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    2. Right and Left

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    Chapter 3
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    Adult man is the only animal who, in the familiar scriptural phrase,
    'knoweth the right hand from the left.' This fact in his economy goes
    closely together with the other facts, that he is the only animal on
    this sublunary planet who habitually uses a knife and fork, articulate
    language, the art of cookery, the common pump, and the musical glasses.
    His right-handedness, in short, is part cause and part effect of his
    universal supremacy in animated nature. He is what he is, to a great
    extent, 'by his own right hand;' and his own right hand, we may shrewdly
    suspect, would never have differed at all from his left were it not for
    the manifold arts and trades and activities he practises.

    It was not always so, when wild in woods the noble savage ran. Man was
    once, in his childhood on earth, what Charles Reade wanted him again to
    be in his maturer centuries, ambidextrous. And lest any lady readers of
    this volume--in the Cape of Good Hope, for example, or the remoter
    portions of the Australian bush, whither the culture of Girton and the
    familiar knowledge of the Latin language have not yet penetrated--should
    complain that I speak with unknown tongues, I will further explain for
    their special benefit that ambidextrous means equally-handed, using the
    right and the left indiscriminately. This, as Mr. Andrew Lang remarks
    in immortal verse, 'was the manner of Primitive Man.' He never minded
    twopence which hand he used, as long as he got the fruit or the scalp he
    wanted. How could he when twopence wasn't yet invented? His mamma never
    said to him in early youth, 'Why-why,' or 'Tomtom,' as the case might
    be, 'that's the wrong hand to hold your flint-scraper in.' He grew up to
    man's estate in happy ignorance of such minute and invidious
    distinctions between his anterior extremities. Enough for him that his
    hands could grasp the forest boughs or chip the stone into shapely
    arrows; and he never even thought in his innocent soul which particular
    hand he did it with.

    How can I make this confident assertion, you ask, about a gentleman whom
    I never personally saw, and whose habits the intervention of five
    hundred centuries has precluded me from studying at close quarters? At
    first sight, you would suppose the evidence on such a point must be
    purely negative. The reconstructive historian must surely be inventing
    _à priori_ facts, evolved, _more Germanico_, from his inner
    consciousness. Not so. See how clever modern archæology has become! I
    base my assertion upon solid evidence. I know that Primitive Man was
    ambidextrous, because he wrote and painted just as often with his left
    as with his right, and just as successfully.

    This seems once more a hazardous statement to make about a remote
    ancestor, in the age before the great glacial epoch had furrowed the
    mountains of Northern Europe; but, nevertheless, it is strictly true and
    strictly demonstrable. Just try, as you read, to draw with the
    forefinger and thumb of your right hand an imaginary human profile on
    the page on which these words are printed. Do you observe that (unless
    you are an artist, and therefore sophisticated) you naturally and
    instinctively draw it with the face turned towards your left shoulder?
    Try now to draw it with the profile to the right, and you will find it
    requires a far greater effort of the thumb and fingers. The hand moves
    of its own accord from without inward, not from within outward. Then,
    again, draw with your left thumb and forefinger another imaginary
    profile, and you will find, for the same reason, that the face in this
    case looks rightward. Existing savages, and our own young children,
    whenever they draw a figure in profile, be it of man or beast, with
    their right hand, draw it almost always with the face or head turned to
    the left, in accordance with this natural human instinct. Their doing so
    is a test of their perfect right-handedness.

    But Primitive Man, or at any rate the most primitive men we know
    personally, the carvers of the figures from the French bone-caves, drew
    men and beasts, on bone or mammoth-tusk, turned either way
    indiscriminately. The inference is obvious. They must have been
    ambidextrous. Only ambidextrous people draw so at the present day; and
    indeed to scrape a figure otherwise with a sharp flint on a piece of
    bone or tooth or mammoth-tusk would, even for a practised hand, be
    comparatively difficult.

