Augustus Young       light verse, poetry and prose
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The Chronicle of Tears

‘The thought beneath so slight a film,’ Emily Dickenson, by way of Shakespeare?
1. Tears, Idle Tears
A) We Cry All the Time in Order to See Clearer
We cry all the time, subliminally. Low-grade weeping keeps the eyes healthy. The tear-ducts continuously film the iris so that microbes are washed away and the light is prismed. You get less styes and see more clearly. Albinos are not so lucky, having defective lacrimal glands, and so the eyes dry out and seeing hurts. I always find looking an albino in the eye painful. The dying sun in the crepuscular pink makes the eyes smart (the lowest form of weeping). But it is their own tears that they need, not others’.
Albinos’ lack of pigmentation brings out the child in me. I want to colour their eyes in with high-toned crayons. The deficient pigment is melanin, which is what most black people have in abundance. Being a black albino must be particularly galling, I think. To be lacking in a vital organ for that White Supremacists would have them lynched. The redistribution of melanin in the world would make for a happier humanity. Though geneticists would be an unlikely to lead for such an equitable revolution, being professionally on the side of the racists. The Human Genome Project, which is leaving no stone unturned in identifying opportunities for genetic engineering, might be persuaded to throw the first one in the right direction. The standardisation of skin colour in humans would be a start in encouraging peace and reconciliation. Although artists wouldn’t be the only ones to miss the beauty of colour contrasts, and racists would no doubt pick on other differences (kinky hair, for instance).   
Why smiles should signify joy and the tears sorrow goes back to cave-dwellers, a world where spiked clubs decided your dinner, wife and survival. Opening your face to look friendly, or pinching it up to ward off blows, were found to be effective. This keystone cop stage of history gave way to sophistication, and diplomacy was introduced into human negotiations, with a soundtrack accompanying the smiles and the weeping. ‘You ain’t heard nothing yet.’ Harpo Marx would have been a better voice-over than Al Jolson. He had a lot to say for himself, but didn’t use words. Tender tinklings on the ivories of the piano spoke for him, and trumpeted ‘raspberries’, which made me laugh so much I feared a call of nature, and missing Groucho’s corrective.  All this was before reading about ‘potato love’ at the pictures in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. I was relieved to be saved from that indignity with tears of joy.
At the time I was the same mental age as Genghis Khan. And before I heard Marie Bizet’s ‘D’hôtel des trois canards’ (1941) and Teagarden’s ‘She Nobody’s Sweetheart Now’ (1942) on the gramophone on wet days (had my father seen the original movies and bought the 78s?). As with the talkies, I was beginning to listen to the words. Though ‘quack, quack’ (my first French) hardly qualifies ‘Painted lips, painted eyes / wearing a bird of paradise’ does, I suppose. The farmyard noises in ‘D’hôtel’, which my brother insisted on playing over and over, made me shout, ‘Stop it, please.’ And when he didn’t, it ended in tears –Jack Teagarden made me laugh to think how happy he was singing such a bitter little song, and brought me close to crying when I thought that once the music stopped, he couldn’t face the world without a bellyful of bourbon. His sister Nora, who tinkled a mean ivory, said Jack didn’t like the ‘Tea’ in his name. But being a lyricist of taste, he knew Jack T. Garden would be naff, and Jack Bourbongarden too de trop for the speakeasies, particularly during Prohibition. So, he spat into his trombone, and blew a Harpo, and stuck with the family name. Diversionary tactics are the lynchpin of diplomacy, says Saint-Simon, and they bring with them ‘not only the peace of mutual interests, but also the war of exploitation for avarice’. Today the smiles and tears of diplomacy are harnessed to deceive their own people, rather than those seen as a threat. Democracy has brought back the spiked club (brand name, pre-emptive strike). The great powers go around creating bugaboos so that they can bomb enemy civilians into the ground. They subsist on enemies, not necessarily mutual. It’s keeping the blind eye on each other’s misdemeanors that makes the likes of Putin, Bush and Blair friends of convenience. A laugh, enough to make you cry.    
The present age is no wiser in its aggressions than our flintstone ancestors (evolution is a slow bicycle race. It proceeds in inverse proportion to progress). Though the imagery has changed. While caves were once safe havens to hide your wife and children, and draw your favourite animals on the walls, the modern powers see them as traps in which to humiliate the enemy. Tora Boras where Bin Laden lives rough, or potholes for Saddam Hussein to crawl out of just in time for the Presidential election (Bush/Chaney, 2004). Maybe Saddam (or Bin Laden if he ever turns up) will become the fourth friend (both were once Daddy Bush’s best buddies in the East). Yes, caves are for the enemy. The great powers prefer to see themselves in Green Zones in desolated countries, futuristic fortresses that are really secure prisons. You’d laugh if you weren’t crying out loud.
