The Sense of Touch

Elias Canetti opens his powerful collection Crowds and Power with these lines:

Elias Canetti opens his powerful collection Crowds and Power with these lines: "There is nothing that man fears more than the touch of the unknown. He wants to see what is reaching towards him, and to be able to recognize or at least classify it."

At Christmas, we encounter the terror of touch. God runs a finger tenderly along the face of the world. Human flesh flashes with the fire of the Divine. It burns. It is ecstatic. For a moment we are fully human, not just hominid.

In 1971, Ashley Montagu published Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin and returned touch to cultural consciousness. We have learned that cuddling infants is crucial to their emotional well-being. Breast-feeding, more than just a mechanism for milk, is a primal experience of bonding. In the developing human, it establishes a sense of safety in the world.

"The first article on touch, so far as I know, was my own published in 1950," Montagu said in a 1994 interview with Michael Mendizze. "It is strange that we should have waited till the middle of the 20th century to pick up on the importance of this tremendously complex organ, the largest organ in the body, which most of us thought was just a covering to prevent us from falling apart! The skin…is derived from exactly the same embryological layer as is the internal brain and spinal cord."

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Sojourners Magazine January 2005
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