Gesture as Language

David Trotter

  • A Cultural History of Gestures: From Antiquity to the Present edited by Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg
    Polity, 220 pp, £35.00, December 1991, ISBN 0 7456 0786 1
  • The New Oxford Book of 17th-Century Verse by Alastair Fowler
    Oxford, 830 pp, £25.00, November 1991, ISBN 0 19 214164 3

According to Boswell, Johnson was so hostile to gesticulation that ‘when another gentleman thought he was giving additional force to what he uttered, by expressive movements of his hands, Johnson fairly seized them and held them down.’ But in restraining someone else’s gestures, he himself gestured; he gave additional force to his opinion by expressive movements of his hands. Gesture is unavoidable, because the body is seldom completely at rest, and almost any of its movements might assume significance in the eyes of an observer. History does not record that Johnson made any effort to restrain the limb with which he was about to refute Bishop Berkeley.

It is because we cannot help our gestures that so much effort has been put, over the centuries, into classifying and regulating them. Traces of this effort survive: in the manuals compiled for orators, actors, preachers; in legal depositions and travellers’ journals; in the huge volume of prescriptive writing on manners; in paintings and novels. In his introductory essay to the first of these books, Keith Thomas proposes that the cultural historian should reconstruct from such evidence the ‘grammar of gesture’, as part of a larger attempt to define ‘all the codes and conventions which create the context for meaningful behaviour in the society under study’.

Joanneath Spicer does exactly that in an absorbing essay about elbows in Renaissance painting. She concentrates on 17th-century Holland, where one particular stance – indicating, she thinks, self-possession – almost achieved the ‘status of a national attribute’. A surprisingly large proportion of militia company portraits include one or more figures with an arm pugnaciously akimbo: usually not the commanding officer, who might consider himself above overt pugnacity, but a lieutenant or standard-bearer. The aggressors are sometimes complemented, as are the civic dignitaries assembled around tables in other corporate portraits, by a figure at the edge of the group whose elbow bars the way to intruders. In marriage and family portraits of the period, the husband’s body is all jutting angles, the wife’s all recessive curves. These attractively self-possessed bourgeois males are giving the elbow to anyone who might threaten their towns, corporations, families.

Spicer is able to show how composition mediates the social symbolism. The elbows jut not only at phantom intruders, but at us. They press up against the picture-plane, creating a boundary or threshold; or guard the channels along which the eye must pass in order to reach the centre of pictorial space. The swagger of these portraits leads Spicer to conclude that it might have been the relative social and gender equality of Dutch society which encouraged those holding power to seek to ‘accentuate the symbols of their hegemony and the respect due to their guardianship’. The coherence of the ruling class, and the close relations between patron and artist, both in assertive mood, lend credence to her thesis.

The ‘grammars’ investigated by other contributors range from that governing posture in Classical Greece to that governing masculinity in contemporary Andalusia. There are some fascinating vignettes. Jan Bremmer reveals that an Athenian male who swayed his hips when he walked, or looked over his shoulder, or inclined his head to one side, was quite likely to be classified as a passive homosexual. Fritz Graf finds Quintilian in Rumpole of the Bailey mood, denouncing orators who gesticulate so wildly that it is scarcely safe to stand behind them. Robert Muchembled discovers almost the same degree of formality among Breton peasants as Maria Bogucka does among Polish courtiers and diplomats. I liked her account of a ‘farewell ceremony’ in 18th-century Poland. ‘A certain Miss Szamowska saying goodbye to a young gentleman called Tollohub offered him, as was customary, a glass of wine. Tollohub was already sitting on his horse, ready to ride off. He drank the wine, put the empty glass between the ears of his horse, broke it with one shot of his pistol, dismounted, prostrated himself, and asked the girl to marry him.’ Irresistible – though one would like to have the horse’s point of view.

