2000 (print version)
stuff of tears:
Crying, our parents tell us early on, is childish.
"Use words," our preschool teachers exhort. But adults still
cry. Sociologist Jack Katz, JD'69, studies "emotional outburts"--from
anger and shame to laughter and crying--to untangle the complex interactions
of emotions, body, and language. We cry, Katz says, when words are not
is not just a "feeling" nor
just a series of effects; it is a subtle range of corporeal doings,
such as balking at speaking, resonant markings of pauses between utterances,
and a manner of depicting the body as too light or too heavy a vehicle
to bear or to hold on to language. If we want to understand what crying
is, we must address, as directly as possible, its distinctive ways of
doing battle with speech.
dynamic tension between language and crying gives us an important clue
to a necessary condition of crying, whether or not talking is involved.
In order to make crying a compellingly sensible thing to do, adults
must in effect explain why they can't express themselves in language.
This necessity for warranting crying holds whether or not anyone else
will observe the person crying.
cries on the understanding that the situation requires a personally
embodied form of expression that transcends what language can do.
cry in response to music, to pictorial art, to sunsets, and to eclipses.
These cryings honor experiences that in their nature go beyond words.
When words are present, they risk detracting from the provocative experience.
It is not what the tour guide says about the cathedral, not what is
written on the placard under the painting, not the phrases that appear
on the screen over the opera stage that bring tears; it is something
unspeakable, something responsive to the "different keys" in which art
communicates. Attending too much to words that purport to describe an
experience can stand in the way of a resonant experience.
social customs demand a respectfully silent and stationary watching,
tears often emerge as the only outlet for an irresistibly responsive
grasping of the happenings. Crying is a predictable response by respectfully
frozen guests at funerals, children's school recitals, award shows,
weddings, and patriotic ceremonies.
that mark status passages, like weddings, or that mark status elevations,
like awards ceremonies, are common places for crying by the adults who
are at the center of collective attentions. A speech act that otherwise
is so simple and unproblematic as to pass execution without any serious
attention (uttering the little words "I do," recalling the names of
people one works with every day) for once carries transcendent implications.
The crying body represents an understanding for which the commonplace
words seem inadequate.
familiar in folk culture, but in fact far more frequent as a part of
everyday adult life, are occasions in which crying emerges when a person
senses that a situation has transcendent meaning but gets a response
from another who speaks of it as mundane. For example, a woman expecting
her first child remembers having irregular mild contractions and, worried,
calling her obstetrician, only to get an "infuriating" response: "'My
dear, you are worrying entirely too much for your own good. There's
no need to be concerned.' With that, our conversation was ended, and
I began to cry."
Even when all parties treat a turning point in the life of a person
as exceptionally significant, crying can emerge when he or she must
reenter mundane life. Joan, a Hollywood executive, volunteered a description
of crying that emerged to bridge the shock of "coming down" from a great
high. The main breadwinner for her family, Joan had left a well-paid
job under a difficult boss, living through several months of anxiety
as she searched and then negotiated extensively over the conditions
for her next job. Her new employer, a "name" star with a record of producing
commercially successful, high-quality feminist movies, seemed ideal.
In the final interview, the new employer's unmitigated optimism and
dazzling superlatives about her qualifications complemented Joan's own
extraordinary enthusiasm. As she left the scene, Joan was imagining
the spirited conversations with spouse and friends in which she would
share her good news. Then, without warning, as she went through the
routine of getting into her car and starting toward home, she began
to cry. Her thoughts had turned to her terminally ill grandmother, whom
she had just visited on the East Coast, and to the "plug pulling" question
the family was facing. The practical task of starting the car was the
catalyst to a fall from a glittering conversational haven back to dismal
responsibilities. Crying made an appropriately shaky bridge between
the high and low grounds of her life.
often brought to tears by the need to bridge a gap of one kind or another.
