On the Beauty of Gestures
Connecting gesture with speech is the subject of this catalog—it is an inventory of bodily signs effected voluntarily by humankind in order to communicate with each other. In this book, all that concerns us are voluntary gestures: I have avoided as well as I could confounding them with any encoded expression—of which some examples will nonetheless be found, belonging to specific codes (the gestures of monks, for instance) that I felt were picturesque and worthy of being better known; also included are gestures used in other regions of the world, which, in comparing them to our own, will allow us to distinguish numerous “false friends.” The “O” formed by the thumb and index finger in the United States to signify “OK” can also be a serious insult, most notably in the Arab world, where it is an obscene gesture.
There are no universal gestures. Thus Western good manners would have us look at the person with whom we are speaking, whereas in Asia and Africa we do not look directly at a person whom we respect—an opposition that can sometimes result in conflict if a person misreads politeness or deference for disdain or aggression.
Gestures also change over time, which explains the interest in studying the gestures made by the orators of antiquity or Europe’s Middle Ages. When the Rules of Puerile and Respectable Civility, published by the Bibliothèque Bleue in Troyes, said that it “isn’t proper to walk with your hands behind your back, it is always the mark of idle folk, they should not be imitated,” we can deduce from this that hands must be kept in front of oneself, which confirms the school of thought from the following century—hands on the table, arms crossed. But most gestures still maintain a certain longevity, as is demonstrated by “The Behaviors of Paris,” an eighteenth-century song that was accompanied by miming gestures:
Ture, allure, allure,
Flin, falan, faloan,
Each has his own tone,
And his own behavior.
With this finger here (the index)
A threat they will hear (making a sign with the finger).
’Tis like this we approve with respect (nodding the head),
And like this that instead we reject (furrowing the brow),
With this sign our favor we make plain (holding out one’s hand),
And like thus we display our disdain (shrugging the shoulders),
A squeeze of the hand is the symbol of Friendship,
With a kiss of the hand Eros flaunts his Courtship.
Ture, allure, allure,
When this gesture one presents
An end is brought to events
“Ah, good sirs, a spot of quiet if you please.”
With this gesture here, peace you request (crossing the hands),
And like thus, a secret is expressed (a finger to the lips).
To cry woe unto the skies
One must only raise one’s eyes.
In praise of an item whose virtues we sing
All five fingers to our lips we may bring
A gesture like this one shows our shame and disgrace (joining the
Whereas fear and concern have us double our pace,
And Alas! we might say when it’s pity we face,
“How I feel for you,”
Monotony, a stretch of the arms can erase.
Ture, allure, allure
We would like to believe that these gestures and airs were at that time those of the Parisians. In any case, they were unique enough in the eyes of other Frenchmen that they warranted a song. When he published The Mime of the Ancients Investigated through Neapolitan Gesture in Naples in 1832, the Canon Andrea de Jorio wanted to demonstrate that the gestures of the Neapolitans in use at the time had ancient origins, which he had found on the amphorae and paintings of antiquity. He proved to us, in any case, that the gestures of the Neapolitans haven’t changed over the past hundred and seventy years.
But can gestures be classified? Alphabetical order must be renounced (although certain gestures can already be found collected in language dictionaries, such as the bras d’honneur, also known as the “Italian salute”; the handshake; or “thumbing the nose”), and we should instead successively address each part of the body, from top to bottom, from scalp to toe by way of the upper limbs. Thus I have arranged into 37 sections nearly 850 descriptions of the gestures of the Western, Mediterranean, and Eastern worlds, accompanied by descriptive sketches, their meanings (which appear again in a general index), by any necessary verbal sign appended to them, and by literary citations. “Famous gestures” are illustrated by means of photographs or visual documents.