Handsome Revelations

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A psychoanalyst’s hands-on approach to civilisation

Hands: What We Do With Them—And Why | Darian Leader | Penguin | Pages 128 | Rs 490 (Kindle)

IT WAS THE title that first caught my attention. It was so obvious that it seemed laughable, but then it also piqued interest. Darian Leader, British psychoanalyst, author and frequent contributor to The Guardian, has a knack for the click-baity book title, his previous ones being Why Do Women Write More Letters Than They Post?, Promises Lovers Make When it Gets Late and What is Madness? It is often the most obvious questions that spur interesting answers. This book is proof of that.

I have always been intrigued by hands, the construction and movement of them, the lines that run through and the lines that vanish. Hands make for fascinating photos and art. Not the Shutterstock versions of fingers that have been rendered mute by manicures and Photoshop. But real hands that tell us stories and histories. The hands of the statue of David are a thing of pure beauty, with their subterranean veins, curves of sinew and the fingers which hint at grip and release. Or the hands in Vermeer’s paintings, always caught in flux—pouring milk from a jug, writing with a quill, or the making of lace. The hands of a fisherman scaling the ilish at CR Park market; the fingers of the jasmine stringer in Chennai; the weathered fingertips of a guitarist; the haldi-stained forefingers of a cook—each suggest a story and hint at the personality. It is for those hands that I picked up this book.

Let’s start by listing all the things I wish Leader’s book had dealt with, for example, the difference between urban and rural hands, the fissures of a labourer’s palms versus the namby- pambiness of a desk worker’s. I wish he’d dealt at length with hands and food, the cooking and eating of it. He ought to have touched upon hands and therapy, how hands can soothe and even heal.

Leader reminds us that palaeontologists searching for bigger skulls were looking in the wrong place: they should have been looking at the hands. As soon as we started walking upright, we could use our hands for manipulation, changing the course of evolution.

The chapter on masturbation and hands does not heave with revelation. The section on baby and hands is interesting in parts. Babies need to keep their hands busy while eating, as the hands must ‘echo’ what the mouth is doing. The interchangeability between ‘taste’ and ‘touch’ is revelatory. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the two terms are used for each other, we are told. In art history, writes Leader, images of Eve touching the fruit and tree outnumber those of her tasting it in depictions of the Fall. In public imagination, we often assume Eve is biting into the apple. But a quick Google search shows that in most images, she is in fact just touching the fruit. This interchangeability highlights how in our mind’s eye we so often mistake taste for touch and vice versa. It would appear that we never outgrow our confusion between the hand and the mouth!

He breaks free from the cliché paranoia around mobile use. It is fashionable to lament that our habits and relationships are going down the toilet, thanks to technology. But Leader silences those alarms: mobile phones are no über harbingers of doom. Their use, he says, allows us to do ‘what humans unremittingly do, which is to find ways—through religion, music, craft, technology—to be somewhere else’. The attachment to the device lets us be ‘absent while being nonetheless physically present’. And this need for distance is no modern ailment. Leader conjectures that the ubiquity of fans, gloves, watches and prayer beads were similar instruments that allowed ‘mediation, of being both there and elsewhere’. If previous generations sat at their doorstep running through their rosaries in a bid to distance themselves from the moment, we do the same now, only with a cellphone in hand. Alienation doesn’t have to be a negative force; it allows us to crucially disconnect. Today our hands need to type, click and scroll, just as our hands used to fidget, doodle and knit.

Leader also has an interesting section on the use of hands and speech. After all, ‘language does not exist in any disembodied state but demands incarnation, with the hands constantly manipulating and shaping’. After Cicero’s murder, both his severed head and hands were put on public display. This book reveals why the hands of a philosopher and orator—whose influence on the ‘history of European literature and ideas exceeds any other prose writer in any language’—are as potent a symbol of him as his head.