What makes us ‘menselijker’ (humaner) than apes, monkeys and other fellow earthlings? Our charm, intellect, sense of humour, taste…? Is it perhaps our intellect? Our vanity? Our pride? Nothing of the kind. It’s our hands.
With the agile fingers on our hands, we’re wonderfully adroit. Our thumb is king and queen together. Handy is the word! Our hands can open bottles, cans, type, write, paint, mould and model and touch and make love. We speak through our hands and fingers. Hands are so clever that they can even function as eyes for those who cannot see.
HAND, one of the oldest Germanic words that still exist, is abundant in many European languages. The HAND speaks a universal language. A wave is an international sign understood by everyone. Shaking hands means that you come in peace and that you don’t carry a weapon. It also means that you have no evil or aggressive intentions.
HAND is part of thousands of words and expressions. ‘Handeling’ (act), ‘handschrift’ (manuscript), ‘handwerk’ (handiwork)… ‘Vele handen maken licht werk’ (many hands make light work). Ja, dat ligt voor de hand (that’s obvious)!
Paintings of hands have found their way to the oldest art galleries and museums in the world. Some 40,000 years ago, when the first artistic expressions came into being, several artists must have recognized the mysterious power of the hand and left stencils of their hands behind on the walls of caves. In the Cave of the Castle in the Spanish province of Cantabria, for instance, you can experience a mysterious connection between us and people who died generations ago. Some scientists now take the view that these artists must have been women.
Hundreds of theories have been put forward since the discovery of these hand stencils, but why these women or men left their mark seems quite obvious to me (In Dutch, het ligt voor de hand).
The hand as the extension of the arm is vitally important for survival. When it’s cold, we stretch our hands out to the fire. So why not venerate the hand by celebrating it in art? In these cave paintings the hands are usually near the animals that they used to hunt. Without hands, a human is powerless. You need the hand to create the weapon and once you have it, you need a hand to handle it.
Here is a tender celebration of hands in words. Written by Leo Vroman (born in Gouda in 1915) who is a biologist and haematologist by profession. Together with Tineke, the love of his life, he emigrated to the United States just after the Second World War. The Dutch know Vroman as a prolific poet. The oldest poet alive and kicking.
This morning I read this recent poems in a poetry blog. Unbelievable, Vroman wrote these lines at 94. I presume by hand. A free translation of this sonnet follows underneath.
Ik kan mijn handen niet meer herkennen,
ze zijn zoveel ouder dan ik ben.
Ik zal er toch aan moeten wennen
dat ik ze niet herken.
Als ik weer in mijn lab zou staan
waren ze vast meteen gewend
en als ik ze dan hun gang liet gaan
deden ze dadelijk een experiment
dat ik jaren geleden heb gedaan.
Ik neem ze maar mee naar bed.
Een mag het licht uitdraaien,
en kijk eens, daar gaan ze nog
bijna onopgelet even mijn liefste aaien.
Daarvoor bestaan ze nog.
27 november 2011
I cannot recognize my hands anymore,
they are so much older than I am.
Yet I’ll have to get used to it
that I don’t recognise them.
If I were to stand in my lab again
they’d feel at home at once
and if I’d let them go their way
they’d do an experiment straight away
that I performed years ago.
I’ll take them along to bed.
I’ll allow one of them to turn off the light
and look, off they still go
near inadvertently to caress my love.
Just what they’re still existing for.
27 November 2011
(translation: © Ruud Hisgen 2013)