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To devote entire books to tears in a society that discourages crying and considers it an emotion to be ashamed of is a radical act. Embracing humanity in its most vulnerable form and turning it into literature is a remarkable feat. So, in a way, books about crying are a celebration of life itself, even when it’s the least ideal version of it. They can teach us “to love life, to love it even when we don’t feel like it”. And hopefully in the future they will be written by more diverse writers, allowing even more insights into this aspect of human existence.
Take Crying: a natural and cultural history of tears, for example. In it, Tom Lutz observes the act of crying and how, although it is a universal way of moving, its interpretations are not universal. This multidisciplinary study of tears integrates elements from history, literature, the arts and social sciences to ask questions such as why do we cry, how to react to another person’s tears, when do we stop crying, cry, etc. Crying is not a static act, but rather a fluid one. Is it a cathartic act? Why is newborn baby crying for months acceptable while an adult doing the same is considered shameful? How is Achilles’ crying over the corpse of Patroklos different from the tears of the audience coming home after watching Titanic?
Lutz returns to artistic expressions of crying to discuss the paradox of crying. From the physiology of crying to the psychology behind it, Lutz dove deep into the world of crying and its cultural contexts. Lutz’s book is phenomenal, to say the least, but of all its merits, what really stands out for me is how it normalized that in order to cry, you don’t have you don’t really need to choose a topic. He draws on the works of Plato and Picasso, strategically avoiding any linguistic melodrama, to quote that crying cannot simply be reduced to tearful self-pity. It is diverse and carries a wide range of human sensitivities that could take us time to eternity to fully comprehend.
Then there’s Heather Christle The crying book, which consists of fragments on various aspects of crying and explores the science, history and sociology of crying. It sheds light on the different types of tears: basal, irritant and psychogenic. Weaving together facts with personal anecdotes, through the art of crying, Christle tackles serious themes like grief, anxiety, motherhood and mental illness. For her, crying is a routine act, something that remains constant as she mourns the death of a friend, goes through depression and prepares for motherhood. This book is a literary homage to the act of wallowing because when all else eludes us, we are still fully entitled to our own tear ducts.
Christle also sheds light on how we discount some tears while elevating others. A crying wife is often fired. Christle talks about the pathologization of emotions. She also traces how the tears of white women were used against people of color. She wonders if men tend to experience grief in the form of rage. The book also references Christle’s pregnancy and assures mothers that it’s okay to be overwhelmed. Mothers aren’t always supposed to magically fix everything. She writes, “I fear being a mother with colic because I am periodically overwhelmed with complete and all-encompassing fear and despair, and when I suffer like this my crying can last for hours. For Christle, crying is an act of reconnecting with oneself, because it is by the act of bawling the eyes that one maintains oneself. Rather than denying that self-pity can be very pleasant, she explains how, by mourning and sympathizing with ourselves, we wrap ourselves in imaginary care.
Books about crying are not aestheticized suffering. Grief when held back multiplies and too much grief is unbearable because there is no way out but to live with it. In Bluets, Maggie Nelson writes: “Finally, I admit to a friend some details about my crying, their intensity, their frequency. She says (kindly) that she thinks we sometimes cry in front of a mirror not to stir up self-pity, but because we want to feel witness to our despair. (Can a reflection be a witness? Can we do without the vinegar-soaked sponge of a reed?)” By creating literature out of crying, writers offer us common ground on which to lean. during intense emotional crises. Reading this kind of literature is a way to bear witness to one’s own despair and therefore to be more strongly present to oneself. It is the mirror that gives free rein to our feelings, takes away the shame of having depression, and certifies that from the beginning of time until the kingdom comes crying will always be therapeutic, therefore in vogue.