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Lacrimosa dies illa

01 March 2013

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WHICH nation sheds more tears per capita than any other nation? The United States, apparently, where they weep at anything from sporting triumph to X Factor tragedy. And who is least likely to cry? The Crying Game (Radio 4, Friday) found that the most buttoned-up peoples are Bulgarian men and Icelandic women.

We have all become more content to blub in public than we used to be; and it is pretty much de rigueur to leave the latest cinematic tear-fest, Les Misérables, with glistening eyes and sniffly nose. But the social and evolutionary function of emotional tears is still debated.

Professor Michael Trimble's excellent book Why Humans Like to Cry formed the basis of this documentary, presented by Geoff Watts. His particular interest is in the unique power of music to move us to tears. Nobody cries in the presence of architecture or sculpture - unless, of course, they are tears of rage at something unspeakable that blocks the view from your conservatory. A small number of people will claim to weep over a great painting; but about 90 per cent of people worldwide say that music has moved them to tears.

Of course, people love to weep. They go back to see the same film or replay the same song expressly to have a good cry. Whether it is actually good for you to cry is a subject of debate; but certainly it is an outward sign of an inner emotional state, and thus provokes socially useful feelings of sympathy among your friends.

This is because tears are hard to fake or turn on at a moment's notice - unless you're Elizabeth Taylor, who claimed to be able to cry on any given line. We heard in the course of the show from a drama coach who teaches actors to cry. It is one of the skills every jobbing actor must have: think of all the tears expressed in the average episode of Holby City. As an actor, if you cannot cry, you do not eat.

The final, and most provocative, speculation in this fascinating survey came from a biologist who pondered why we have evolved to express emotion by crying rather than dribbling or having a runny nose. Our anatomy had, quite by chance, taken one evolutionary road. In the same way, he went on, we might speculate about why we talk out of our mouths rather than any other orifice.

Listening to The Forum: Meaning in life (BBC World Service, Saturday), I wondered whether some of our species have taken this alternative biological path. So diffuse was this discussion about "what gives meaning to our lives", yet so wizened were the tones in which the views were expressed, that the word "meaning", repeated endlessly, ceased to have any meaning.

Alain de Botton, with his recent book Religion for Atheists, has a knack for the apposite aphorism - a Camus for the Twitter generation - and Alexandre Mitchell on his specialist subject of archaeology is fine. But blundering around in this unstructured exchange hardly showed them off. The show was followed immediately, and somewhat bizarrely, with a burst of birdsong - a regular World Service feature, apparently - which sounded a good deal more meaningful than anything in the previous 40 minutes.

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