Why smiles continue to represent joy and tears sorrow in our scientific age is a mystery since they can be interchangeable (tears of joy and bitter smiles) and have a common source, the lacrimal glands – sharing, so to speak, the same swimming pool, tears at the deep end and smiles to paddle about in. Rectifying this could be the missing link in answering the eternal question, as to why mankind has the compulsion to bring misery on itself. I have no quarrel with the words themselves – smiles and tears look and sound right (smiley happy, tearful dun) – it is only their received meaning I question. If their meaning was reversed and Louis XIV had said, ‘Après-moi le rire’, rather than ‘Après-moi la déluge’, the arrogance of the powerful and the misery of the weak might have been reversed, and events would have turned out very differently. (I laughed when I reread this sentence. It’s my way of crying.)
In the grand opera of the emotions (or is it buffa?), the constant watering of the whites of the eyes is the recitative. But people come for the arias. And so, the meandering flow breaks its banks into cabalettas, floods of tears or raucous laughter, which tell the claqueurs, or studio audience, to start raising the roof. Such inundations go with physical excess – running mascara, flying spit, runny noses and plastic wine glasses that bounce when you throw them dramatically on the boards – and transport us into the realm of Kleenex and the need afterwards to freshen up. Berlioz’s mawkish hectorings make me want to cry out, ‘Big Band man, I don’t believe you. Barn music doesn’t have a needle of feeling in the haystack.’ The hollow laugh of despair is the only way to respond to extreme emotion. It is not uncommon for the next of kin after a funeral to laugh themselves sick when they get together. It’s as embarrassing as weeping in a Law Court ‘Tears from the learned counsel?’ said Tim Healy at the Old Bailey, circa 1904. ‘The greatest miracle since Orion hit the rock.’) Either/or, you don’t know whether to laugh or to cry.
Operatic outbursts of tears and laughter do not affect the body’s fluid balance. Though too much laughter can end in hysteria or fits of coughing, which need a slap or back-thumping to stop. Sometimes these cause dentures to be swallowed. And too much weeping can cause a deficiency of retinal film: the eyes dry out and red rims form around them (a disturbing sight). But the real danger is they distract us from the initial impulse. The idea behind the feeling is lost in the exaggerated performance, and so the feeling has no meaning.
Any trained actor can produce ‘loud laughs that speak the vacant mind’ or crocodile tears. A real actor (not a contradiction in terms – acting is a living art) does not guffaw or flood the boards to upstage colleagues, or stupefy audiences with brain-storming. They quieten the world around them and are heard. Then they can shout as much as they like.
Music that respects the senses and regards the distinction between smiles and tears as artificial – Monteverdi, Schubert, Debussy – does not need to rise above the recitative. It moves along the surface like a kingfisher at twilight on an estuary stream. I want to weep with joy and then feel sad as it’s so fleeting. This melancholy truce is reached with the recitative umido (not the crude recitative secco of eighteenth-century opera, which anticipated ‘rap’). It is a form of subliminal weeping, or/and laughter, that doesn’t need cosmetic intervention for truth and beauty to shine through. ‘Outside the material world all is music,’ Emil Cioran said, ‘and God is a hallucination sonore.’ I could believe that, until I hear the strains of Shostakovich, Thelonious Monk, Morton Feldman – suppressed screaming, muffling the divine sublime, maybe corroding it. No laugh, no tears. Only the plangent undertow that brings us back to reality. 
B) A Welcoming or Farewell Hanky
I have largely dealt with smiles and tears in the context of the self-reflective age.
Reflex smiles still happen – spontaneous as accidents. I live in France where nobody understands me. Yesterday I asked in a utility shop for a piege de sourire (a trap of smiles) meaning piege de souris (mousetrap). The mouse got caught between the teeth and it was smiles all round. But they hadn’t one, offering me poison instead. I don’t want rat’s bane I said. It would kill the cats. And so, the shopkeeper turned away abruptly to talk to someone else. No politesse. Smiles play on the lips until things get serious and the teeth bites them off. I stomped out, scowling.     
Tears can be idle (cutting up onions), or calculated (acting up). The reflex is cause for reflection. I in my time have wept ‘potato tears’, like at the end of Penny Serenade (1941), when Miss Olivier, the adoption agency tyro, brought Cary Grant and Irene Dunne a two-year-old boy with blue eyes and curly hair to replace Trina – ‘the child like no other’ who was with the angels and so their marriage was saved. But the young man on trial for not crying at his mother’s funeral in Camus’ L’etranger only felt like weeping when looking around the courtroom, he realised how much he was hated by everybody. ‘J’ai eu une envie stupide de pleurer parce que j’ai senti combien j’etais deteste par tous les gens-la.’ But he didn’t. I think he acquitted himself very well.
