“Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears” (Tom Lutz)

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 his 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. Men. etaos tells Odysseus that when he thinks of the men who died in the war, “noth-ing 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 sur-feit makes me shiver.” The tears here are somehow compensation for grief; and are the opposite of purgation-Meneldos 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 sat-isfaction, 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 beauti-ful to a lover. Ovid was the first to suggest tears as a form of seduc-tion 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 per-suasion, 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 his-tory. 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 out-ward 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 fit-ting, 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 hint “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.

LUTZ, Tom. Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears. New York/London: W.W. Norton, 1999.

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