tears. Such tears have utility in providing pleasure because they are forms of persuasion, but they work as persuasion because of their link to pleasure. As Propertius, another first-century elegist writes: "Happy the man who can weep before his mistress's eyes; Love greatly delights in flooding tears."
Such images of amorous pleasure, and of nourishment, satiety, and autointoxication through tears, can be found throughout Western history. The pleasure of tears was often religious in origin, and often only tangentially related to pain, sadness, or suffering. St. Thomas Aquinas, in his grand and gothic Summa Theologica (1267-73), asked whether tears assuage suffering and came to the conclusion that they do because they provide pleasure. First, tears assuage sorrow "because a hurtful thing hurts yet more if we keep it shut up ... whereas if it be allowed to escape, the soul's intention is dispersed as it were on outward things, so that the inward sorrow is lessened." We feel better, in other words, because our negative feelings are "dispersed." And second, Aquinas writes, any action "that befits a man according to his actual disposition, is always pleasant to him. Now tears and groans are actions befitting a man who is in sorrow or pain; and consequently they become pleasant to him." Laughter gives pleasure when it is fitting, and so does weeping.
Aquinas was being slightly disingenuous here, since he was well aware of another tradition of lamentation in the Catholic Church. The early Christian churchmen developed elaborate theories of the different kinds of tears. One system divided them into four types: tears of contrition, tears of sorrow, tears of gladness, and tears of grace. Others developed slightly different taxonomies, but all included a category of tears full of sweetness and pleasure. In Book 4 of the Confessions, St. Augustine asks how it "can be that there is sweetness in the fruit we pluck from the bitter crop of life, in the mourning and the tears, the wailing and the sighs." He wonders if tears derive their sweetness from the possibility that God will notice them. "Or is weeping, too, a bitter thing, becoming a pleasure only when the things we once enjoyed turn loathsome and only as long as our dislike for them remains?" He asks God to tell him "why tears are so sweet to the sorrowful." Jerome's letter to Eustochium in the fourth century describes religious tears of joy: "When I had shed copious tears and had strained my eyes towards heaven, I sometimes felt myself among angelic hosts," he told his readers, and so "sang in joy and gladness." Gregory I (or Gregory the Great, of Gregorian chant fame), the sixth-century church leader, called crying gratia lachrymarum, which can mean either tears of grace or the gift of tears. John of Fecamp prayed to God: "Give me the pleasantness of tears ... give me the gift of tears." Isidore of Seville, in interpreting the Psalms in the seventh century, seconded the idea that tears produce satiety. "Lamenting," he wrote, "is the food of souls." Whenever St. Louis received the "gift of tears," according to the French historian Jules Michelet, his tears "seemed to him delectable and comforting, not only to the heart but to the tongue."
E. M. Cioran called this "voluptuous suffering." Cioran, a Romanian writer living in Paris, made the sensual pleasure of crying central to his examination of religious emotions in Tears and Saints, first published in 1937. He decided that it was not the saints' piety or accomplishments or worthiness that makes them attractive to us hundreds of years later, but the voluptuousness of their suffering, a voluptuousness demonstrated by their tears. "Were it not for their tears," he writes, "saintliness would not interest us any more than a medieval political intrigue in some little provincial town." The "blissful ignorance" that tears afford is the source of their pleasure, according to Cioran, since crying's "flame of ecstasy annihilates any kind of intellectual activity." Cioran suggests that this sublime overcoming of cognition is an aesthetic experience, and it is thus that tears provide aesthetic pleasure. Following Nietzsche, who said that "I cannot differentiate between tears and music," Cioran suggests that tears, like music, are an art form in themselves, a kind of aesthetic production as well as an aesthetic experience. "Tears," he writes, "are music in material form." Man Ray's famous photographs of stylized tears, sitting on his model's cheek like plastic pearls, spring from the same Parisian culture as Cioran's book and suggest something similar, highlighting and obscuring the relation between tears as art and tears as experience.
This modernist aestheticizing of tears hearkens back to Virgil's "decorative tears," but for the medieval saints, monks, and mystics, tears were real and substantial. They were not art but experience, and they provided a certain kind, or kinds, of experience, whether voluptuous, akin to laying one's head in "God's soft pillow," as Augustine said, or horrible, as in the bitter-tasting, hot, painful tears cried in penance and contrition. In some cases, the bitter was transformed into the sweet, as in the fourteenth-century English mystic Walter Hilton's oddly titled The Prickynge of Love (c. 1375): "As water in the vine through the heat of the sun is turned to wine, just so shall bitter tears truly through fervor of charity be turned into the wine of spiritual comfort." And sometimes the sweet tears of the mystics were indistinguishable from aesthetic weeping. Margery Kempe, who wrote (or actually dictated) the first woman's autobiography in English in the 1430s, described her response to celestial music she had heard in a mystical trance: "It surpassed any melody that ever might be heard in this world, without any comparison, and caused this creature to have plenteous and abundant tears of high devotion, with great sobbings and sighings after the bliss of heaven."
In the seventeenth century, religious writers continued to use and add to such imagery. Henry Hawkins, in Partheneia Sacra (1633), wrote that tears are an oasis in the "Libian Desert" of the world; they are the "Milk of Nature, wherewith she is disposed to suckle creatures at her own breast." And secular poetry, fiction, and drama are full of references to the pleasures of tears. One critic has called the tears of Racine's heroines pleurs aphrodisiaques, and it is clear that in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, inducing abundant and pleasurable tears was a primary goal of actors, directors, dramatists, novelists, and poets, and theatergoers and novel readers praised those productions that drew the most tears. And these tears had an aphrodisiac effect. A medieval woman in a convent, her body wet with tears, squirming in ecstasy on her cot, penetrated to the core by a visitation from her "betrothed," Jesus himself, as she weeps with joy, appears to us to be an obviously sexualized image. But the mystic herself saw it differently, and in the eleventh century, when John of Fecamp prayed, "Sweet Christ ... Give me the pleasantness of tears ... give me the higher wetness and the lower wetness," we can also safely assume he was oblivious to any sexual overtones. The secular writers of the eighteenth century were considerably more attuned to the connections. The wetness, the "liquid expansion," the convulsing of muscles, the transport, and what we might even call the ejaculatory nature of crying were all used to suggest its sexual nature, especially in tales of romance.
One of the messiest sentimentalists of all time was the titular hero of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). Werther writes of his love for Lotte to his friend Wilhelm, saying, "Oh, if only I could fall on your neck and describe with a thousand joyous tears all the emotions that are storming in my heart." Lotte grants him "the comfort of crying [his] eyes out over her hand," and as Werther describes such scenes to Wilhelm, he again begins "weeping like a child" remembering the joy and the despair he felt. When Lotte and Werther read the Romantic poet Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock's odes to each other, they touch and weep. Roland Barthes has discussed Werther's "propensity to dissolve in tears" at the slightest emotion as a patently sexual act. In Barthes's words, "By releasing his tears without constraint, [Werther] follows the orders of the amorous body, which is in liquid expansion, a bathed body: to weep together, to flow together: delicious tears finish off the reading of Klopstock which Charlotte and Werther perform together."