    I have begun my consideration of rights and lefts with this one very
    clear historical datum, because it is interesting to be able to say with
    tolerable certainty that there really was a period in our life as a
    species when man in the lump was ambidextrous. Why and how did he become
    otherwise? This question is not only of importance in itself, as helping
    to explain the origin and source of man's supremacy in nature--his
    tool-using faculty--but it is also of interest from the light it casts
    on that fallacy of poor Charles Reade's already alluded to--that we
    ought all of us in this respect to hark back to the condition of
    savages. I think when we have seen the reasons which make civilised man
    now right-handed, we shall also see why it would be highly undesirable
    for him to return, after so many ages of practice, to the condition of
    his undeveloped stone-age ancestors.

    The very beginning of our modern right-handedness goes back, indeed, to
    the most primitive savagery. Why did one hand ever come to be different
    in use and function from another? The answer is, because man, in spite
    of all appearances to the contrary, is really one-sided. Externally,
    indeed, his congenital one-sidedness doesn't show: but it shows
    internally. We all of us know, in spite of Sganarelle's assertion to the
    contrary, that the apex of the heart inclines to the left side, and that
    the liver and other internal organs show a generous disregard for strict
    and formal symmetry. In this irregular distribution of those human
    organs which polite society agrees to ignore, we get the clue to the
    irregularity of right and left in the human arm, and finally even the
    particular direction of the printed letters now before you.

    For primitive man did not belong to polite society. His manners were
    strikingly deficient in that repose which stamps the caste of Vere de
    Vere. When primitive man felt the tender passion steal over his soul, he
    lay in wait in the hush for the Phyllis or Daphne whose charms had
    inspired his heart with young desire; and when she passed his
    hiding-place, in maiden meditation, fancy free, he felled her with a
    club, caught her tight by the hair of her head, and dragged her off in
    triumph to his cave or his rock-shelter. (Marriage by capture, the
    learned call this simple mode of primeval courtship.) When he found some
    Strephon or Damoetas rival him in the affections of the dusky sex, he
    and that rival fought the matter out like two bulls in a field; and the
    victor and his Phyllis supped that evening off the roasted remains of
    the vanquished suitor. I don't say these habits and manners were pretty;
    but they were the custom of the time, and there's no good denying them.

    Now, Primitive Man, being thus by nature a fighting animal, fought for
    the most part at first with his great canine teeth, his nails, and his
    fists; till in process of time he added to these early and natural
    weapons the further persuasions of a club or shillelagh. He also fought,
    as Darwin has very conclusively shown, in the main for the possession of
    the ladies of his kind, against other members of his own sex and
    species. And if you fight, you soon learn to protect the most exposed
    and vulnerable portion of your body; or, if you don't, natural selection
    manages it for you, by killing you off as an immediate consequence. To
    the boxer, wrestler, or hand-to-hand combatant, that most vulnerable
    portion is undoubtedly the heart. A hard blow, well delivered on the
    left breast, will easily kill, or at any rate stun, even a very strong
    man. Hence, from a very early period, men have used the right hand to
    fight with, and have employed the left arm chiefly to cover the heart
    and to parry a blow aimed at that specially vulnerable region. And when
    weapons of offence and defence supersede mere fists and teeth, it is the
    right hand that grasps the spear or sword, while the left holds over the
    heart for defence the shield or buckler.

    From this simple origin, then, the whole vast difference of right and
    left in civilised life takes its beginning. At first, no doubt, the
    superiority of the right hand was only felt in the matter of fighting.
    But that alone gave it a distinct pull, and paved the way, at last, for
    its supremacy elsewhere. For when weapons came into use, the habitual
    employment of the right hand to grasp the spear, sword, or knife made
    the nerves and muscles of the right side far more obedient to the
    control of the will than those of the left. The dexterity thus acquired
    by the right--see how the very word 'dexterity' implies this fact--made
    it more natural for the early hunter and artificer to employ the same
    hand preferentially in the manufacture of flint hatchets, bows and
    arrows, and in all the other manifold activities of savage life. It was
    the hand with which he grasped his weapon; it was therefore the hand
    with which he chipped it. To the very end, however, the right hand
    remains especially 'the hand in which you hold your knife;' and that is
    exactly how our own children to this day decide the question which is
    which, when they begin to know their right hand from their left for
    practical purposes.

