Tear, Idle Tears (from The London Chronicle)
Some people are reduced to tears by shame, others by distress. I am at the cross-roads when moved to them, and make myself all small with the Chinese smile I learned to wear as a child. Tears fell on thorns as far as my mother was concerned. I understood from an early age they were a cheap trick to gain sympathy. ‘You’re hiding something’. And she was right. Tears are an act. You show others you are crying.
I have not wept since I was an infant, and then rarely, I’m told. Indeed, there is no surviving record that I ever cried. In family albums I’m always sleeping. I would like to weep just once, to see if I can still do it. Even if it was only 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 baby like no other’ who was ‘with the angels’, and so their marriage was saved. But weepies only achieve a vegetative state. While all around me were peeling onions, I was thinking of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and potato-love. A good cry is not to be interrupted by a little boy wanting to go to the toilet.
Although the reflex that produces tears can be conditioned, it has a life of its own. We cry all the time, subliminal, low-grade weeping, in order to keep the eyes clear. Moreover, just as a blush is a response to embarrassment, tears are the sweat of the sympathetic nervous system when the body is cornered. Both impulses are inadequate: the blush aspires to be a mask, but it reveals what it purports to hide; tears stain the face rather than wash it clean.
Prosecution lawyers say that a blub is the last refuge of the guilty. When the tears begin to flow, they know the towel has been thrown in, and wait for the lachrymal glands to run dry. It brings them no pleasure to observe the disintegration of a face, and a trial. Tears never saved anybody from being found guilty. The atmosphere is clouded for an awkward moment, and then rains down on the cold, hard ground where right reason reigns. In the time it takes to recite, ‘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’s all over. The bell rings for the mop-up operation.
It’s not the tearful cry from the canal that moves the judge-penitent in Camus’s La Chute. It embarrasses him and that keeps the emotions dry. But he can be surprised by a single tear running down the cheek that was not wiped away because the accused was unaware of it. He wants to put a handkerchief to the face, but can’t. It might be misconstrued. The solo tear could justify bringing along a lacrimatoire, a phial to keep the tears of a saints as a relic. But he’s hoping the tear will be joined by another, and the floodgates open. He needs to be unmoved when the black hat moment comes, and a verdict is returned.
Judging people is a circus act. And circuses change with the times. Heads aren’t put in lion’s mouths anymore. The big moment is when the August clown emerges from the audience to be canon balled across the ring to a drum roll. He lands on a health and safety trampoline. The moment of truth explodes as softly as a feather bomb, but the sentence is as harsh as ever. In Roman days when the guilty were thrown to the lions, they had a chance to put up a fight. Though one sided sometimes the wild beasts were kinder than those that unleashed them.
Now reasonableness is the ringmaster’s crack of the whip. He has mastered his brief so ‘avoidance of doubt’ is assured. The conclusion is foregone and there is rarely a come back that is more than a prolongation of the agony. It’s not a matter of right and wrong, or righting a wrong, but of making an example of representative breakers of the norm, so we can sleep more easily in our complacency. The curtain comes down and, although there won’t be applause (like at a secular burial), everybody, except the victim, can go home. Sweet dreams.