With the coming of Romanticism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, tears of pleasure only increase. William Wordsworth's first published poem, "On Seeing Miss Helen Maria Williams Weep at a Tale of Distress" (1786), contains the following quatrain:
She wept.Life's purple tide began to flow
In languid streams through every thrilling vein;
Dim were my swimming eyesmy pulse beat slow,
And my full heart was swell'd to dear delicious pain.
Helen Maria Williams was herself a poet, and was also fond of "thrilling veins" of tears and their "dear delicious pain." In this era's literature, crying is widely seen as pleasure, even in such unlikely places as James Fenimore Cooper's novels. In The Spy (1821), when Henry asks his sister's pardon for doubting her loyalty, he cries, "pressing her to his bosom, and kissing off the tears which had burst, in spite of her resolution, from her eyes," thus causing both sister and brother to experience a profound pleasure. And this was not just literary hyperbole: Thomas Jefferson, coming of age during the height of Romanticism, knew well the pleasures of tears. In a letter to a prospective mistress in Paris, for instance, he wrote that there was no more "sublime delight than to mingle tears with one whom the hand of heaven has smitten!" He fully expects this sentiment to meet with complete acceptance, and in fact offers it as a form of seduction, as a kind of proof that he is a connoisseur of love.
Abbé Prévost, a French monk who left the monastery to become a novelist in the mid-eighteenth century, and whose novels probably influenced Jefferson's understanding of tears, said that tears had "an infinite sweetness." Prévost and his audience knew that this sweetness, like Jefferson's "sublime delight," was erotic; and in the novels of Sterne, Mackenzie, and Chateaubriand, and the plays of Fénelon and Racine, lovers fall happily weeping on each other's necks in recognition of their mutual bond. The reader and theatergoer are then privy to this most intimate of acts, which, like sex, involves the exchange of fluids.
After the eighteenth century, although indulgence in the pleasures of weeping did not end, talk about it became less common. The distinction in the 1755 pamphlet between purely physical crying and "moral weeping" again came to the fore, and the pleasure of tears in literature, drama, and discussion became gradually less central and less blatantly sexual over the course of the nineteenth century. Alfred Austin wrote in 1881 that "Tears are Summer showers to the soul," and Ella Wheeler Wilcox included in her Poems of Pleasure (1892) one called "The Lady of Tears," about the "mystical Lady of Tears" who saves people from broken hearts with her "bitter-sweet draught of relief." But the kind of sexual pleasure Thomas Jefferson or Goethe knew is lost.
The use of "soul" and "mystical" are significant, for the pleasure of tears was again, in the nineteenth century, figured in religious terms, as we'll see. People continued to appreciate the secular pleasures of tears, but those pleasures were not referred to with the sense of intensity and profundity that one finds in the records of the eighteenth and earlier centuries. In his "A Song of Joys," Walt Whitman, the great enumerator, lists the joy an orator feels in making people weep along with him. And George Copway in the 1850s recounted his tearful response upon hearing stories in his Ojibwa childhood in the 1820s: "Some of these stories are most exciting, and so intensely interesting, that I have seen children during their relation, whose tears would flow quite plentifully, and their breasts heave with thoughts too big for utterance.... To those days I look back with pleasurable emotions." This is tame stuff compared with the long history of tearful eroticism. Only a few writers managed to get the earlier sense of the sensual power of tears into the language of Victorian emotional culture, as when Henry James describes a character in The Aspern Papers (1888) who "clearly had been crying, crying a great dealsimply, satisfyingly, refreshingly, with a primitive retarded sense of solitude and violence."
Toward the end of the nineteenth century, psychologists began to study the psychophysiology of tears. According to Henry's brother William James, long bouts of crying tend to alternate between actual weeping and "dry sorrow," in which despair and desolation are felt but no actual tears are produced. It is during the weeping part of this cycle, James wrote in his Principles of Psychology (1890), that pleasure is possible. The dry sorrow is uniformly unpleasant, he writes, but "there is an excitement during a crying fit which is not without a certain pungent pleasure of its own." A few later physiological psychologistsespecially Walter B. Cannon and Silvan Tomkinswould make suggestive arguments in the middle of the twentieth century about tears and pleasure, as we will see in the next chapter. But these remain more or less observations in passing, and no physiologist has seriously taken up James's suggestion. The pleasure of tears remains inexplicably unexplored.
In our own day, there are some signs that, at least among some communities, there has been a return to the pleasures of tears that early centuries knew. No one can have watched a figure-skating championship, for instance, and not noticed a craze for weeping. During some Pentecostal Christian prayer meetings, ceremonies are as steeped in tears as the ancient Canaanite festivals. During the middle of the twentieth century, as the chapter on psychology recounts, many schools of therapy sprang up that encouraged people to cry, and although pleasure was never discussed, they perhaps owed their success to the gratification that accompanied their patients' weeping. And at the same time, Hollywood was perfecting its recipes for "weepies."
That is where most of us continue to experience tears as pleasurable: in our response to art and entertainment. In the standard reviewing cliché, "I laughed, I cried," we recognize an axiomatic expression of aesthetic pleasure, a fundamental avowal of the kind of pleasure we get from books, plays, and films. The teenagers who are helping to make Titanic one of the few top-grossing films of all time clearly understand the relation between tears and pleasure. Journalist Deirdre Dolan interviewed teenagers in New York who had seen the film ten or more times, weeping voluminously each time. "The first time I saw it, I started crying when she jumped off the lifeboat," a sixteen-year-old boy said, "and the second time I started in the opening credits." A seventeen-year-old girl came home crying so uncontrollably thatin her words"my parents came home and they were like 'what's wrong? This isn't right!'" These adolescents go to the film knowing that they are going to witness a horrible and melodramatic tragedy, and this, Dolan writes, is why they go, "so that they can weep." One girl who had seen the film "eleven and a half times" had stopped wearing eye makeup ("I usually wear a lot") and had begun bringing a box of tissues. Another young man claimed that his shirt got wet around the neck every time he saw it. Some of the teenagers understood their own crying in terms of releasethe letting go of pent-up emotion. But others were clear that crying was important for the pleasure it afforded. As one girl explained, "It's so much better to cry because it makes the movie so much more enjoyable."
The History of Sincerity
Pleasure is, of course, hardly the first thing that comes to mind when most people think of weeping. We assume that tears are a sign of suffering, of loss, of pain, and in Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio's character cries much more often in grief, sadness, and despair than he does in joy or pleasure, although he does a little of that, too. DiCaprio plays the hero of the film, who rescues people (or tries to) and loses his life in the attempt, and who is otherwise an absolutely wonderful and sincere person. And we know this in part because he cries. As the Romantic poets knew, and as the anonymous author of the tract on "moral weeping" argued, some tears come from "genuine sentimental feeling" and others do not. When we are being cynically intellectual, "genuine" and "sentimental" can seem like antonyms, but we have all been on the receiving end of tears that are meant to establish the crier's genuine sincerity and do. In fact, more than with any other emotional display, we often assume that tears are the marrow of pure feeling, a sign of unsullied genuineness, the liquid gist of sincerity itself.