Vignettes, however, don’t necessarily explain anything. On the whole, the contributors to this volume are more convincing when they reconstruct the ‘grammar’ of a particular gesture than when they elaborate on the uses to which such a grammar might have been put, or on the ways in which it might have provided a context for ‘meaningful behaviour’. Problems arise not so much from a lack of evidence as from the model of communication adopted. All the contributors regard gesture as a ‘language’ whose grammar can be reconstructed: language and gesture are parallel forms of communication which both involve a process of encoding and decoding. According to this view, communication requires no more than the encoding of a message (self-possession) into a signal (jutting elbow), and the subsequent decoding of that signal back into a message. But the process of encoding and decoding is rarely if ever sufficient to ensure communication. In order to understand an utterance, we must first decode its linguistic content, and then use that decoded content as the basis for inferring what the speaker means to communicate. It is the second process, inference, which completes the act of communication.

The same must be true of the ‘language’ of gesture. If we want to understand what someone means by standing with his arm akimbo, we must first recognise that a jutting elbow can in some circumstances signify self-possession, and then use that knowledge, together with any other assumptions we may make about the man and about the circumstances of this particular gesture, as a basis for inferring what he means by it. Bremmer and Roodenburg’s contributors assume that communication is complete once signal has been decoded into message. In fact, it has barely begun. We have yet to combine the output of decoding with non-linguistic knowledge in such a way as to infer an intention. Inference determines our interpretation of the use to which a gesture has been put. It holds the key to ‘meaningful behaviour’. The contributors have little to say about this second process because the model of communication they have adopted, which concentrates exclusively on encoding and decoding, will not allow them to take account of it.

Robert Muchembled’s analysis of courtship in 17th-century Brittany begins and ends with the demonstration that it was ‘strictly codified’: the crucial point is that all those apparently unbound energies were in fact bound by codes and conventions. ‘Like everywhere else, sexuality is not something free in the rural world.’ It is all very reminiscent of the heroic days of Structuralism, when Barthes and Lévi-Strauss triumphantly laid bare the codes embedded in what might at first glance appear spontaneous or arbitrary behaviour. The semiotician waves his wand and suddenly we can no longer see the behaviour for the codes which regulate it. Those codes now seem universal, omnipotent. Muchembled claims that courtship gestures ‘carry precise messages that everybody in the rural world can interpret without difficulty’. The only way to prove this would be to demonstrate, not just that ‘everybody’ in the ‘rural world’ recognised a particular code, but that the non-linguistic assumptions they made about each other converged to an implausible degree. What has happened is that the cognitive power which the idea of codification generates in the historian’s own understanding of language has been projected onto the world he is studying, where it becomes a moral and social power universally available.

Muchembled makes the connection between individual gesture and social meaning, as cultural theorists have tended to since the 1970s, not by asking how people combine ‘grammatical’ knowledge with other kinds of knowledge in order to create inferences, but by asking who formulates and supervises the codes. He turns from the courting couples to the elders and masters who police them, to the ‘eternal game’ of surveillance and transgression. Instead of communicators, each combining linguistic and non-linguistic knowledge to make inferences, we have rival armies of grammarians. ‘The logic of the police rests on a conception of the body which is, yes, policed, but it comes into collision with the tenacity of the codes behind the gestures in question.’ If you believe that codes are paramount in the act of communication, then you will probably believe that they are paramount in society as well.

It would then follow that, as Keith Thomas puts it, ‘changing gestural codes offer a key to changing social relationships.’ Peter Burke points out that the two historians who have done most to encourage this view are Norbert Elias and Michel Foucault. In The Civilising Process, first published in 1939, Elias argued that a rising European bourgeoisie sought to discipline itself by a complex regulation of bodily impulses and gestures which amounted to a restructuring of personality. Foucault’s histories of punishment and of sexuality investigate control over other people’s bodies: but they, too, emphasise the increasing complexity of the instruments of control.

