In the current revival of interest in the senses across the humanities, it is the investigation of touch that seems to offer the largest and most intriguing prospects. This is partly because the sense of touch is the most ambivalent of the senses - assigned by many to the bottom of the table and yet also thought of as a kind of index-sense that, in terms such as "feel", "grasp" and "tact", provides a way of representing the value of sensitivity itself.
Nobody has contributed more to the history of the senses than Constance Classen, who draws deeply on her knowledge of different cultural periods and places for this hugely absorbing anthology of writings about touch. The book is put together very effectively on a sponge-cake principle. The sponge is furnished with substantial essays, skilfully trimmed to include as many as possible, from historians, ethnographers, theologians and others reflecting on different forms of touch. These are held together by shorter sections that contain hints and tastes of a more oblique and fugitive kind.
Many of the most fascinating surprises and the sweetest solicitations to thought in this volume are to be found in these filler sections, which touch on topics as various as massage, what ghosts feel like, thermal delight, kissing, crocheting, tele-tactility and the connection between laundry and melancholy.
The material is grouped into nine broad headings: "Contact", or the social uses and meanings of touch; "Pleasure" (scratching, tickling, sex); "Pain"; "Male bonding" (military discipline, corporal punishment and other kinds of rough stuff); "Women's touch" (needlework and child-rearing); "Control"
(the social inhibition of touch); "Uncommon touch" (extraordinary, amplified or imaginary experiences of touch); "Tactile therapies" (the King's touch, massage, mesmerism); and "Touch and technology" (the new experiences of touch emerging from digital technologies).
Classen acknowledges candidly that "the history of touch 'continually overflows the boundaries of any scheme of interpretation'". The book's divisions succeed better in suggesting the range of things that touch can be than in providing a framework for thinking about touch as such.
This is not to say that there are no orientating assumptions. One is that modern societies have become ever more "eye-minded" and fearful or contemptuous of touch. The interesting discussions of "tactile" cultures (Inuits, Amerindians, Japanese) seem to suggest that we moderns would benefit from being more confident, tolerant and versatile in the arts of touch. (It is good to hear, though, that not all non-Western cultures are huggy-wise - Chinese parents used to stuff their babies in padded bags and hang them from hooks to keep them out of the way.) Another assumption is that this cultural anaesthesia is pretty much down to men, who, compared with the nimbleness and tenderness of women, are blundering pachyderms. This account, with its docile and sadly obtuse distribution of tactile specialities between male and female manages extravagantly to unremember vast amounts of the male cultivation of touch, especially in its animating involvements with the material rather than the interpersonal realm, among sailmakers, silversmiths, surgeons, sauciers and so - almost infinitely, but here almost invisibly - on.
Classen has decided not to offer any theory or definition of touch, and her anthology is biased in favour of experiences or evocations of touch rather than technical explorations of its nature. This means that psychological investigation and philosophical speculation about touch are irritatingly absent. This leaves the book oddly skinless or lacking in integument.
More than this, the abundant muddle of different things that can be thought of as touch, which provides the diverting richness of this collection, also erodes its central demand, that we pay more concerted attention to touch in an absence of a clear sense of what that means. The more one hears about many different forms and modalities of touch, the more one begins to wonder and to doubt whether there really is any specifically "tactile" component at work in toothache, taking off in a plane, tapdancing, testing the bathwater, tracing a tetrahedron, twiddling one's thumbs and saying "tut".
This is perhaps in part because there is no one medium or waveband for touch, such as sound provides for hearing and light for vision.
Still, in providing such a bustling Grand Central Station of arrivals, departures and connections, The Book of Touch must be regarded as the one absolutely necessary volume for anyone beginning to think about the sense of touch or seeking to orientate and inform students about what has been made of it. It succeeds magnificently in registering the variety of the ways in which touch appears to and bears upon us. We can easily forgive a book being so much less than the sum of its parts when that less amounts to such a large and opulent sum.
Steven Connor is professor of modern literature and theory, Birkbeck College, London.
The Book of Touch
Editor - Constance Classen
Publisher - Berg
Pages - 461
Price - £55.00 and £19.99
ISBN - 1 84520 058 6 and 059 4