By Deane Juhan
While the English language has no word that adequately names an entity that fully embraces and fuses the physical and mental dimensions of our being, and while a still-pervasive Cartesian conceptual framework perpetuates the the notion of a clear distinction between body and mind, our language does have a word which--in its richly manifold meanings--embodies the multi-layered dynamics that permeate our flesh, our feelings, our thoughts and our relationships with one another and with the world.
“Touch” is the single most expansive word in our lexicon. Its related definitions fill 23 columns in the Oxford English Dictionary, by far its largest entry. The meanings of touch range from concrete to metaphorical, from tactual to psychological, philosophical, metaphysical and moral, from the blunt to the nuanced, from palpable to ephemeral.
Touch is both a noun and a verb, and act and an event. And it is a sense, ”the most general of body senses.” All of our senses, in fact, involve physical contact of one kind or another: photons with the retina, vibrations with the eardrum, molecules with taste buds and receptors in the nasal membranes. Our skin is our largest and most extensive organ of sensation. Any object that touches the skin announces a wide variety of qualities of that object and the nature of its impingement upon our organisms--heat, cold, texture, vibration, pressure, duration and all changes that occur in that duration. The skin is the surface of the brain. To touch the surface is to stir the depths. The qualities of objects and their touch penetrates deeply into us, both by way of nerve endings that are buried in layer after layer of our tissues and by way of our entire history of associations with the things of the world. Nothing can touch us anywhere without altering our state of attention and engaging the all of the processes of our entire being. Our sense of touch is a major conduit into our consciousness, and its reverberations there are among the primary contents of our awareness.
In a culture that is to a large degree deprived of social touch, and which often regards its intimacy with suspicion and defensiveness, it is not surprising that many connotations associated with it are not positive ones. A touchy person is one who is irritable, uncomfortably ticklish, volatile, bad-tempered, quick to react negatively. Touch is often regarded as a violation--vexing, nettling, injurious, touching a sore point, touching us to the quick. To touch can mean to rebuke, to censure, to charge with, to accuse, to arrest. A touchy situation is one that is risky,, dangerous. Touch-and-go refers to a precarious outcome. Touch-powder, touch-box and touch-hole are mechanisms involved in firing a musket. Touch-wood is highly flammable tinder. One who is touched in the head is deranged. Even those who employ touch therapeutically are often derided as merely touchy-feely, superficial, hedonistic and worthy of contempt.
But despite these negative associations, the value of touch also plays prominently in our usage. In the fine arts, touch is a hallmark of aesthetic sensitivity and expressiveness. A sculptor’s touch with hammer and chisel or hands is a high degree of refinement in his or her shaping of material. Pictoral artists seek out the brush, the pen, the pencil, the charcoal that has the right “touch,” and artists’ adeptness at applying their marks to paper or canvas is their touch as well. And touching-up is the addition of further refinements. In photography, retouching is the adjusting of visual elements that were not captured in the original image. Attributes of musical instruments--the responsiveness, of a violin, say, or a piano is the measure of its range and effectiveness in conveying the expressiveness of the musician--are said to be their touch. And the skill of performance is likewise referred to as the musician’s touch. George Shearing once described perfectly this mutually sensitive relationship between the touch of the artist and the touch of his instrument:
“The problem with electronic keyboards--and I’ve played a few notes here and there--is that there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of room for the tender loving care that goes into some pianistic touches, the feeling that you have caressed the depression of this note to such a degree that it will sing rather than shout at you. Generally, this individuality of touch, and being able to recognize one pianist from another, is all but absent in computerized instruments. It’s “OK, you want an A (Knob). You want a B? (Knob). You can’t dismiss the marvelous variety of tone colors available on the electronic instrument, but tone colors are one thing; degrees of sound and touch, and all the inconsistencies and therefore unpredictableness that go into a human addressing something as sensitive as the piano are another thing.”
Touch is a journey’s end, as when an airplane touches down or a ship touches shore. It is also a beginning, as when a sequence of events is touched off. It is the oldest of the senses, already active and discriminating in the membranes of primitive single-celled organisms, and in an embryo. And the touch of death is the last we will receive.
If these words on the subject have touched you, then we will have touched upon both the earliest and the most enduring aspects of our lives. We will have hit the mark exactly--touche.