    A difference like this, once set up, implies thereafter innumerable
    other differences which naturally flow from it. Some of them are
    extremely remote and derivative. Take, for example, the case of writing
    and printing. Why do these run from left to right? At first sight such a
    practice seems clearly contrary to the instinctive tendency I noticed
    above--the tendency to draw from right to left, in accordance with the
    natural sweep of the hand and arm. And, indeed, it is a fact that all
    early writing habitually took the opposite direction from that which is
    now universal in western countries. Every schoolboy knows, for instance
    (or at least he would if he came up to the proper Macaulay standard),
    that Hebrew is written from right to left, and that each book begins at
    the wrong cover. The reason is that words, and letters, and
    hieroglyphics were originally carved, scratched, or incised, instead of
    being written with coloured ink, and the hand was thus allowed to follow
    its natural bent, and to proceed, as we all do in naïve drawing, with a
    free curve from the right leftward.

    Nevertheless, the very same fact--that we use the right hand alone in
    writing--made the letters run the opposite way in the end; and the
    change was due to the use of ink and other pigments for staining
    papyrus, parchment, or paper. If the hand in this case moved from right
    to left it would of course smear what it had already written; and to
    prevent such untidy smudging of the words, the order of writing was
    reversed from left rightward. The use of wax tablets also, no doubt,
    helped forward the revolution, for in this case, too, the hand would
    cover and rub out the words written.

    The strict dependence of writing, indeed, upon the material employed is
    nowhere better shown than in the case of the Assyrian cuneiform
    inscriptions. The ordinary substitute for cream-laid note in the
    Euphrates valley in its palmy days was a clay or terra-cotta tablet, on
    which the words to be recorded--usually a deed of sale or something of
    the sort--were impressed while it was wet and then baked in, solid. And
    the method of impressing them was very simple; the workman merely
    pressed the end of his graver or wedge into the moist clay, thus giving
    rise to triangular marks which were arranged in the shapes of various
    letters. When alabaster, or any other hard material, was substituted for
    clay, the sculptor imitated these natural dabs or triangular imprints;
    and that was the origin of those mysterious and very learned-looking
    cuneiforms. This, I admit, is a palpable digression; but inasmuch as it
    throws an indirect light on the simple reasons which sometimes bring
    about great results, I hold it not wholly alien to the present serious
    philosophical inquiry.

    Printing, in turn, necessarily follows the rule of writing, so that in
    fact the order of letters and words on this page depends ultimately upon
    the remote fact that primitive man had to use his right hand to deliver
    a blow, and his left to parry, or to guard his heart.

    Some curious and hardly noticeable results flow once more from this
    order of writing from left to right. You will find, if you watch
    yourself closely, that in examining a landscape, or the view from a
    hill-top, your eye naturally ranges from left to right; and that you
    begin your survey, as you would begin reading a page of print, from the
    left-hand corner. Apparently, the now almost instinctive act of reading
    (for Dogberry was right after all, for the civilised infant) has
    accustomed our eyes to this particular movement, and has made it
    especially natural when we are trying to 'read' or take in at a glance
    the meaning of any complex and varied total.

    In the matter of pictures, I notice, the correlation has even gone a
    step farther. Not only do we usually take in the episodes of a painting
    from left to right, but the painter definitely and deliberately intends
    us so to take them in. For wherever two or three distinct episodes in
    succession are represented on a single plane in the same picture--as
    happens often in early art--they are invariably represented in the
    precise order of the words on a written or printed page, beginning at
    the upper left-hand corner, and ending at the lower right-hand angle. I
    first noticed this curious extension of the common principle in the
    mediæval frescoes of the Campo Santo at Pisa; and I have since verified
    it by observations on many other pictures elsewhere, both ancient and
    modern. The Campo Santo, however, forms an exceptionally good museum of
    such story-telling frescoes by various painters, as almost every picture
    consists of several successive episodes. The famous Benozzo Gozzoli, for
    example, of Noah's Vineyard represents on a single plane all the stages
    in that earliest drama of intoxication, from the first act of gathering
    the grapes on the top left, to the scandalised lady, the _vergognosa di
    Pisa_, who covers her face with her hands in shocked horror at the
    patriarch's disgrace in the lower right-hand corner.

    Observe, too, that the very conditions of _technique_ demand this order
    almost as rigorously in painting as in writing. For the painter will
    naturally so work as not to smudge over what he has already painted: and
    he will also naturally begin with the earliest episode in the story he
    unfolds, proceeding to the others in due succession. From which two
    principles it necessarily results that he will begin at the upper left,
    and end at the lower right-hand corner.

