One of the most cited witticisms of Oscar Wilde concerned the climactic sentimental scene in the Old Curiosity Shop when Little Nell dies. Wilde said that “one must have a heart of stone to read the death of little Nell without laughing”. The remark became a sort of benchmark for the change from Victorian to modernist attitudes towards the presentation of sentiment. Dickens readers in 1850, of course, felt differently about Little Nell. There’s a famous story that a crowd in New York awaited the ship carrying the last bit of the serialisation of the Old Curiosity Shop demanding the fate of little Nell, and when they heard she died, they burst into mass tears.
However, at some point in the 70s or 80s, I think, the tide began to run against Wilde’s attitude. Little Nell again came into her own as the modernist anti-sentimentality itself became suspect, was uncovered as a sort of masculinist gesture meant to impose a bogus stoicism that made a great show of covering wounds to the ego in silence in order to have us all bow to those wounds. And so Little Nell, that abused child, who begins Dickens’ novel by repulsing the repulsive Quilp, who lusts after her, changed into a very trendy figure.
The politics of tears go back a long way in a certain “western” tradition. According to Darja Erker, a classics scholar, women’s tears in ancient Rome aroused peculiar fears. The repression of women’s emotional lives in public was part of the repression of women’s political role in the republic. However, the ritual of mourning was an exception to this regime of censure. Here, tears fell in public.
When the family “admits” or recognizes (agnoscere) the death of one of its members, it becomes impure, and is provisionally separated from the rest of society. During the feriae denicales, time stops for the members of the family, who are polluted by the death. After the period of marginalisation, the family reintegrates into the life of the civitas due to the banquet celebrated by the tomb. (lautum novemdiale) The marked characteristics of the funeral ritual are displacements, or inversions of normal behavior, symbolic of the period of marginality.
The participants in the funeral ritual don’t wear their normal clothes, they neglect their hygene and reverse the practices governing eating together. These rituals express a temporal alteration of social values. In regard to this, John Scheid borrows the words of Servius for characterizing the funeral service as a ritual of inversion: contraria facere. Similarly, when the time of the annual feast of the dead (Parentalia) came around, magistrates marked the presence of a pollution incompatible with their public functions in not wearing their insignia.
Tears preside over the world of inversion. And this has always had a frightening potential. Perhaps it is for this reason that modern scholars make much more of the carnivalesque, where laughter reigns, than the world of mourning, with its own characteristic revolt against hierarchy. It is the case in America that the tears of a man are celebrated, in the political sphere, while the tears of a woman are mocked.
Myself, I grew up in a period, the seventies, when public crying was briefly, and in some social sets, non-taboo. Also, I’m a crybaby. Thus, I knew last night, when we were heading towards the Arc Cinema to see Moonlight (at last!) that I’d probably leak like a faucet. And I did. I was redfaced and gasping by the end. Typical for me. I always embarrass myself this way.
Through the scrim of tears, I did notice the influence of Douglas Sirk, the… the Leonardo da Vinci of the weepy, the Picasso, the Newton and Einstein. Especially in the final scene between Chiron and his mother I felt some breeze from the beating wings of Imitation of Life, one of my favorite films, and Sirk’s masterpiece.
Chelsea Clinton, in a much mocked interview with the NYT (in their By the Book series) said “I avoid most fiction in which children are harmed or seriously threatened in any way.” I understand her impulse. But her criteria would ban all fairy tales, definitely all Hans Christian Anderson, much of Dickens, and much literature since, including most YA literature. I’m reading Sandra Newman’s apocalyptic sci fi novel, Ice Cream Star, right now, and the toll on children in the plot is heavy. In Moonlight, the threat to Chiron as a child drives the entire movie. I wonder if the gesture of avoidance, here, is tied to old, old taboos about tears in public – a censoring of the atrocities that are a normal part of function of the everyday machine- you know the one, the thing that produces streets, cars, tv, the paycheck, and the death of the holocene.