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15 July 2016updated 02 Sep 2021 10:33am

What do we use our hands for today (and why does it matter)?

Two new books reveal intriguing aspects to today's body politics: Darian Leader's Hands and Fay Bound Alberti's This Mortal Coil.

By Wendy Moore

You need hands, Max Bygraves sang, to hold someone you care for. But also, he might have added if he were still around today, to tap, type and scroll. From the first handprint on a cave wall through Leonardo da Vinci’s exquisite studies to M C Escher’s beguiling puzzle of two hands drawing each other, human beings have been preoccupied with their digits. Whether using tools, wielding a pen or swiping a phone, our hands seem to distinguish us from other animals.

The psychoanalyst Darian Leader goes further. In his eloquent new book, he argues that they are what make us quintessentially human. Indeed, it is this very compulsion to keep our fingers busy – a throwback to the separation phase of infancy – that enables us both to connect with others and to be ourselves.

In the past, scholars wrangled over whether the soul resided in the heart, the brain or the blood. Writers today debate which part of the body is most central to human identity: the site of the modern soul, if you like. For Leader, this is the hands. For Fay Bound Alberti, whose book examines how attitudes towards the body have changed over time, the brain, heart and even the gut vie for primary position. Modern medicine views the body as a biochemical machine, but the quest to locate the essence of our humanity in our flesh seems as vital as ever.

If Leader’s premise seems initially somewhat trite, his slender book makes a perfectly poised argument. Through the prisms of child development, popular culture and history, he conveys complex ideas with a light touch and sharp wit. As babies, we use our hands to explore the world, first bringing new objects to the mouth and later developing hand-eye co-ordination to grasp what we want. When feeding, babies often claw or stroke whatever they can reach, whether their mother’s breast, a feeding bottle or clothing. Gradually, the child may fix this clutching motion on a particular rag or cuddly toy – the “transitional object”, in child development terms – and this transference to an object that is “neither her nor me” assists the emotional separation from the mother or primary carer.

So, Leader argues, as adults we feel impelled to keep restless fingers busy by tapping a mobile phone or fondling a string of worry beads. We use these props as security blankets to replay that crucial moment of becoming ourselves. According to World Bank figures, three-quarters of the global population has access to a mobile phone, but Leader provides surely the more startling statistic that two-thirds of the world’s population uses worry or prayer beads. And while many are raising fears that this constant attention to mobile devices may be damaging social relationships, he believes it is therapeutic – allowing us simultaneously to connect with others and to find distance. In this way, smartphones have become “vessels and mediators of bodily tensions”.

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Outlets for our interminable fidgeting are nothing new. Religious rituals such as prayer provided ways to stop “the devil making work for idle hands” and books on etiquette advised about appropriate social gestures. Before long, society had developed such a plethora of objects to keep the fingers busy – fans, gloves, canes, handkerchiefs – that pockets had to be invented. Adam Smith complained that his contemporaries’ pockets were “stuffed with little conveniences”. Pipes, snuffboxes and cigarettes provided further occupation for hands as well as mouths, perfectly re-creating that lost infantile pleasure. James I lamented that “a man cannot heartily welcome his friend now, but straight they must bee in hand with Tobacco”.

As the Factory Acts reduced working hours, new activities had to be found for the fingers. Soldiers and sailors were encouraged to knit and sew. In modern times, one might suggest, mind-numbingly repetitive actions carried out on assembly lines have been reinvented as mind-calming therapy in colouring books for people with too much time on their hands. Even masturbation, Leader says, can be seen as an outlet for restlessness as much as a source of pleasure.

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Fascinatingly, he also proposes that the familiar “dangling scenes” in films – where one person grips, or releases, another – re-enact the phase when primate infants cling to their mothers for survival while swinging in the trees. This clasping action is a reflex but letting go has to be learned. The writer argues that another common scenario in films, where two people (often at odds with each other) are handcuffed or bound together, reflects the infant’s dual fear of ­being separated and never being released.

Where Leader views such emotions as being ingrained in the human body, Bound Alberti, a historian, explores how our attitudes towards the body constantly change. A founding member of the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London, she divides the body into constituent parts – breasts, heart, genitalia, brain, gut – to chart how medical and cultural ideas have evolved.

Viewing these changes through a feminist lens, she contrasts, for example, the classical ideal of “small, firm and spherical” breasts with the 1950s image of the buxom broad inspired by Hollywood. As countless women suddenly found their figure did not measure up to the celluloid vision, so the medical profession came to their aid with breast implants, spawning a vast and highly profitable cosmetic surgery industry – as well as numerous lawsuits claiming that these implants caused pain and other problems. In the same way, in the early 20th century, women’s magazines began to idealise the hairless female body, leading to the fashion for shaving pubic hair.

Dissecting the body in order to “construct it anew”, Bound Alberti makes an impassioned plea for revival of the holistic values that underpinned humoral medicine – the theory that the bodily “humours” should be kept in balance – which held sway in the Western world until the 19th century. The subsequent development of medical specialities depersonalised health care, she argues, so that doctors today see their patients as separate body parts rather than individuals. This is undoubtedly true, though it was precisely because doctors began to locate specific illnesses in specific parts of the body that they produced the advances from which we all benefit today. While some may prefer the “holistic” approach proffered by complementary therapists, most of us would still like to know if there’s a shadow on our lung or a lump in our breast.

Yet, reinforcing Bound Alberti’s point, her book is most vivid when relating human stories that illustrate medical advancement – not least the tender description of her own teenage daughter’s experience of surgery to correct scoliosis (twisted spine) of the type suffered by Richard III. She cites historical cases that still speak to us. There’s Phineas P Gage, an American construction foreman who survived an accident in 1848 in which a metal rod over three feet long shot through his skull, transforming his personality. And Alexis St Martin, a fur trade worker in Michigan in the 19th century, sustained a gunshot wound to the stomach which never healed, thereby providing doctors, literally, with a window into the gut.

Moving and thought-provoking, these books show how understanding our bodies is integral to understanding ourselves.

Wendy Moore’s books include “The Knife Man: Blood, Body-Snatching and the Birth of Modern Surgery” (Bantam Press)

This article appears in the 13 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM