On Speculative Touch

Touch is the elusive one. I can amplify sight, evoke viewing conditions (a candle flickers, making shadows dance) that suggest sounds and smells and even tastes (the Eucharist is but bread), but to tell my students to imagine the feel of ivory, its weight and warmth, only increases the distance I seek to diminish between them and the work of art. It is too rare a material, tumbling all too fast and far away into fantasies of the Middle Ages where gem-encrusted chalices mingle with golden crowns and objects made of ivory.  And so the challenge becomes: how to bridge that gap without losing all of the wonder?  How to establish intimacy, familiarity even, without completely flattening the object into a series of knowable parts (provenance, iconography, date)?

Liturgical comb
Metropolitan Museum of Art

Consider use—ritual, domestic, repeated use; usefulness, purpose, intention; the encounter between gesture and material, touch and form.  We are in a more speculative turn here, one in which objects guide human movements as much as they are guided by them. And it is here that I invite us to stay to try to understand and draw nearer to an object whose mundane uses hover around the edges of its rarified form.  There are few medieval objects more simultaneously aloof and poignant than the liturgical comb. A distant object, born of butchery, and shipped and carved and polished and brought and given far from the animal from which it was taken. Thick narrative bands in the middle avail the comb to iconographic analysis and align it with grand moments in Biblical or hagiographic narrative.  Christ sits on Mary’s lap, the Magi come forward, Thomas Becket is murdered. These images require the user to hold the comb still, to be still for a contemplation of the images of ponderous things. But then a shift, a hunching of the shoulders, and the priest bends his head and picks up the comb to run it through his hair as final preparations for mass are made. First, the thicker teeth to quell whatever unruliness of the tonsure might remain; then the thinner ones, to draw slowly through hair blunted and shortened to mark the man as one who can bring Christ’s body into that of his brethren.

This meditation on use calls up my own discomforts with the medieval body as an object that moves among others, my struggle to reconcile the pristine objects I see in my art history images with the sweaty, tired, isolated bodies of their users.  Didn’t the combs get dirty, too, in usefully ridding the priest’s hair of unwanted nits that could interfere with the sanctity of the Eucharist? Do I spend time thinking about the nourishment the ivory received from the oils in the priest’s hair? The usefulness is mutual: the priest is just as useful to the ivory comb as the ivory comb is to the priest. The intimacy between the two created by use repels and awes me. A liturgical comb belonged to an officiating priest; it was a deeply personal object within a most communal ritual, and often, at the end of the priest’s own usefulness, was buried with him.

Courtly Comb
Museo Nazionale del Bargello

Combs, chalices, patens, diptychs, books of hours, birthing trays, ivory boxes, mirrors, chess pieces – so many medieval objects lie dormant in the absence of touch.  Art historians gathered by the Material Collective in a session at this spring’s Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo told their stories of touch in the sequestered spaces of museum storerooms and study cabinets with warmth and joy to remember the feel of ivory or gems or gold beneath their searching fingertips.  And I think of the objects enlivening, warming to a human touch that stirs molecular memories of movement and use.  I think of all the speculative turns to be made: to the liturgical comb held by the old priest, to the wedding gift comb fingered nervously by the bedazzled fourteen year old bride, to the ivory comb interlaced with Guinevere’s hair held as relic by a trembling Lancelot, to all those moments when objects present themselves to human touch and manifest themselves in mundane uses and complex desires.

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2 Responses to “On Speculative Touch”

  1. Jennifer Borland December 1, 2012 at 10:48 am #

    Thank you for this marvelous post! What I love about touch is it is something that we can, to some degree, share with those past users – if we are allowed by the museum or library, of course. Also, the whole idea of a liturgical comb is so weird, even more so after your meditation!

  2. Ben Tilghman December 19, 2012 at 9:56 am #

    I’ve had the same experience again and again with manuscripts – how to get across the smell of them, the heft of the book in your hands, the different textures of each individual page, without coming across as a pretentious aesthete?

    The more I think about it, the more I understand the genuine impulses of re-enactors and “creative anachronists” to resurrect these moments and experiences you’re describing. The divide between mainstream, “academic” historians and re-enactors might ultimately be based in academia’s longstanding logocentrism and mistrust of affect. I wonder if the confluence of interests in objects, the senses, and affects might ultimately lead to a new respect for re-enactors, or if the divide will persist.

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