Tears before the storm

Ruth Bernard Yeazell

  • The History of Tears: Sensibility and Sentimentality in France by Anne Vincent-Buffault
    Macmillan, 284 pp, £40.00, July 1991, ISBN 0 333 45594 0

It was front-page news in the United States recently when George Bush brushed away a tear as he described how he had wept while deciding to unleash the air war in the Gulf last January. ‘Like a lot of people, I’ve worried a little bit about shedding tears in public or the emotion of it,’ he told a convention of Southern Baptists in June, but ‘as Barbara and I prayed at Camp David before the air war began, we were thinking about those young men and women overseas. And I had the tears start down the checks, and our minister smiled hack, and I no longer worried how it looked to others.’ As his voice broke, and he paused to dab at his check – ‘Here we go,’ he said, with an embarrassed grin – the audience burst into applause. Like the smiles of the minister in January, the cheers of the Baptists in June presumably commended both the President’s war and his weeping.

In some quarters Bush’s tears were thought to confirm a new era in public tolerance of crying politicians. Newsweek attributed the change to a beloved and frequently moist-eyed Ronald Reagan, and contrasted the welcome given to Bush’s public show of emotion with the treatment accorded to Senator Edmund Muskie when he cried during the 1972 New Hampshire presidential primary, or the more recent case of Representative Pat Schroeder, whose tearful withdrawal from the primary campaign in 1988 was widely ridiculed. ‘It’s a different day and a different era and thank goodness it is,’ the magazine quoted Schroeder herself as saying of the purported change in public attitudes. But, despite the cheering crowd, it seems premature to proclaim a new era for Henry Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling. Tears, as Anne Vincent-Buffault suggests, have a rhetoric as well as a history, and shedding them while making war is not the same thing as weeping at the loss of a race – or even in defence of your wife, as Muskie did in 1972. Muskie’s tears were prompted by the attacks of the conservative New Hampshire newspaper publisher William Loeb, who had reprinted a Newsweek story (in turn lifted from Women’s Wear Daily), which quoted the candidate’s wife as attempting to enliven a dull moment with some campaign reporters by proposing that they tell dirty jokes. Insofar as it is conventionally thought more apt for women to weep and for men to swap dirty jokes, the gender reversals in the case of Muskie’s family may have intensified the impression of the Senator’s vulnerability. ‘I think Senator Muskie’s excited performance again indicates he’s not the man that many of us would want to have his finger on the nuclear button,’ Loeb said at the time. But Loeb might well have joined in applauding the President who shed a few tears for our side before he sent the bombers to Iraq. Bush’s weeping, after all, wasn’t personal; and, as Vincent-Buffault remarks of a rather different moment in French Revolutionary history, ‘the association of emotion with the deployment of the apparatus of the military was in any case destined for a sure future.’ Nor does the Muskie incident necessarily demonstrate that in the United States of twenty years ago ‘crying in public was a political no-no,’ as Newsweek claimed. Though the magazine’s piece on the new sensitivity managed to recall that Muskie ‘quit the 1972 presidential race after he broke down during the New Hampshire primary’, the Senator in fact won the primary in question, if less decisively than had been expected, and he remained in the race until he released his delegates to McGovern at the Convention the following summer. While professionals at the time were said to be ‘appalled’ at Muskie’s loss of control, it is far from clear what the voters thought of the Senator’s tears, if they thought of them at all.