The theme of an ontological gap that blocks communication between fathers
and sons is a common one in tear-jerking pop-culture songs. Country
music radio channels often keep at least one in circulation. Harry Chapin's
"Cat's Cradle" is a standard oldie on American pop music charts. Using
the format of a phone conversation, it tells of a father who is too
busy to speak to his son and then, as an old man, finds his son too
busy to speak to him. On a more everyday basis, mothers are moved to
tears as they silently regard their precious children. Today, "men's
groups" hold retreats in which one man role-plays a distant, silent,
macho-styled father, and tells his "son" that he loves him. As the "father"
overcomes the mythical silence of his role, the message of love is received
through teary eyes.
contemporary Western culture, among all the varieties of interpersonal
love, parental love lacks a language. Parents often begin to recount
iconic scenes that are intended to show others the lovable qualities
of their children, only to find, in signs of their correspondents' labored
listening, that the storytelling is impossibly inadequate. The parent's
appreciation of the child's preciousness also acknowledges the child's
existential distance from the adults.
Nostalgic cryings, such as hearing at middle age a song that brings
recollections of one's youth, are examples of a similar gap between
the generative periods of one's own life. That younger person, the one
who was moved by those tunes 35 years ago, must still be around somewhere
in one's experience, but the distance is now so great that that younger
person cannot be addressed directly. One realizes that one must have
had that past, but now it has moved out of reach.
and more mysterious variety of nostalgic cryings is of the type that
evokes ties with a past that one never had. An example would be finding
oneself moved to tears by an ethnic song in a language whose accents
one recognizes but whose words one cannot understand.
in which animals or, now, extraterrestrial creatures, develop protolinguistic
means of "communicating" their care for people are effective movie conventions
for touching viewers. Such events highlight ontological gaps even as
they show extraordinary achievements in transcending them. The movie
E.T. was famous for bringing grown men to tears. Two powerful
moments come when the creature articulates the phrase "E.T. phone home"
to explain his desire to build an interplanetary communication device,
and when a glow appears at the end of E.T.'s finger as he seeks to heal
the cut finger of his ailing Earth friend, the child Elliott. Both moments
subtly exploit many traditional representations of heroic attempts to
transcend ontological language gaps, such as "Lassie come home" and
God's E.T.-like, elongated and relaxed finger as He reaches toward Adam's
hand as they float over the Sistine Chapel.
movies regularly jerk tears from the audience by dramatizing existential
struggles to overcome gaps in communication. A recurrent provocation
is that of putting the audience in the position of trying to be a silent
bridge between two personal worlds that cannot speak directly to each
other. The moviegoer watches in a position of transcendent understanding,
wanting to shout out clues as two brothers, separated at birth, move
through situations in which they are repeatedly about to but never quite
succeed in recognizing their common origin.
sequences are often used to set up the most emotionally powerful moments.
The metaphysics of dreams make it understandably difficult for the characters
to speak directly to each other. Instead, would-be lovers drift-dance
toward a meeting that is yearned for but congeals in the viewer's tears
long before it appears on the screen.
Some situations provoke crying by stimulating understandings that, if
transformed into spoken words, would be intolerably counterproductive.
"As my great-grandmother said grace," recalls a young woman about a
family Thanksgiving dinner when she was a child, "I remember tears coming
to my eyes and not being sure why." She recalls her mother's elaborate
preparations and the huge family guest list. Even years later, she could
articulate what she gathered everyone around the table had assumed.
As her great-grandmother's health was very quickly fading, "we were
afraid that it would be her last Thanksgiving with the family." Of course,
no one could speak that understanding, and there was a collective silence
at the end of the prayer. The embarrassing moment was broken when it
was noted by the ancient lady herself, who remarked to the effect, "Cat
got everyone's tongue?" Crying here emerges to carry the imagination
of what must not be said.
some instances, a person by crying effectively conveys to one part of
an audience what cannot be expressed directly to another part. When
the principal of a public school addressed a meeting of parents, teachers,
and staff about an upcoming strike called by the L.A. teachers' union,
she and several members of her audience shook with emotion and became
teary eyed. The local administration, the teachers, and many parents
who had been active in the school's planning all wanted to keep the
school open and to encourage children to attend so that the school would
receive state reimbursement. But in order not to undermine the teachers'
union, they did not wish to create a substitute curriculum, even as
a temporary measure. Without anyone announcing the plan directly, the
meeting, which was not visibly led by either the principal or the teachers,
appeared to be drifting toward this outcome.
a father stood up and began talking in the thinking-out-loud spirit
that the meeting's crisis atmosphere seemed to invite. He stressed how
precious the children were and how all in the community must be committed
to providing children with uninterrupted education. Perhaps parents
could come in and develop curriculum, sue the state to provide an alternate
staff, pool resources to hire temporary teachers, set up minischools
in parents' houses.
this point the principal rose, taking the microphone for the first time.