This idea, too, has a long history, and is also found in the Bible, where crying can be a form of petition. The writer of the Psalms, for instance, frequently uses his tears in prayer ("Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; hold not they peace at my tears") and assumes that prayerful tears will be answered. These prayerful tears were often the opposite of pleasurable: some accompanied the most anguished entreaties made to God and they are regularly described as "bitter." Weeping was an attempt to influence Yahweh through a kind of self-abasement, an announcement of submission before God, like rending one's garments or donning sackcloth and ashes.
Crying prayers were regularly offered up before battles. "Then all the people of Israel, the whole army," we are told in Judges, "went up and came to Bethel and wept." In Maccabees 2:13, the Jews "besought the merciful Lord with weeping and fasting and lying prostrate for three days" before an attack. And the Lord answered such tearful prayers, not just in battle but at all times. When the sick Hezekiah "wept bitterly" in prayer, the Lord answered, "I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; behold, I will heal you." These prayerful tears in the Bible are innovations in Hebrew culture, gradually replacing such earlier offerings to God as animal sacrifices and the rending of garments. Joel, a prophet from approximately the fifth century B.C., recalled the Jews to worship after a plague of locusts. "Yet even now," Joel quotes the Lord, "return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments." Tears are not just an offering here but the purest form of offering, as Joel suggestsanyone can rend their garments, but only the sincere rend their hearts in prayer. Garments can be rent with minimal emotional investment, but tears take "all" of one's "heart."
By the time of the Gospels, tears are commonly used as marks of sincere faith, as in the story that appears in all four Gospels of "a woman of the city," commonly taken to be Mary Magdalene, "who was a sinner." The story is given its fullest rendition in the Gospel according to Luke: "Standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head, and kissed his feet, and anointed them with the ointment." A Pharisee objects, claiming that the woman is unfit to minister to a religious man, but Jesus rebukes him with a parable and says to the woman, "Your sins are forgiven.... Your faith has saved you; go in peace." The woman never speaks in these stories; her faith is demonstrated and proven by her submission and her tears.
These scriptural descriptions of sincere tears became even more important to the history of tears than the biblical representations of pleasure. Tears began to be granted a certain kind of power, both as a form of entreaty and as testimony to the crier's honesty and integrity. In his fourth-century Confessions, St. Augustine describes his mother crying for his salvation, crying in entreaty to him to mend his evil ways. Her priest told her not to worry, saying that "it cannot be that the son of these tears should be lost." His mother's sincere tears have the power to save her son's soul. In book 5, Augustine describes his inability to join "all who have left the hard path and come to weep upon your [God's] breast." Augustine is clear about why one would want to: "Gently you [God] wipe away their tears. They weep the more, but now their tears are tears of joy, because it is not some man of flesh and blood but you, O Lord and Maker, who remakes them and consoles them." To explain his inability to tearfully commune with God, Augustine invokes a notion of self-knowledge close to our own ideas of sincerity: "I could not find myself," he writes, "much less find you." The sincere man who knows himself knows God, and his crying is offered up to God as a prayer, which is answered in the form of consolation and renewal. Both the prayer and the consolation can take the form of tears.
Tears had gradually evolved from their Old Testament meanings, and Augustine's private relationship to God demonstrates one of the important changes. "If we could not sob our troubles in your ear, what hope would we have?" Augustine asks. Hezekiah cried aloud to the heavens and the lamentations of the Jewish armies resounded into the heavens, but Augustine's weepy prayers are offered directly, privately, to God. This separation of the public and private uses of crying is Augustine's most important contribution to the medieval culture of tears. When his mother dies, he wants to cry but forces himself not to, and at her funeral he sheds no tears. But later, alone and praying, he offers his tears to God, "for her sake and mine. The tears which I had been holding back streamed down, and I let them flow as freely as they would, making of them a pillow for my heart. On them it rested, for my weeping was for your ears alone, not in the ears of men who might have misconstrued it and despised it." Crying as a part of a public ceremony would have shown him "guilty of too much worldly affection," but his private crying is a sincere offering to God.
Following on Augustine's distinction and attempting to clarify it, the monastic leaders attempted to categorize the different kinds of weeping. According to Abbot Isaac, four different kinds of tears are produced by four different feelings or reflections. Some tears are "caused by the pricks of sin smiting our heart," while others arise "from contemplation of eternal good things and desire of that future glory." Sometimes, he says, we cry not out of actual guilt about a specific sin or sins but out of our fear of the day of judgment. And finally, "there is too another kind of tears, which are caused not by knowledge of one's self but by the hardness and sins of others." Guilt, awe, fear, pity: each feeling produces a different kind of tears. Alcuin, the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon prelate, describes four kinds of tears, based on their functions: "There are moist tears that wash away the filth of sin and restore lost baptism. There are salty and bitter tears that restrain the frailty of the flesh and moderate sweetness of pleasure. There are warm tears that prevail against the coldness of unfaithfulness. There are pure tears that build up those who are cleansed from previous sins."
But from the beginning of monasticism, one strand of thinking was central: that tears are both a gift from God and a tribute to him. St. Anthony, the father of monasticism in the early fourth century, writes to his disciples that they should weep in the sight of God. In the Rule of the Master, the monks are told that crying should always accompany penitence. In the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict, the monks are told that crying should accompany heartfelt prayer. Not only were tears one means of prayer, according to Benedict, they were the only pure form: "We must know that God regards our purity of heart and tears of compunction, not our many words." Almost a millennium later, in the fourteenth century, the German monk Thomas à Kempis still counseled young monks to "seek the gift of tears" as a way to gain purity of heart. But the clearest example is St. Francis of Assisi: when he began to go blind in his old age, according to Cioran, "doctors found the cause to be an excess of tears." This apocryphal story shows the extent to which tears were associated with holiness. St. Francis was a man who had no pretense, a man so authentic that all nature responded to him, and thus he literally cried his eyes out.
The female mystics of the Middle Ages also took weeping to be a central aspect of religious experience. In Elizabeth of Toess's Revelations in the fourteenth century, Elizabeth "full bitterly wept her sins" on many occasions, and "wept so bitterly that she could not restrain herself from outward sobs and vocal cries." When Elizabeth experienced the "spiritual inebriation" of a visitation from Christ, she felt she needed to "weep and sorrow with much fear that she is so unfit for such a blessing." Margery Kempe, too, "wept extraordinarily bitterly, asking for mercy and forgiveness," and also cried for grace, sometimes for hours at a time, "very plenteously and very boisterously." Sometimes, she tells us, "the crying was so loud and so amazing that it astounded people."
Sincere tears have been important to many other religious practices, whether as private adjuncts to prayer or as ritual practice. The Wailing Wall, for instance, is a place of worship where tears are expected, as well as great solemnity. Weeping at the wall marks the profundity of one's religious feeling. A special class of weepers during the Islamic haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, are known as the "Weeping Sufis," and their tears are considered signs of the authenticity of their mystical experience. And tears are still used to convey the authenticity of one's feelings in contemporary Christianity, which is why those most in need of such authentication, like television evangelists, are most likely to weep. Our Lady of Fatima and other miraculous visitations are represented as weeping, and tears are so powerful a guarantor of religious authenticity that even religious statues are said to weep.
