In Praise of Tears: A Short Intellectual History

Written by Georgia Smith

“In Praise of Tears  

Pleurer / crying  

The amorous subject has a particular propensity to cry: the functioning and appearance of tears in this subject.  


Who will write the history of tears? In which societies, in which periods have we wept? Since when is it that men (and not women) no longer cry? Why was ‘sensibility’, at a certain moment, transformed into ‘sentimentality’?” 

Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (1978)  

For Barthes “the amorous body is doubled by a historical one”. The above body of historically inclined questions as proposed by Schubert and transmitted through Barthes is particularly tempting. One immediately thinks of Sontag when Schubert invokes the idea of ‘sensibility’, a gloriously sacrificial albeit paradoxically narcissistic masochism dominates our logic of amorous emotionality as it confers a sense of almost insomniac irrationality and vexatious obsession. To take the tear as symbolic of the amorous condition (Love) and positing both Febvre’s view of the necessity of the history of emotions and Barthes plea to remove the Lover’s Discourse from its ‘extreme solitude’, Schubert must be offered some responses.  

  1. The Classical Tradition. One must distinguish between heavenly and earthly love as the positive of spirituality and the negative of lust. The Aristophanic view of the soul remains both in romanticism and individuality, as does the Socratic reading of Eros as idealism or the desire for what is lacking in beauty, goodness and truth. The predominant perception of irrationality too finds its origins in the classical tradition as does the notion of the amorous condition as the confrontation between the will of desire and the necessity of self-control.  
  1. As has always been as such, amorous emotion is concerned with religiosity. It is simply the worshipped which is subject to shift. In an intensification, the Christian tradition (St. Paul) dictates that a spiritual body may only be maintained through the death of a carnal body. Love as such should be mediated through Christ, placing desire in the realm of the purely reproductive. To have once sacrificed oneself to the positive love of spirituality is to now kneel in the face of God as absolute. Bernard Capp’s work on male emotionality maintains, however, that limitations were not imposed upon the expression of emotion – the tear – until the Renaissance introduced a new culture of stoicism. A culture of civility in which the tear is mediated until spiritually becomes its most viable expression, subordinating grief, fear and desire.  
  1. Sensibility versus Sentimentality and Modernity. It feels necessary to return to Sontag, as it does to combine the consideration of sentimentality and modernity. Sontag designates the modern tradition to Rousseau, a point of fair historiographic consensus. It is in this tradition of enlightenment rationality and individualism as it leads into the twentieth century that Sontag, leaning on Pavese, notes the emergence of love as an “essential fiction”. Love is in fact “one more dance of the solitary ego” or a Freudian “revelation of oneself” in which one practices a form of romantic agony that can only constitute a “death note”. In this manner the history of tears becomes the history of a self-performing devastation of the romantic, leaning upon a conceptual and discursive repertoire of the language of love as the language of masochism. The entirety of A Lovers Discourse is orientated as such towards the lover as an individual.  
  1. The Matter of Gender. Historical and experiential concern highlights that woman both cry more frequently than and with greater purpose than men. The construction of the feminine is both a natural and obvious mode of explanation for the greater frequency, and social acceptability of female emotionality. The inverse is also true. The rigidity of a certain Victorian or bourgeoise masculinity restricts the publicity of the male tear in both the public and private realm, and by extension limits the expression of love.  

I have always found Barthes’ philosophy to be inherently liberatory as it is too biting, shattering and without illusion. To read Barthes is to decimate the conceptual repertoire upon which one depends, to swim into the scintillating depths of a discourse replete with potential. Barthes’ theory of semiotics posits reality as a composition of masks, with his intellectual maturity obscuring the question as to whether these masks may be transcended. Knowledge of the existence of masks allows for a form of quasi-choice, at least in some illusory capacity. Identities, rules and concepts then become about play. One may perform, reject or adopt the mask and its associations for pleasure not obligation – a devotion to Barthes is a disgusting devotion to the will to pleasure. As Sugrue suggests there is an ‘aesthetic quietism’, or degree of weightlessness encased in the Barthesian project. Sex is perhaps the most complete avenues through which to demonstrate this theory. Barthes’ seminal Mythologies as it delineates the varied mythoi which constitute French popular culture, features an essay on Striptease, equating nakedness and desexualisation in the act of striptease as a form of ‘delicious terror’ as such posing the erotic as the symbolic.  

Barthes semiotic view as the intellectual history of love produces A Lovers Discourse as both a literal and a symbolic language. In toying with form Barthes offers a highly unorthodox yet complete philosophy. The authority of the dictionary form dictates a truth universal in its relatability, yet deeply idiosyncratic in the sense that every reading of it is individual – a blank page for the imposition of experience. A conceptualisation of intellectual history as one of philosophical possibility is most conducive to a reading of Barthes. Wittgenstein’s logic of language as a game is too significant, and whether one chooses to extend that to Gadamer’s notion of our total subjugation to language, it is difficult to reject that we forge an illustrious and deliberate history of love and the tear as not just experience but image and language.  

  1. “By releasing his tears without constraint, he follows the orders of the amorous body” // “tears are signs not expressions” For Barthes tears are an emotional catharsis in a double sense. For one, there is the act of crying as a biological or psychological imperative. Yet there is also the act of crying as signifier.  
  1. As Barthes notes an amorous discourse is rarely a discourse of sadness. Tears too contain in them silent screams, fits of jealous rage and moments of pathetic reflection – they are the ultimate signifier. See also: Connivance and The Orange  
  1. “a little prohibition, a good deal of play; to designate desire and then to leave it alone” Introducing the often-non-discourse that is desire, both in its potential physicality and its dependence upon what goes unsaid. To desire is to be willfully ignorant. The lover is designated a role to play, a player in the game. See: Show me whom to desire 
  1. “it is my desire I desire” // “I take a role: I am the one who is going to cry…I am my own theater” Tears concern the subject not the object of amorous affection, they are an expression of self. See: The Absent One and The Loquela  
  1. “Turn back, look at me, see what you have made of me” To Barthes, tears are sado-masochism, a brutalist tool of blackmail employed by the lover scorned. See: To Be Ascetic  
  1. “The absence of the other holds my head underwater; gradually I drown…it is by this asphyxia that I reconstitute my truth and that I prepare what in love is Intractable” As such tears are idealised love. Crying is the obligation of the dutiful lover. See: The Image-repertoire  
  1. “The noise of a rip in the smooth envelope of image” Tears are often in the mourning of the destruction of fantasy, or the banality of reality.  


Barthes, Roland. 2018. A Lover’s Discourse. London: Vintage Classics. 

Barthes, Roland. 2009. Mythologies. London: Vintage Classics. 

Brett, Annabel. 2002. “What is Intellectual History Now?” In What is History Now?, by David Cannadine, 113-132. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 

Capp, Bernard. 2016. Big Boys Don’t Cry: The changing face of masculinity from Jesus to Michael Fassbender. January 11. Accessed November 8, 2022.

Davidson, Jane W., and Joy Damousi. 2019. A Cultural History of the Emotions in the Modern and Post-Modern Age. London: Bloomsbury. 

Majerhold, Katarina. “History of Love.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed November 3, 2022.

Sontag, Susan. 2009. “The Artist as Exemplary Sufferer.” In Against Interpretation and Other Essays, by Susan Sontag, 39-48. London: Penguin Classics. 

Sugrue, Michael. 2021. “Barthes, Semiotics and the Revolt Against Structuralism.” February 2021. Accessed November 9, 2022.

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