When it comes to the senses, they all have their merits; but taking one away – if they’re all in working order to begin with, of course – can damage in ways it’s easy to underestimate. Most of us have had one particular sense removed against our will during the current scenario, and though it does have something of a problematic reputation if misused, it nevertheless provides us with some of the most electrifying sensory stimulations available if applied correctly. I’m talking, naturally, about touch. Enforced social distancing from fellow pedestrians can’t necessarily be blamed for putting touch out of action in that it shouldn’t necessarily have been utilised when it comes to complete strangers on the street or in the supermarket, anyway – indeed, abusing this particular sense in such a situation is where its problematic reputation stems from. At the same time, the suspicion that now surrounds each individual we keep a two metre distance from in our rationed outings has intensified the perception of touch as a poisonous sense that needs to be curbed – which is a shame.
After all, though Proust rightly cited the power of taste when describing his Madeleine Moment, touch can provide us with equally evocative sensations that take us back in personal time. Inanimate objects from childhood are invested with remarkably potent sensory powers if we make contact with them again as adults, though the effect of touch can be just as effective when it comes to articles that have no such associations and simply feel good when our fingers grace them. It’s no wonder that the blind place such prominence on the impact of touch, let alone relying on it to read. When it comes to instant internal responses, touch is pretty much in a league of its own. Think of bubble-wrap, or the especially luxuriant fur of a dog or cat, or Plasticine, or silk, or – yes – a lady’s knee; all provide a hit to the pleasure domes of the brain like few other senses can deliver with such speed.
When Alex is conditioned to respond negatively to his aggressive tendencies following Ludovico treatment in ‘A Clockwork Orange’, the humiliating demonstration before dignitaries he is forced to endure as evidence the technique works includes one scene where a topless girl approaches him; his instinct is to reach out and grab her breasts; then the sickness hits and he recoils in agony. But the fact that the overwhelming urge to grope her was the first thought to enter his head when he laid eyes upon her was an indication of how pleasurable the reward of touch is for the individual concerned – even though it simultaneously provokes the opposite feeling in the person for whom touch is unwelcome and uninvited. But the pattern of Alex’s life as a teenage hoodlum has been the wholesale embrace of pleasure, so it’s only natural touch forms a central element of that. His crime is to take what he wants when he wants, and that includes any stray devotchka he happens to stumble upon.
It goes without saying that few would advocate using touch with such carefree abandon as that wicked little droog, though that hasn’t prevented those who wouldn’t from being accused of doing so in the compensation climate the western world has descended into over the last couple of decades. The institutionalised fear of touch has been drilled into at least one generation by powerful lobbyists for certain causes, and has transformed the abuses of touch from the exclusive province of dirty old men to anyone – i.e. male – coming into contact with children or the opposite sex, placing them under instant suspicion as potential paedos or rapists in a refashioned brand of Original Sin. The implementation of CRB checks and the ‘#BelieveAllWomen’ mantra have been the sad outcomes of submission to this corrosive mindset, leading to the toxic atmosphere of mistrust and conviction of ulterior motives so prevalent on campus today. Students are taught to fear physical attraction at a time when their hormones crave it, and the insidious innovation of consent forms that reduce perfectly natural instincts to prospective criminal acts on behalf of one participant is a sorry development that has nevertheless prepared the ground for where we are now.
With the mixed-sex workplace similarly infected with anticipation of the predatory groper, the imposition of social distancing wasn’t such an impossible task to persuade the populace to adhere to as it might have been, say, thirty or forty years ago; yet we conversely live in an age where the hug has become as commonplace a greeting as the traditional handshake – two expressions of touch between people that have now been socially outlawed. All the locations where touch has an outlet to indulge – pubs, cafés, restaurants, concert venues, football grounds – have been closed down to avoid individuals physically connecting with other individuals through touch. The general consensus of touch being a thing of evil is thus cemented.
The hospitality industry is one that has seriously suffered during the lockdown, and even when restrictions are tentatively lifted, the problems of how to accommodate ongoing fears of touch mean returning to normal will probably take longer than mere months in comparison to other businesses. Tables in restaurants being reduced and stationed further apart than usual will minimise the amount of customers that can be admitted on any given evening, which will obviously lead to a drop in profits and no doubt many eating houses going to the wall even if they make it to a re-opening night. I myself can’t say I’m either a regular restaurant or pub-goer, but it’s nice to know both are there if the need arises. I feel sorrier for those with social lives that these places form a crucial backdrop to.
Indeed, imagine if today was your birthday and you were the kind to celebrate such an occasion by making the most of the myriad venues that cater for those kind of events; okay, so a night-in alone might be the best some of us can expect when happy returns are allegedly many; but for social animals restricted to quarters, the prospect of not only being deprived of eating out but of not being able to receive the visitors one would naturally anticipate if housebound must be a bit of a bummer, to say the least. What you’re being deprived of more than anything else is touch, and extended periods being deprived of touching another human being can have the habit of not necessarily associating the sensation with fear, but of a gradual drop in one’s emotional temperature; one can become something of a ghost.
Considering it took until several years after the end of the Second World War for so many of the privations the conflict imposed on the home-front to be returned to pre-war normality, any expectations of a swift resumption of where we were before the lockdown once it ends is naive. And with Matt Hancock getting all Lord Kitchener by insisting it’s our ‘duty’ to sign up for Smartphone apps tracking our movements, state control of individuals is in danger of becoming an entrenched given. But it is the perception of touch as something imbued with inherent evil – a belief already gathering pace even before Covid-19 entered the fray – that is one of the most poignant casualties of this calamity.
© The Editor