The virtue of a stiff upper lip

I weep, therefore I am - a trend gone too far

New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's recent agonizing press conferences about his career, character, marriage, and health dramatizes a shift in the public display of private sorrows.

The code governing this display has been simple. Men and boys, especially if they are powerful, don't cry - except at funerals. Even there, unlike Achilles mourning the death of his beloved Patrocles in the Trojan War, they cannot rage, howl, and beat their breasts. Women and girls and poets can cry - especially if they imbibe Romantic literature. The tough are tough, the tender are tender.

Life and people have been too complicated to permit the code to rule relentlessly. One of the functions of art and popular culture - Sinatra singing about lonely dawns, Bogart telling Bergman goodbye in Casablanca, Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) playing the blues - has been to provide respite from the code's strictures.

Despite this release, the code has been an American norm. In many places, it still is. The public broadcasting stations of a Northeastern state show the championship games of high school sports. One of the producers told me that the girls' games are more fun to do than the boys' because the girls show their fight and spirit. The boys refuse to show emotion. "They're getting ready for the NBA," the producer said ruefully.

Mr. Giuliani broke the code.

"Before he seemed like a dictator ... like iron," said an auto mechanic. "But now he looks like he wants to cry. Can you see that? Rudy crying?" Moreover, he broke the code with impunity. This response is one of several signs that the code's center is no longer holding.

Crying out loud has become more acceptable for at least three linked reasons.

First, America has a huge military budget and operations. It has battalions of warrior wannabes - CEOs imagining themselves as generals, suburban family men reenacting the Civil War, e-pugilists destroying enemies in video games and cyberspace. Nevertheless, America is an increasingly technological and bureaucratic society. World wars belong to the past century. The cold war has been "won." Despite the fantasies, games, and masquerades, America is decreasingly reliant on traditional armored warriors and thus on a strong, silent warrior ethic.

Second, America supports an enormous infrastructure of healing - hospitals, doctors, clinics, pharmacies, fitness centers. Because it construes health as both physical and mental, it attends to the teachings of psychiatry and psychology. The gospel of therapy tells us to explore our feelings and then manage the bad and massage the good. A path winds from Freud studying his dreams to Giuliani talking about his dream of being better.

Third, America, is going through a gender revolution. The older equation of masculinity with rational control and femininity with irrational exuberance is as much up for grabs as that of masculinity with public life and femininity with domesticity.

Equally potent is a fourth reason crying out loud is popular. America has notoriously become a culture dominated by the media and about celebrity. Media attention is the great balloon ride to fame - even if the ride is brief. Some people get noticed because they're doing something. Like Bill Clinton, they are political leaders, or like Bill Gates, business leaders, or like Michael Jordan and Julia Roberts, appealing celebrities. Less accomplished people become visible because, like the fringe players in the Elian Gonzalez saga, they're part of a big story, or because, like participants in a talk show, they'll say or do almost anything to get the camera's eye.

No matter why the basket of the celebrity balloon holds a man or woman, the media demand the appearance of emotional veracity. Tears signify authenticity: I weep, therefore I am.

This has, however, gone much too far. The gestures are becoming as stylized as Kabuki - voices choking up, faces crinkling with grief, eyes streaming with tears, glasses being whipped off in order to dab at tears, hands clasping other hands on the studio couch of suffering.

No thought lies too deep for tears. No thought seems to lie anywhere. Meant to mark authentic suffering, weeping in public is becoming a performance art subgenre. Not surprisingly, some wondered if Giuliani was "truly" in anguish or putting spin on a difficult situation. Moreover, because America invents a profession to handle every perceived human need, we now have the new occupational category of "grief counselors." No doubt, they've helped some people burdened by trauma and loss.

Nevertheless, a symbiotic relationship exists between on-camera weepers and the grief counselors who parachute into catastrophe with little first-aid kits for the psyche.

Our watery exhibitionism is dangerous. It threatens to erode our capacity for stoicism, the ability both to withstand grief and let it sink meaningfully into the heart of experience. Showing dignified restraint is not a recipe for macho repression or feminine masochism. On the contrary, stopping premature tears permits us to absorb and use them well.

Sylvia Plath wrote: "The blood jet is poetry." She meant that art arises out of a suffering that has become a vital experience in a poet's life, an art that will console and give form to our sorrows, an art like that of Sinatra or Bogart or Leadbelly.

Political prophets, as well as artists, have known we best offer our tears when they can water actions that matter.

In 1940, drawing on centuries of literary tradition, Winston Churchill made his first statement as British prime minister, "I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat." His grave, urgent words shame our contemporary media mall of sobs.

*Catharine R. Stimpson is a feminist theorist and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Science at New York University.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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