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The first and the last caress

· ​The humblest of the senses ·

Touch is the last of the five senses. In our world sight and hearing dwell on the main floor, smell and taste are restricted to the lower floors, while relegated to the basement we find the fifth and last sense, touch. However, as we shall see, the very fact of belonging to the dimension of the lowest of the low makes it susceptible to a process of requalification which raises it to the peaks of the sublime.

First of all a paradox: tactile sensations are perceived through the skin, the most extensive organ of the body. Even when it is intentionally involved, touch not only receives scant information from objects but possesses few abilities to elaborate them, to translate them into words or to share them. While cognitive psychologists have identified various types of intelligence in accordance with the prevalent sense for which there is a visual, verbal and aural sense, a tactile intelligence is never mentioned, nor are artists particularly endowed with this sense remembered. Yet we know that Michelangelo had a corporeal, tactile relationship with the marble he was sculpting; he was in the habit of caressing the smooth or rough surfaces of statues as if they were the skin or clothing of a living person, who, like the Moses today located in the Church of St Peter in Chains, lacked only speech.

In spite of the extraordinary size of those parts of the brain that are reserved for the hand and the mouth, touch remains for us a little explored and scarcely used sense, a potential which does not evolve with age and is hardly perfected with culture. Even medicine, which with Galen provided an analytical description of the anatomy and physiology of the human body, has barely addressed the functions and pathologies of touch.

We know that it is very dangerous to be born deprived of this sense and that without it survival itself is at risk. However, perhaps because this rarely happens, this pathology has remained relegated to the specialized sphere, without involving common opinion. Whereas blindness, deafness and mutism are well-known pathologies, investigated and represented to the point where they have become shared knowledge and have given rise to a whole series of metaphors and allegories (only think of the expression “emotionally deaf” or of the blindfolded eyes of the goddess Fortuna), the pathology which prevents a person from establishing a tactile contact with objects remains a remote possibility, a problem that exclusively concerns specialists.

And yet it is the task of touch to establish our first, most immediate live contact with the world, giving us immunity and informing us of what can burn, prick, cut, of what does us good or is harmful, of what can be touched with pleasure or avoided with fear. Nevertheless in recent years substances used daily such as detergents, latex, cosmetics, and even natural elements such as fruit treated with fungicides all too often prove harmful for the mucus membranes of the skin. Forms of contact dermatitis appear to be ever more widespread pathologies and the use of gloves is now the norm in order to touch things without being touched, to the extent that in the end, through a specular overturning of relationships, it is we who are the untouchables.

Yet, although tactile experiences are necessary for our safety, in our everyday lives – distinguished by superficiality and haste – the messages that touch sends to us are often ignored and warning signals are disregarded. This occurs to such an extent that touch seems to be subjected to a sort of local anaesthesia.

The same thing happens for pleasurable contacts: wearing soft clothing, feeling on one’s skin the warm sand of the beach, the cool waves of the sea, the breath of the wind; stroking the silky fur of a cat, fingering the petals of a flower, or following with one’s relaxed body the sinuous lines of a rock – all are perceptions that are often experienced distractedly, marginal events that do not demand attention, they do not involve awareness and do not activate the memory.

But it is not only information coming from outside that is disregarded, even inner solicitations, which reach us from within our own bodies, often remain unheard. It happens more and more frequently that a pregnant woman does not recognize the movements of the foetus and that our minds neglect the signals of discomfort sent by a diseased organ. With regard to sensations we behave as if we had unplugged the connection between the body and the mind.

Only artists are able to gather the secret resonances of their bodies, even of touch, to express them in symbols and to communicate to others the emotions they inspire, which is why paradoxically it is easier for us to “feel” through a work of art than through reality. Moreover, even when tactile pleasure is recognized and appreciated, it is difficult to put it into words, to communicate it and to share it. More often than not, when contact with things makes an intense or surprising impression, on them, people turn to those near them and say, “touch it too, feel it for yourself”.

Thus proximity and immediacy seem to me to be the main characteristics of touch, which is what makes it at the same time both the lowest sense and, as we shall see, sublime. The tactile mechanism, in fact, which perceives the object only through direct contact between the two surfaces, the skin and the thing, unlike sight and hearing does not have the benefit of mediators. We are able to receive information from every part of the world, to see and to listen to those in space or at the bottom of the sea, but in no way can we share tactile perceptions, which do not provide for mediation and do not permit transfers. While a sound can be heard in silence and only against a void can one perceive a signal, what is the background of touch?

Touch is a decontextualized sense, a bewildered sense which requires further information, not being in itself exhaustive. In addition, while we are used to hearing many sounds and seeing a quantity of images at the same time, we receive one piece of tactile information at a time. For this reason in the era of telecommunications, touch remains on the ground, as if it were made of a particularly heavy material. While the commercialization of the various forms of sensory communication encourages the exploitation and manipulation of messages, often used by advertising to suggest and condition attitudes and behaviour, touch, the most discreet of the senses, does not take part in this commodification, remaining for the most part relegated to the niche of the private, the intimate, the sensitive and the inexpressible.

