BOOK REVIEW / Handshakes all round, and the faint sound of snores: 'A Cultural History of Gesture' - Ed. Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg: Polity, 12.95 pounds

Share
Related Topics
THERE DO not seem to be many languages these days that cannot be learnt in 24 hours, given the right all-in-one multipack of tapes, videos, brochures, diet programmes, and so on. But body language remains a tough one. For historians there is an extra difficulty: physical mannerisms survive the test of time only in stylised forms, such as portraits and etiquette manuals. But one of the brightest aspects of modern history is its willingness to explore the minutiae of earlier life, and A Cultural History of Gesture is a keen examination of arms, legs, hands, feet, heads, hats and elbows.

As Alain Peyrefitte's recent book on the ill-fated British embassies to China showed, the world can turn on a single haughty refusal to kowtow. But the gestures described in this volume are more modest. Indeed the best chapter is about the handshake.

This simple reflex is not, as we might think, an ancient mark of friendship, but a rather recent and (I'm proud to report) British invention: an egalitarian rival to the courtly bowing and scraping that held sway until the late 18th century. When Leon Dupuis offered his hand to Madame Bovary in 1857, she

declared: 'A l'Anglaise donc'.

The book proceeds chronologically, which means that it starts on thin ice. The consideration of movement in ancient Greece notices that Achilles is 'long-striding', and suggests that the culture was therefore promoting a warrior ethos at the expense of the dainty, effeminate Persians. But the primary source here is an epic poem: 'long-striding' is one of those lovely concise tags that keeps the story on its toes. It is as if, in 2,500 years, historians hit upon Watership Down and concluded that the 20th century attached great significance to long ears.

A similar problem afflicts the discussion of Roman manners. There is a nice joke about the Italian who was too cold to take his hands out of his pockets, and therefore couldn't say a word, but otherwise the main source is Quintilian's Institutio Oratoria, a text book on the grammar of gestures. The author does not see this as distressing proof that even the wily Romans were not above producing self-help books, but accepts Quintilian as an authoritative census of Roman manners. A fist held against the breast signifies rage, an over-the- shoulder toga sweep expresses aggression, etc. When Quintilian suggests that thigh-slapping shows anger, the author points out that we associate it with humour. But when did you last see anyone slap a leg in mirth? And sportsmen and women are always punching their thighs when they miss an open goal, or knock over the high-jump bar.

The book warms up with Joaneath Spicer's description of the Renaissance Elbow - the swaggering hand-on-hip shot beloved of aristocrats in the 17th century. There are some delicious pictures of this fetching pose, and Spicer is obviously right to see it as a disdainful, I-own-this-joint salute. But it would have been much more interesting had she pursued the subsequent career of the manoeuvre, which now seems merely foppish.

The final chapters are the most up- to-date, and contain the freshest commentary. Andalusian men habitually hold their hands out and make little weighing movements, as if to estimate the size of another man's all-important cojones. Polish hospitality was so extreme that it was attended by endless formalised hugging and kissing, and sometimes even by removal of the guest's carriage wheel. And it is nice to have it confirmed, in the chapter on kissing, that no one has a clue how often, and on which cheek, we should plant our lips.

The book is well-stocked with pleasant historical observations, but there are some sad omissions: a serious study of non-verbal communication would surely want to investigate the thumbs-up, the crossed-leg, or just the way we wave goodbye. Readers interested in the history of the two-fingered salute will have to look elsewhere. And the book neglects to chart the disappearance of beards, fans, and hats, and the resulting impoverishment of our sign vocabulary.

But the authors have undertaken little more than a survey; there is little intellectual engagement with the ideas it throws up. On the contrary, the essays are composed in that familiar turgid key which scholarship holds in such mysterious esteem. Academics, I presume, hate it when they are chided for being convoluted, and imagine they are being asked to write down, to address the common herd. The truth is, they are being asked to write up, to inject some life or wit into their beady-eyed and gallant researches.

A Cultural History of Gesture is only a minor offender, and the English is in fact a tribute to the famous linguistic gifts of the mostly Dutch contributors. But it remains a book that is somehow, how shall we put it, holding its nose. The chapters have titles like 'Gestured masculinity: body and sociability in rural Andalusia', and on almost every page there is a phrase - sorry, an instance of cultural bipolarisation - that obliges the reader to think again: to what deep impulse do we owe the disgusted pencil-fling and shoulder-sag, the unbelieving reverse nod, the involuntary eye-droop. The book is an assembly of speeches from a conference in Utrecht, so maybe a key gestural aspect has been lost. You had to be there to hear the faint sound of snoring at the back.

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Dynamics CRM Developer (C#, .NET, Dynamics CRM 2011/2013)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Dynamics CRM D...

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Deputy Editor's Letter:

Independent Voices, Indy Voices Rhodri Jones
A couple stand in front of a beautiful cloudy scene  

In sickness and in health: It’s been stormy but there are blessings in the clouds

Rebecca Armstrong
Super Mario crushes the Messi dream as Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil

Super Mario crushes the Messi dream

Germany win the 2014 World Cup in Brazil
Saharan remains may be evidence of the first race war, 13,000 years ago

The first race war, 13,000 years ago?

Saharan remains may be evidence of oldest large-scale armed conflict
Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Scientists find early warning system for Alzheimer’s

Researchers hope eye tests can spot ‘biomarkers’ of the disease
Sex, controversy and schoolgirl schtick

Meet Japan's AKB48

Pop, sex and schoolgirl schtick make for controversial success
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor