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Tears of emotion                                                                          




Whatever the source, whatever the medium, it comes quickly and instantly it overwhelms us. Be it music (popular or classical) a news item, a moment at the theatre or at a sporting event, we have all experienced that feeling; the moment when our conscious faculties have been momentarily overcome by an emotion so unruly, so irresistible, that, whatever our belief in the sovereignty of our reason, it threatens to bring tears to our eyes and a sob to our throat. Whether sought-for in art (and here perhaps lies the main pragmatic or participatory reason that sport can be treated as art) or brought about as a result of (un-staged, yet framed, newsworthy) events in the world, that feeling always arrives suddenly, catching us unawares (even when we should have been expecting it). Often leaving us somewhat embarrassed by our momentary loss of control. For the arrival of that feeling always suggests to us, upon reflection, that we may have just reacted in a manner rather too Pavlovian for such a (soi-disant) cultured species. Prompting the question: who or what is wagging the dog?


Whence this feeling? This senseless sob? Why these unwanted, unwarranted tears?


Let us suggest that they are the product of 'x' (an allusion to 'x' in a given symbol or cultural artefact).


Such that 'x' equals either (A) or (B). At first sight the field covered by ‘x’ is divided into two clear camps, (A) and (B), however the second soon proves to be little more than the negation of the former:


(A) Represents a broadly positive outcome; resolution attained (or the proclamation of a new identity that will promise this state). Such that:

(i) The unity of opposites is found; di-remption repaired; redemption achieved.

(ii) (Similarly, if more crudely). Improbable odds overcome.

(iii) (In a similar vein). Miracles occur.

(iv) Heroic sacrifice achieves the required solution (the hero suffers but survives).


(B) Represents a negative outcome: a failed resolution (at least for the key player/s, but in such a way that the identity that failed, whatever its level of eradication in the text, is memorialised by the audience - as in the case of grief). Such that:

(i) Di-remption endures. Contradiction remains. The possibility of redemption is lost.

(ii) (In hyperbolic vein). The odds are impossible, the ‘enemy’ (the ‘other’) is victorious.

(iii) No miracle ocurrs. It was expected but failed to materialise, or was present only through the offices of a deus ex machina, or (perhaps a mixed category) holding out the presence of the redemptive image at the end, yet with this image existing only as a fantasy or dream; as a representation firmly in subjunctive mood (as wish and not actuality).

(iv) Heroic sacrifice was required to achieve the solution (hero dies) or… the solution also fails. If the solution succeeds, then we have a mixed case - depending on where the weighting is placed. If it fails, then the identity in question remains memorialised (the loss in the world of the symbol is a symbolic sacrifice).


If perhaps not quite exactly the genre difference between tragedy and comedy (understood in the most general sense inherited from Classical culture) then quite close (perhaps subsuming the latter…).


Also found in music... Such emotion is more abstract in music. Or is this only apparently so? Witness the alternation between major/minor, tonic/dominant, distanciation/return (the movement between familiar and unfamiliar ground, between the ground and a figure envisioned against it) and its effect on our emotions. This sensation is due to the sense of a transition, the apprehension of an end obtained, an obstacle overcome, or of its promise revealed (the Redemption Theme appearing like a bolt of lightening in Wagner's Valkyrie and then again in the final bars of Götterdamerung). The relation between the significant moments that make up this effect (our affect) can be mapped onto a simple emotional formula; victory or defeat; success or loss, self-assertion or self-denial (as often with symbolic self-denial the actuality involves the assertion of a melancholic, abjecting, self-martyring mood - again an example from Wagner: Parsifal). From the return in the dominant to the return of domination is a small step. The journey of the musical ‘I’ is one to victory (there exist bathetic or ‘overly’ hyperbolic –read ironic- counter examples, but these are few). Sonata form too is the art of dominance.


Configurations. The impossible versus the actual; the ideal versus the real; even desire versus law (again); 'a taste of heaven' versus 'the tragedy of existence'.


The actualisation of the idea (the Kingdom), the celebration of communal totem belief or its denial; the disaster of the personal or of the minority community versus the totality of the social, the implacability of 'fate', the ultimate victory of entropy - the tragedy of resistance.


Individual appropriation. Options on self-dramatisation; infinite…


Pure sense of overcoming. Absolute victory. Undeniable success. Without all the messiness of the aftermath. History stops where it ought to stop (where narrative stops).


What happens. We are all... We find ourselves all... (we lose ourselves all...) all at once. The sea-taste of salty tears, the bracing wind traversing the oceans of the world to gather in ones body, to ride up ones spine, forcing open the eyes, triggering a bite of breath. That bite of breath: accompanied by the involuntary sob. The cup of the self is filled by a liquid so magical it makes sing every nerve it touches, in an overflowing of the cup of our feelings, a veritable choir of the emotions, an overcoming of external origin. A set-piece of human feeling triggered, in true Pavlovian manner, by an external stimulus (or its memory (or by its invention, anticipation)). Subject mimics object in emotional equivalents; except (subject-side) the obstacle overcome is the self. The cost is that of the (momentary) sacrifice of the self. An emotional hiatus. Followed by the ... Gift of consciousness; the return... the return of self, the self reconfirmed; ideals and ideal ends reconfirmed. Identity exchanged (confirmed on return, and confirmed in the maelstrom of emotion, the return on the sob within, the breath caught, the burning off of the self in the flame of a pocket ecstasy). An echo of the nexus of ritual exchange (and here too the desired state ought to have become the chosen state of eternity, the chosen state for eternity)? We swallow, blink, and return.


Our emotions enjoy the agon. A reference to the real world now beheld safely in the world of the sign. Or in staged competitiveness of sport. Only in the news does the trace of connection to any real tragedy, real loss, remain (even if only the risk of loosing, a situation always liable to symbolic magnification). Still there remains a second hand element; a toboggan ride with no risk of ever touching the side. Could it be that this second-handness, this touch of distance, is also essential to this form of emotion? The distance itself a gap to be crossed? The tragi-comedy of a lost connection. An impossible gap; so bearing repeated attempts (a performative perhaps?). Now become entertainment. A narrative superimposable onto all situations?


Ambiguity (with respect to the relationship between the sign and the real, often as a performative, as ritual) maintains emotional force.


A defining feature then. Second-handness (emotional empathy or parasitism). Not the full flood of emotion released by genuine relief as with the resolution of a personal crisis; but one taken as part of an entertainment (or in the case of news, at one step removed - perhaps even of news taken as entertainment....). This removal allows rehearsal, and so 'catharsis' without the risk of danger. Whence the role of art as exploiting the nature of representation (as exploiting its role as representation) brought to the fore again...


Second-hand also is the experience of eternity. This side, we glimpse the other. A glimpse free from the dangers of mortality.


Gender. How potentially 'boyish' are some of the above? All this talk of heroism! Knights of Romance! Yet the generality of the observation holds good; witness the watching of 'women's films' (nights of romance...). The content may well be different in popular or heroic registers, yet the formula remains the same. Have we stumbled upon the source of melodrama as genre? Of narrative as driven by the obstacle? Of the triangulation that drives these plot variants (encompassing all three grammatical persons) as a fundamental narrative structure? (The resolution of the latter brings about tears of relief or sorrow).


Addictive in its 'flatter' forms; witness all sports viewing?


(Tears of a clown?) We laugh (afterwards) at the ease with which our little narrative of self is toppled, interrupted (a hypotyposis of the body) overcome by an affect tied, like a flag or balloon to a stick, to an image or a (musical) event.


The admission of losing that which we never had. Buried in the hiatus of the sob lies the promise of immortality.





                                                            Copyright 2004 Peter Nesteruk