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292. Contemplation (VIII)

A person’s hands are very strange, my hands in particular. The old expression says that we know a topic as well as we know the backs of our hands, but we do not know the backs of our hands very well. I found this out when I thought that a mole on my hand had turned cancerous. I found that I could not remember what my mole looked like before, and I could not remember what my hand looked looked like at all. It turns out that the back of your hand is an illusion. Your entire body, in fact, is unmapped territory; even those who really care about bodily appearances, anorexics and bodybuilders, do not really know the territory. We think that we have explored outer space and the deep sea, but we have not even adequately explored and mapped the skin—the great organ—that protects us from the environment.

My father has rough hands, rough with hard work. I watched those hands once, made some comment, and his wife—a poisonous cunt—observed that my hands are very soft, but there is a good reason for that; and the reason, in part, is her. The hands are a neglected organ; absolutely fundamental to our every activity, an organ that distinguishes us from the apes—central to our ability to make tools—and yet hardly considered at all. Indeed, we regard the hands as somewhat dirty; we use the hands to scoop faeces from our bodies—and there are countries where which hand you use to eat and greet and wipe is a complex affair. Of course, it has been determined that we care about breasts, buttocks, and biceps—and perhaps for eyes, chins, and jaws. Hands, therefore, receive little attention; nobody cares too much about hands—at least, no camera ever lingers over the hands. There is no attraction there; it is not built into the system, the hands play an implicit role. Yet when it comes to death, we like the idea—perhaps only in films, but all the same—of the hands crossed over the body.

Women care, perhaps, whether their hands are smooth and silken; and men, as discussed, see rough hands as a sign that they are vigorous providers. Yet hands get in places: the mother worries that her child will get its hands caught in some mechanism; as a toddler, I stuck my hand right into an oven and held the looped element, tantalisingly red in the Athenian heat. Then I screamed and screamed, but the burn left no scar.

The hand is also used for sexual manipulation: to grip a leg, to clutch at a throat, or to insert the digits into a woman’s pudenda—again, shades of dirt and suspicion around hands. Yet, this morning, the same hands typed out computer code or examined a child’s chest for a cough or turned the pages of some sacred text—perhaps those same hands picked out a tune on a piano, or plucked at a guitar.

In the written world, our hands speak for us. There used to be people who said they could tell all about a person from their handwriting, but hardly anyone uses handwriting today. We work with keyboards instead, and I prefer that method. This is what I grew up with; of course, I know it depersonalises everything—everything is standardised, and now there are computer programs that will autocorrect even the way we phrase our sentences.

From a political perspective, the implications are obvious: eventually the machines will edit out the “wrong words” and “wrong phrases” as standard. You will type out a few words—a few ideas—and the computer will erase those sentences and replace those bad thoughts with good thoughts, and so everyone will be happy forever and ever. Despite this development—and it is already here—our hands will remain, the unmapped territory before us, the means by which we feel in the dark when there is no light.


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