William James, in Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), divides religious belief into two kinds: one that is "healthy-minded" and sunny and, he suggests, a bit frivolous; and one that is depressive and emotionally trying and much richer. The wailing at the temple wall in Jerusalem, weeping along with the crying statues of mystical Catholicism, and the tears of the medieval saints all fail to be "healthy-minded" in James's terms, and are instead the activities of "sick souls." This is not a criticism. In James's view, the neurotic weepers have more intense, more authentic, and more profound religious experiences than their healthy-minded counterparts. They have, in fact, a kind of authenticity that the dry-eyed, healthy-minded churchgoers lack.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, the sixteenth-century founder of the Jesuit order, is an example of someone James would consider a "sick soul." In one forty-page stretch of Ignatius's diary, he boasts of 175 episodes of crying. Of one he wrote: "I had an abundance of tears, without experiencing understandings or perceptions of any persons, but accompanied by a most intense love, warmth, and great relish for divine things and an exceedingly deep satisfaction of soul." This deep soul satisfaction and intense love of the divine obliterated any perceptions of the actual world, and even any conventional understanding. Deep, sincere, and disengaged from all others, Loyola's abundant tearfulness is at once both absorbed and detached, a communion and an intensely felt removal from the world. A kind of emotional monasticism, tears remove one from "understandings or perceptions of any persons" into a realm of pure religious abstraction. In Loyola's text, and in many other religious texts, engagement and evasion, absorption and detachment, self-knowledge and denial of the world meld in a powerful, tearful embrace.
Robert Southwell has been credited with introducing the idea of "holy tears" into English secular literature in the late sixteenth century. In Saint Marie Magdalens Funeral Teares, Southwell writes of tears as if they were attorneys: "Thy tears will obtaine. They are too mighty oratours, to let any suite fall, and though they pleaded at the most rigorous barre, yet haue they so persuading a silense, and so conquering a complaint that they by yielding ouercome, and by intreating they comaund." By figuring tears as attorneys, Southwell combines tears of worship, tears of beauty and pleasure, and tears of petition in a slightly new way. Tears will "overcome by yielding" and "command by entreating," even at the most rigorous bar. In an extremely mixed metaphor, Southwell goes on to say, "The Angels must still bath themseules in the pure streames of thy eyes, and thy face shall still be set with this liquid pearle, that as out of thy teares may be the oyle, to nourish and feed his flame." Rather than bathing away sin, tears are pools for angels to bathe in, liquid pearls, as well as fuel, even while they continue to act as the crier's advocates.
In the eighteenth century, this understanding of tearsas "mighty orators," as pearls, and as the playground of angelswas further secularized but otherwise retained the same characteristics. Now the sincere man offered up his tears not to God but to other people, especially his beloved, who answered them with consolation (or didn't) and caused a new bout of tears of joy (or didn't), making possible the most ideal form of communion (or the agony of unrequitement).
Goethe's Werther is again the perfect example. Moping around, complaining of the slights and injustices of the world, Werther is ridiculously self-involved and self-deluded, but his tears of entreaty are perfectly sincere. Incapable of being insincere, unable to live without expressing his desire, and finally in despair when Lotte doesn't answer his tearful prayers, Werther commits suicide.
As this suggests, Werther is a bit of a schlemiel as well as a Romantic hero, but his tears are true, and they are the direct descendants of the holy tears of the Middle Ages. Werther looks "up to Heaven with longing and tears." His "eyes filled with tears" as he tells Lotte, "We shall meet again, here and beyond." And he tells Wilhelm, "God alone knows how often, in my bed, I have prayed in tears that He might make me her equal." Just as the saints' tears are protestations of love to God and requests to God for consolation, so Werther's tears and prayers protest his love, plead for Lotte's consolation, and vouch for his sincerity and purity of feeling. His tears fail as orators in the end, but in the meantime they help persuade Lotte to spend time with him, and even to cry with him as they read Romantic poetry together. Lotte is already engaged to someone else and so cannot requite his love, but she never doubts the sincerity and truth of Werther's tearful protestations.
A novel published three years earlier in Britain, Henry Mackenzie's The Man of Feeling, is often considered the prototypical British novel of the cult of sensibility, the British equivalent of Werther. One of the weepiest books on record, it, too, assumes that tears are offerings. Remembering an old friend, the narrator says, "I gave thee a tear then: accept of one cordial drop that falls to thy memory now." When Harley, the character who is the man of feeling, hears a tale of woe, he gives it "the tribute of some tears." Harley is often moved by such stories, and gives away his money and his tears to the various wretches he meets in the course of his travels: "He put a couple of guineas into the man's hand.... He burst into tears, and left." They in return, often give him the tribute of tears: "'I am sorry,' he said, 'that at present I should be able to make you an offer of no more than this paltry sum.' She burst into tears." And these tributes enter into intimate relationships as well. When a father and wayward daughter are reunited, she falls to the ground and "bathe[s] his feet with tears," in an obvious reference to the story of Jesus at Bethel. The father, in return, "fell on her neck and mingled his tears with hers," forgiving her her sins.
Mackenzie makes explicit the monastic heritage of these tears. "The world, my dear Charles, was a scene in which I never much delighted," says Harley. Some feelings, he explains, are too tender for this world, and people tend to assume, wrongly, that weeping is a sign of melancholy or overromantic selfishness. In heaven, though, Harley says, tears will be considered not flaws but the essence of goodness. In the meantime, we can try to bring a little heaven to earth through sensitive tears. Tears are a way, in fact, of infusing the world with virtue. To a "fallen" woman crying in gratitude for a gift he has made to her, he says, "There is virtue in these tears." Her tears not only solicit his sympathy but prove her sincerity and her essential purity, even if she is not "pure" in the worldly sense.
Sometimes tears in the novel are the result of an unrestrained empathy, as when Harley accompanies a young girl he has just met to her parents' graves, where "the girl cried afresh; Harley kissed off her tears as they flowed, and wept between every kiss." Sometimes Harley's tears seem to be an aesthetic response: "At that instant a shepherd blew his horn: the romantic melancholy of the sound quite overcame him!it was the very note that wanted to be touchedhe sighed! he dropped a tear!and returned." Sometimes it is a simple response to a sad story; when he hears of the death of the house dog, Trusty, his face is "bathed with tears." In all of these cases, though, Harley is shown to be a new kind of man, a man who is not a monk but who is removed from the world of lesser men and their petty concerns, who is in the aristocracy but wants to alleviate the suffering of the poor, who is not afraid that the world will find him oversensitive. He is the ideal man of the cult of sensibility in the eighteenth century: sincere, sensitive, and not quite of this world.