The contributors to this volume also concentrate on the Early Modern period. Burke speaks of a ‘reform of gesture’ gathering strength in 17th-century Europe, more powerfully in the North than in the South, which produced an ‘increasing distance between two body languages, which we might call the flamboyant and the disciplined’. Muchembled discerns a ‘sharp cultural differentiation’ between upper-class and lower-class bodily conduct, a new regime of gesture. ‘The body of the 16th-century courtier, the 17th-century honnête homme and the 18th-century homme éclairé distinguishes itself both from animals and from the rude or gross manners of the lower classes.’ Any of this sound at all familiar? Could it have been touched by the same myth of a cultural fall, now concerning bodily rather than mental functions, which shaped Eliot’s ‘dissociation of sensibility’? After all, Eliot himself was ready enough to blame dissociation on class conflict, on civil war. ‘The Civil War is not ended: I doubt whether a civil war ever does end.’ Somehow the modern regime – our regime – always ends up being more regime-like than its predecessors: more codified, more disciplined, basically grimmer.

Burke finds evidence of an increasing interest in gesture in Italy during the 17th century. ‘The literary sources range from formal treatises such as L’arte de cenni (1616) by the lawyer Giovanni Bonifacio or Andrea De Jorio’s La mimica degli antichi (1832)... to the more casual observations of foreign travellers like John Evelyn, who recorded at least one insulting gesture (biting the finger) which the two lexicographers missed. In the second place, Italian judicial archives often note the gestures of insult leading to cases of assault and battery, and (among other things) confirm Evelyn’s hermeneutics.’ Evelyn’s hermeneutics were very likely top-notch, but I’m not sure that Italian finger-biting would have seemed all that extraordinary. One imagines Elizabethan hermeneuts limbering up with a visit to the theatre. Samson, in the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet, realises that if he bites his thumb at Abram, he will be guilty of provocation in the eyes of the law: he therefore claims merely to be biting his thumb.

The point is not simply that the gesture decoded by Evelyn in 1644, or one remarkably like it (there is still some dispute as to what Samson actually does with his thumb), was familiar to Shakespeare in the 1590s. It is, rather, that Shakespeare was less interested in what Samson actually does with his thumb than in what Abram might infer from the gesture, and in how he might infer it. Abram knows that in some circumstances biting your thumb can signify contempt. But knowing this isn’t much help. He has also to decide whether or not Samson means to be insulting. He will make the decision by combining his recognition of the gesture with what he already knows about Samson, about the time and place of the encounter, about his own preparedness, and so on. He is familiar with the gesture, but decides that Samson doesn’t, on this occasion, mean it. It is not the gestural code, in other words, but the inferences it provokes (or is intended to provoke), which heighten or resolve social tensions – and therefore allow us some insight into those tensions.

The linguistic structure of an utterance underdetermines its interpretation. You can decode it grammatically and still have no idea what it means. The same is true, by analogy, of gesture. One reason to regret the relative lack of attention paid to literature in this collection is that literature tends to reveal the extent of that underdetermination. To be sure, writers have always been interested in gesture as a code, as the outward figuring of inner life. When Pandarus surveys the sorrowful Troilus ‘with his armes folden’, the gesture, a conventional sign of melancholy, indicates the depth of his compassion. When Ariel reports to Prospero that he has left Ferdinand ‘cooling of the air with sighs,/In an odd angle of the isle, and sitting,/His arms in this sad knot,’ we can feel that Ferdinand, too, really does have a lot on his mind. As does Marcus, in Titus Andronicus, when he thinks about the brutal injury done to Titus and Lavinia, his arms folded in a ‘sorrow-wreathen knot’.

But in the end it is the precariousness of gesture which interests Shakespeare. Titus has to point out to Marcus that his sorrow-wreathen knot is scarcely adequate to the situation:

Thy niece and I, poor creatures, want our hands.

And cannot passionate our tenfold grief

With folded arms.

When Titus says that he will ‘wrest an alphabet’ from Lavinia’s gestures, we know that he will have to wrest it largely by inference, since her mutilation has left her so little to gesture with. Tyranny has destroyed the language of gesture, and the ceremonial grief it makes possible. The comedies explore a rather less gruesome discrepancy between code and meaning. There gesture is the idiom of the foolish and affected. In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Moth advises the lovelorn Don Armado to stand ‘with your arms cross’d on your thin-bellied doublet like a rabbit on a spit’. Berowne speaks of Cupid as the ‘lord of folded arms’. In the tragedies and in the comedies, Shakespeare addresses the limitations of gesture, its inadequacy as a form of communication.

