2 February, 2015Issue 27.2HistoryLiterary CriticismLiterature

Email This Article Print This Article

Gropes And Pokes

Matilda Bathurst


Joe Moshenska
Feeling Pleasures: The Sense of Touch in Renaissance England
Oxford University Press, 2014
£60 (hardback)
408 pages
ISBN: 9780198712947

What is a poke? How do I poke someone?
What happens when I poke someone?
Can I get a poke back after I remove it?

A fumble around the help pages of Facebook is enough to suggest that we’ve lost touch. Somehow, tapping our way across a hand-held world, our fingertips smoothed to the digital touchscreen, our grasp on reality has slackened. Meanwhile, everyday experiences are marketed as ever more multi-sensory, uber-connected, hyper-interactive—we absorb it all with easy expectation.

These symptoms are nothing new. The common complaint of “desensitisation” recurs throughout the centuries, with modernity serving as both the poison and the cure. Montaigne grumbled in his essays that “we impede the mind’s grasp and grip by giving it so many things to seize […] Rough bodies are felt, smooth ones glide by imperceptibly.” Three centuries later, Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto of Tactilism declared: “the senses of touch of two individuals communicate almost nothing in their clashes, intertwining or rubbing,” urging a transformation of “the handshake, the kiss, and the coupling into continuous transmissions of thought.” It seems a serious rupture is required to break through the texture of day-to-day existence. Joe Moshenska puts things into perspective with a new cultural history, Feeling Pleasures: The Sense of Touch in Renaissance England.

Handling subject matter as alluringly diverse as rotting relics, ticklish sculptures and Chinese medicine, the book argues for the ambiguous status of touch in the early modern period, bringing together a rich tapestry of texts interwoven with the fears and fascinations of the time. Through analysis of works ranging from Spenser’s Faerie Queene to grisly accounts of experiments in anatomy, a pattern emerges of a language both tactile and tactful, bristling with sensuality whilst playing within the restrictions imposed by the Reformation. Moshenska himself takes a similar delight in language and knows the power of an enticing title: highlights include “Shakespeare, Sweat, and Sunburn: Cumbersome Myth in Venus & Adonis.” The prize of course goes to the title of the book itself—bearing an uncanny resemblance to the oeuvre of EL James, the cover may also attract undue attention in the library.

The book challenges the nostalgic notion that a Cartesian emphasis on vision and optics gave rise to a new era of numbness, wiping clean the last vestiges of touchy-feely medievalism. In a chapter entitled and “Galileo’s Armpit, Descartes’s Feather”, Moshenska argues that Descartes’s radical reconfiguration of human sensory experience was one in which “the world is made ticklishly present, even as he seeks to transform our understanding of it irreversibly.” This phenomenon reappears throughout the writing of the period: even as the sense of touch is dismissed as naive, uncouth, potentially contaminating or downright deceptive, the latent power of its language bubbles to the surface, paradoxically attracting the reader while seeking to repulse or dissuade.

Just as philosophers are unable to escape the taint of the tactile, so the pious find it hard to resist lavishing attention on the language of touch with all the “crossings and knockings […] kissings and lickings […] noddings and nosings” of an idolatrous priest. Whereas smells, tastes, sights and sounds can all be received inadvertently by the senses, the outstretched hand is primarily led by intention—more often than not, by temptation. Although the touch of doubting Thomas may have served to confirm faith, the sense of touch might equally act to disrupt, an idea intriguingly phrased by Saint Ambrose in the fourth century: “the Word would not perhaps have caused injury to Adam and Eve if they had first touched and handled it, as it were, with the hands of the mind.” In short, the sense of touch can cause all sorts of trouble: sometimes it’s better to just hold off. Ambrose even seems a little wary of his use of the tactile metaphor in the first place; Moskenska argues that the disclaimer “as it were” (here a translation of the Ambrose’s orginal quibusdam) exemplifies the uneasy status of touch in relation to the divine. Thomas Cranmer was later to use a similar verbal strategy to avoid accusations of heresy, tactically blurring the boundaries between the literal and metaphorical in his description of the sacrament of baptism: “as it were a shewing of Christ before our eyes, and a sensible touching, feeling and groping of him.”

For others, opportunities for explorative touch were justified in the spirit of scientific enlightenment and the new acceptance of the self as a subject for experimentation. Even from the pens of scientists, such sensuous possibilities were bound to give rise to a corresponding effluvia of language. One of the most fascinating characters encountered in the book is the seventeenth-century physician John Floyer, who took it upon himself to catalogue all substances of medicinal value he could lay his hands upon, resulting in a series of curious lists in which “plants, soot, and other substances are sniffed, chewed or licked.” A keen sinologist, Floyer also provided a subtle defence of the Chinese use of metaphorical descriptions to indicate variations in the pulse: from “putrid cotton” to “hair dip’d in water” to “the leaf of an onion.” His critique of extravagant language carefully echoes the prevailing opinion of the Royal Society, yet the seductive similes cannot help but stir the senses.

The “Feeling Pleasures” touted in the title are shown to be the source of our ongoing curiosity, creativity and sensibility: in short, our humanity. In his debate with Adam in Book VIII of Paradise Lost, the angel Raphael dismisses the sense of touch as nothing but a limitation, at one remove from true understanding and doomed to be a failed approximation of the divine. Nevertheless, Moshenska argues that Raphael’s disdain for a sense ‘”vouchsafed/ To cattle and each beast” provokes a sort of sensual loyalty in the reader: would we really want to the replace the “futile frenzy” of sexual pleasure with the airy totality of angelic touch? Lack of fulfilment leaves space for creative possibility, just as a metaphor might substitute for a sensation suspended just beyond the grasp of language. For Galileo, the musical interval of a perfect fifth activates “a tickling of the eardrum […] giving it at the same time the impression of a gentle kiss and of a bite.” Likewise, a combination of words has the potential to induce aesthetic pleasure—to rouse, to stir, to touch.

The loss of sensation is a favourite trope of dystopian futures, and Modernist dystopias prove particularly adaptable as cautionary tales for the internet age. The famous “feelies” of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World imagine a haptic movie-going experience—pleasant vibrations designed to titillate an audience addicted to the sedative “Soma”. E M Forster’s The Machine Stops imagines a network of underground pods, each containing a human being perfectly catered for in pure isolation. The homogenous pods remove any reason for travel, and social needs are fulfilled by a system similar to Skype: “men seldom moved their bodies; all unrest was concentrated in the soul.” Both tales feature a hero who risks all to regain the sense of touch: in The Machine Stops Kuno strives to touch the surface of the earth, and in Brave New World John the Savage resorts to self-flagellation. But if the argument of Feeling Pleasures is anything to go by, language will always grant us the power to touch and be touched. It seems it will take more than a digital revolution to deaden the senses completely.

Matilda Bathurst is a freelance journalist and copywriter.