The lachrymatory, a vaselike receptacle used to collect mourners’ tears and purportedly found in Roman tombs, has made a strange resurgence in the second decade of the 21st century, albeit in a form better suited to late capitalism: the coffee mug. Whether you’re looking to consume “MALE TEARS” or “LIBERAL TEARS” or “BILLIONAIRE TEARS,” chances are you can find an appropriate vessel.
But the tears themselves have to be the right kind. As the poet Heather Christle writes in “The Crying Book,” humans are continuously producing “basal” tears, to lubricate our eyes, while “irritant” tears flush out foreign objects. Tears for drinking should be “psychogenic,” or emotionally produced; they’re richer in proteins and more viscous. Presumably this makes them more delicious. It also makes them fall more slowly, so that they’re easier for others to see.
This communicative aspect of crying is one of the trickier notions that Christle wrestles with in her peculiar and indelible book. She’s fully aware that tears aren’t always to be trusted, even though they can come unbidden and unwanted — the reflexive byproduct of overwhelming emotion. She conveys her beliefs and suspicions in discrete paragraphs of text, quoting lines of poetry, personal correspondence, psychological studies. (Writers like Maggie Nelson and Sarah Manguso are distinguished practitioners of the form.) Some sections are as short as a sentence; almost all open up new possibilities for inquiry: “I believe in ending sentences with a preposition in order to give the ideas a way out.”
Christle weaves in her own experiences — she has a child; a friend commits suicide; she gets so suffused with despair that it feels like “a kind of decomposition” — but she knows better than to venerate the image of the sad, suffering woman ennobled by her distress. She opens her book by disabusing anyone who ascribes to that fantasy, while earning the trust of those who don’t. “After a real cry,” she writes in the first sentence, “most people are hideous.”
They heave, they convulse, their eyes redden, their noses swell: A “real cry” arrives like an act of nature, a gale force wind. The Danish performance artist Bas Jan Ader compared the gravity that compelled him to fall from the roof of his house in one film to the “extreme grief” that compelled him to cry in another. Christle encourages some zoological observation — “The crying will slowly get used to you” — as if “the crying” is an animal in the wild. When a cry starts to announce itself as a lump in her throat, Christle tries to stifle it by fixating on a color in the room, or having a friend (if available) squawk like a chicken.
So much for the real cries; what about the other ones? Shirley Temple, we learn, could only cry on command before lunch. Another actor squeezed tears from his eyes by imagining himself on the Titanic as he helped his wife and baby into a lifeboat. Christle quotes the poet Chelsey Minnis, who coined the perfect term “cry-hustle,” for when “no one will agree to any of your reasonable statements” and “there’s nothing else you can do.”
Crying can be strategic, a trump card or a last resort. Still, the frustration it expresses can be real. “Tears are a sign of powerlessness,” Christle writes, “a ‘woman’s weapon.’” Another writer might have left it at that, but Christle keeps the sentence wriggling without letting it off the hook. Three pages later she reflects on how the “weaponization” of such tears — provided they’ve been issued by white women like her — “has so often meant violence toward people of color, and black people in particular.”
Christle is drawn to associations and allusions, preferring to bounce between observations rather than confine herself to a fixed position. She cites a number of crying experts, but she’s turned off by their smooth arrogance, their hard certainty. It’s only when she finds an opening in the carapace that she senses a chance for connection. She tells one scholar a story that makes him choke up: “I hear the emotion in his voice, his emotional animal.”
The question of sincerity, or trust, comes up repeatedly. Looking through a cemetery for the gravestone of the friend who died, Christle realizes that the friend, a man, found it easier to trust her when she was suffering — which makes her angry with him and with herself.
There’s a link between anger and grief, Christle suggests, between loss and rage. She thinks of the American men who lose “one of their narrow sources of self-worth” and wreak a murderous fury on others. “I wonder whether men kill to create an occasion for the grief they already feel,” she writes.
She’s drawn to metaphor, even though “it is dangerous to always think one thing is another.” To insist on anything too permanent is to lay a trap. The kind of metaphor Christle seeks is at once truer and more tenuous. She envisions allowing “two stories to correspond briefly, to align themselves into one moment as they travel on their separate orbits, to know that the instant of recognition of sameness must not last.”
As it happens, the metaphor that I used at the beginning of this review cannot last either. The history of the lachrymatory, Christle says toward the end of “The Crying Book,” is probably “imaginary.” The amount of tears we shed while crying is so meager that evaporation is swift. It’s a scientific fact that yields yet another metaphor: Even the most viscous tears, borne of the most abject grief and humiliation, will quickly disappear.
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