The Natural and Cultural History of Tears

By Tom Lutz

Norton. 352 pp. $25.95

In his now little-read, wonderfully titled treatise "On the Passions of the Soul," Rene Descartes explained how sadness, and sometimes joy, caused the effluence of "vapors" across microscopic pores in the ocular tissues by impelling forceful currents of blood through the arteries; these exhalations condensed into water, thereby forming tears. Two paragraphs later (beware of a philosopher armed with a hypothesis!), Descartes gave the reason why children and the elderly are more inclined to cry. Children's labile nature, under the sway of emotion, causes a greater amount of vapor to climb to the eyes, and this produces tears; but the agitation of vapor is retarded in the aged, whose cool nature solidifies it into water, often without the assistance of preceding sadness or affection.

Almost four centuries later, the hypotheses have changed, but we remain just as intrigued by the origin and mechanism of tears. In the interval, an immense lore has accumulated, extending from the vulgar to the sublime, and from coarsely factual physiology to ethereal philosophy. Tom Lutz takes us on a tour of this material in his book "Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears." He conducts us with such gusto and skill as to persuade us that half the fun is in the guide's presentation.

Crying and tears have always been fascinating. Poets saw tears as liquid diamonds adorning the face of the beloved, or pearls solemnizing a betrothal, or fire-drops blazing over the visage of passion; declared them now sweet, now bitter, according to their mood; sang of them in celebratory or disapproving strains. A line of a sonnet by Tennyson says that tears "Rise in the heart and gather to the eyes," thus strangely echoing Descartes. Half a century later, the physiologist who discovered penicillin, Sir Alexander Fleming, held less ethereal but no less beguiling views on lachrymal outflow. He found that, like saliva and other bodily secretions, tears contain lysozyme, an enzyme with strong antibiotic power. A contemporary Punch cartoon depicted a long line of weeping children being led by a nurse to the illustrious researcher, who, sitting on a chair, paddle in hand, is spanking a tearful, bare-bottomed boy; meanwhile, on the floor a funnel-topped bottle labeled "lysozyme" collects the copious tears shed by the screaming victim.

And what about the determinants of the act of crying? They range from the obvious, as in that cartoon, to the subtle, convoluted and inscrutable. This theme alone could yield a multi-volume treatise. There are, for instance, "crocodile tears" of insincerity. Some tears deserve to be called "seductive," and to these Lutz devotes a whole section of the book. There are also tears that could not justly be placed in either class. Thus, we are told that professional mourners, still extant in some societies, can stop or start on cue, passing from wild ululation and tearful gesticulation to quiet tranquillity, and conversely from chatty merriment to red-eyed despondency. These abrupt changes, however, are not condemned as insincere by modern anthropologists, who see funeral rituals as a forum for the expression, as well as the creation, of mourning.

All this, and more, the reader will find in "Crying." The least that can be said of this work is that it is a tour de force of erudition. The bibliography lists more than 500 authors, some of whom contribute multiple entries, and all of whom are well chosen to represent the canonical literature on tears. Among the savory topical vignettes is the story of Edmund Muskie, the presidential candidate who quit the 1972 race after crying in public, at a time when this was considered unmanly. By contrast, George Bush and Bob Dole actually enhanced their popularity by doing the same thing when societal attitudes had changed. And President Clinton's opponents have called him duplicitous for both crying and not crying--sins of omission and commission--at the wrong time. Lutz writes an unassuming, lucid prose, whose directness and clarity add to the book's appeal.

A quotation from Roland Barthes closes the text: "Who will write the history of tears?" Tom Lutz replies, "All of us will." Perhaps, but he certainly leads the pack, and with admirable panache.

F. Gonzalez-Crussi, whose books include "The Day of the Dead and Other Mortal Reflections."