Hands and feet – where would we be without them? Other body parts may be more beautiful, even more erotic – although that’s debatable as we’ll see in a bit. But hands help us to create and comfort, while feet get us where we’re going.
Because hands play an integral role in writing and drawing, they’ve always been a popular subject in the arts. In the Bible, we’re told that God created man in his own image, male and female he created them, not merely by willing them from his brain but by fashioning them with his hands, as if he were a humble potter. The Creation becomes a metaphor for creativity, powerfully expressed in Auguste Rodin’s “The Hand of God” (modeled circa 1896, executed circa 1907), in which that hand rises from a rough piece of marble to cradle Adam and Eve, their limbs tumbling together like babes in the womb as they emerge from stone into sensual flesh and blood. This being a Rodin, God isn’t just creating humanity. He’s fashioning sex, perhaps the ultimate creative act, along with it.
The hand, then, becomes a metaphor for the mind of the artist. Note how in Salvador Dalí’s oil painting “Metamorphosis of Narcissus” (1937), the hand that sprouts from an arid, Surrealistic landscape to hold an egg ever so lightly between its thumb and forefinger mirrors the nude figure of Narcissus gazing at himself in the pool. Or is he also thinking?
Perhaps of Guido Daniele and Mario Mariotti, artists who have transformed hands into extraordinary images of animals and athletes. Or Dalí countryman Señor Wences, alias Wenceslao Moreno, the ventriloquist who turned his clenched left hand into the face of a puppet for many appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
So it’s not just the visual artist the hand represents, but the musician, her fingers flying across an instrument; the dancer and the actor, his gestures punctuating the movement; and the writer, who puts her digits to computer keys to pound out prose and poetry. Even singers use their hands to finish their melodic thoughts. (And let’s not forget George Costanza, Jason Alexander’s character on “Seinfeld,” who had a brief but sensuous stint as a hand model in one episode.)
Hands, of course, can be creative in other ways, as George and the “Seinfeld” gang – who struggled to be the masters of their domains in the wickedly funny, surprisingly tasteful episode “The Contest” – well knew. “I want a man with a slow hand,” the Pointer Sisters sang. “I want a lover with an easy touch.” And here, dear reader, the demure hand draws a curtain.
The hand that pleasures, creates and rocks the cradle can destroy as well. In Oliver Stone’s 1981 film “The Hand,” things quickly get out of hand as the severed right extremity of a comic book artist (Michael Caine) takes on a bloody life of its own.
Given all that the hand can accomplish, the foot would appear to be more, well, pedestrian (from the Latin meaning “going on foot.”) Yet in the film “My Left Foot” (1989) – for which Daniel Day-Lewis won the first of his three Oscars – the title “character” is the means by which Christy Brown, stricken with cerebral palsy, becomes an artist and writer. The film is a poignant reminder that eloquence is often born of absence. The hand or foot that picks up the pen or paintbrush for its fallen “comrades” can speak most beautifully. (One of the most powerful examples of this – and the motif that ran through a great “M*A*S*H” episode – is the Piano Concerto for the Left Hand in D major, which Maurice Ravel composed between 1929 and 1930 for Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. The music is so rich that it’s hard to believe only one hand is playing.)
As with the hand, the foot can be ennobled by art and religion. Few scenes in the Gospels are more moving than that of the sinful woman, often identified with Mary Magdalene, washing the feet of Jesus with her tears and anointing them with costly oil from an alabaster jar during a dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee. When he and the guests begin to remonstrate, Jesus silences them by saying that she has been forgiven much, because she has loved much. At the Last Supper, he displays the humility she has shown, washing the feet of his disciples, a custom that continues to be repeated on Holy Thursday.
But just as the hand can be the instrument of humble creativity or gory destruction, Edenic innocence or leisurely eroticism, the foot can be a lethal weapon (Bruce Lee movies, anyone?); kicky fun (Lucy stomping on the grapes in a classic “I Love Lucy” episode); or a naughty overture, as anyone who’s ever played footsie can tell you.
Indeed, the foot is the nonsexual body part most often associated with fetishism, or podophilia. Sigmund Freud considered foot-binding to be a form of fetishism. (See related story.) Among the foot fetishists Wikipedia lists are some surprising and not-so-surprising gents, including serial seducer Giacomo Casanova; composer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, filmmaker Erich von Stroheim; novelists Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Thomas Hardy, Victor Hugo and James Joyce; and artist Andy Warhol, who drew and painted hands, feet and colorful women’s shoes with spiraling straps, bows and kitten heels. (See related story.)
Shoe fetishism is known as retifism, after Nicolas-Edme Rétif, who could’ve given the Marquis de Sade a run for his money. Even the King himself, Elvis Presley, was said to fancy a foot. And not just for his “Blue Suede Shoes.”
And then there’s New York Jets coach Rex Ryan. Not-so-sexy Rexy raised a ruckus in 2010 with some Internet videos that allegedly starred his voice and his wife’s soft feet. (Hey, at least they weren’t some other woman’s feet.)
The press has since moved on to other circuses, but old sex scandals die hard: When ex-Bronco and Patriot Tim Tebow was spotted getting a mani-pedi before his brief, ill-fated tenure with the Jets, some joked that he was just preparing to audition for the boss.
Guess that’s why they call it “foot” ball.
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