(Editor’s Note: this is the fifth in a series of weekly guest posts by Kurt Newman — Ben Alpers)
I found the term “lachrymatory” while searching for a verb form of “lachry___,” because I wanted to think a bit about why I began to weep during my oral exams. I was looking for a ten-cent word that means: “causing to weep.”
Which brought to mind a song called “Careless Love” by the blues musician Lonnie Johnson. “It cause you to weep/it cause you to moan/it cause you to lose your happy home.”
Why “careless,” I used to wonder. What was so terrible about “careless,” as opposed to so many other adjectives, in relation to “love”? Was the problem with “carelessness,” in general, or, more particularly, “carelessness” as combined with “love”?
Lonnie Johnson was born in 1899 in New Orleans, and died in Toronto five years before I was born (also in Toronto). I used to listen to “Careless Love” as a 13 year old, in my older brother’s room, on a 10” flexidisc that came with an instructional book on how to play blues guitar. I’m sure that I bought the book thinking it would help me play like the British electric blues guitarists of the 1960s. In the 1980s, these were still the musicians whom one tried to emulate when learning to play guitar in the suburbs of Toronto. This book did not help much with that, in any event. Much later, when Michelle and I drove across Mississippi, the accretion of place names familiar from these earlier auscultations made me almost dizzy. Jean-Luc Nancy writes in his book on listening that the most important thing about the ears is that, unlike the eyes, they never close.
The men who wrote those books on blues guitar were, like my parents, mostly Jewish kids from Brooklyn born before or after World War II. How did they wind up as amanuenses for outsized characters like the Reverend Gary Davis or Mississippi John Hurt in the 1960s, or running tape as men whose lives had been stolen by the pirates who ran the governments of the states of the old Confederacy? That, course, is a different story. Or probably it isn’t.
Some of these men and women also wrote books the earlier crimes that led to these later ones, or about Spinoza, or Marx, or Freud, or some of the other “non-Jewish Jews” who tried to see a happier future in the degraded present and tell others about it.
And I suppose that one way to describe what I have been doing for the last several years, up to last Wednesday, is to say that I have been consuming these books and trying to make sense of them.
And maybe that’s why I began to weep when I was asked: well, are you a historian? I said: yes, things happen one after another, and that that matters to people. I believe that so yes I am a historian. But what I want to know is what it is to think about Lonnie Johnson and New Orleans in 1899 and Toronto in 1975 and how far away is New Orleans from Toronto and how long a unit of time separates 1975 from 1899?
“The question of why the Ancient Greeks did not invent the phonograph,” I offered, trying to regain my composure, “remains pressing.” (I failed to mention that phonos also denotes “murder,” with the switch of an omega and an omicron).
I stopped at “lachrymatory.” I noticed with interest that an off-brand dictionary site (near the top of the Google results list) defines “lachrymatory” as: “(Historical Terms) a small vessel found in ancient tombs, formerly thought to hold the tears of mourners.”
I began to laugh. What do we now think these objects are for? Nothing, I guess? Isn’t that funny.
I recall that my friend Chris, who is a poet, once collected examples of this object, during the golden age of ebay. A “lachrymatory” seemed to me then like such an interesting thing for a poet to purchase, so different from the gizmos and old vinyl that my music friends tracked obsessively. I thought of Chris and Julia in Texas and what happened this year because of a stupid storm and how all I could think to do was write “It will get better” which did not seem like a very helpful thing to do but which I do believe is a true thing to say.