Writers, unlike historians, tend to put quotation marks around gesture. In the margin of his copy of Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays, Keats wrote that he could not help seeing Hazlitt ‘like Ferdinand – in an odd angle of the Isle sitting – his arms in this sad knot’. Keats doesn’t merely decode a signal into a message. Rather, he combines his memory of Hazlitt sitting in a certain fashion with his memory of a scene in which a character sits in a certain fashion to infer what Hazlitt might have meant by sitting in that fashion. His memory of the scene is the ‘place’ in his mind (the address, so to speak) where the association between melancholy and folded arms is stored. He has seen the gesture used in a context where its meaning was plain. Spicer’s argument about the Renaissance elbow is convincing because her group portraits may well have served as an equivalent resource.

What is true of folded arms is also true of a more commonplace gesture, the handshake. Herman Roodenburg suggests that the handshake only took over from more ceremonial forms of greeting around 1800: in Britain first, then in Holland, France and Russia. In his Memoirs, written in the 1790s, Casanova describes a ‘shake-hand amical’ bestowed on one of his London acquaintances. Madame Bovary provides evidence that the handshake was still regarded, in France in the 1850s, as an English custom. Roodenburg might have added Jane Austen’s novels, where handshakes are the usual form of greeting.

But to Austen a gesture is interesting only insofar as it allows inferences to be made about the intentions of its originator. Knightley indicates that he has forgiven Emma for her treatment of Miss Bates by taking her hand, on parting, and seeming about to carry it to his lips. The meaning of his gesture cannot be assessed by its hesitation between the informal and the formal, between two signals. Emma must combine her recognition of the signals with what she knows about Knightley’s character (‘his manners had in general so little gallantry’) in order to realise the depth of his feeling. Replace Knightley by the excitable Tollohub, say, and the meaning changes. Or imagine Knightley blasting away at a wineglass balanced between his horse’s ears. The essays assembled here uncover a great deal of valuable evidence about codification. But codes are only a part, and perhaps not the most interesting part, of the story.

Eliot, of course, formulated his ‘dissociation of sensibility’ with reference to 17th-century English poetry. Other literary historians have envisaged, if not catastrophe, then a reform of poetic manners distantly comparable to the political and scientific ‘revolutions’ of the period. Bullough and Grierson, the editors of the original Oxford Book of 17th-Century Verse (1934), spoke of ‘the intrusion of the intellect, a spirit of enquiry impatient of traditional, conventional sentiment’. Their successor, Alistair Fowler, prefers not to think in terms of a root-and-branch reform of poetic tradition. He points, instead, to a recovery of Classical genres such as elegy, satire, epigram and georgic, and to a new freedom in the choice of subject-matter. And although his selection does reflect these developments, it is perhaps more striking for the emphasis it lays on the recurrent, the enduring and the occasional: themes and motives which elude the literary historian’s insistence on evolution.

The first poem he has chosen, an epitaph by Elizabeth, Lady Tanfield, is notable partly because it reveals the scope of the research which has gone into the preparation of this anthology (the text is inscribed on Sir Lawrence Tanfield’s tomb in Burton Parish Church), and partly because it is so resolutely occasional:

Love made me poet,
And this I writ;
My heart did do it,
And not my wit.

Lady Tanfield is one of a number of poets included who appear to have been surprised into poetry. The surprise is frequently an unpleasant one. Anne Bradstreet writes on the fire which destroyed her house, James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, ‘On Himself, upon Hearing What Was His Sentence’. All three discover consolation in a faith which enables Graham to relish the thought of his own execution:

Open all my veins, that I may swim
To thee my Saviour, in that crimson lake;
Then place my parboiled head upon a stake.

One can’t imagine him sitting around with his arms folded in a sad knot.

There is an excellent crop of little-known elegies and epitaphs. Thomas James remembers companions lost in the Northern seas, Matthew Stevenson an ‘Old Freeman’:

Upon the ground he laid, all weathers,
Not as most men, gooselike on feathers.

