We all have so many tears to shed - it's enough to make a man weep

While the world was protecting its eyes last Wednesday, staring into buckets to watch the reflected sky go dark, I was weeping buckets of my own. You could say the two events were not unconnected: there is nothing like interplanetary activity, after all, for reminding you of your own insignificance. But insignificance wasn't the reason I was blubbering. Quite the opposite. A sudden, piercing vision of human grandeur, the immensity of our appetite for sorrow - that's what set me off. And what more cause for shedding copious tear do you need, than that you have copious tears to shed?

Call this self-indulgence if you wish - I confess I was playing old records of Caruso and Mario Lanza at the time, both of whom I turn to when I want the tears to flow - but it was the spectacle of someone else's sorrow that had softened me up the day before, when I happened to walk past a man in anguish in a doorway in Leicester Square.

Why does one person*s distress speak more eloquently than another's? If you live in London you walk past a fellow creature in anguish every five minutes. Here's one who sits with his dog at his side by the cash machines all day, pleading for small change. Here's another who is in bed in his cardboard box at noon, whimpering like an abandoned baby in his sleep.

And there's a third, raging the length of Shaftesbury Avenue in a filthy blanket, looking like Poor Tom from King Lear, houseless and unfed, biding the pelting of the pitiless storm. He must have a hundred silver studs in his face. "Don't come near me," my eyes warn him. I have rehearsed what I will say to him should he ignore that warning: "If you're so needy," I will hiss, "why don't you pawn your jewellery?"

I know, I know. But you can't feel compassion for them all. George Eliot is the person to trust in this area. "If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life," she says in Middlemarch, "we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence." I read Middlemarch the way others read the Bible - for enlightenment and forgiveness. "As it is," she goes on, "the quickest of us walk about well wadded with stupidity." Which I take to be her way of saying, "I forgive you, Howard".

So yes, you, go pawn your jewellery. And no, I have no small change.

And then, quite out of the blue, you see a person sitting in silent anguish in a doorway in Leicester Square - not slumped, simply emptied of resolution - who wants nothing from you, who does not notice you are there, who does not notice anyone is there, and you hear the roar which lies on the other side of silence and your heart breaks. He isn't a refugee from the elements. He isn't unaccommodated man. From the cut of him you would say he has a comfortable house in Islington or even Hampstead. A publisher, maybe. He is handsome, dark, well groomed and well-appointed in a houndstooth suit and expensive shoes, sleek as an otter. But he is sitting on the pavement, his back against a doorway, careless of himself, his eyes as sad as any eyes I've ever seen.

There is a question I must ask myself. Is it only because his fall is temporary, because he is on the street, seeking the anonymity and succour of the street, without being a street person, that I feel for him? Am I a grief snob?

I fear I may be, though I would prefer to put it differently. Of course it makes it easier on my pity that his grief is not his profession. And I am hardly the first to feel the poignancy of a man's fall from high estate to low. However communistical we may be, Lear the King moves us more than Poor Tom the beggar. But there is a further consideration which explains my preference. Taking into account his apparent prosperity, and measuring the depth and fixity of his pain, I decide that what has poleaxed my man of sorrows is bad news from the front line of the heart. I think his hands are folded over a mobile phone.

It would make sense, then, to suppose that his wife has just rung to say she is leaving. Or his mistress. I am not concerned for the morality of the situation. Let it be, for all I care, someone else's wife who rang, barely a minute earlier, while he was sauntering houndstoothed up Charing Cross Road to his sun filled offices in Bloomsbury, to announce, "Enough, over, it's been wonderful, but something more wonderful has come my way.

Goodbye, my darling. Pause to think of me sometimes, as I will never again pause to think of you..."

I am a schmaltz-merchant, you see. Not all the poverty and suffering in the third or fourth or however many worlds can touch me as the story of tormented love touches me. That's why, when no one's watching, I sit listening to lyric tenors singing of their exile from romance. Even as the moon briefly cast its shadow on the sun, Caruso was Pagliacci'ng it on my turntable, mocking his clown-cuckold's reflection, his own light put out for ever. Now it's not for me to explain the emotional motivations of others, but I do suspect that all our recent planet-watching was metaphorical. Why are we moved when one orb eclipses another? Ask Caruso. Ask the man in the doorway of the Leicester Square Hippodrome.

Howard Jacobson's The Mighty Walzer is published by Cape