Jaw rigid with emotion, voice wavering, gaze steady but thick with tears,
her torso shook as she announced, "There will be no scabs here!" and
delivered a stirring defense of the union principle. Several parents
were moved to tears.
asked what had so moved them, they indicated an understanding that the
principal was responding to "this dumb man" who himself did not understand
the subtext of the meeting. What they sensed at stake was the survival
of a 20-year-old set of collective arrangements among parents, teachers,
and the principal, a woman of almost mythic reputation who had founded
the school. The strike had been discussed elaborately for months. Now
the "bright ideas" of a casual participant threatened the collective
understanding. The moved parents also saw reflections in the director's
rhetorical dilemma of their own struggles, in their own work worlds,
to remain polite when dealing with destructively insensitive troublemakers.
was moving about the director's speech was what it did not say directly.
In content her speech was directed toward the community of solidarity,
but her talk was implicitly directed at the "dumb man." The response
of crying carried an appreciation of just how what was explicitly said
reverberated with heavy meanings of what could not at the moment be
sometimes emerges from an understanding that a situation calls for the
expression of something unsayable. Unsayables do not occur randomly
in social life. Social stratification shapes their distribution. People
at elite levels in organizations are often limited in what they can
say because, in a kind of bureaucratic noblesse oblige, as part of their
work they must be diplomatically indulgent in their public relations
work with ignorant outsiders.
For converse stratification reasons, pariah people often cannot speak
things they understand because their status in society entails an everyday
suffering of indignities in silence. Elias Canetti provided the unforgettably
bitter (fictional) example of tears filling the eyes of a "blind" beggar
who had to suffer the humiliation of publicly thanking people who had
thrown buttons instead of money into his hat.
the vividly real setting of Unity Church in Los Angeles, pariah people--parishioners
in drag, AIDS sufferers, recovering addicts--are regularly moved to
tears as they rise to take the microphone to tell the church of their
problems. As services start, church leaders parade to the stage, carried
forward by a rhythmic hymn that the entire assemblage creates through
song and movement. Then the microphone is given to members of the audience,
who rise and are immediately moved to the brink of an inability to continue
speaking. One parishioner struggles against tears and, through a whispered
voice, asks communal prayers for her upcoming lung operation. A young
man shakes with emotion as he delivers a political speech criticizing
homosexuals for failing to support their public action organizations
more vigorously. A woman cry-talks the story of her recent and still
tentative recovery from years of disgraceful neglect of her children
while she supported a cocaine habit through prostitution. As speakers
rise to cry-talk, their emotions are inspired by the understanding that
the church community pushes them, as multiply pariah people, to dare
to say publicly what they are elsewhere encouraged to deny.
the familiar scenes of crying by people receiving awards, being honored
at retirement parties, or being interviewed because of their celebrity
or notoriety. Technological developments have given unprecedented force
to the challenges that are faced by people who are placed at the center
of collective attentions and are then asked to make personal responses
in public recognition of their glorious or inglorious achievements.
Even in a two-person, face-to-face interview situation, a rolling camera
encourages an interviewee to anticipate an infinitely large and eternally
observing audience. Whether rising before the academy to accept an award
that recognizes one's superlative contributions to a professional community,
or responding to questions on one's bloody criminal career, the person
who breaks down in tears is likely to break down at much the same narrative
points. Crying emerges where he or she attempts to utter words that
bridge relationships between an infinitely large communal audience and
intimate regions of private life.
