Living in Siberia – surrounded by forests and rivers, dachas and banyas, gardens and fields; enjoying the sweaty closeness of others engaged in real physical activity, in touch with the land, sampling the fruits of our labors together, the camaraderie of food and strong drink – I can no longer ignore the pleadings of my flesh, and the deep-seated need for touch in everyday experience. I also recognize the continuous and deliberate attenuation of both of these in daily life in America today.
Is not touch my body’s original experience of itself as it palpates the world? While my eyes engage things through a kind of mediated (visual) palpation, touch betrays the immediacy of contact – friction, resistance – the pressure of my body, or part of my body, against another body or physical presence in my world.
What I read a few years back in Vladimir Dal’s early twentieth century Dictionary of the Russian Language confirms what I already have become familiar with from daily life in Altai Krai – the primacy of touch, of the flesh. As Dal wrote over one hundred years ago:
In reality all five senses can be reduced to one – the sense of touch. The tongue and palate [touch] food; the ear, sound waves; the nose, emanations; the eyes, rays of light.
Touching defines the very interstices of my world through location, movement and reach – my flesh, both inline and outline of the lived-body-world at one and the same instant. As my University of Chicago professor, Paul Ricoeur, might have stated, quoting his countryman Merleau-Ponty, flesh is the chiasm, an “intertwining” of body and world, affording the very possibility of tactile experience – of touching and being touched, of the inherent unity of being subject and object.
Even before opening her eyes to explore the sights, a newborn infant feels her body through the intimacy of a mother’s embrace, her touch. Beginning with that first caress, the world becomes a sensual playground for her infinitely excitable flesh. For this same infant, even the inanimate objects of her surroundings, what we educated adults prefer to call “dead matter” – a stone, a tree, wind, water, fire and ice – even these entities feel alive under her touch, becoming filled with life, passion, and being, as they were perhaps for our primeval forbearers, where vitality was everywhere; where being was the same as being alive.
What we modern adults dismissively call “animism” or “vitalism” – the attributing of life and intention to inanimate objects or to nature – was for the many millennia of pre-civilized hominid existence a simple acknowledgement of the power, the force, the capacity of nature to act; and since we were intimately a piece of that nature, it was a recognition of the power enabling our own movement as well. Insofar as all things in creation shared this ability, this power, we were basically of the same essence, the same substance. I had become acutely aware of this in Siberia – that we are a part of the earth, the land, as it is a part of us; we share in the same flesh, in the same destiny!
From the simple positioning of my body, whether passively suffering or forcibly acting, my flesh exhibits a natural reflexivity, a turning back-in upon itself, both the breach and the bridge that constitute my being-situated. This somatic facing in two directions, both inwardly (proprioceptive), and outwardly (tactile), is the basis of my own ecstatic existence, and my experience of doubling. I now understood the potentiality of being both myself and other than myself, immersed in the power of life: my flesh, the flesh of the world! Of course, this is why our most ancient forbearers sensed their own totemic identifications not as some sort of hushed wish or silly hoax, but as a genuine expression of being beyond oneself, the experience of having an identity greater than one self.
Even my body does not initially present me as an isolated entity, separate from the world, an ego locked within a bag of skin. Rather this flesh articulates my facticity as an authentic dwelling place within the great and powerful continuum of life. Nor am I a static presence within this field; I too exhibit motility, a spontaneous ability or capacity to move. The act of touch itself suggests such potency, along with the dynamic configuration of space, as realized in dancing, hunting, playing, walking, eating, sleeping, and sexual engagement.
There is an important difference between simple tactile sensations and the feel of another’s flesh. The impressions I receive when I reach out and touch something are not quite the same as what I experience when I feel the other’s body. Touching another person causes a singular and indescribable sensation, originating in the natural reflexivity of my touch. Touching another’s flesh, I am acutely aware of how the other feels when he or she is being touched by me. This experiencing of one’s own flesh, in and through touching and being touched by another, is at the heart of the sexual encounter.
In no other tactile experience is the flesh so utterly absorbed, and two “souls” so completely inter-animated, as in the intimate union, the ek-stasy of sexual contact. Sexual coupling viscerally discloses the self-transcendent possibilities embedded in human existence, the potential for being oneself and being other than, and greater than, oneself. I recall the words of John Donne’s poem, The Ecstasy:
Our souls—which to advance their state, were gone out—hung ‘twixt her and me…
He—though he knew not which soul spake, because both meant, both spake the same…
When love with one another so inter-animates two souls …
So must pure lovers’ souls descend to affections, and to faculties, which sense may reach and apprehend…
The feel of my lover’s body – the pressure and friction of flesh against flesh – also generates heat, stimulating both our senses of smell and taste. And the tongue, in licking, like the hand, in touching, body’s-forth this same cutaneous experience, making direct appeal to appetitive desire and its pressing fulfillment. The eyes are perhaps the least engaged in this intimate play of the flesh, with almost all awareness gathered around touch, smell and taste, and to some degree on hearing as well – listening to one another’s sounds, breathings, and silences.
What is it about touch, and in particular the feel of the other’s flesh, of human contact, that we find so welcoming and, at other times so fearsome? There is the potential for physical pleasure and emotional communion: a hearty handshake, an extended arm to hold, a shoulder to cry on, an affectionate hug, a gentle caress, a loving embrace, a warm body to envelop us.
But there is the other, darker side of human touch as well: the battering, the assault, the beating, the trauma, and the suffering of pain. The more I reflect on our current state of affairs, the clearer it seems that our world today is in desperate need of opportunities for the pleasurable potential of human touch.
Now, here, in Siberia, I concretely grasp the primacy of my proximate senses of appetition, desire, longing and satisfaction. Growing up in America I had never thought twice about the degree to which I missed real human contact on a daily basis.
Touch, as I also discovered, provides the somatic basis for primal, ahistorical recollection. There is an elemental, almost instinctual memory-trace associated with touch and with tactile experience in general: not a cognitive, historical memory, but the mute recollection of the senses, built up through ritual and repetition.
Reminiscing on my many years playing the piano, I now recall teachers instructing me to practice correct finger movement and hand placement, slowly and without errors, in order to improve my muscle memory. “Your fingers will remember,” they would warn me! “So you must execute each piece precisely, in order that the muscles do not remember incorrectly.” While I initially thought them all a bit wacky, with repeated and careful practice I developed a somatic, proprioceptive memory, an instinctual feeling of where my hands and fingers should be and how to move them.
There is no intellectual coefficient here. It is not remembrance as we normally understand it, grounded in some cerebral or visual image of past performances. It is memory inhering in the very folds of my flesh.