At 4.30 p.m. on August 28th, 2021, for the first time after five hundred and twenty-five days spent in isolation, on account of the pandemic, in my small village 30 km from Coimbra, I hugged and was hugged by someone outside the circle of those few people I closely interact with on a daily basis. Words cannot begin to describe what I felt then. It was an unconditional gesture, a presence too strong to allow itself to be planned or taken for granted. To feel my hands slide down another body and press it against mine was both familiar and strange. The pleasurable sensation of another body against mine was more than erotic. It felt like the carnal truth of existence, a proof of being. Next came fear – but was it really fear, or was it punishment for the pleasure I had felt? Had this been a careless, needlessly perilous gesture? Did one need to restrain one’s senses and learn anew how to deal with the emotions of physical contact and the challenging reassurance they provide? Had I been deprived for too long of the touch and touching of living beings other than the humans, cats and dogs in my immediate household? Why is it that, during the long period of pandemic deprivation, I had never felt the urge to hug trees, which is something that many ecologists do to feel the energy that emanates from these wonderful living beings that link the earth to the skies in such a natural manner, but which is so difficult for us humans, shaped as we are by Western culture? Why is it that the hugging of a tree – and there are so many of them in my backyard, which I could have hugged without fear of getting the coronavirus – would never provoke the same indescribable emotion that swept over me as I embraced and felt the warm body of my human friend? Why is it that this carnal truth conveyed by the unrestrained vibration of an embrace eschews reflection and always comes as a surprise when we happen to become aware of it, like an irrational avalanche let loose, less predictable than a tsunami or an earthquake? We know that in certain cultures there are people who are not to be touched, because they are viewed as either superior or too lowly, but one is left to wonder what body vibration is like when there is no touching.
Although it is a constant in the life of every human being who does not treat the body (whether their own or other peoples’) and human relationships as a tool for scientific diagnosis, a source of financial gain or the object of philosophical speculation, only rarely does this carnal truth of bodies and human relationships occur to – much less engage the attention of – intellectuals and thinkers. This is a rare occurrence indeed, but whenever that happens the latter turn into very special beings. Michel de Montaigne comes to mind in this context. In his Essais, written around 1570, he writes about what he truly knows, i.e., his own body and the surprises and contradictions inherent in human relationships. Thus, he devotes one of his essays to the art of discussion and verbal jousting and expounds on the pleasure of eating oysters, even if they give you a stomachache. But the most remarkable illustration is provided by Albert Camus and his incessant struggle against abstract ideas, in contradistinction to the carnal truth of concrete death and suffering. When aggressively confronted by an Islamic activist on Algeria’s independence and the issue of violence, during an event held at Stockholm University after he received the 1957 Nobel Prize for Literature, Camus retorted: “terrorism in the streets of Algiers… could kill my mother or my family. I believe in justice, but I’ll defend my mother before justice.” His mother was worth more to him than any abstract idea.
Hugging and culture
After such a prolonged lack of use and all the emotion that had swept over me, the carnal truth of hugging made me reflect on the subject. Poets have meditated on the ambiguities of the embrace since forever. In one of her sonnets, Florbela Espanca sings of “Lady Death’s … Languid and sweet” embrace. Embracing is also the subject of a love poem by Pablo Neruda: “In your embrace I embrace what exists, / sand, time, the tree of rain, / and everything lives so that I may live: / without wandering far I can see it all: / I see in your life everything that lives.” António Ramos Rosa refuses to put off the embrace, to put off love: “I cannot postpone this embrace / this double-edged sword /of love and hate”. And Ana Luísa Amaral sings of the rupestrian nostalgia for the “fresh, painful embrace”. Shakespeare described how the vanquished Henry VI was left with no choice but to embrace “sour adversity.” Omar Khayyam, the great eleventh-century Persian poet, mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, dared to wonder about a mother’s ultimate, all-soothing embrace. Many centuries later, the great Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet wrote about the desire of his people – his “working, honest, brave … half hungry, half full, half slave people …” – to embrace everything “modern, beautiful and good”.