Elizabeth Thomas covers just about all the angles in ‘A Midnight Thought (on the death of Mrs E.H. and Her Little Daughter, Cast away under London Bridge, Aug. 5, 1699), Ending with an Address to Clemena’. John Hoskyns’s ‘An Epitaph: On a Man for Doing Nothing’ is, appropriately enough, not much longer than its title. Such poems introduce a refreshing sense of contingency.

Fowler has cast his net widely, more widely than his predecessors, and to good effect. He has tried to produce a ‘representative’ selection, which means more generous helpings of minor poets like Drayton, Cowley, Oldham and Strode; more women; and the inclusion of ‘marginal’ figures such as the waterman John Taylor, the Digger Gerrard Winstanley, the alcoholic Richard Brathwait, and the lunatic James Carkesse. Carkesse’s reflection on his own conduct takes brilliant advantage of the keepers’ blue uniforms:

For though as Bedlam wits ebb and flow
As wandering stars move swift or slow,
My brain’s not ruled by the pale moon,
Nor keep the spheres my soul in tune;
But she observes, and changes notes
With the azure of sky-coloured coats.

Of the women poets, I was most struck by ‘Ephelia’, whose writing about love and friendship is admirably direct:

But, since you needs must go, may Africk be
Kinder to you than Europe is to me:
May all you meet and everything you view
Give you such transport as I met in you.
May no sad thoughts disturb your quiet mind,
Except you’ll think of her you left behind.

Here, it is the very matter-of-factness of rhythm and idiom which concentrates the feeling, in a manner reminiscent of 16th-century poets like George Gascoigne or Barnaby Googe. Elsewhere, in ‘Maidenhead: Written at the Request of a Friend’, ‘Ephelia’ shows that she could have mixed it metaphysically with John Donne himself. All of these selections confirm Fowler’s claim that ‘the period was one of a pristine individuality of experience, as well as, at times, individual oddity.’

Fowler hasn’t only busied himself at the margins. His selection also allows one to appreciate the extent of the obsession with wit, or, as he might put it, with epigram: ‘the most important literary change of the century could be seen as the pervasive tendency whereby epigram merged with and transformed almost every other kind.’ Poetry became more compressed. The ‘epigrammatic shift’ brought ‘a lasting change of scale: even now we take it for granted that every word in a poem must count.’ Few poets failed to observe that change of scale – though the resulting ‘wit’ sometimes resembles one of those rogue gadgets in Science Fiction movies which is billed as the future of law enforcement but soon runs amuck, scything down boffins and passers-by indiscriminately before tripping over its own feet or mistakenly ingesting a carton of yoghurt. Michael Drayton and his followers seem especially prone to disaster.

Fortunately, the anthology is a critical as well as a scholarly achievement. Fowler’s eye for what is good, or at least notable, about a poet’s work seems more or less unfailing. I wouldn’t quite go so far as to say that his selection from Paradise Lost is better than the real thing, but his selections from a number of other long poems may well be. Take Fulke Greville’s ‘Treaty of Human Learning’ – an immense disquisition on the uselessness of more or less all forms of knowledge (including, presumably, disquisitions on the uselessness of knowledge). Bullough and Grierson select from the very end of the poem (stanzas 143-51), by which time even Greville himself has just about had enough. Fowler prefers a magnificent passage where human learning is defined as an empowering lust which when pursued to the limit will, like all other lusts, only reveal impotence. Samuel Butler also has reason to be grateful to the editor who stopped his description of the Church Militant at the point where the ‘stubborn crew’ are blaspheming custard, rather than allowing it to continue inconsequentially, as Bullough and Grierson do. Lyric poets benefit as well. Sir John Suckling, for example, seems a much better writer in the 1991 than in the 1934 version.

My one reservation concerns the paucity of information about either the poets or the subjects of their poems. A note about the identity of ‘Ephelia’ would have been helpful, even if all it said was that nobody knew who she was (indeed, nobody has ever proved beyond doubt that the poems are by a woman). Fowler says that he has included a fair amount of verse whose interest is historical rather than literary. A little annotation might have strengthened the case for its inclusion. It would, however, be wrong to end on a negative note. The New Oxford Book of 17th-Century Verse is achievement enough in the ways that matter most.