‘Jesus wept”. But Voltaire smiled. The shortest sentence in the King James Bible tells us the Son of God was susceptible to intense human emotions: He was literally moved to tears by the death of Lazarus.
Weeping is what we all, divine or mondain, do in extreme emotional states. Or do we? By way of contrast, the sardonic agnostic French philosopher preferred to demonstrate his absolute control over circumstances. An ethologist once defined the smile as “the silent, bared-teeth, submissive grimace of primates”. Maybe, but in Voltaire’s case it was a profession of cold, superior intelligence.
Do we prefer to laugh or cry? We readily associate crying with weakness, distress or vulnerability, a loss of control, but its simple connection to sadness is not absolutely clear. Indeed, crying can also indicate joy, pride, boredom, religious ecstasy, frustration and pain. Jo Brand, in a forthcoming BBC Four documentary For Crying Out Loud, has asked whether we cry enough. Curious, perhaps, for one whose trade is laughter to encourage a wave of collective mass hysterical sobbing, but there is more to crying than a noisy snivel and a wet drip.