Other eighteenth-century writers reinforced this connection between tears and sincerity. Rousseau in his philosophical works and novels, for instance, made similar comments. Civilized emotions are pale imitations of the primitive emotions people feel in their natural state, according to Rousseau. When we cry deeply, we are closer to our natural and to our divine state than when we are in the grip of the guilt and pride that make up modern, civilized feelings. In just one of many examples from Samuel Richardson's Pamela, the heroine's old father cries at the compliments his daughter receives, and those watching are not surprised to see that his "honest heart springs thus to the eyes." In Jacques Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Paul et Virginie (1788), a very popular idyll, Paul tells Virginie, "Your touching tears put out the torch of superstition." For all of these writers, tears represent what Cioran calls, in describing those of medieval saints, "the criterion for truth."
In the Romantic revision of eighteenth-century sensibility, the body becomes even more obviously the seal of truth. Franz Schubert's song "Lob der Tränen," or "In Praise of Tears," with lyrics by the great German Romantic poet A. W. Schlegel, asks: "Words, what are they? One tear will say more than all of them." As they are for the other Romantic authors, tears in this song are true because they cannot be counterfeit, as words can. Roland Barthes, the last of the great Romantics, goes a step further: "By my tears, I tell a story, I produce a myth of grief, and henceforth I adjust myself to it: I can live with it because, by weeping, I give myself an emphatic interlocutor who receives the 'truest' of messages, that of my body, not that of my speech."
To say that tears have a meaning greater than any words is to suggest that truth somehow resides in the body. For Barthes and Schlegel, crying is superior to words as a form of communication because our bodies, uncorrupted by culture or society, are naturally truthful, and tears are the most essential form of speech for this idealized body. In the middle of the nineteenth century, Emily Brontë penned the following stanza in this Romantic vein:
Had there been falsehood in my breast
No thorns had marred my road,
This spirit had not lost its rest,
These tears had never flowed.
For Brontë, tears are impossible if any falsehood resides in the breast, and similar sentiments were expressed by all the major Romantic poets.
Later in the nineteenth century, explicitly religious tears and tearful expressions of faith continued to be part of religious practice and to be regularly represented in poetry and novels. Little Eva's deathbed scene in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1850) and Little Nell's in Charles Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop (1841) are just two of the many representations of the transformative, transcendent power of tears in mid-nineteenth-century sentimentalism. In fact, the best-selling American novels of the nineteenth centuryStowe's book, Dickens's novels, Lew Wallace's Ben Hur, and Elizabeth Stuart Phelps's The Gates Ajarall make clear the connection between faith and tears: when the gates of heaven are ajar, one glimpses paradise, and one cries tears of fear and beatitude. The gates are ajar at the moment of death of a saintly or innocent person, and therefore tend to be seen by his or her attendants through already flowing tears of grief. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Eva spends a few days on her deathbed dispensing spiritual advice and consolation, causing frequent tears of contrition and awe on the part of her family and retainers. Immediately upon watching Little Eva die, her hard-hearted spinster aunt Ophelia announces that she has finally learned to love because, she says, "I've learnt something of the love of Christ from her." And the narrator goes on to say that "Miss Ophelia's voice was more than her words, and more than that were the honest tears that fell down her face."
In these texts, tears of sincerity had never had so large an audience. And given the social criticism all of these authors were involved inStowe writing against slavery, Phelps and Dickens against the evils of industrialismthe quasi-religious tears they described were offered as a pure alternative to the compromises and corruptions of contemporary society, with the sincerity of tears functioning as a counterbalance to the falseness of society.
The testimony of readers confirms this. One member of Parliament, Daniel O'Connell, burst into tears when reading about Nell's death in The Old Curiosity Shop, crying out, "He should not have killed her!" He was riding on a train at the time and opened a window and threw the novel out. The actor William Macready said that Dickens had the ability to make us feel bad, but at the same time to "make our hearts less selfish." Francis Jeffrey, a critic at the Edinburgh Review, wrote, "I have so cried and sobbed over it last night, and again this morning; and felt my heart purified by those tears.... In reading of these delightful children, how deeply do we feel that 'of such is the kingdom of Heaven'; how ashamed of the contaminations which our manhood has received from the contact of earth." John Forster wrote to Dickens saying that "I felt this death of dear little Nell as a kind of discipline of feeling and emotion which would do me lasting good." The tears shed in fiction helped ease nineteenth-century heroines like Little Nell into their final escape from a degraded world, and helped purge her readers of their selfish contaminations.
When Little Nell and Little Eva die, the children weep not because they are afraid of death but because they are going to heaven, and the families and friends weep in recognition that they are watching a sanctified death. As their pure little souls leave their bodies, these holy children and those around them get a glimpse of heaven. And the readers (and the many who had these books read to them in the nineteenth century) wept as well, in a glory of revelation. These are tearstained ceremonies of innocence, for the characters and for the readers, signal and proof of the crier's worth. Tears wash away the sins of the world and announce the arrival of reborn innocence.
For contemporary readers, these tears are a bit much. We know that emotional authenticity is not something we want too much of in our daily lives. We recognize an obsession with one's own feelings as narcissistic and childish, and in practice incredibly demanding. People who announce every desire or revulsion without regard to expressive conventions, who cry on the bus or in the supermarket, are often considered mentally ill or emotionally disturbed. And we know that expressing a particular emotion can have unforeseen consequences, both immediately and long after the emotion itself passes. We learn restraint in expression in the same way that we learn the conventions of emotional expression: we learn to express happy surprise at a gift we don't really like, to present a somber, perhaps even moist face at a funeral for someone we hardly knew, and to not cry in public except in very special circumstances.
Oscar Wilde, revolting against the sappiness of Victorian sentimental culture, wrote that "one would have to have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing." Aldous Huxley, too, was one of many who, from Dickens's heyday to the present, complained that his sentimentality was caused by a refusal to think, by "overflow, nothing else." Tears of truth, tears of tribute, tears of empathy, tears of devotion, tears as the ultimate mark of a sincere and truthful heart: these are not foreign to us; the basic ideas are still part of our culture of crying. But we also know that emotional life is more complex and less innocent than these eighteenth- and nineteenth-century texts would have us believe. And we also know about tears of humiliation, frustration, and manipulationtears that have nothing to do with sincerity.
This flip side of tears was also present in the cultures that developed sensibility, Romanticism, and sentimentalism, which had their own share of critics and doubters. And similar critiques of what we would call the sentimental long predate these. Aristophanes' comedies, Aesop's fables, Apuleius's The Golden Ass, and Petronius's Satyricon make fun of the excessive validation of tears. Publius Syrus wrote in the first century that "behind the mask, the tears of an heir are laughter." The great early modern humoristsChaucer, Boccaccio, and Rabelaisall wrote scenes of insincere crying. St. Peter Damien, prior of an Italian monastery in the eleventh century, voiced the general understanding of the medieval church when he wrote that "the sort of tears" produced by feigning "did not come from heavenly dew, but had gushed forth from the bilge-water of hell." According to Abbot Isaac, insincere tears are experientially and visibly, palpably different from sincere tears, and forced tears "never attain the rich copiousness of spontaneous tears."
