La Mano de Dios

At one point in the novel Cold Mountain, the young heroine takes time out from trying to survive in Civil War-torn Carolina for some auto-erotic activity. She fantasizes about a certain man she knows, and author Charles Frazier explains that, because she has so little knowledge of male anatomy, she is reduced to imagining his hands and wrists.

I wonder whether it’s true that only ignorance would make a woman focus on hands as a sexy body part, rather than the officially-endorsed naughty bits.  Certainly I wouldn’t take Frazier as a guide on sexuality, since his book is saturated with a philosophy we might call Dumbass Darwinism, in which reproduction is taken to be the goal not only of sex but of human life in general.  But I’ve talked elsewhere about my views on people who take natural selection as a guide to ethics, and anyway the less said about Frazier’s astonishingly tedious book the better.*

I was reminded of the above-mentioned scene when I read Emma Donoghue’s Life-Mask, a historical novel set in the 1780s and ’90s that doesn’t exactly answer the question but makes it more interesting.  Eliza Farron is a young (but not as young as she used to be) actress trying to turn her ephemeral glamor into a permanent status.  She has capitvated the Earl of Derby but doesn’t want to settle for the status of a kept woman, so she needs to maintain his interest long enough for his invalid wife to die (and hope that he will then want to marry her).  Her career, on the stage and in society, is built on desire, and indeed part of her charm is that others perceive her as intensely sensual, but she can’t afford to gratify or even really think about her own desires.

Eliza’s new friend, the upper-class sculptor Anne Damer, is also an artist, but with her independent money and assured place in the social hierarchy, she is not the hostage of public opinion.  She is also a widow, and these circumstances give her a freedom and self-assurance that Eliza envies and admires; indeed, Anne’s personal style is quite butch by 18th-C standards, and Eliza is particularly drawn to her strong, callused artist’s hands.

When Mrs. D undertakes to do a bust of Eliza, the first step is a life-mask; this involves careful molding of the face by those strong hands, and the scene gets pretty steamy, except that (unlike writer and reader) the participants have no categories with which to understand what they are feeling.  This is for me a compelling drama, when people must try to fathom their impulses and desires without the supporting schemas that define experience for most of us, and Donoghue represents it with great skill.**

Eventually someone else finds a name for the bond between Anne and Eliza, and publicly accuses them of being tommies and Sapphists.  This news threatens simultaneously to enlighten and ruin them, since even an upper-class woman is vulnerable to ostracism.  To see how Eliza and Anne deal with this catastrophe according to their differently precarious situations and their different internal-combustion engines of desire, you’ll have to read the book.***

(By the way, Ane Damer and Eliza Farron were real people, and the noted gossip Hester Thrale Piozzi did suggest a sexual link.  She wrote in her journal that a woman suspected of Sapphic tendencies was said to be ‘taking tea with Mrs. Damer.  Who knew?)

Going back to the hands, I suspect that my own interest in the topic is related to the fact that so much of my experience is mediated through my hands.  We are used to thinking of sight as the be-all and end-all of sensation, but there is something to be said for touch, and though I don’t think it’s true, as you sometimes read, that a blind person’s other sense become sharper (that’s only true for people who are blind from birth), one does learn to appreciate them.

*But let me say this about that: Frazier, for all his vaunted wilderness lore, knows less about how to use the sky to orient yourself than a certain blind guy I could name.  Surely that is not setting the bar too high.

** My friend K says “Someone did a life-mask of me and it was so not erotic,” and I says “Yabbut that was your sister, so duh!”

***In a somewhat simialar vein n Donoghue’s Stir-Fry the climactic scene of erotic discovery come when the protagonist rummages around in the closet sniffing her rommate’s clothes.  Not sure what Frazier would make of that.

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9 Responses to La Mano de Dios

  1. Mary Evelyn White says:

    No matter who did a life-mask of me- well when I was younger – when I would have wanted one done – it would be either erotic or hilarious – in the case of MY sisters.
    Anyway, I love the contrast with the cold of Cold Mountain – what a ridiculous book. Why was it all the rage? Do you know?

    • Roy says:

      I think Frazier was considered a bookclub-lady heart-throb. I thought he sounded as odious as his book, but it is a fact universally acknowledged that jerks have more girlfriends than nice guys.

      • Megan Kasten says:

        So true! My book club read Cold Mountain several years ago, and could not figure out what all the fuss was about…it was almost unanimously disliked. Most of us only attended book club that night for the adult company and the food. Then again, two out of seven of us named “one Hundred Years of Solitude” as Favorite Book of all time, so we might have been statistically atypical.
        Cold Mountain may be one of the few books that was made better in Hollywood, although marginally so.

      • Roy says:

        I too read the book for a book group–I wouldn’t have read the whole thing otherwise (in fact, my list of least favorite books consists of things I read for a book group or class, since those are the circs that would make me stick with a bad book long enough to develop lasting rage. The group I was in mostly liked it–I think they must have been S’s.

  2. Mary Evelyn White says:

    Oh, and I’m reading the book to find out what happens. I’ll call you when I forget the name.

  3. Mary Evelyn White says:

    Now why would you think that? Very interesting!

    • Megan Kasten says:

      Think what? I’m lost…and what are S’s? I’m way behind here.

      • Roy says:

        I have no more idea than you do what Mary is referring to, since there were so many assertions in previous comments, but S’s are sensers, as in the MBTI–people who might love endless detailed descriptions of stuff as opposed to interesting ideas.

      • Megan Kasten says:

        Oh! Of course! Myers Briggs….now it makes sense, so to speak. Yes, I agree, that book was full of endless detail to no avail. Ugh.
        Speaking of detail, but to plenty of avail, I just read ‘Nothing To Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea’ by Barbara Demick for our next book group. (The mention of detail reminded me) I found it un-put-down-able, maybe out of a morbid curiosity about the hidden world behind the DMZ. It’s certainly a bit dry compared to actual literature, but the accounts of life and escape were mesmerizing. I think the journalistic style meshed well with the stories of the harsh, austere life forced upon the North Korean people.
        It has truly nothing to do with your blog post, other than as a counterpoint to detail with no purpose…

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