Look, don’t touch: what great literature can teach us about love with no contact

Joanna Briscoe in The Guardian:

In our time of social distancing, the desire for physical contact has never been so intense. And yet we are untouchable. This experience has had its more conspicuous consequences, such as the government scientist Neil Ferguson breaking his own rules to meet his lover during lockdown. This notion of forbidden touch, unique and even shocking as it may be to us, has a multitude of echoes in literature. Cultural constraints and taboos on touch are reflected, overturned or used for dramatic purposes by writers throughout history, and our own bookshelves are newly rich with the comfort of identification. Who would have ever guessed that the plague-ridden, the apocalyptic or the edicts of Victorian England would have quite such resonance?

The sensual is, of course, as much enhanced by restraint as diminished by it, and the whole canon of forbidden, throbbing longing in literature contains particular potency in the present. Often by necessity, desire is all, and consummation, if it ever happens, can be secondary in impact to the distanced gazes, tiny brushes and glances that precede it. Little is as sexy, or as frustrating, as restricted touch. A physical gesture, however slight, is more often a turning point for characters than anything spelled out in dialogue. This was summed up by Iris Murdoch in The Black Prince: “Only take someone’s hand in a certain way, even look into their eyes in a certain way, and the world is changed forever.” Keats wrote that “touch has a memory”, and the anticipation or the recollection of the physical is often where the excitement, fervour and true poetry lie. As Emily Dickinson expressed it: “Within its reach, though yet ungrasped / Desire’s perfect Goal – / No nearer – lest the Actual – / should disenthrall my soul – ”

More here.