The relation of tears to sincerity is far from simple, and this is in part because sincerity itself is far from simple. Pascal wrote that "nothing is simple which is presented to the soul, and the soul never presents itself simply to any object. Hence we weep and laugh at the same thing." A thoroughgoing sincerity, in other words, is impossible. One of the most famous epigrams on sincerity is from Hamlet:
This above all: to thine own self be true
And it doth follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
These words are spoken by Polonious, a fawning pedant who is unable to identify the most basic human emotions in front of him, and whose self-knowledge seems as abbreviated as his understanding of others. Like the used-car salesman who says "Trust me!" Polonious's paean to genuineness undermines itself.
Alongside the various representations of sincere tears, then, are a series of representations of insincerity and emotional machination. In British dramatist George Chapman's The Widow's Tears (1612), a character claims that everyone knows how "short lived Widow's tears are, that their weeping is in truth but laughing under a Mask, that they mourn in their Gownes, and laugh in their Sleeves." In Molière's The Misanthrope (1666), Alceste is a man who weeps readily, but although he claims that his "chief talent is to be frank and sincere," he is self-deluded, manipulative, and foolish. Choderlos de Laclos, in Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782), at the height of the culture of sensibility, dissected the cruelty and dissipation of the nobility in France by showing its use of tears as tactics in various petty power plays and deceptions. Joseph Roux, a French parish priest in the late nineteenth century, wrote that "there are people who laugh to show their teeth, and there are those who cry to show their good hearts." Lewis Carroll's Walrus in Alice in Wonderland (1865) is another version of sincere insincerity, since he feels sorry for the oysters while he eats them: "'I weep for you,' the Walrus said:/ 'I deeply sympathize.'/ With sobs and tears he sorted out/ Those of the largest size./ Holding his pocket handkerchief/ Before his streaming eyes." The critique of sincerity, and of tears as a mark of sincerity, has a history parallel to that of sincerity's enthronement as a prime virtue.
Fake tears can function, in the most obvious cases, as straightforwardly false protestations of sincerity, innocence, or love. Publius Syrus wrote in the first century A.D. that "women have learned to shed tears in order that they might lie the better," and Cato, in the second century, offered the maxim: "When a woman weeps she is constructing a snare with her tears." These general slanders against women were based on the idea that crying is an underhanded way to get what one wants. J. K. Morley was being both serious and facetious when he claimed that "the world's greatest water power is woman's tears." O. Henry said of one of his characters, "She would have made a splendid wife, for crying only made her eyes more bright and tender." Oscar Wilde wrote that "crying is the refuge of plain women, but the ruin of pretty ones." Wilde and O. Henry suggest that tears can add to a woman's allure for men, an idea, as I've suggested, with a long history: one proverb of unknown vintage claimed that "a woman wears her tears like jewelry," and like jewelry or makeup, tears have long been seen as part of the arsenal of women's wiles. In the proverb which ironically claimed that "every woman is wrong until she cries," tears are tools of self-justification as well.
These attitudes have persisted: the prominent psychologist Alfred Adler discussed what he called women's "tyranny of tears" at mid-century. One of men's jobs in the face of such tyranny and danger is to resist the allure. Humphrey Bogart does so when he sees through Mary Astor's teary display in The Maltese Falcon: "You're good, sister. Very good," he tells her with a smile of admiration for her skill, lighting a cigarette and shaking his head. Astor was using her moist expression of helplessness to get Bogart's help; when he sees through her ruse, she offers him money instead. But in many other films, books, musicals, and songs, men declare their helplessness when faced with female tears. In a thousand ways, men say, "Please, please, don't cry, I'll do anything you want, only please don't cry." Sometimes this is the stuff of comedy, sometimes it is played straight.
Women clearly do not have a monopoly on emotional blackmail, since menthink of the angry male tyrant, or, for that matter, the angry Othellowield emotions as weapons as well. According to some feminists, crying is simply a stratagem women are forced to employ because of their lack of access to other forms of personal, cultural, and emotional power. From this perspective, tears are the weapons of the oppressed for several reasons. Tears can announce submission, as they do in the Bible or when children cry when reprimanded, and as such they suggest that the crierlike Mary Astoris acting much more subservient to the wishes of her auditor than she plans to be. Tears here are not so much con as cover. Because they announce submission, tears have the power to deflect counterattack, again making them the weapon of choice for those who feel themselves to be vulnerable.
Given the source of the metaphor, the fact that crocodile tears mask other motives should not be surprising. When crocodiles fully extend their jaws to swallow a victim, the crocodile's lacrimal ducts are squeezed, and excess lubricating tears are produced. Real crocodiles' tears are in fact meaningless in emotional terms. Metaphorical crocodiles' tears are an emotional diversionary tactic, a kind of camouflage for metaphorical teeth. In Othello (1604), as Desdemona weeps, decrying her innocence, Othello rants, unconvinced: "O Devil, Devil! If that the earth could teem with woman's tears,/ Each drop she falls would prove a crocodile." Othello is of course mistaken. Shakespeare was well aware that this figure, the perfidious weeping woman, was not, at its core, the truth of the matter. Desdemona is not crying crocodile tears, and she is not perfidiousOthello is being led to his perdition because he is so ready to believe in his wife's crocodile nature. Desdemona's tears are real and they are sincere. Othello believes the proverbs rather than his own eyes.
Tears can also announce our submission, the human equivalent of a dog putting its tail between its legsplease, we can say with tears, I am already abased, do me no further harm. This appeal can be sincere, it can be faked, and it can be both sincere and strategic at the same time. Tears can encourage people to empathize with us, whatever our ulterior motives. Othello's tragedy is that he withholds his empathy, refusing to respond to Desdemona's tears. But tears can also be used to keep people at bay, to keep them from getting too close, just as Othello, himself, pushes Desdemona away with tears in his eyes. Norman Mailer, in The Gospel According to the Son (1997), has Christ say, "Tears stood forth in my eyes like sentinels on guard," and tears can be a way to guard the self, to demand that people treat us with kid gloves, or to raise the cost of doing emotional business with us.
Even those novelists who were especially good at deploying sincere tears understood this flip side of tears. Little Eva's mother is a hypochondriac who is constantly bursting into tears as a way of manipulating the people around her, and Stowe makes clear that sometimes those who cry are less sincere than those who do not. Dickens gives us a classic example of tears as strategy in his picture of Mrs. and Mr. Bumble in Oliver Twist. Two months into their marriage, the couple has a fight that amounts to a full scramble for power: "Mrs. Bumble, seeing at a glance that the decisive moment had now arrived, and that a blow struck for mastership on one side or another, must necessarily be final and conclusive, dropped into a chair, and with a loud scream that Mr. Bumble was a hard-hearted brute, fell into a paroxysm of tears." But just as Mr. Bumble had failed in his earlier attempt to stare her down, so her attempt to shame or cajole him with tears falls short. "Tears were not the things to find their way to Mr. Bumble's soul; his heart was waterproof. Like washable beaver hats that improve with rain, his nerves were rendered stouter, and more vigorous, by showers of tears, which, being tokens of weakness, and so far tacit admissions of his own power, pleased and exalted him." He even encourages her: "'It opens the lungs, washes the countenance, exercises the eyes, and softens down the temper,' said Mr. Bumble. 'So cry away.'" Mrs. Bumble, in turn, had lost a battle but not the war. She "had tried the tears because they were less troublesome than a manual assault," but when they don't work, she grabs him by the throat with one hand and "inflicted a shower of blows (dealt with singular vigour and dexterity)" upon his head with the other.
