The (secret) anatomy of a tear

It’s mainly a matter of respectability, that’s the first thing to remember. There are he tears and she tears. There are tears of the drunkard and there are tears of a caged animal sweating out its last will and testament over a little bit of spilt grain/sour milk/beer/a jar of pickles (the moment before it becomes a child).

Let’s say it happens sometimes you burst out crying without my knowing why, a libidinal melancholy. The kind of crying-fit where your rib cage tenses up, your whole body vibrates like it’s empty or wants to thank you for being hollow and useful for something after all these years – it’s about goddamn time, what took you so long?

They say Dostoevsky used to weep this way, shamelessly out of proportion with his body, apropos of nothing. His wife and servants claimed that whenever the samovar of tea was too mild by the time he reached for it, his manuscript would be flooded with a vale of tears; and that he was okay with this, much of the time. They say that those around him were in fact so moved by his abrupt and unprompted weeping that when he smiled (‘with the heavy heart of an injured lion’) or when he laughed (‘like a camel in heat who is allergic to the desert’), they said that he should go back to crying instead, that his face better suited the role of his body with wrinkles, that his hair would stand on end just like the hairs of those around him—also standing, like the time he was released from prison, returning to Moscow for the first time in eight years to greet his family who hardly remembered him, those who were left anyway. (I may be misremembering this slightly.)

When some people cry it’s a disturbed system. Their first reaction is to break down that way in a primal lament, don’t ask me why. I guess sometimes such tears are a pejorative manifestation, tears on the border between ethics and aesthetics. Those kind of tears can be difficult to come by—by this I mean the tears of Heraclitus, tears of the Philosopher-King; or the way the Scythians used to cry whenever a child was born, greeting death on the other hand with jubilation.

Let’s take such a simple idea as the desire to improve, to become better. Is it a natural human instinct or is it the result of early conditioning? Crocodiles, king crabs, eagles, do not evolve and yet they seem perfectly content with their humble status. And many human beings enjoy a quiet existence without feeling themselves obliged to expand or develop.

The Greeks as a rule never cried in their plays. Not much in real life either. One idea about this is that they just didn’t have any reason to. For them, everything came from without, happened by fate. It wasn’t until man became responsible for his own actions and destiny that the pathological element came into play.

The Russians, of course, brought all this to a choleric passion; ‘If there is any value in man’s having some nobility’, said Pushkin, ‘it is in this: that one is capable of being touched to the point of tears in the midst of Nature—in a fine breeze or storm; in an erotic relationship; even in the bitter recognition that Fate has, alas, given you two big thumbs down.’ (I might be making this up entirely.)

Most of Chekhov’s characters weep, and most of them die, sometimes in the same sentence, so that it’s all muddled together, so that even when it seems they are weeping they are actually just having a sneeze at a concert or at the theater or some other joyous occasion that ends up in a tragedy of howling proportions.

Anyway, the Slavs claimed the greatest ill that can befall humanity is excessively happy people, and for a long time the literature of the world has not disagreed with them. One exception is in the East, whose novels have resisted the urge to cry for so many centuries perhaps because they are an older, wiser civilization, perhaps because they are surrounded by cherry blossoms for five months out of the year and so many statues of the Buddha’s disciples smiling at the sun, almost to the point of blindness, deep in contemplation of their own navels.

Let’s say you don’t understand anything about it, except that it’s convulsive and has to do with a lot of exaggerated confusion over a little bit of nothing. What can a man expect after all from a world he isn’t apart of, knowing nothing of people except that he never will? What are the chances for someone who’s already dwelled so far in the depths of solitude that even being with himself could no longer be considered company? So alright, more than once no one was there with you but Time, stirring up the dullest water. So she didn’t have the slightest idea what she wanted. Time the old fuck, surest and purest form of doom. A little bit of nothing, I said, a libidinal melancholy. What’s a tear, after all, but a kiss on the stake of Time that’s no longer there?

It is also true that the East has a valuable track record with Reason, which the rest of us (after Dostoevsky and perhaps as far back as Schiller and Goethe) prefer to view, at least for an instant and through a puddle of tears, our nerves all a-quiver like a red-capped mushroom lurking in the birches, precious as stalks of grass in a field of wheat, or as light and fragrant as quicksilver, a fresh spring cabbage—but anyway, I should stop here before I grow too emotional and lose your respect, whatever that means.

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