Betsy McCormick (

Mount San Antonio College

42nd International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2007

Western Michigan University

BABEL Panel: Premodern to Modern Humanisms

Oh, the Humanity! Or, Cry Me a River to the Love Below (with thanks to the Joy sisters)

“There are parts of us that language, powerful as it is, can never fully touch or express. Having evolved before conscious expression, they elude words… over time they have developed into three extraordinary traits – laughing, kissing and crying. Each is a mysterious, and wordless, form of communication. Each belongs to us and us alone. And each is a testament to our profoundly human need to hold on to each other.” (Walter 139)

Originally this paper was titled “Oh! The Humanity: Towards an Ethical Humanism.” In the usual conference trope I’ve had to adapt my title, but in this instance the first part was far more prescient than I could have realized while the second half has been blown into the proverbial river. I envisioned this as a continuation of my humanisms paper for the SEMA panel last October where I considered what the humanities should or could be: questions like why aren’t the humanities particularly humane?; why should the humanities be important?; and what should the praxis of humanism be? But after Deirdre Joy’s paper at the same panel, suddenly I was back to the most fundamental question of all: What, exactly, does it mean to be human?

At that panel, Deirdre Joy, a geneticist, quite naturally considered the scientific reasons for our humanity: what separates us from other animals? Turns out there is a 1.23% difference between the DNA of humans and chimpanzees, our closest relative. While this seems a small statistical difference, mutations within genes/genomes create important differences, most of them brain related [See Deirdre Joy’s paper for a far clearer explication]. But what I couldn’t get out of my own brain were the experiments Deirdre cited where human brain stem cells were grafted onto fetal chimp brains. What my (apparently pathetically) humanistic mind couldn’t process was that two ethical reviews based on “moral status” found nothing wrong with these experiments. Still bothered by what on earth the scientists could be thinking, I asked LeAnne Teruya, our other Babel scientist, to explain what part of the scientific worldview allows for this. The fundamental questions in science are “How?” and “Can?”.  These are distinctly different opening premises from the more humanistic “Why?”– a distinction that points to the very reasons why scientists need humanists as much as humanists need scientists.

But Deirdre’s observations were followed by yet another moment of Babel-istic synchronicity, as immediately after SEMA I had to lecture on Malory’s Morte D’Artur (the selection in the Norton Anthology). Anyone who’s taught the same text multiple times knows that different moments stand out at different times. This time, along with the image of those poor chimpanzees, lurking somewhere in the back of my brain were Eileen Joy’s observations concerning our need for a more “emotional orientation” to the human at last Kalamazoo’s humanisms panel. Some of you might remember Eileen citing the moment in Malory when Balyn is struck with wonder at Lanceour’s lover’s sorrow. During this post-SEMA lecture on Malory’s Morte, I was struck, as were my students, by all the weeping on the part of the men of the Round Table. While Tom Hank’s character in A League of the Their Own protests that “there’s no crying in baseball,” apparently there is a lot of crying in Camelot

But these observations on weepy men and chimpanzees suddenly thrust into the realm of the human would have remained disparate thoughts had I not read an excerpt from Chip Walter’s Thumbs, Toes and Tears: And Other Traits That Make Us Human. Walter explains that “Scientists are compelled to admit that they really don’t understand why we cry. They can only agree that we are the only animal that does. Other animals may whimper, moan and howl, but none cries tears of emotion, not even our closest primate relatives… Many animals can feel longing, fear, or pain. But it is the tears, combined with our emotions, that makes human crying unlike any other natural behavior” (165-66, emphasis mine). In Thumbs, Toes and Tears, Walter (a science journalist) synthesizes the latest scientific research into what makes us human. He catalogues the key differences between humans and animals; they are big toes, thumbs, the pharynx, laughing, crying and kissing. In fact, the very concreteness of our toes, thumbs and pharynxes is what drove our intellectual, linguistic, social and emotional human evolution.

What? Isn’t much of Western philosophy and tradition based on the idea of Reason as that which makes us human, which makes us different from all other animals? But current scientific inquiry confirms that we are human because we can stand upright; hold and create tools; create and utilize the tools of communication; cry, kiss, and laugh. We aren’t human only because we can reason; we are also human because we can cry. If tears, laughter and kissing are among the things that makes us human, then maybe it is not our brilliance and ability to reason that makes us who we are, but rather our compassion, our ability to feel pain and suffering, our ability to love. What would a praxis of humanism – let alone a praxis of science – predicated on such a foundation be?

One fundamental marker of a humanistic praxis is the turn to art and culture to explain or understand what it means to be human. I’d also argue that another marker of humanistic praxis is its continuous inquiry– humanism is, as Eileen Joy has termed it, a perpetual question machine. So what happens when we consider medieval literature through a praxis of crying and of tears? Turns out there’s not only a lot of crying in Camelot, there’s a lot of crying in medieval literature. I immediately thought of a list of crying moments, a memento mori of tears. In fact, some instances like the cross, bereft of Christ’s body, weeping in the Dream of the Rood and the Geatish woman crying at Beowulf’s funeral seem to serve as mnemonic markers for their stories. Others, like the whole saga of Heloise and Abelard bear reconsideration. How does the tearful tale of Heloise and Abelard read if Abelard’s philosophical brilliance, or Heloise’s for that matter, is not the most important sign of their humanity? What of Augustine castigating himself about crying for Dido? And, really, was there ever a more copious weeper than Margery Kempe?