Weeping is a natural act, but it is also, as Darwin remarked, ‘a habit’, and subject to much individual and cultural variation. Babies seem to cry from the moment they are born, but weeping and crying are not, strictly speaking, the same: in The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) Darwin observed that very small infants don’t actually shed tears when they cry – the lachrymal glands apparently require ‘some practice in the individual before they are easily excited into action’. While ‘the Indian elephant is known sometimes to weep,’ and has been observed to do so in despair at captivity or at the loss of a companion, the African elephant remains dry-eyed. Since many monkeys don’t weep, Darwin speculated that humans must have acquired the habit after breaking off from the non-weeping anthropomorphous apes. But after learning to shed tears, we – or at least some of us – have been learning to restrain them. Among men of the species, and English representatives of the sex in particular, the practice of shedding tears is strictly limited. While small children cry readily in response to pain, adults, ‘especially of the male sex’, generally do not – ‘it being thought weak and unmanly by men’, in Darwin’s words, ‘to exhibit bodily pain by any outward sign’. This refusal to cry when hurt is shared by men ‘both of civilised and barbarous races’, according to Darwin, but ‘savages weep copiously from very slight causes’ – and so, too, do the insane. Even among the ‘civilised nations of Europe’, tears fall at different rates: ‘Englishmen rarely cry, except under the pressure of the acutest grief; whereas in some parts of the Continent the men shed tears much more readily and freely.’ In proffering this generalisation, Darwin appears to have forgotten the brief vogue for manly sentiment in his own nation at the end of the previous century – though how many Englishmen actually imitated the tearful heroes of Mackenzie and Sterne is an open question. As a good Victorian scientist, in any case, Darwin carefully noted the residual twitching of the facial muscles that ensues when tears are repressed.

Weeping for others, however, is not the same as weeping for oneself. Though Darwin did not speculate on the social usefulness of the distinction, he reminded his readers that the taboo on crying did not extend to ‘a moderate effusion of tears’ at the suffering – or, for that matter, the happiness – of another. ‘Many a man, from whose eyes no suffering of his own could wring a tear, has shed tears at the sufferings of a beloved friend.’ Indeed, even that dampest of British heroes, Harley in Mackenzie’s The Man of Feeling, conforms to the rule: while he appears ready to weep at the slightest occasion, virtually every tear he sheds is elicited by the experiences of others. A young prostitute, abandoned and starving, sobs when he feeds her a crust of bread, and bursts into tears again a page later at his offer of a half-guinea; alone in his room after the event, Harley characteristically weeps at the recollection of her weeping. Mackenzie’s novel also illustrates Darwins observation that sympathy is ‘especially apt to excite the lachrymal glands’ whether one gives or receives it: the weeping prostitute herself is responding not so much to her own hunger as to Harley’s fellow-feeling, since she reports that she has gone without food for two days before she breaks into sobs at his gesture. Tears in Mackenzie’s novel are contagious, and the contagion almost always operates to bind people to one another. Though its hero weeps over the hungry woman in solitude, he returns to assist at her tearful reunion with her father.

Like other bodily expressions of emotion, the meaning and value of tears are subject to certain laws of economy. The very frequency with which tears are shed in The Man of Feeling is one reason modern readers are more apt to laugh than to cry over the novel. In every culture some people will weep more than others, but it would appear to be a general rule of our own that the fewer tears you shed, the more they are charged with significance and value. To weep too readily or too often is to risk the charge of superficiality: the person who cries over everything is suspected of caring for nothing very much, while the rare tear shed by the otherwise dry-eyed testifies to emotional depths. Infrequent tears are also more apt to be taken for truth: those who cry often may just be more sensitive than other people, but the repetition of the gesture suggests a habit; a habit m turn suggests the involvement of will – and gestures that can be willed can always be faked. Shedding tears on cue isn’t easy, but performers both on and off stage have been known to manage it. The History of Tears reproduces a cynical little dialogue on the subject from the Maximes of the late 18th-century writer, Nicolas-Sébastien Roch Chamfort:

A: Would you believe that I saw Madame de ... weep for her friend, in the presence of fifteen people?

B: But I told you that she was a woman who was successful at everything she undertook.

Permitted and even expected to weep more easily than men, women are also more vulnerable to the charge of shedding false tears, or at least trivial ones. But men, too, have been known to get in on the act. According to the judicial archives, when 18th-century Parisiennes who had been abandoned by their lovers sought redress from the courts, they included male tears among the ‘finest arts of seduction’ that had been employed against them. Les Liaisons dangereuses suggests, on the other hand, that the lachrymal glands may perform no more reliably than other body parts when making love: in attempting to seduce the Presidente de Tourvel, Valmont reports to Mme de Merteuil, ‘I had greatly counted on the help of tears, but either through a bad state of mind, or perhaps because of the effect of the difficult and continuous attention which I gave to everything, it was impossible for me to cry.’

