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The Great Crying November 11, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Contemporary, Modern , trackback

Beachcombing has been troubling his unpretty little head about notable cloudbursts of tears in modern history. In the ancient world, some honest tears seem to have been acceptable: from Alexander crying at learning he would only ever conquer one world, to Aeneas shedding some big ones over women and burnt cities, to Odysseus ‘We must bury our dead and let one day’s tears suffice’, and on to Agamemnon hamming it up in the underworld.

Most medieval tears that come to mind involve piety and saints or ‘most sincere repentance’ and the stabat mater. Aquinas perceptively said that tears bring pleasure or as Walter Hilton put it: ‘As water in the vine through the heat of the sun is turned to wine, just so shall bitter tears truly through fervor of charity be turned into the wine of spiritual comfort’.

But in the modern world, particularly from the 1850s onwards tears became unpopular, except in mourning women, spoilt children and readers of Dickens: and they were not particularly welcome even then.

There follow a very select list of some of the most memorable weep-fests in modern history. Not that famous men and women did not weep often. Hitler would cry when a pet died: Orwell cried when he watched Mrs Miniver (‘a terrible film’).

But here there are moments when ‘in the face of the country’ historical greats let it all out publicly, an act that in some uptight western cultures was not that far from defecating in a crowded room.

Who could forget, for example, Michael Collins breaking down at the funeral of Thomas Ashe, killed in British custody, in a culture and a time when these things were simply not done. Collins listened to the gunfire over the coffin and managed to struggle through one of the briefest orations in history: ‘Nothing additional remains to be said. That volley which we have just heard is the only speech which it is proper to make at the grave of a dead Fenian’.

Vittorio Emanuele Orlando (obit 1952), sometime Prime Minister of Italy, wept at the Paris  negotiations after the war when Italy was denied Fiume.  Indeed, in a notable case of crying culture clash, he gave a full vent to his Latin histrionics disgusting the other allies who didn’t do tears. ‘I writhed on the floor. I knocked my head against the wall. I cried. I wanted to die.’ Clemenceau, the French leader, was more lyrical: an old man with prostrate troubles he reflected: ‘Oh if only I could piss like [Orlando] can weep!’

Generals shouldn’t cry of course: with the exception of Grant, Napoleon, Lee, MacArthur, Patton, Montrose and about five hundred others. But General De Gaulle, a tepid man in many ways, sometimes let off great cloudbursts of tears. In 1960 in London he wept when he placed flowers at the statue of General Foch, remembering doubtless the moment he had done the same in less happy circumstances in 1940.

Margaret Thatcher is said to have wept in the British cabinet when the first casualties of the Falklands War came back. However, it is her public breaking down in the year of her ‘assassination’ (1990) that is remembered by history (pictured above). Thatcher was bundled down the steps of Downing Street with her ever faithful husband Dennis and there ‘the Iron Woman’ went to pieces in the full and embarrassing glare of the world’s cameras.

Today we live in a world where – for better or for worse – tears are slowly dribbling in from the cold. A male politician particularly would do himself no end of good by dropping a bit of saline at a public appearance. Obama’s tears worked in Ghana, Hilary Clinton’s almost worked in New Hampshire. Tony Blair, meanwhile, claimed that he wept for the dead in Iraq.