Lonely Teardrops

Robert Frost said that tears while reading obscure meaning. I say pass the tissues.


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“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader,” Robert Frost admonished. He was talking about the “clarification of life” that poetry brings, and you don’t see clearly through tears. Also, being a stoic New Englander, Frost was temperamentally disinclined to emotional display, even in the face of extreme tragedy, of which his poetry has no lack. Instead of crying, the boy who loses his hand to a buzz saw in “Out, Out” —  gives a rueful laugh of shocked disbelief. And then he dies. Nobody in the family cries either: “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”

Another reason for the no tears rule is that reticence tends to increase rather than diminish pathos, which is to say, less is more. The boy doing a man’s job in “Out, Out —,” denied even a half hour of childish leisure before supper, the country doctor knowing the patient has no chance, the onlookers turning back to their affairs rather like Gregor Samsa’s hideous family at the end of Kafka’s “The Metamorphosis” — all of these things in their stark matter of factness make “Out, Out — “ so terrible as to be nearly unreadable. How’s that for a clarification of life?

Yet even the aptly named Frost recognized that tears, ultimately, will not be denied. In “Home Burial” a key source of the marital misery is the absence of tears in the husband who has recently buried his baby on the family property. His wife, who weeps and wails and pines and rages, hates him for it. Certainly the man grieves; but she grieves more. “I do think, though, you overdo it a little,” he says. Does she? If he manages to say the wrong thing nearly every time he opens his mouth, she, locked in her grief, goads him into further insensitivity. Since marriage counseling wasn’t available to New England farm couples circa 1910, the childless parents remain trapped in hysterical dysfunction. No Deborah Tannen-like solution favoring female sensitivity over male cloddishness presents itself; Amy is every bit as inflexible as her unnamed husband. Nevertheless, if some husbandly tears had been shed earlier on, they might have done what words could not. And Frost might not have had a poem to write.

Amy and her spouse are neither writers nor readers; they’re characters in a poem. (Frost didn’t say no tears in the characters.) It’s one thing, however, for a writer to invoke tears within a work; it’s another to provoke tears outside of it. In fact, according to classic Platonic theory, that’s never supposed to happen. “The tragic emotion is static,” Stephen Dedalus explains in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. The feelings excited by improper art are kinetic, desire or loathing.” In this formulation, tears are entirely too kinetic. Blubbery emotionalism can only compromise the disinterested contemplation of Beauty, which is what really turns Stephen on. Then again, Stephen is such a pompous ass. Only a precocious undergraduate could possibly believe that Beauty awakens “an esthetic stasis, an ideal pity or an ideal terror, a stasis called forth, prolonged and at last dissolved by what I call the rhythm of beauty.” At any rate, only such a young man would be likely to express himself with such thrilling pedantry. Unlike his younger self, Joyce the mature creator understood that great art can be (and usually is) gloriously impure, reveling in the creaturely realities of our physical and emotional lives, which might includes tears or, as in the case of Ulysses, much more odorous bodily secretions.

No tears in the reader? I’ve cried over Jane Austen, A. S. Byatt, Walt Whitman, Miguel de Cervantes, and a soft-core porn novel I read as a teenager called The Harrad Experiment. I’ve cried many times over Wordsworth’s “Intimations Ode,” the last line of which explicitly enjoins weeping: “To me the meanest flower that blows can give / Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears.” Furthermore, Wordsworth’s right. Literature has more important things to do than to wring tears out of crybabies like me. But on the way to those important things — clarifying life, for instance, or criticizing it — a few tears can heighten the reader’s engagement with the work. That’s to assume, as Robert Frost does not, that no incompatibility exists between tearing up over a poem and thinking hard about it. Frost himself said that “Home Burial” was too sad to read out loud. Maybe he thought his voice would crack.

So what exactly are we — well, O.K., what exactly am I weeping about? First of all I should explain that by weeping I don’t mean hysterical blubbery sobbing. No, I mean a decorous welling of the eyes and a slight tightening of the throat, not unlike that of Wallace Stevens’ “Doctor of Geneva,” who, overcome by his first glimpse of the mighty Pacific, “used his handkerchief and sighed.” Because movies and operas sometimes reduce me to just such a condition of helpless lachrymosity, I’m always grateful they take place in the dark. There’s no shame in shedding a few tears over Mimi’s tubercular expiration in La bohème; I just don’t want to be seen. Which brings up an important point. A genuinely emotive and even tearful response to a work of literature is essentially private. Maybe those tempestuous Italians are wailing uncontrollably through the final acts of Puccini and Verdi, but most literary transactions take place in the solitude of an armchair or some other confined space. Under such circumstances, tears will go unnoticed. Even the most florid death scenes in Charles Dickens are models of decorum compared to the average Hollywood movie, with its entire mise-en-scène designed to induce emotional capitulation. So go ahead. Cry a little.

