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.