The critical tradition often genders crying, finding Malory’s men more manly for their tears, while those same tears make the women in Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women weak and pitiful more than pitiable. But what if these tears just make them human? From an ethical stance, both groups have held firm to their ideals, only to see such faith and ethical steadfastness lead to their own and their world’s ruin. In the face of great tragedy and suffering, the collapse of what they have believed and fought for, both the knights of the Round Table and the abandoned women of the legends simply break down and cry. And really who can blame them? They are, after all, not only human, but all too human. Yes, that’s right – Oh the humanity!

But what to do about my subtitle? While the SEMA paper was subtitled "The Logic of a Humanist Practice" – an homage to Bourdieu’s The Logic of Practice – maybe the worst thing to consider in light of this new definition of the human is a logical humanist practice. Maybe what we need is a reconsideration of the very idea of logic. Instead of moving beyond the dichotomies of our current logical and humanist practice as I previously argued – or around, betwixt or between – maybe we need to read through what makes us human to the very state of human being-ness. This is a theme that has run throughout many of the Babel humanisms papers and one of Babel’s central concerns is the question of Being-together (in Bill Readings’ term). Maybe we don’t need, as I said last time, to move beyond to the love below, but rather to cry us a river to find the love, the being-together, below.

So what is crying and why is it a fundamental component of our very human being-ness? As clinical psychologist James Gross puts it, “Why the heck do people cry? It is such a weird thing to do. You get upset and water comes out of your eyes” (qtd. in Walter, 165). Actually there are three kinds of water coming out of your eyes: reflex, basal and psychic tears. Psychic tears are the emotional tears, and are, in fact, chemically different from the other two: they have higher percentages of proteins and hormones. For years scientists thought that the sympathetic nervous system – the one responsible for directing action – caused us to cry, but now it appears that the parasympathetic nervous system, responsible for returning our systems back to normal, is in charge of crying – that is the purging of excess proteins and hormones via psychic tears bring us back to normal, back to ourselves. (If anything, this takes us right back to the original literary critic, Aristotle, who articulated tragedy’s purpose as the production of catharsis – a release of emotion through crying.) Perhaps most intriguing is the discovery that crying probably evolved as a communication tool: “Because tears are costly and rare, and because they are cried only when very deep emotions are being felt, they are not easily faked and send an unmistakable signal that the feelings behind them are absolutely real”(175). Ultimately “crying expresses emotions that words simply can’t” (179).

How then to interpret crying in a literary text; what does it express that words simply can’t? While some of the moments I’ve already listed are distinctly medieval in their Christian piety, what does stand out in a catalogue of medieval crying is that most instances mark a mourning of the loss of being-together. The Geats, both male and female if you remember that moment in full, are crying not just for the death of Beowulf, but for the death of their being-together as a people, as a community [see also Robin Norris’ paper]. The cross mourns the being-together with the crucified Christ and all that he represents. Augustine is ashamed of himself not for the fact that he cries (i.e. not that boys don’t cry), but that such tears were “wasted” on a fictional pagan. What Augustine is truly mourning is the time when he could not even conceive of a being-together with God.

At the end of Malory’s Morte, as Camelot is collapsing in on itself, Gawain bursts into tears after warning Arthur, Gaheris and Gareth. He knows at this moment what is to come: “ ‘Alas,’ seyde sir Gawayne, ‘that ever I shulde endure to se this wofull day!’ So sir Gawayne turned hym and wepte hartely” (Bk 20, 684). Later, after Lancelot has saved Guinevere but killed so many of his knights, Arthur “wepte and sowned” (Bk 20, 685). It is the being-together of the knights of Camelot, the metaphor of the Round Table, more than the betrayal of his wife that is the real “human” loss for Arthur. Perhaps most poignant of all is Bedivere, left by the shore as Arthur is rowed away to Avalon. Bedivere asks “ ‘A, my lorde Arthur, what shall becom of me, now ye go frome me and leve me here alone amonge myne enemies?’… And as sone as sir Bedwere had lost the syght of the barge he wepte and wayled’ (Bk 21, 716). As Walter concludes, “[Crying] marries raw emotion with a brain capable of reflecting on those howling, primal feelings” (179).
This leads us to a fairly fundamental question: If being human is based on our ability to feel pain and suffering, on crying, on our ability to love, then why has our praxis as humanists so often seemed to lead away from those very things that, it turns out, make us human? There’s an apt line in the song “Cry Me a River”: “I remember all that you said/Told me love was too plebeian.” Maybe our praxis as humanist critics has fallen into this trap – viewing the idea of what literature has to tell us about being human as too plebian. I do have to wonder why our critical and theoretical focus often moves us away from the concept of the human rather than toward. Again I think of those chimpanzees – the ones with human brain cells grafted onto their fetal brains. What would it be like to be forced to experience humanity without the toes, thumbs, tears and laughter of the human animal – above all without the language skills to comprehend, or the pharynx to speak, of the emotions embodied in their new brains?

What Walter stresses most is this idea that the concrete body is what drives our evolution and our humanity. And like the post-human cyborg and fyborg selves of humanist theory, Walter also theorizes about “cyber sapiens,” positing that our very human-ness will push us to evolve into some new unknown form. But before we get post-modern, or even post-post modern, I think it’s time to get medieval and human/e. What I found when I read familiar medieval texts through this emphasis on our concrete selves was an answer to my original question: What, exactly, does it mean to be human? A list like toes and thumbs, laughter and tears returns us to an embodied and emotional humanity – a creature much like Margery Kempe in fact. Maybe before we try to transcend the human, we need to better understand what it means to be such creatures and to be-together as humans. In the end, shouldn’t that be the point of literary inquiry, of the humanist enterprise, and of a humanist praxis?