Let’s say you’ve decided to reread Jane Eyre 20 years after first encountering it in an undergraduate survey course. You vaguely recall the outlines of the plot (sorely oppressed orphan girl lets rich guy fall in love with her but only after he’s symbolically emasculated) and you remember some of the critical arguments about it. You might still have that term paper you wrote about Charlotte Brontë lying around somewhere. “The Triumph of Gendered Identity: Symbolic Emasculation in Jane Eyre,” it was called. But here you are, working your way through this canonical “text” (as you would have called it back then) and finding it a lot odder but also somehow more majestic than you had remembered. And in fact some of the critical debates come back to you with a certain force. Maybe you see more clearly the similarities rather than the differences between put-upon Jane and murderous Bertha, the original madwoman in the attic. Or maybe — if your professor was really old school — you finally see how those image clusters of warmth and cold, of plain versus rich fabrics, reinforce thematic intensities. So now you’re reaching the end and you find yourself getting more out of this reading than your 20-year-old self did. This time around you have a deeper awareness of cultural and intellectual history, not to mention a heightened sensitivity brought about by more life experience, alas, than you ever bargained for. And as you turn the page from chapter 37 to 38, you come upon these words: “Reader, I married him.” What are you going to do — carefully weigh Brontë’s critique of patriarchy against her acceptance of assorted Victorian bigotries or scribble a note about the abrasion of a second-person address disrupting a first-person narrative? No, you’re going to do the right thing. You’re going to brush away a tear.

Well, we all read differently, but I can’t help thinking that if you fail to choke up at least a little over chapter 38 of Jane Eyre, you’re reading the wrong book. The issues in that novel that require the deepest thought — for example, the achievement against considerable odds of a marriage that allows for autonomy and growth — are refracted through emotional storm and stress. Jane Eyre is a very smart book, one much concerned with other books and how and why we read them. One of the things it understands is that, in literature, the way to the brain is through the heart.

And what’s wrong with the heart? Why shouldn’t a novel as daring as this be experienced viscerally as well as intellectually? To read Jane Eyre with studious dispassion would be to refuse the experience it offers. Surely reading itself is one of the primary experiences of life. Jane Eyre isn’t merely about experience; it is experience, namely, your own while you’re reading it. And Charlotte Brontë isn’t just a name. She’s the other half of that uniquely intimate relationship known as author and reader. Anyway, she’s still harrowing my soul 160 years after she died. Even after I’ve properly “contextualized” Jane Eyre with all the critical acumen I can bring to bear on a novel carrying cultural assumptions alien to my own, I still feel as if the book has been reading me. And if I had to choose between a hardheaded appraisal of Brontë’s contribution to the English Bildungsroman and an instinctive involvement with Jane’s existential struggles, well, I think I’d have a good cry.

Sometimes I’m not even sure what I’m weeping — or, more precisely, daubing discreetly at my slightly puffy eyes — about. That’s often the case when I’m moved more by a work’s form than by its content, as for example when I couldn’t begin to explain what a poem or a painting might mean but find it beautiful anyway. T.S. Eliot, whose austere theory of artistic impersonality was at such fascinating odds with his own practice, allowed for just such a response when he wrote (in The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism), “The more seasoned reader … does not bother about understanding; not, at least, at first. I know that some of the poetry to which I am most devoted is poetry which I did not understand at first reading; some is poetry which I am not sure I understand yet.” That sounds like a pretty good description of how I read Eliot’s Four Quartets: with uncomprehending devotion. I will never fully understand these august meditations on being and unbeing, time and timelessness, and some of what I understand — namely, the incarnation of Christ as the fulcrum of all human history — I utterly reject. Nor is Four Quartets, with its extreme cerebration, the sort of poem that tugs at the heartstrings. And yet there are passages — “Do not let me hear / Of the wisdom of old men,” “I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant” — that move me almost to tears. These tend to be the passages I half understand as opposed to the ones I don’t understand at all, often the ones that speak of language itself, or its inadequacy. Surely what moves me is the sound at least as much as the sense:

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement.

If I had to, I might say these lines point to a transcendent moment of consciousness, not so much achievable as imaginable and therefore requiring a strenuous effort of the imagination. Or maybe they don’t. But there’s no mistaking Eliot’s tone — sweeping, fluvial, akin to the Godlike Mississippi he describes in the opening of “The Dry Salvages.” I believe this voice is communicating something vital to me, something about the urgency of being alive. Do I need to read the Upanishads and half a dozen critical monographs to “understand” this poetry? I understand that Eliot is speaking from the core of his being to the core of mine, and I understand that best when, reading certain passages of “Burnt Norton” or “East Coker” (especially out loud), I get a little … verklempt.

All the analysis and theory in the world must finally bow before the incommunicable experience of reading literature. Scholarship doesn’t get much more rigorous than Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, yet behind every word of that formidable book lies Frye’s conviction that “The reading of literature should, like prayer in the Gospels, step out of the talking world of criticism into the private and secret presence of literature. Otherwise the reading will not be a genuine literary experience, but a mere reflection of critical conventions, memories, and prejudices.” Did the stupendously erudite Frye occasionally drop a private tear over The Odyssey or William Blake’s prophetic books? I like to think so. It was his revered Blake who said, “A tear is an intellectual thing.” • 4 February 2015