- The Aspiration to the Condition of Touch
"The Dance," written by William Carlos Williams in 1944 is one of my favorite poems: I return to it regularly. Williams gives us a feel for that life of the kermess (a carnival) in his poem through Breughel's picture, as it were three times removed from the event itself. Of course, unlike Plato, I would argue that the vitality of the kermess is not lost in the poem; it is actually enhanced by a subtle sleight of hand. The poem isn't primarily about Breughel's picture. It is about dance, about the dancers who go round, their squeal, the crude music, its rollicking measures, the dancers kicking and rolling and swinging, their hips, bellies, and butts. Reading and re-reading this poem, I "see" those ordinary folk of Breughel's great picture. I "hear" their music. I "move" to their dance. The poem seems a condensation, a summary of the fine arts. Perhaps the poem is about poetry's power to reinvigorate imaginatively what we hear and see. Perhaps I think of festivities at which I have danced, how such festivities are essential to the human experience. Perhaps, William Carlos Williams in 1944, World War II coming to a close, was anticipating similar good times. As always, it's best to let the poem speak for itself:
In Breughel's great picture, The Kermess,
the dancers go round, they go round and around, the squeal and the blare and the tweedle of bagpipes, a bugle and fiddles tipping their bellies (round as the thick-sided glasses whose wash they impound) their hips and their bellies off balance to turn them. Kicking and rolling about the [End Page 229] Fair Grounds, swinging their butts, those shanks must be sound to bear up under such rollicking measures, prance as they dance In Breughel's great picture, The Kermess.
The visual, musical, and literary arts do much to educate our senses, especially our senses of sight and hearing. The well-formed visual and auditory sensations we gain from the arts are, as it were, the melody of those experiences. They are the images we store away, the tunes we whistle. However, here, I want to draw attention to an overlooked, although not entirely disregarded, sense, i.e., touch. I want to argue that touch is the bass line to the melody of sight and hearing in the arts, i.e., that touch keeps the work of art coherent and grounded.
This is an old idea. Bernhard Berenson had the idea when he was examining the painters of the Italian renaissance. Berenson argued that great painting stimulates touch, which inspires, our "tactile imagination," which produces our "tactile values." Here lay, according to Berenson the genius of Giotto. Tactile imagination and values enchance the "material significance" of a work; they act as a "test of reality." Berenson was on to something not only about painting but about the arts in general. However, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries he lacked the scientific evidence about touch and its role in human relationships to develop his idea of tactile values to any great extent.1
Although Berenson had keen intuitions, he didn't know about the biological/psychological nuts and bolts of touch. Thus, he never knew about the detailed nature and extent of our physical contact with other physical things in the world. He didn't know about Merkel's discs, Ruffini and Pacinian corpuscles. He didn't know about hierarchical and parallel levels of brain processing. Berenson didn't know that more brain space in the somatosensory cortex is given to the hand than to any other part of the body, that your fingers especially have a high density of touch receptors compared to other body areas. Today, all this information is standard textbook fare.2 Many neuroscientific details need to be worked. However, a general picture based on hard evidence has begun to emerge.
This information adds significant substance to Berenson's ideas. Berenson's "third dimension" is essentially a sense of temperature, pressure, vibration, and texture. And chances are the tactile imagination is inspired most by what is touched by...