A couple of weeks ago, Leah Libresco wrote an excellent article suggesting that our society’s neglect of platonic touch is among one of the many things we need to address if we are to reverse the sexualization of contact that dominates our lives today. In lieu of alternative stories and models of interpersonal relationship, the “friend zone” becomes a dead end, an impasse to be overcome if greater intimacy is to be won. She writes:
The friendzone is treated as a wasteland not just because we treat sex as an idol, but because friendship and non-sexual affection is written off as irrelevant. Casual dating has been replaced by casual sex; platonic touch has been eclipsed by erotic signalling. Pickup artists teach their pupils (not inaccurately) that taking someone’s hand, touching a shoulder, or even moving into one-on-one conversations are indications of interest, and a signal to keep escalating, in the hopes of transitioning to a hookup.
There is perhaps no better reflection on this societal shift than Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 short story cycle Winesburg, Ohio. Hailed as one of the earliest works of American modernist literature, it is a book whose structure reflects its content: a fragmented series of short stories about the fragmenting lives of a town on the cusp of a new economic age. Anderson is all-too-aware of this, pausing in the midst of a narrative about an old-time farmer to explain why his audience might have difficulty understanding the tale:
A revolution has in fact taken place. The coming of industrialism, attended by all the roar and rattle of affairs, the shrill cries of millions of new voices that have come among us from overseas, the going and coming of trains, the growth of cities, the building of the interurban car lines that weave in and out of towns and past farmhouses, and now in these later days the coming of the automobiles has worked a tremendous change in the lives and in the habits of thought of our people of Mid-America.
Among these changes is the transformation of touch. Nowhere clearer does Anderson make his point than in the aptly-named story at the very beginning of the book. In “Hands”, Adolph Myers was an affectionate teacher for whom physical contact was almost as important as mental in his quest to spark a greater imagination among his children:
In a way the voice and the hands, the stroking of the shoulders and the touching of the hair were a part of the schoolmaster’s effort to carry a dream into the young minds. By the caress that was in his fingers he expressed himself. He was one of those men in whom the force that creates life is diffused, not centralized. Under the caress of his hands doubt and disbelief went out of the minds of the boys and they began also to dream.
These very same hands, however, would become the source of the soon-to-be ex-teacher’s trauma as ill-founded rumors of molestation would explode into an escaped near-lynching and exile. In a conversation with George Willard, the closest thing Winesburg, Ohio has to a protagonist, Adolph Myers – now masquerading under the name Wing Biddlebaum – instinctively begins to reach out with his hands to caress the young man affectionately only to recoil in horror. Touch, once an expression of care and platonic concern, has been transformed. Anderson is aware that something has been lost. In the words of George Willard, “There’s something wrong, but I don’t want to know what it is. His hands have something to do with his fear of me and of everyone.”
Instead of accentuating proximity, physical touch now serves to emphasize relational distance. Throughout the rest of the short story cycle, Anderson constantly highlights the disjunction between feeling and reflection, impulse and intention, action and meaning characteristic of modern life. There is a disconnect between our bodies and our relationships, a kind of learned forgetfulness in which we have lost touch with our very physical selves. As society shifts from a family- and relation-based economy to a system-driven one, we become increasingly ignorant of the forces that drive us, and our reflections only give us but fractured glimpses into the motivations we suspect are there but remain un-articulable. What Anderson describes as the “animalism of youth” which strives for touch, for connection, and for excitement struggles against the “more sophisticated thing that reflects and remembers”. Hints of the former continue to haunt our lives even as our conscious lives have forgotten how to respond.
The final story in the cycle depicts George Willard and his childhood crush sit alone together in the final days of their time in Winesburg. They sense that their proximity is supposed to mean something, but have lost the ability to understand what.
The presence of Helen renewed and refreshed him. It was as though her woman’s hand was assisting him to make some minute readjustment of the machinery of his life… With all his strength he tried to hold and to understand the mood that had come upon him. In that high place in the darkness the two oddly sensitive human atoms held each other tightly and waited. In the mind of each was the same thought. “I have come to this lonely place and here is this other,” was the substance of the thing felt.
Multiple times, the romantic hypothesis asserts itself – “they kissed but that impulse did not last” – only to fade away. Dissatisfied, but unable to understand why, the two turn to return home, and in a moment of spontaneity, they run down a hill together and “[play] like two splendid young things in a young world.” Anderson’s point is clear:
For some reason they could not have explained they had both got from their silent evening together the thing needed. Man or boy, woman or girl, they had for a moment taken hold of the thing that makes the mature life of men and women in the modern world possible.
Anderson’s prescience is what frightens me as I re-read his stories. In them, you can see in germ many of the themes Leah Libresco has highlighted. The necessity of physical contact, and our inability to understand and act upon these impulses; the romanticization and sexualization of touch in lieu of such apprehension; the heart-aching loneliness of communities more connected than ever yet never more distant – these are the unnamed longings which Anderson manages to put into the words which would inspire the likes of Earnest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, and William Faulkner. And they should inspire us as well, who might do well to ask ourselves if we are not too much like Wing Biddlebaum, at odds with ourselves and our own bodies (“The hands alarmed their owner”). Will we dare to dream once more?
Wing Biddlebaum became wholly inspired. For once he forgot the hands. Slowly they stole forth and lay upon George Willard’s shoulders. Something new and bold came into the voice that talked. “You must try to forget all you have learned,” said the old man. “You must begin to dream. From this time on you must shut your ears to the roaring of the voices.”
Pausing in his speech, Wing Biddlebaum looked long and earnestly at George Willard. His eyes glowed. Again he raised the hands to caress the boy and then a look of horror swept over his face.