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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Tears of Saints and Sinners

NEW YORK -- When battle-weary Odysseus thinks of Troy, Homer tells us, "sometimes hot tears come, and I revel in them, or stop before the surfeit makes me shiver." There is an unexpected, sensuous pleasure to be found in tears. The Romanian writer E.M. Cioran called tears "music in material form."

There is also unexpected mystery in them. Tears are the marks of saints (St. Francis of Assisi was said to have been blinded from weeping) and sinners ("You're good, sister," Humphrey Bogart sardonically tells the tearful Mary Astor in "The Maltese Falcon." "Very good.").

The mystery is not dissolved by Tom Lutz's unusual new book, Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears, but that is part of his point. Lutz is almost weak-kneed from the sheer immensity of the subject and its stubborn resistance to a grand schema. Tears are shed in varied response to beauty, horror, or a mite of dust. And Lutz's accumulation of detail is extraordinary. We learn that crocodiles weep because their lachrymal ducts are squeezed as they open their jaws wide to swallow a victim; that at birth most babies cry at a pitch of C; that the average American cries three or four times a month for five minutes at a stretch.

And while the detail is often left to accumulate on its own - the book is flawed by the lack of a strong central argument - that can also seem appropriate to the subject. In Lutz's portrait, tears are almost defined by their slippery quality, their ability to flow between categories. Nothing is clear or simple. As Lutz points out, they even arise out of piquantly mixed emotions: When fear is combined with desire, or hope with despair.

"Crying: The Natural and Cultural History of Tears" by Tom Lutz. 352 pages. Norton. $25.95.