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On Studying Someone Else’s Hands

We know, in theory, all about valuing other people: respecting them as unique individuals, listening to their voice, accepting humanity in its majestic diversity… The lesson has been made for us in politics. Since the inception of Athenian democracy, and or at least since the French and American revolutions, we have heard much about the near-sacred rights of every citizen, about our equal standing before authority and about our universal claim to be heard and respected. Christianity has made a comparable point in the spiritual sphere: everyone has a precious soul, everyone deserves love and honour, we are all as unique and as precious as somebody’s own child.

Yet whatever the theory, this is not quite how we live in practice. We largely dwell in suspicion of one another. We are quick to fill with anger and mistrust. We are ready to imagine the darkest things about strangers. Rarely do we surrender to any kind of mood of benevolence or tenderness towards our fellow humans.

But there might be a way more regularly to do this via a physical exercise as peculiar sounding as it may be consoling: with their full consent, by taking a minute or two to study – really study – someone else’s hand, holding it in ours and observing it with a deeply unusual sense of curiosity and imagination.

Palm readers have long known something that most of us overlook: that hands are very telling. Unfortunately, they have taken this insight into a needlessly fantastical direction, suggesting that hands can tell us the one thing that no one is ever able to know: what will happen in the future. But outside of this fantasmagoria, their focus has surely been correct. Hands are – far more than other parts of the body – zones of supreme eloquence. We might go so far as to say that if what we can colloquially call ‘the soul’ – that confluence of deep identity, vulnerability and singularity dwells anywhere, then it must be in the hands. To look closely over someone’s hands, to open the palm, observe the fingers, follow the veins and examine the creases and folds, is to gain a powerful sense of the living newness and exoticism of their life. It is hard not to feel sympathy and even, in the most innocent but also sincere sense, not to be overcome by love. 

The path from a neglect of hands to their more appropriate appreciation can be tracked in the history of art. For most of the medieval period, artists knew – of course – that humans had hands, otherwise they’d have trouble holding anything up (for example, their child), but they chose to see them in the most schematic and indistinct of ways. For the artist sculpting the mother of god out of walnut wood in Auvergne some time around 1200, hands were just hands in general, not someone’s hands in particular.

Hands in general, not someone’s hands. Detail of Virgin and Child in Majesty, 1175-1200

Even the Italian painter Giotto, a genius at rendering emotion, when he came to give his characters hands on the walls of the Scrovegni chapel in Padua around 1300, evidently wasn’t very interested in the details:  four sausage fingers and a thumb seemed to be very much enough. 

Giotto, Detail, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, c.1305

At least in Europe, it is only as we enter the mid to late Renaissance that artists began to get appropriately interested – for the first time – in some of the many things that hands have to tell us.

In one of the central works of the history of art, hands at last have a primordial place. The momentous moment of near contact between the human and the divine is articulated not via the mind or the eyes, but the fingers. It’s not words or a smile or an embrace: all the intensity of the connection between man and god is focused on the precise position and character of two hands: on the left (human side) more drawn in and more languid; and on the right godly side more open, assertive and commanding. (Michelangelo was, retrospectively, also rather lucky that in the decades after he finished his labours, the plaster between the hands of the two central figures started to crack, creating a sense of ever widening and poignant division in the relationship between the heavenly and the human.) 

The idea of studying hands closely reached perhaps its highest point of development in the 19th century. Here, a great artist like Edgar Degas might simply paint a pair of otherwise disembodied hands and leave us to fill in the entirety of the complex individual they belonged to – confident (not wrongly) that, from these hints, we would have enough to imagine a whole life story. 

Edgar Degas, Study of Hands 1860

Study a hand, any hand, carefully enough, the artists appeared to be telling us, and you can know the crucial elements of what matters in an individual. 

We might, in their wake, try a similar exercise with an old or, more daringly, a new friend. Once this hand was tiny; it struggled to grasp a raisin. They maybe sucked their thumb; their fingers would have pulled up zips and undone buttons. Their hand has been employed in their most intimate activities. It’s been clenched in anger; it’s wiped away tears; the fingernails have dug into the palm at moments of anxiety (of which there must have been many); it’s signed documents; made graphically rude gestures; it’s clutched a wall in terror; it’s been held by a parent before crossing a road. And one day an undertaker will fold it carefully across this person’s chest. 

Through the study of a hand, we feel at an emotional level what might otherwise have remained a mere intellectual notion: that another person is just as complex, strange and multifaceted as we are; that they, like us, are the centres of their own bewilderingly rich and precious perceptions – and are every bit as worthy of consideration and sympathy. Once we look back up at their eyes after time with their hand, they perhaps won’t ever quite be the same person again – in the best of ways. 

We speak so much of universal brother and sister-hood. But it isn’t until we have spent some moments immersed in the stories whispered by another’s hands that we stand to be able to turn an abstract aspiration into something properly useful and appropriately humanising.

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