Thursday, April 17, 2008

Hand to mind

Let me add a few glosses to a review in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review.

The book is Richard Sennett's The Craftsman, which I have not read. According to the review, Sennett's intent is to exalt craftsmanship -- the work of the hands -- to its rightful place alongside the work of the mind. More. He wishes to show that craft takes precedence over mind, that mind had its origin in the work of the hands.

This is a theme I can relate to, and I look forward to the book. I recently submitted a little essay to Notre Dame Magazine, called "The Workbench," that will be published in the fall, about my father's respectful blending of craft and mind. From an early age he taught me to use my hands, to value craft, to relish the touch of wood and metal, to respect the heft, hardness and edge of a tool. It was his conviction that the best way to understand how the world works is to take it apart and put it back together again.

Some years ago, a treasure trove of prehistoric art was discovered in a cavern near the town of Vallon-Pont- d'Arc in southern France. The cave contains multiple images of horses, bison, bears and rhinos, in red, ocher and black pigments. These exquisite drawings appear to date from around 20,000 years ago. They open a new window on the emerging mind and culture of our Cro-Magnon ancestors.

The animal images are accompanied by stenciled hands. Lots of hands. Some anthropologists say the hands are a mystery, but I think not. The animal drawings at Vallon-Pont-d'Arc are similar to those at other caves in southern France and Spain (I once visited with my children the exquisite galleries at Altamira). The images of animals probably had something to do with religion or the magic of the hunt. Collective things. Congregational things. But the stenciled hands seem to spring from something prior and private. Warm flesh pressed against cold stone. Spontaneity. Individualism. The hands are not abstract works of mind; they are immediate projections of the body. They are the physical self making contact with the stuff of the world. They remind us that behind the wonderful animal art there was mortar and pestle, pigment and torch, stone and spear.

The purest way to live, it has always seemed to me, is with what might be called a Benedictine balance of manual labor, intellectual work, and prayer. The closest I have come to achieving this is on the island, where part of each day is given over to reading and writing, part to woodworking and household maintenance, and part to paying attention, usually while walking. Yes, I know. It's our brain that by most accounts defines our humanity -- that gray stuff locked out of sight in the strongbox of the skull. But it's with our hands that we make physical contact with reality. Our hands are our emissaries to the world.