Masked readers, in these viral times have you noticed in yourself and in the lumpenproletariat at large a strange new tendency to make theatrical, orchestra-conducting uses of your hands and arms when you are in conversation?
An alert US professor of English, Richard Hughes Gibson, believes he is everywhere seeing mask-wearers subconsciously using their bodies, the language of their bodies, "to make up for the obscured communications of the mouth".
Your columnist, an enthusiastic amateur social anthropologist fascinated by the ramifications of our maskedness was quick to take the professor's thesis out with me and into the streets and shopping centres. I took it as well to the busy suburban clinic where, last Tuesday, I embraced the good pfortune of the boost of my Pfizer vaccination against this pfoul pestilence.
With the NSW and ACT chief medical officers this week urging us all to diligently wear our masks everywhere and all of the time there is going to be a wealth of opportunity for the citizen-anthropologist to study the phenomenon the professor is pointing to.
In his piece Talk With The Hand! in the online Hedgehog Review university professor Gibson discusses how difficult teaching-in-person is when your students are masked.
"I hadn't perceived how hard it is to read the responses of one's audience when the most expressive part of the face is hidden. Were my students grinning at me or glowering? Were they yawning under there?"
Then he began began to notice the busyness of the hands of his students, friends, and children when they were engaged in masked conversation.
"I observed that the most effective communicators delivered the most histrionic performances. They threw their hands up to signify exaltation and despair; they thrust their hands forward in supplication; they threw their hands down at their sides in grief and resignation; they cut their hands across the air in defiance. I saw that the pandemic had given new urgency to the language of the hand."
"[And] in the midst of this observation period," Gibson rejoices, "I chanced upon a curious 17th century book on the subject of 'chirology', that is, the discourse or language of the 'chiros,' or hand. Its boisterous, 72-word title begins as follows: Chirologia, or, The naturall language of the hand ... whereunto is added Chironomia, or, The art of manuall rhetoricke'."
The book by physician and natural philosopher John Bulwer comes complete with scores of wonderful captioned illustrations (some are used to illustrate Gibson's piece for Hedgehog) of the hands arranged in eloquent wordless expressions. Each illustrated gesture is assigned a number and given a Latin title.
So for example there is Bulwer's gesture Admiror: "To throw up the hands to heaven is an expression of admiration, amazement, and astonishment, used also by those who ... wonderfully praise..."
Strangely, just the day last week before I read of Bulwer's admiror I had resorted to it myself when, walking in the National Arboretum on a gloriously bleak and windy day I met walking towards me from a great distance a fellow solitary walker.
We may well have had the 250-hectare vastness to ourselves, a spacious 125 hectares each, for one has to be an unusual sort of Australian rambler to delight in being out and about in dramatic weather. But I grew up in windswept clifftop places in England beside the cantankerous North Sea and have never lost a fondness for walking in exciting, furious, tree-rattling, sapling-bending weather.
When my fellow walker (a sturdy-booted rambler of my own mature-age vintage) and I met instead of saying much in our brief meeting we made admiror gestures (including the throwing up of the hands to the heavens). The gestures said things like "What joy to at our age still be blessed with robust legs and lungs that enable us to be striding out and about like this, and in this paradise! Surely there's nowhere else on Earth one would rather be! Wouldn't be dead for quids."
Then she continued her expedition in her chosen direction and I resumed my gambol towards my destination, the silky oaks, at this time of decorated Christmas trees self-decorated with their giant, glowing, honeyeater-intoxicating yellow-orange flowers.
MORE IAN WARDEN:
Since then, thanks to Richard Gibson and John Bulwer, I find myself looking for and finding so much manual rhetoricke going on, especially among the masked. In the aforementioned clinic waiting room (I arrived early so as to sit around and do lots of anthropological stickybeaking) with everyone who came and went and worked necessarily masked, talking hands seemed especially busy.
Thank goodness though in the clinic on the day civility reigned and I observed no expressions of Bulwer's Explodo explained thus by Bulwer: "To clap the fist often on the left palm ... a natural expression used by those who mock, chide, brawl, and insult, reproach, rebuke, and explode ... commonly used by the vulgar in their bickerings ... "
Henceforth, alerted by Gibson and Bulwer, one will look out for lots of explodo being expressed by the vulgar in their bickerings in question time in the House of Representatives.
Then, illustrating what so many of us, heartbroken and lost for words will be doing with our hands on election night as PM Morrison's inevitable re-election is confirmed, there's Bulwer's Ploro: "To wring the hands is a natural expression of excessive grief, used by those who condole, bewail, and lament."
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
Ian Warden is a Canberra Times columnist
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