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  Written by
  Jack Katz, JD'69

  Imaging by
  Allen Carroll

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  FEATURES
  > > Minds at work
  > > The stuff of tears
  > > Native Chicago


 
image: "The stuff of tears" headlineContinued... Any 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.

image: Two eyes crying (Allen Carroll)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.

Being 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.

image: One eye crying (Allen Carroll)Often 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.

As 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....

For 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.

His 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 had been.

There 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.

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  FEBRUARY 2000

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