“THE LUXURY OF TEARS”

“the very idea of the emotions is a surprisingly young one. The concept arrived from France in the early 19th century as a way of thinking about the body as a thing of reflexes and twitches, tears and shivers and trembles, that supplanted an older, more theological way of thinking,” says Tiffany Watt Smith, once a director at the Royal Court Theatre, now a researcher at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. Before the discourse of the emotions took hold, she argues, people spoke of other phenomena — “passions”, “moral sentiments”, “accidents of the soul” — that were not always located within the human body. Ill winds blew no good upon the ancient Greeks, carrying flurries of unhappiness through the atmosphere. Fourth-century Christian hermits were plagued by acedia, a form of religious despair spread by demons that patrolled the desert between 11am and 4pm…
Perhaps the most revealing entries are those on emotions that remain felt, but which have been substantially reconstructed. In the early 19th century, for instance, nostalgia was considered a terminal condition. Men in their 20s were thought particularly susceptible. During the American civil war, doctors scribbled the word on dozens of death certificates…
“Weeping Britannia”, a critical history of British emotional restraint, was one of the most lauded history books of 2015. Its thesis is excitingly revisionist. It takes that most familiar of emotional concepts — the British stiff upper lip — and reveals that it was a historical blip. The phrase, it seems, was coined in America, and only became fully associated with Britain during the first half of the 20th century, as an increasingly militarised and imperial national culture absorbed the shock of global conflict. Britain before this period is, he suggests, better characterised as a wet-cheeked, passionate nation in which tears enjoyed an elevated status…
The history of the emotions is a young discipline. It is at the very beginning of its investigation into the long story of our feelings. “Are we”, asks Thomas Dixon, “writing the history of something that has always been the same fundamentally in the human mind being expressed and interpreted in different ways? Or are we, as most of us who do it would think, discovering the historicity of the human mind?””

I think there is something very useful in the title — I think that it is a privilege to express your emotions. (the stuff about tears in pre-War Britain!). I wonder if the physiological act of crying isn’t about communication, just like yawning and screaming. People can feel a sympathetic sadness and better understand the depths of your emotions.

Related: 
What Emotions Are (and Aren’t)

Why we like to watch sad films. The pleasure of being moved in aesthetic experiences

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