First published in 1986 and now appearing in an anonymous translation from Macmillan, Vincent-Buffault’s book concerns French tears rather than the British or American kind, but the general trajectory of the history she traces is a familiar one. Like other expressions of emotion in the modern period, tears were increasingly restrained and privatised: the spectacle of open and collective weeping, of tears that circulated in a visible ‘network of communication’, gave way in the 19th century to scenes of solitary emotion, in which the tears repressed in public fell, if they fell at all, away from the eyes of others. The increasing split between public and private was also accompanied by more rigid divisions of gender and class. While the tears shed by an 18th-century theatrical audience or a Revolutionary crowd might partake of what Vincent-Buffault calls, after Rousseau, a ‘general sensibility’, weeping in the 19th century tended to be associated primarily with women and the uncultivated. The moisture of the opposite sex, Flaubert complained to a correspondent in 1854, was ruining literature: ‘Do you not feel that all is dissolving now through letting go, through the liquid element, through tears, through chatter, through milkiness? Contemporary literature is drowned in the rules of women.’ Reporting on the successful performance of a friend’s play a decade later, he commented with characteristic dryness on the ‘beautiful weeping ladies of the boxes’: ‘towards the end there was such a display of handkerchiefs that one might have supposed oneself to be in a laundry.’ Though Racine had originally prided himself on his power to elicit tears from his audience, by the middle of the 19th century the cultivated theatregoer approached his Classical tragedies with sober decorum, while the vulgar wept over the sentimental and melodramatic performances at the popular theatre. The author of an 1870 guide to Paris amused himself by informing readers about the weeping natives who still inhabited some quarters of the city:

In the middle of the 19th century there still exist primitive creatures moved to an incontinence of tears by the misfortune of a few heroines on the boards ... Do not only go to this theatre to watch the tearful candour of these frank labourers, these honest petit-bourgeois ... Leave them to enjoy their unhappiness. They are so happy in their despair!

For those who learned to choke back their tears most of the time, letting go could be violent: convulsive shudders and wrenching sobs replaced the gentler and more public weeping of the 18th century. Crying in the 19th century operated on something of a hydraulic model as if the ‘over-full heart’ must eventually ‘overflow’ with the liquid it had accumulated. Men in particular, Vincent-Buffault suggests, now burst into tears rather than melted into them. Tears, when they came, came as a great release, and the intensity of the experience was often charged with exaltation. As with other shifts in expressive style – one thinks of Victorian forme of sexual desire, for example – new habits of restraint were not so much contradicted by new modes of intense feeling as confirmed by them: they were parts of a single economy. At the same time, the more weeping was privatised, the more its traces required decoding: both in diaries and in the novel the individual’s tears were now a subject for close and subtle investigation, a ‘worried catechism of information on the feelings of others’. The History of Tears cites in evidence Stendhal’s diary, its author ‘constantly writing, day after day, about the slightest amount of moisture discerned in the eyes of the women he was in love with’, and anxiously attempting to decipher the elusive significance of the dampness.

‘In the search for tears,’ Vincent-Buffault begins by announcing rather portentously, ‘we soon encounter the book’; and most of the tears she studies are in fact textual ones, her history in this as in other ways following a post-Foucauldian fashion. Although most historians perforce rely on written records to reconstruct the past, and all history depends on ‘texts’ in the loose sense in which the word is currently used to mean any interpretable evidence, the insistence on a necessary link between weeping, reading and writing seems overstated, even for a study of the 18th and 19th centuries. Despite the relative visibility of tears, The History of Tears says virtually nothing about representations in painting or the new art of photography. Nor does it speculate about how film and television have in turn altered the bookishness of weeping in the 20th century. Vincent-Buffault can scarcely be faulted for lack of evidence or for oversimplification, however, since her book runs quickly through a dizzying clutter of examples, and virtually every generalisation she propounds is duly nuanced, qualified, or even contradicted elsewhere in her pages. A sort of commonplace book on crying rather than a sustained argument, The History of Tears is best approached as a suggestive collection of fragments. Its obscurities have no doubt been intensified by the English translator, whose rendering of Vincent-Buffault’s French too often manages to be at once awkwardly literal and ungrammatical.