C) The Tears of a Clown
Though rarely reduced to tears, I make myself small with a smile. An open one I learned to wear as a child to hide my miseries. I exaggerate. But tears, I knew from an early age courtesy of my mother, are a cheap trick to win sympathy. They fell on thorns as far as she was concerned. ‘You’re hiding something,’ she would say. And she was right. Tears are the sweat of the sympathetic nervous system when the body is cornered.
In the workplace at disciplinary procedures, I found the last refuge of an employee was a blub. When the tears began to flow, I knew the towel was being thrown in. As I sat waiting for them to run dry, it brought me no pleasure to observe the disintegration of a face and a case. Emotion never saves anybody in the workplace court. It confuses the air for a while and then evaporates on to the cold, hard ground of right reason. In the time I took to recite very slowly Mathew Arnold’s ‘It is hard for a pure and thoughtful man to live in a state of rapture at the spectacle afforded him by his fellow man’, it was all over. The bell rang for the mop-up. A deal could be struck if the case was not criminal: resignation with a written reference, dated the day before leaving. Only a prospective employer who was careless following up references would be unaware of the leaving circumstances. If this was not on offer, or refused by the employee all that was left was a cup of consolation with a secretary and a taxi home (paid by the organisation).

Dismissing people is something of a circus act, and circuses change with the times. My time was after the days when heads were put in lions’ mouths. The crunch of rough justice had moved on, to be replaced by the cannon shot of a clown picked from the crowd. Flying across the Big Top to a drum roll of official pomp, they were assured a soft landing in the cesspool where the animals slopped out. One was cruel to be kind if possible. Reasonableness was the ringmaster’s sesame. It was invoked with a crack of a whip. True, the performer in trouble had their reasons, but this was rarely backed up by the terms of employment. Rules on record tend to be only known to one side until it is too late to follow them by the letter. The ringmaster must ask, ‘Is it reasonable to expect the rules to be ignored through ignorance of the contract?’. Afterall, disciplinaries are not about seeing justice done, but justice seen to be done. The show is the thing.
I was a middling fair as a ringmaster, mastering the brief so that ‘avoidance of doubt’ was my whip. This gave me the confidence to see both sides calmly and clearly, in order to understand the performer whose act hadn’t worked out. However, the bias of instigating the process was difficult to neutralize. My judgement was at stake, and the balancing act was more often than not palliative, kindly strokes to soften the blow and please the audience before taking my bow. Then I could sleep more easily in my bed than I ought. The larger picture (the life that led to foolishness, the job not clearly defined) was outside the circumference of the ring.  Right and wrong is black and white but in a spectral big-top it's blurred.
After a case that went to plan, I walked in St James Park and saw carved on a tree ‘Justice is a whore with whom everybody has their way’. And I’m its brothel keeper, I thought. Humane considerations were no object. The interests of the service came first and last. Someone who had failed to satisfy it was suffering. I felt that the Kru tribe’s ‘trial by vomit’ would have been better. The accused is given sasswood poison. If he vomits, innocence is accepted. If he doesn’t, guilt is adjudged posthumously. At least it wasn’t reasonable.
I’ve led a sheltered life (I’m good a hiding) and moral conscience has been relatively easy to appease. I’m a quick apologiser when offence in taken at something I said or did. But in my job, I wanted inefficiencies or bad practice rectified according to laws I didn’t make but, were always said to be reasonable. Unlike in my personal life, I experienced stress, as what I had to do to resolve the problems was proscribed and overseen by the Human Resourses department. And the process could only end up with a hatchet compromise, and the cut-off point when the black hat was produced. Usually, it was a relief for all parties, exhaustion having set in. False smiles all around. Sometimes I was taken by surprise. A single tear running down the cheek, not wiped away because the errant employee was unaware. It made me want to mop it up with a handkerchief. I couldn’t – Human Resources had advised it might be misconstrued as an assault.
I should have brought along a lacrimatoire, a phial to keep saints’ tears from vaporising, to gather single drops as relics. The thought makes me smile. But I wanted the unhappy experience over and prayed a secular prayer that the tear would not be joined by another, the floodgates opening. I like to be unmoved when administering justice. It was only fair.
It occurred to me, looking into the mirror as I brushed my teeth, that I could powder my face and paint tears with lipstick. Then I could reappear as an auguste clown, dancing sadly with a fixed smile.