Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Being human

I've been thinking a lot about hands lately. Or, rather, a hand. Specifically my right hand, which has developed an annoying tremor.

I never paid much attention to my hands before. Hands pretty much operate on automatic pilot. It doesn't take a lot of conscious decision-making to scratch your nose. Or button your shirt. Hands follow the brain rather like an obedient dog trots alongside its master. But now my right hand clamors for attention like an unruly pup.

So I find myself looking at my hand with more awareness than before, and realizing more than ever what a really wonderful thing it is.

The image above is a detail from Leonardo da Vinci's Virgin of the Rocks, the original Louvre version. Such a versatility of hands! The Madonna's hand hovers protectively above the Infant Jesus. Jesus raises his right hand in the traditional posture of a blessing -- a blessing for the infant John the Baptist who is out of the detail's frame on the left. The angel glances at us the viewers, and directs our attention to John with pointing finger. A dramatic play of hands.

One could write a treatise on Leonardo's hands, in his paintings, in his notebooks. Perhaps it has been done. I don't know of any artist who uses hands more expressively. Leonardo's hands are as expressive of the personhood of his subjects as are the eyes -- the so-called windows of the soul-- maybe more so.
A not uncommon theme of prehistoric rock or cave art is the stenciled hand. Before there were mirrors, a person's most vivid notion of selfhood may have derived from the hand, that agile and obedient servant of self-awareness. The poet Robinson Jeffers has a poem about hands painted by a prehistoric race on a rock vault in a California canyon, "a multitude of hands in the twilight, a cloud of men's palms." Religion, magic, the idleness of art? The hands are like a sealed message, says Jeffers, saying, "Look: we also were human; we had hands, not paws."

(Detail from Leonardo's Lady With an Ermine. Tomorrow I will be in transit to the island. As usual, I have no idea what access I will have to the internet when I get there. I'll be back as soon as I can. Maybe Tom will move my Chattanooga "cast of characters" post to the fore as a place holder till I return.)