Ignored by society because it is considered superfluous, marginalized by the mind as unimportant, for the most part touch is reserved for those with the ability to value it: those who appreciate fabrics, cosmetics, foodstuffs, the pleasures of everyday objects. Or for doctors who still have recourse to it, continuing an age-old tradition in the palpation of the sick body. Touch has never enjoyed prestige.

In On the Soul Aristotle considers touch a nutritive and increasing faculty, aimed at the survival of the individual and of the species, which all living beings possess and which is thus not specifically human. Surprisingly, however, he attributes sexual pleasure to touch. What is the meaning of this unexpected connection? Not of course to add value to touch but rather to devalue sexuality. In factin degrading sexual pleasure to a merely tactile function, Aristotle’s intention is to purify the soul, which Plato considered activated by erotic desire and perturbed by its contradictions, in order to consecrate it, thereby sublimated, to the service of superior concerns, knowledge and virtue. This crucial theoretical operation which separates and opposes soul and body was to be confirmed by Galen and accepted for centuries by the dominant philosophical and scientific thought.

We had to wait for Freud for recognition of the energetic function of sexuality attributed to it by Plato, for people to admit that thought emerges from the substratum of sexual instincts through desire, in a combination of psyche and soma never resolved once and for all. Instead for Aristotle the soul can and must be released from sexuality in order to guide the human being towards his or her highest realization. The pleasures of sight and of hearing, in some ways incorporeal, participate in the soul, those of touch instead, linked to the materiality of contact, of the mechanical rubbing of the organs, are proper to beasts and to slaves. Nevertheless, no matter how degraded it is, perhaps because it is degraded, for Aristotle touch remains a privileged relationship with the truth. In general the senses do not lie, because they refer to direct data and real objects.

It is in touch, as a pure sensation, separate from thought, that the proof of truth is sought, even if this acquisition of truth is paid for with the extreme impoverishment of the experience, reduced to a mere reception of somatic stimuli. It is true that we may ignore having a stone in our shoe, but contact with the other is always full of intensity. We do not need objects but affections, and desire, according to Lacan, is always a desire for the other, a desire for love, even when it is expressed in the destructive forms of hate.

In the play of exchanges we are reciprocally involved in both the physical, tactile perception of the other (which is why if I feel you, you feel me), and in its figurative function, in the communicative relations of the psyche. Thus it is almost impossible to separate the two functions of touch, as sensation and as relationship. It is moreover significant that the emotions are expressed first of all through the skin, the organ of touch. When we see a face turn pale or blush we are often able to deduce the person’s emotional state. But it is even more significant that language attributes to touch, the most concrete of the senses, precisely the most purely mental functions, which are particularly difficult to define and to share; expressions such as “to have tact”, “to get into someone else’s skin”, “to feel something in one’s bones”, “feeling in touch”, “to handle something” allude to ineffable mental operations, very far from the sphere of the senses yet at the same time best expressed in terms of it.

However if we consider the tactile experience as a whole and if we follow its development in the course of life, we see that it emerges from the vital substratum that gives birth to existence: the body of the mother from whom all things come. The first organ that is formed, evolving from the germ layer, is precisely the skin and, even before the end of the first two months of gestation the embryo has already acquired tactile sensitivity. It does not yet have either eyes or ears but its skin has already developed. Like a wrapping, it contains the foetus during its nine months of aquatic existence, and after birth immediately adapts to the far more complex atmosphere of air. From this time on the skin will be the most important means of communication between the internal and external worlds, in both senses: from the body to the psyche and from the psyche to the body. On the one hand, the skin sends the mind information essential for our ability to survive and for our knowledge of the world. On the other, as psychosomatic medicine teaches, it reveals the psyche, manifesting both positively and negatively its emotional imbalances.

The skin is a language and, like any language requires an interlocutor. For each person the first interlocutor is the mother. When it comes into the world, the new-born baby has previously functioned symbiotically with the maternal body and its mind is potentially formed through a secret interaction with that of the mother....

Unlike human beings, in other mammals the mother continues the skin to skin relationship with her whelp even after birth, licking it slowly and carefully for a long time. This is not only a matter of cleansing it of the embryonic residues but also of stimulating the functions that the offspring’s organs must assume. The contact with the mother’s tongue is a sort of stimulus which gives the green light to little one’s respiratory, gastro-enteric and genito-urinary apparatus. If this does not happen, if there is a lack of this protracted massaging, the young animal dies. We do not know why or when human mammals lost such an essential behaviour but in fact, for us the contact between mother and child is always more mediated by sight and by words to the disadvantage of direct contact. And yet we know that such contact responds to the most instinctive needs of new-born babies, which cannot be very different from those of primates, the higher apes.