and television have enormously increased the frequency of events in
which people struggle to make themselves a live, immediately observable,
visible bridge between the largest and the smallest social worlds that
they inhabit. The juxtaposition of the solitary figure addressing an
infinite audience--a classic and early example of which was the isolation
of Lou Gehrig as a tiny figure addressing a packed Yankee Stadium at
a day honoring him on the occasion of his disease-occasioned retirement--once
required extraordinary organizing efforts to create. Now an analogous
interaction environment can be created for a speaker by the introduction
of a video camera at the most casual retirement party.
is, however, rare to catch a glimpse of the inverse crying situation:
occasions in which people privately cry as they sense the public ramifications
of something that is quietly transpiring. A creative arrangement of
one such moment was described by Christopher Buckley, as he recounted
the mechanics of dedicating a book he authored: "I was finishing The
White House Mess just as I was about to be married. I asked Lucy to
put a sheet of paper in the typewriter, and I said, 'Now, type, "For
my wife, with love."' And she cried." Presumably the immediate emotional
force would have been somewhat blunted had Buckley asked, "What do you
think of this as a dedication for my book?" providing Lucy with an occasion
to speak her sense of relating their private and public identities in
Buckley invokes a multilayered, interaction-triggered, and deeply implicit
irony to give the moment explosive force. He uses an ending, of the
book writing, to mark a beginning, of their public identity as a couple.
She is honored, by being asked to perform a menial clerical task. He
makes her a partner in his professional life. And he instantly summons
a larger audience to their wedding than any caterer could conceivably
handle. As Lucy performs the task, the two become married before either
gets to say "I do," at least in the sense that the dedication commits
them to an eternal public revelation of their commitment to each other,
making a record that, compared to the legal force of the papers they
will soon sign, is eternally irreversible.
investigation of how limitations on speech occasion crying must include
a consideration of the many silences created by death. Cultures have
responded by creating traditions of loud, histrionically elaborate,
and collective funereal or mournful crying.
Crying provokes a conversational voice that death would deny. Members
of a Walt Whitman club were audibly moved to tears as they listened
to a previously undiscovered recording of the poet reading one of his
texts. When Whitman speaks, devotees who have only known him through
his writings and through others' voices suddenly are being addressed
in the poet's own rhythms and tones. The occasion for discourse is surprising
in more than one respect. The prior communicative asymmetry of the relationship
is turned on its head. Now that the long-imagined speech of the dead
immortal can finally and truly be heard, the spoken response of his
living followers is muffled by tears.
alone is nicely suited to crying, at least among people who presume
that speech requires someone else to talk to. Of course, being alone,
like any of the other factors in this list, is not a sufficient condition
for crying. But in any case the being alone that often is a basis for
crying is loneliness as a phenomenological and not merely as a physical
fact. The key sense is an existential aloneness, a matter of having
no one to speak with about a particular problem, or no longer having
the possibility of speaking with a particular other about anything.
crying emerges as a person senses compound barriers to speech. Writer
Brent Staples [AM'76, PhD'82] provided a poignant example as he recounted
his reactions to the death of his younger brother, Blake, at the age
of 22. Shortly before his brother's murder, Brent had seen Blake laughing
about having made fools of the police while bearing a line of stitches
on his hand that he, Blake, attributed to a recoil from a shotgun. "I
lacked the language simply to say: Thousands have lived this for you
and died." They arranged to meet the following night, but before Brent
could try another strategy to change Blake's life, he got a call informing
him that Blake was dead.
I stood in Chicago holding the receiver...I felt as though part of
my soul had been cut away. I questioned myself then, and I still do....
weeks I awoke crying from a recurrent dream in which I chased him,
urgently trying to get him to read a document I had, as though reading
it would protect him from what had happened in waking life.
eyes shining like black diamonds, he smiled and danced just beyond
my grasp. When I reached for him, I caught only the space where he
is here the silence of language that tries to reach another's soul but
becomes stalled and minimized in conversational maneuverings. There
is the silence sensed in the wish to continue a conversation with the
dead. And there is the silence of a conversation held in dreams, and
in this dream, the additionally silent language of a document's unread
text. Indeed we may suspect that the sleeper's sense of the mute nature
of his dreaming body itself played a role. Staples, his body too heavy
with sleep to speak, dreams up a frustrated communication that captures
his impossible wish to speak with a correspondent who has become too
insubstantial to respond to language.