Meanwhile, I learned that authors from such areas as psychology, ethology, anthropology and culture studies have written extensively on this phenomenon, which, though simple and extremely common both with regard to humans and animals, can be rather varied and have multiple meanings. The term embrace comes from the Latin bracchia collo circumdare – to put the arms around the neck. As a gesture, it conveys affability, empathy, absence of hostility; it is something humans do when they meet or part company. Animals also hug each other. However, unlike humans, they also hug from behind, and at least domestic animals do not seem to embrace upon parting. The phenomenology of hugging is very complex and has been studied in detail: the pre-body contact moves, the body language, eye contact, hug duration, the greater or lesser pressure of the embracing bodies, the possible contact of taboo body parts in opposite-sex hugging, touching the other person’s head or face, how far your hands may slide down the other person’s back or shoulders without making them uncomfortable. Body contact is vital in the case of newborns, and a mother’s embrace is soon associated with feelings of joy, comfort and confidence, which infants later replicate when they hug dolls and toys. On the other hand, there is a field of knowledge called proxemics, which studies the relative distance that people in different cultures or with different psychological mindsets think needs to be kept between themselves and other people in any normal interaction, without feeling awkward. Thus, for example, extroverted people require less distance than people who are introverted or psychologically disturbed. The distance zone between two bodies engaging in a hug – between 0 and 15 cm – is called the intimate zone. Nowadays that distance is thought to have to do with genetic and environmental factors, cultural practices, social roles, childhood history, and religion. In the Western (notably the Anglo-Saxon) world, men tend to exchange handshakes among themselves, whereas among women hugs are preferred. All this strikes me as fascinating, even if it says nothing about what I actually felt when I gave a welcoming hug to the visitor I had missed so much. Nor does it explain why, at that precise moment, a mere handshake (especially if followed by disinfection), far from being a warm gesture, would surely signify distance, discomfort and even hostility. The science of hugging does not teach us how to hug, nor is it supposed to. It is nevertheless interesting to learn about the different cultural meanings inherent in such a familiar gesture. After all, hugging only stopped being ubiquitous when the pandemic made it problematic – which was also when, faced with our loss, we truly began to appreciate it.
The meaning of hugging is inscribed in many cultures. In the Bible, the reconciliation of Esau and Jacob is sealed with an embrace: “And Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him: and they wept.” It is a known fact that Latin and African peoples have a greater need or predisposition to hug and that they do it in an effusive manner, though in Islamic African countries hugs only occur between people of the same sex. Hug duration is always related to the intensity of the emotion involved, which in turn may be related to feelings of either congratulations or commiseration. In Russia, France and certain parts of Eastern Europe, hugging followed by kissing on the cheek is common among men, but this is not the custom in other countries. On the other hand, to greet someone with a hug is common in Southern Europe, whereas in Northern Europe handshakes are the common form of greeting. In a number of Islamic cultures, body contact between men and women in public spaces tends to be rare, distance in interactions tends to be greater, and hugging can even be proscribed.
In the U.S., the white population is so disinclined to embrace, at least in public, that in 1989 Kevin Zaborney created the National Hugging Day, observed annually on January 21st, with the purpose of developing feelings of trust and safeness among relatives and friends. Unsurprisingly, the sixty million Latinos living in the U.S., who delightfully flaunt their difference vis-à-vis the white population by profusely engaging in hugging each other, suffered considerable psychological deprivation during the pandemic. According to some reports, the spread of the coronavirus among Latinos had to do, among many other factors, with hugging and body proximity. In fact, these habits are so embedded in the culture that they could not be dispensed with, despite the risks involved.
Hugging and health
Today we know of the health benefits of hugging. I have mentioned how Kevin Zaborney came up with the idea of a National Hugging Day to improve human communication and reduce stress and hostility. Curiously enough, Brazil also observes a hugging day (on May 22nd), but that is not because of any lack of hugging in the lives of Brazilian men and women. On the contrary, its purpose is to celebrate the magic of body contact, friendship, emotional warmth and mutual support, which are so necessary at the present moment. The best-known physical effects of hugging include the production of oxytocin, considered the love (or “cuddle”) hormone for its capacity to diminish anxiety, improve mood and increase affection. It also reduces aggressiveness in men, making them more kind, unselfish and social. Hugging lowers blood pressure and, according to some experts, strengthens the body’s immunity – which is in fact ironic and even cruel in times of pandemic: the greater the urge to hug, the greater the danger, given the risk of contagion. Behold the human being, caught in the labyrinth of his potency and his limits. Promethean discontent with such contradiction has led to the self-hug, by means of a contrivance that allows us to hug ourselves, as if we were somebody else. I allude to the invention of Sense Roid, the mannequin covered with tactile sensors, a jacket with vibrating motors, and artificial muscles that recreate the sensation of hugging and being hugged by someone. Developed at Japan’s University of Electro-Communications, the Sense-Roid can be purchased on Amazon. It would seem that we stand on the threshold of the post-human dystopia. But is the strangeness of such a device any different from how we reacted when sexual vibrators, which have since become a common accessory, first came on the market? In opposition to this technological fix, which is but the cynical turning of a gesture of solidarity into a solitary one, young people seem to be increasingly embracing the habit of hugging as a way of feeling stronger support, more intimacy, and greater affection. By doing it in this time of pandemic, maybe they are putting themselves at risk, but isn’t the greatest risk of all to live as you die, all alone?
Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Professor of Sociology at the School of Economics, University of Coimbra (Portugal), Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Law School and Global Legal Scholar at the University of Warwick.