On Hands


On Hands

The young tailor in Wong Kar-Wai’s The Hand, one of three segments in the master’s Eros (2004), takes the measurements of Miss Hua with a tape measure. Neck to shoulder. Down her arms. Around her waist. The prick of the needle, exactly right. Miss Hua, an affluent sex worker, first meets the tailor when he is an apprentice, and——as she quickly infers——a virgin. How can you stitch for women if you don’t understand them? she asks him, and draws him close, taking him in her hand. In the years that pass, she becomes his most loyal customer.

At some point in their relationship, in a spell of vulnerability, she asks him to take her measurements again, to see if they have changed. There’s no need, he says. I know your figure well. I’ll just use my hands. His fingers spread out. Neck to shoulder. Down her arms. Around her waist…

• • •

From 1917 until he gave up photography in 1937, Alfred Stieglitz made prints of Georgia O’Keeffe from nearly 500 negatives. He photographed her ceaselessly, and in the prints his intense, surgical eye is as visible——if not more——than her body. The numerous portraits of her hands reveal a startling hunger for profusion, if not precision. Her hands are everywhere, large and stained in palladium or platinum. They appear to hold the photographs from the inside, consistently doing nothing, or something, unto themselves. Stieglitz photographed her hands against various surfaces; some of these photographs almost look like contemporary advertisements for luxury cars or designer coats——they are sharp, understated, and inevitably sexual. Save for the austerity of O’Keeffe’s hands.

Hands, her hands, offer the ultimate and most sublime failed promise of desire because the hand is always doing: on, around, within. In touching another, they perform an approximation of want, rather than complete it. Even——or especially——when they are still.


• • •

The hand travels constantly. It panders to the atmosphere that it wades through, like a weary traveller in ease. It hesitates around fire. It lingers on cheekbones and descends to the lips of someone you may never touch with such intimacy again. The hand bridges. Touch’s work is ever ongoing, and ever unfulfilled.

• • •

In one 1930 portrait, O’Keeffe’s hands caress the dense white bones of a skull with rapture. I imagine  how O’Keeffe would appear were the photograph extended——sprawled and laughing, rolling on the floor, her hands running over the skull, an enthusiastic, even charmed embrace of the inevitable. The casual, playful stillness of her fingers caught between the dead animal’s teeth reveals more about the life within her. “I felt my life with both my hands,” writes Emily Dickinson. “To see if it was there.”

• • •

O’Keeffe introduces the 1978 compilation of Stieglitz’s portraits of her. “He molded his hearer. They were often speechless. If they crossed him in any way, his power to destroy was as destructive as his power to build——the extremes went together,” she writes. “I have experienced both and survived, but I think I only crossed him when I had to—to survive.”  

• • •

Georgia O'Keeffe Horse's skull with pink rose 1931 oil on canvas, 101.6 x 76.2 cm Los Angeles County Museum of Art Gift of the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation 1994.159.1 © 2012 Museum Associates/ LACMA

We touch ourselves absently all the time. We hold other: arms, dicks, legs, cunts. We hold our own. We pull hair, we finger it, others, ourselves. The hand extends, becomes a stranger. Rilke on Rodin: “A hand laid on another's shoulder or thigh does not any more belong to the body from which it came——from this body and from the object which it touches or seizes, something new originates, a new thing that has no name and belongs to no one.” The space between touching and touched skin is lit by intention, but they inhabit different worlds. The hand betrays yearning, the new thing that belongs to no one, as much as it ferries it——from one body to another. A shoulder or thigh or the fold of a curtain is changed in its acknowledgment by the hand, which exists, then, momentarily, as an attentive gesture.

• • •

One of the loveliest pair of hands in the world belong, perhaps, to N. Rajam,  the Hindustani music maestro. Chunks of childhoods are spent in drawing rooms, even today, watching her fingers press and slide, poised, veined and deliberate——unlike Perlman’s gifted but chunky fingers——against her violin’s  strings. Camera angles dutifully zoomed in on her hands from various angles. If the close-up was close enough, the hands would slip in and out of the frame. Rarely, though. The music always triumphed.

When I watch her perform, I mute the video to watch her hands play. They are swift, silent, repeatedly stroking the neck of the violin. Almost as if in response, her feet rise to a note, and then fall, keeping rhythm, an elaborate puppetry.When her fist unfurls before closing in to pin the next note, she releases something fierce—a note, but also, a briefly outstretched palm that demands your gaze. My instinct: to reach into the screen and clasp it.                 

The hand is the gesture.          

• • •

There is a moment in The Hand when the tailor arrives punctually with a dress for Miss Hua. However, she is already occupied, and he spends the evening waiting for her to appear. At a certain hour he gives up, and takes the dress back.

Back in his workshop, he unfolds the glittering, salmon-coloured silk slowly and lays it across him. He slips his hand inside the dress, at the bottom, closes his eyes, and slowly makes his way up, his hand recalling hers.

• • •


In a print from 1919——dark amber, shaky, Palladium——O’Keeffe’s right hand clutches at something invisible. The gesture is precise, demonstrative, her fingers curling into a wave even as the lower half of her palm is buried  into by fingers of her left hand.

At first glance, the palm of her right hand looks mauled by the fingers. The dents create shadows. Looking again, they resemble an ascent. The left wrist pressing against the right, the fingers on her left palm digging deep—as if the gaze of his camera was keeping her hands apart, as if two hands couldn’t hold each other, as if the photograph would implode if they somehow did.

• • •

All you have to do to calibrate desire, sometimes, is zoom in, trusting your hands to keep you at arm’s length.

 • • • 

In his later years, philosopher Jacques Derrida began to articulate his suspicion of haptocentrism——the dominance of the metaphysics of touch. The immediacy of touch as some  transcendental form knowing a body’s singular truth, he argued, must not be trusted.

A special gripe about hands that demonstrates the full, luscious range of their switching: “If one begs the other to take in the gift of an offering, and therefore to touch it by taking it on, by keeping it in or near oneself, in the closest possible proximity, in oneself or within reach of one’s hand, it is because, as always (irresistible tendency) one thinks first of all, and too much, about hands,” he says. “That is, about the manual, the manner, maneuver, or manipulation: seizure, comprehension, prehension, captation, acceptation, reception——a plea that something be received that begins to seem like an order: ‘Tiens!’ do take it, do touch.”

• • •

All you have to do to calibrate desire is zoom in, trusting your hands to keep you at arm’s length.

“The hand I placed on you, what if it/ didn’t exist, where it began, shaking, the declension of your opening shirt,” Jorie Graham asks at the start of her poem “The Strangers.” The hand is a gesture without a subject, touching nothing and everything, until touched by desire. You suddenly confront another, even if you are in the dark, even if the other is the self. The subject is discovered, unsettled; the subject is you. Graham, later: “What if it doesn’t exist, the place/ where this hand lay flat for the first time/ against your heart.”

The place may only reveal itself where memory permits it, but a hand makes it exist, again. Hands snaking up a pole, revealing the obstinacy and obtuseness of the steel. Hands measuring waists. Hands breaking into time. Hands resting on the thin layers of a red shirt, “betrothed to the instant, / swearing allegiance,” riding softly on the breath of another.


Sharanya lives and writes in England.

Images: Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe—Hands and Horse Skull, 1931 
Alfred Stieglitz,
Georgia O'Keeffe—Hands and Wheel, 1933
George O'Keeffe, 
Horse's Skull with Pink Rose, 1931
Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe—Hands, 1919

The line about hands breaking into time is from My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Volume One. The line “betrothed to the instant, / swearing allegiance” is from “The Strangers” by Jorie Graham.



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