Death and Dying in Literature
Edited By John J. Han and Clark C. Triplett
Chapter Thirteen: Tears and the Art of Grief
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Tears AND THE Art OF Grief
We all die and feel the loss of those that go before us. This universal experience, however, is registered in different ways. Virtually all people are capable of weeping, but the meaning of tears varies from culture to culture. Darwin noted that once the capacity to weep has been achieved in infancy, it becomes “the primary and natural expression […] of suffering of any kind.” However, habit may restrain or encourage weeping so that cultural variations in weeping may develop (Darwin 156). This essay reflects upon this combination of near universality and cultural specificity. It considers the representation of tears and mourning in a handful of literary works, and explores some problems relating to the public expression of emotion and the shaping of its forms.
A standard sociological/anthropological model of mourning posits three phases: the passivity of being bereaved; the private, but active work of grief; and public and communal rituals of mourning (Watkin 6). One might suppose that the last of these phases becomes problematic with the advent of modernity. As communal social bonds weaken and certain kinds of individualism gain ground, it might seem that we moderns are cut off from the sustaining power of ritualized myth. If this were so, it would generate a certain kind of historical meta-narrative, albeit one capable of running in two ways: as lament for lost meaningfulness and community, or...
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