Insincere tears take other forms as well. Weeping religious statues, for instance, have been regularly derided as manipulations, most recently in Carl Hiaasen's Lucky You (1997), in which a small town in Florida has a shrine that weeps as its owner pumps a foot switch. The owner regularly attempts to improve his business by adding perfume or red dye to the tears. Hiaasen doesn't exaggerate much. On March 10, 1992, Tony Fernwalt of Steubenville, Ohio, the janitor at the Shrine of St. Jude, which was housed in a converted barbershop, had a fifteen-minute conversation with the Blessed Virgin Mary. After the visitation, a statue at the shrine began to weep. Bishop Roman Bernard immediately contacted the local and national media. Thousands of people came to the tiny shrine, according to some news reports, and Bishop Bernard's tithe revenues so mushroomed that he told several friends that he was ready to "pack it in, sell the shrine, and move to Florida." Fernwalt, we assume, and the believers who stuffed the bishop's coffers marveled at the sight or the idea of a crying icon, and found it inspirational or awesome; Bernard was obviously just a tad cynical, and the often ironic news reports found it all ludicrous.
In 1995 a total of thirteen different statues were reported to be weeping in Italy, and when one in Civitavecchia was reported to be weeping blood, the Catholic Church ordered DNA tests to see if the blood matched that of the owners, in an effort to replace what it saw as an outmoded and theologically questionable test of authenticity with a more modern one. Theologians and scholars of religion have long argued that the famous weeping apparitions of the Virginat Lourdes, for instanceare psychological phenomena which have no religious import in themselves, folk religion that is created around an aberration. The children who first saw this and other apparitions, for instance, did not identify them as Mary; this was an interpretation foisted on them by adults.
The other Madonna, in the video for her hit "Like a Prayer" (1989), shows a religious statue weeping. The statue then comes alive, and in a move that is even less theologically sound, it begins to respond to Madonna's sexual advances. Madonna uses the religious symbolism to heighten the sense of sexualized nonconformity that is a central part of her imagehers is a sociosexual heresy, not a religious one. And she uses the weeping statue to give a sense of tragic romance and significance to the odd encounter. But if weeping statues are regularly seen as scams or symbols by nonbelievers, they obviously speak quite persuasively and poignantly to those who do believe. For the audience that finds them profound and moving, they serve a perfectly authentic religious purpose. Sincerity, finally, is in the moist eye of the beholder.
In Adam's Rib (1949), the classic screwball comedy, Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy play a wife and husband who are lawyers on opposite sidesshe defending, he prosecuting a woman accused of attempting to murder her philandering husband. During the day they argue the case in court, and at home at night they go through a series of fights and reconciliations, both convinced that they have justice and reason on their side. During one fight, Hepburn begins to cry, and Tracy throws up his hands. "Here we go again!" he says. "The old juice! Guaranteed he-man melter: a few female tears, stronger than any acid. But this time it won't work. You can cry from now until the jury comes in but it won't make you right." Weeks later, when they are on the verge of divorce, he begins to cry, sees it has an effect, and cries some more. She joins him in tears and they decide to stay together. Later, he admits that he had faked the tears to get her not to leave. "But those tears were real," she insists, and he agrees. "Of course they were," he says. "But I can turn 'em on anytime I want. Us boys can do it too, only we never think to."
The fact is that neither Hepburn's nor Tracy's character turns them on artificially, and his claim to be able to control his tears is a bit of classic male bluster. He also, self-evidently, exaggerates when he claims that men never think to cry, since he obviously has. This dialogue was written at a time when the official line in American culture was that men didn't cry and women did, whether sincerely, strategically, or hysterically. But the simple fact is that men have always cried, and for many reasons.
In the Bible, men cried as we have seen, in prayer before battles, in lamentation for the fate of the Hebrews, and for many other reasons as well. David cried at the death of Absalom, Abraham wept when Sarah died, Joseph when meeting Benjamin, Jesus at the death of Lazarus. The shortest sentence in the Bible, famously, is "Jesus wept." In the Book of Lamentations, a collection of five psalms in which the author laments the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C., the male narrator weeps unrestrainedly. "My eyes flow with rivers of tears," he sings, "my eyes will flow without ceasing, without respite, until the Lord from heaven looks down and sees." (Weeping in these psalms is everywhere: Jerusalem itself is said to "weep bitterly in the night," the road to Zion is said to "mourn," and the ramparts and walls to "lament.") Men like the narrator of Lamentations were expected to cry, to cry hard and regularly.
In ancient Greek culture, both men and women could feel free to cry at the murder of a close relative or at reunions. But men were expected to cry if their family's honor was at stake while women were not, and women could cry out of loneliness or fear while men could not. Women could cry about a missing husband, as Penelope cries over Odysseus in The Odyssey, while the hero himself cries because he is separated from his homeland, from his vineyards, or from his kinsmen. In the Mycenaean civilization depicted in The Odyssey, it would have been an important part of Penelope's role to be a wife, but not a particularly important part of Odysseus's social responsibilities to be a husband. It was important that he be a good leader, a good warrior, a good friend, and have strong heirs, but to be a husband implied more rights than responsibilities; it was less a role to be fulfilled than a simple fact.
Odysseus cries quite a lot during his ten-year journey home. When he finally does return home, in disguise, he meets his childhood nurse, who tells him (thinking that he is a stranger) a story about the young Odysseus bravely hunting a wild boar. She notices that he has a scar on his leg that matches the one Odysseus received from the boar, but she only recognizes her former master for sure when he begins to cry in response to the story. His authentic, primary, tearful response to her story establishes his identity as both a man and a hero.
Penelope weeps when she thinks of the missing Odysseus. Unable to sleep "with all her cares" weighing upon her, Homer tells us, "she wept and cried aloud until she had her fill of tears." Odysseus never cries from the weight of his cares, and he is never sated by his tears. When Penelope finds that her son Telemakhos is gone:
her eyes filled with tears, and she could find no utterance.... There were plenty of seats in the house, but she had no heart for sitting on any one of them; she could only fling herself on the floor of her own room and cry; whereon all the maids in the house, both old and young, gathered round her and began to cry too.
Such worries did not make men cry, nor were men expected to faint from their tears, as women often did. Tears for women marked the end of action, as fainting would necessarily dictate; men's tears were instead more often a spur to action. And while women were not under any requirement to hide their tears, men sometimes were, as when Achilles "betook himself alone" in order to "cast forth upon the purple sea his wet eyes." Warriors were expected to cry, but they were also expected to know when to do so alone. And nothing made them cry quite so much as their own heroism.
