The Corner

Culture

‘Nobody, Not Even the Rain, Has Such Small Hands’

At the 10:22 mark of the Center for Medical Progress’s latest video, released today, there is a picture of a hand. By the curve of the thumb and the articulation of the fingers, one can see that it is a right hand. It was formerly the right hand of an 11.6-week-old fetus; it is now part of the various organic odds and ends being sifted through on a plate in the pathology lab of a Planned Parenthood clinic.

In his 1834 volume The Hand; Its Mechanism and Vital Endowments, as Evincing Design, Sir Charles Bell noted: “The human hand is so beautifully formed, every effort of the will is answered so instantly, as if the hand itself were the seat of that will, that the very perfection of the instrument makes us insensible to its use.” Or, as neurologist Frank R. Wilson has written: “We notice our hands [only] when we are washing them, when our fingernails need to be trimmed, or when little brown spots and wrinkles crop up and begin to annoy us.”

By contrast, a small hand, severed, on a dish, cannot go unnoticed.

I keep calling it a hand. Maybe I shouldn’t. After all, I am informed that it is not a hand, that the revulsion I feel is no indication of right or wrong, that lots of good things are gross.

But I see a hand — five fingers and lines across the joints, like you learn to sketch in art class. I see a hand in form no different from my own. Or no different from Horowitz’s hands, or Edison’s, or Michelangelo’s.

The most famous image Michelangelo painted was of hands: God’s hand extended to Adam’s. The moment is Adam’s creation, but this outreach is never-ending. Hands will always seek each other out. His long poem that begins, “I don’t want to be alive anymore,” Christian Wiman ends: “And I held your hand.”

The sculptor Auguste Rodin spent much of his life fashioning hands. The poet Rainer Maria Rilke described them this way:

Hands that reach out, angry and menacing, hands whose five spiky fingers seem to howl like the five muzzles of the hound of Hell. Hands that walk, hands that sleep, and hands that wake up, criminal hands, hands with loaded histories, and others that are tired, that want nothing more, that are curled up in a corner like sick animals that know no one can save them.

Rodin prefigured Heidegger’s observation: “My hand . . . is not a piece of me. I myself am entirely in each gesture of the hand, every single time.” In the hand, the whole man.

Galen of Pergamon, the great Greek physician, in his treatise On the Use of the Various Parts of the Body, noted that to man alone had the Creator chosen to give the hand, the only instrument “applicable to every art and occasion”:

With this he weaves the garment that protects him from the summer’s heat or winter’s cold; with this he forms the various furniture of nets and snares, which give him a dominion over the inhabitants as well of the water as of the air and earth; with his hand he constructs the lyre and lute, and the numerous instruments employed in the several arts of life; with his hand he erects altars and shrines to immortal gods; and lastly, by means of the same instrument, he bequeaths to posterity, in writings, the intellectual treasures of his own divine imagination.

The gods, the arts, survival, history — all that we are has required, literally, many hands. In the hand, the whole man, and in the man, the whole cosmos.

Now, in a pie dish, for sale.

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