The meeting with the new-born baby, the guest in its mother’s body that is most looked forward to usually passes unobserved, while it constitutes a founding moment for the identity and relationship of both. When a baby is born a mother comes into being, but for this to happen it is necessary that the preceding biological unity is re-established from the outside, and that the fracture of birth be recomposed in an embrace where the caress, replacing the licking of animals, inaugurates life together.

Giovanni Battista Cima “Madonna and Child” (c. 1497, detail)

The first face to face meeting of the mother and child concludes an expectation which has lasted for nine months and, psychologically, even longer if we consider that every woman, like every female mammal, possesses an unconscious image of her child, a foreknowledge of the result of her reproduction. If the baby was at first an object of someone else’s desire, from now on it will be a subject, with the rights that we can attribute to it. When a new-born baby is welcomed into civil society and into the religious community he or she is already a person, because the mother has recognized her child as such, attributing to him or her fundamental citizenship, the citizenship which enrols it in humanity.

However, since there is no possibility of verbal exchange, this communication takes other paths: touch, smell, sight. During breast-feeding mother and child gaze at each other with an extraordinary intensity, and, at the same time, embark on a process of mutual tactile exploration. The hands of the baby touch the breast and face of the mother with ever better oriented and surer movements, while those of the mother caress the baby’s head, press its lips against her nipple, and trace the gentle outline of its cheeks with her finger. In this way the child learns at the same time to recognize its own skin and that of the other, adherence and separation. The relationship between mother and child in this sense constitutes the prototype of all subsequent emotional bonds.

Have you ever noticed that in desperate situations people hug themselves? And, in many cultures, to comfort themselves, the faithful pass the rosary beads through their fingers or touch an object considered to be sacred. But touching always entails being touched, a reciprocity which exchanged love alone can achieve. For this reason never do we feel as much ourselves, as authentic and understood, as when we are in love. And nothing evokes first, crucial affective experiences, recalls those feelings of intimacy and abandonment which express the feminine part of sexuality as much as embraces and caresses, the most secret, the most precious experiences that survive old age and last over time.

According to Freud, the identity is first and foremost an ego body but the ego body, as we have seen, is the result of interaction with the body of another person, first of all of the mother. Her caresses mark out the boundaries between the internal world and the external world, the one that extends beyond my skin, ready to be explored, manipulated, controlled and possessed by the hand that functions as a channel between the I and the my.

It is said that shaking hands serves to guarantee that we are unarmed or in other words that the hostility with which one human being always confronts another has been set aside. But perhaps there is something more: a handshake, like a kiss, means a pact of alliance as well as non-belligerence, a promise of concord that nothing can attest to as well as a skin to skin contact. Betrayals of course are always possible, as Judas’ kiss reminds us, but usually skin contact is a good formula of acceptance. The opposite of this, the condemnation to untouchability (as is the case with the lowest and most despised of the Indian castes, named precisely the untouchables), is the most violent radical underestimation of others.

Although our culture is based on the values of relationships (liberty, equality, fraternity), human relations are always problematic. In one way or another the dilemma arises of the distance to be taken towards our neighbour. We know that every culture has different measures of the space to be interposed between one body and another and that the strongest impact made on travellers in Asian countries is precisely the threatening impression of excessive closeness.

However, within certain standards we are asked to act with tact, to approach others sufficiently to understand them and at the same time to remain far enough away from them not to offend them. This is an especially topical problem in an epoch in which the world has shrunk and distances seem to be abolished by the communications media. Yet, however comprehensive they may be, contacts at a distance do not establish a real encounter. An infinite number of people communicate online and correspondents often develop friendly relations and even fall in love. But when they actually meet and expect to recognize one another they are more often than not struck by a distressing feeling of being strangers. Their real life bodies do not correspond to their online simulacra and, once again, touch reclaims its function of truth.

This is a function so hard to define that it leads us to say of an ineffable experience that “it was touching”, as if there were no adequate words for it, and thus the difficult task of expressing the depth of human feeling is referred to the most modest of the senses. If we consider the ability to orientate our cognitive and affective behaviour we can say that we do not have but rather are our touch, the memory of the contacts that we have experienced in the course of our life that have profoundly shaped us.

Our life, having begun with a caress, ends with a caress. When during the farewell ceremony there are no words to express the emotions and the other is drifting away in silence, the loneliness of the dying person is often interrupted by a last, delicate, never-ending caress. It is the only thing that can reach him or her at the point where he or she is, apparently close but infinitely distant. Thus the cycle of life concludes with the same gesture, of welcome first and subsequently of farewell. It is a contact that testifies to the capacity of human feeling to communicate with the body, beyond the body.

Silvia Vegetti Finzi




St. Peter’s Square

Dec. 7, 2019