Heroic epics from Greek times through the Middle Ages are soggy with weeping of all sorts. In the eighth-century Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, Hrothgar, king of the Danes, thanks Beowulf for helping to bring about peace by giving him twelve jewels, after which he "clasped the hero round the neck, and kissed him, tears pouring from his gray head." Roland, one of Charlemagne's warriors immortalized by the twelfth-century Song of Roland, cries freely, and is even allowed to faint. When Roland's friend Oliver dies in battle, "Lord Roland weeps, lamenting bitterly;/ Many have grieved, but no man more than he," and he then faints in his saddle. When Roland himself dies, Charlemagne "pulls his beard in anguish and in pain;/The lords of France are weeping bitter tears,/ And twenty thousand faint in their grief and fall.... There is not one among those noble lords/Who can refrain from shedding tears of grief." To mark the distance between our view of tears and that of eight hundred years ago, one need only imagine a film version of these twenty thousand weeping, fainting knights in armor falling off their horsesperhaps only Monty Python could accomplish it.
This kind of massive heroic weepiness is also found in medieval Japanese warrior epics. In the twelfth-century Tales of the Heiki, men cry copiously. The warrior Koremori declares, "I am forever undecided," and weeps. The monk Sonei weeps in abjection as he pleads to be told the way to escape the endless circle of death and rebirth, and weeps tears of joy when he is told. When the hero Ho-o sees the exiled empress living poorly, "his voice became choked with sobs" and he "burst into tears." This is not just because she is an acquaintance who has been brought low but because her condition is the result of inadequate martial protection. Men also cry about high ideals. Upon hearing a woman sing a verse about the Buddha, "all the Princes and the Courtiers of the Heiki and the high officers and the samurai shed tears of admiration and sympathy." Women cry in the Japanese epics as well, but they tend to cry more about personal relationships than about eternal verities or social problems, more about love than ethics or aesthetics. As in the Western warrior tales, men cry most often about issues of war, peace, and ideals, women about domestic relationships.
The idea that tearlessness was the height of male stoicism and virtue, which we all recognize as a part, albeit a "traditional" or old-fashioned aspect, of our emotional culture, also has a long history, but as these three quick surveys of tears should make plain, tearlessness has not been the standard of manliness through most of history. The prohibition against male tears, in fact, only takes center stage in the middle of the twentieth century, and even then it was not fully observed, as we can see in the weeping of film stars and crooners. (Significantly, the same holds true for Japanese culture, where male reticence reaches its heights in the twentieth century, and where films, too, are full of male tears, usually excused by the character's drunkenness.) Male tears have continued unabated in our culture, and heroic tears have continued to be shed as well. One notable example is the scene of heroic weeping at the end of First Blood, in which Sylvester Stallone sheds tears of grief at his lost comrades-in-arms and in anguish at his own dubious place in history. Rambo was an ambiguous hero, of course, not the tough John Wayne type (who would get a little glassy-eyed on occasion, and sometimes wipe away a tear before it fell) or the neotough Clint Eastwood. Rambo straddled the cultural conflict between the peaceniks and law-and-order forces, a hippie Green Beret, a decorated macho killer with long hair and antiestablishment anger: when the film opened in 1982, Variety deemed the film itself "socially irresponsible." Rambo's position on the margin allows him to act in ways unavailable to the men around him, men in more obviously proscribed social roles. He knows no fear and feels no physical pain, but sobs and moans and cries out his emotional woe. Unlike the Greek hero who is expected to cry because he is heroic, Rambo earns the right to violate the macho prohibition against crying (as does Stallone's previous character, Rocky) through his heroism. Unlike the hippie he has been mistaken for, he can say to the man in authority, through his tears, "I did everything I was supposed to do, I have fulfilled my social role perfectly." This blissful sense of role fulfillment causes his tears, and is meant to cause tears in the audience as well. In one of the very few studies of men and women crying at films, done in 1950 in England, the majority of men who cried at films claimed that scenes of heroism, patriotism, and bravery were most likely to make them cry.
"Stormin'" Norman "the Bear" Schwarzkopf, plastered with macho nicknames and combat ribbons, was interviewed by Barbara Walters toward the end of the Persian Gulf War, and like most of Walters's interviewees, he welled up with tears as he answered personal questions. Walters said she was surprised. "Generals don't cry, generals don't get tears in their eyes," she suggested. Schwarzkopf answered, "Grant, after Shiloh, went back and cried. Sherman went back and cried.... And these are tough old guys. Lee cried at the loss of human life.... Lincoln cried."
Schwarzkopf added that generals cry not during battle but afterward. He didn't cry in front of his troops during the Gulf War, and not because he didn't feel things deeply but because his role demanded otherwise: "They don't want a general to cry and that's very important to me," he told Walters. But he could cry at a Christmas Eve service, he said, in front of his troops. He explained that at the service he was fulfilling a different role, acting not as a commanding officer but as a father figure, as a focus for communal emotions.
Pleasure, sincerity, heroism. The first is primarily subjective, the second interactive, and the third pretends to be objective. That is, if pleasure is a name we give to a particular way of feeling, and sincerity a display of one's inner state, tears of heroism are neither private nor explicitly meant to be seen. Heroic tearsOdysseus's, Rambo's, Schwarzkopf'sare, the warriors and their chroniclers argue, reminiscent rather than strategic. Odysseus frequently tries to hide his tears, and when Beowulf, Rambo, and Schwarzkopf weep, their tears do not so much express an inner state as appear autonomously. Of course, Schwarzkopf's tears may indeed have been strategic, since on the heels of these interviews, Schwarzkopf began being mentioned as a political candidate, celebrated not just as tough guy but as a well-rounded man, one who could fulfill all aspects of his role as a leader. The tears he shed as a would-be politician testing the waters on a TV show known for making its guests cry are either sincere or the opposite. The tears he described himself crying during the war, however, are heroic. And all of these kinds of good tearstears of pleasure, sincerity, and heroismhave their bad counterparts: tears of pain, crocodile tears, milksop tears.
As these three mini-histories of tears suggest, a very consistent mix of ideas about weeping has been with us for millennia, although the ratios have varied. Pleasure was sometimes seen as the prime virtue of tears, sometimes sincerity, and sometimes emotional heroism, and the flip side of each of these virtuesself-indulgence, insincerity, cowardicewas also always part of the cultural mix, again in varying measure. Even as the bases for judgment shift and reshift, the basic issues have tended to recur. The question most asked of tears is, in the words of the tract on moral weeping which began this chapter: Are they genuine or counterfeit, the route to heaven or the bilgewater of hell? It would be more correct, though, to say that tears are never simply a sign of pleasure, pain, sincerity, duplicity, fear, or heroism. There are no pure tears. Even at the most basic, physiological level, tears are mixed, impure. As the next chapter will show, not all tears are created equally, and none behave as our metaphors would suggest they should.
Table of Contents
|List of Illustrations||13|
|Introduction: Why Tears?||17|
|1.||Tears of Pleasure, Tears of Grace, and the Weeping Hero||31|
|2.||The Crying Body||67|
|3.||The Psychology of Tears||115|
|4.||Men and Women. Infants and Children||151|
|5.||Cultures of Mourning||193|
|6.||Tears of Revenge, Seduction, Escape, and Empathy||225|
|Conclusion: The End of Tears||287|