    I have skipped lightly, I admit, over a considerable interval between
    primitive man and Benozzo Gozzoli. But consider further that during all
    that time the uses of the right and left hand were becoming by gradual
    degrees each day still further differentiated and specialised.
    Innumerable trades, occupations, and habits imply ever-widening
    differences in the way we use them. It is not the right hand alone that
    has undergone an education in this respect: the left, too, though
    subordinate, has still its own special functions to perform. If the
    savage chips his flints with a blow of the right, he holds the core, or
    main mass of stone from which he strikes it, firmly with his left. If
    one hand is specially devoted to the knife, the other grasps the fork to
    make up for it. In almost every act we do with both hands, each has a
    separate office to which it is best fitted. Take, for example, so simple
    a matter as buttoning one's coat, where a curious distinction between
    the habits of the sexes enables us to test the principle with ease and
    certainty. Men's clothes are always made with the buttons on the right
    side and the button-holes on the left. Women's, on the contrary, are
    always made with the buttons on the left side, and the button-holes on
    the right. (The occult reason for this curious distinction, which has
    long engaged the attention of philosophers, has never yet been
    discovered, but it is probably to be accounted for by the perversity of
    women.) Well, if a man tries to put on a woman's waterproof, or a woman
    to put on a man's ulster, each will find that neither hand is readily
    able to perform the part of the other. A man, in buttoning, grasps the
    button in his right hand, pushes it through with his right thumb, holds
    the button-hole open with his left, and pulls all straight with his
    right forefinger. Reverse the sides, and both hands at once seem
    equally helpless.

    It is curious to note how many little peculiarities of dress or
    manufacture are equally necessitated by this prime distinction of right
    and left. Here are a very few of them, which the reader can indefinitely
    increase for himself. (I leave out of consideration obvious cases like
    boots and gloves: to insult that proverbially intelligent person's
    intelligence with those were surely unpardonable.) A scarf habitually
    tied in a sailor's knot acquires one long side, left, and one short one,
    right, from the way it is manipulated by the right hand; if it were tied
    by the left, the relations would be reversed. The spiral of corkscrews
    and of ordinary screws turned by hand goes in accordance with the
    natural twist of the right hand: try to drive in an imaginary corkscrew
    with the right hand, the opposite way, and you will see how utterly
    awkward and clumsy is the motion. The strap of the flap that covers the
    keyhole in trunks and portmanteaus always has its fixed side over to the
    right, and its buckle to the left; in this way only can it be
    conveniently buckled by a right-handed person. The hands of watches and
    the numbers of dial-faced barometers run from left to right: this is a
    peculiarity dependent upon the left to right system of writing. A
    servant offers you dishes from the left side: you can't so readily help
    yourself from the right, unless left-handed. Schopenhauer despaired of
    the German race, because it could never be taught like the English to
    keep to the right side of the pavement in walking. A sword is worn at
    the left hip: a handkerchief is carried in the right pocket, if at the
    side; in the left, if in the coat-tails: in either case for the right
    hand to get at it most easily. A watch-pocket is made in the left
    breast; a pocket for railway tickets half-way down the right side. Try to
    reverse any one of these simple actions, and you will see at once that
    they are immediately implied in the very fact of our original
    right-handedness.

    And herein, I think, we find the true answer to Charles Reade's mistaken
    notion of the advantages of ambidexterity. You couldn't make both hands
    do everything alike without a considerable loss of time, effort,
    efficiency, and convenience. Each hand learns to do its own work and to
    do it well; if you made it do the other hand's into the bargain, it
    would have a great deal more to learn, and we should find it difficult
    even then to prevent specialisation. We should have to make things
    deliberately different for the two hands--to have rights and lefts in
    everything, as we have them now in boots and gloves--or else one hand
    must inevitably gain the supremacy. Sword-handles, shears, surgical
    instruments, and hundreds of other things have to be made right-handed,
    while palettes and a few like subsidiary objects are adapted to the
    left; in each case for a perfectly sufficient reason. You can't upset
    all this without causing confusion. More than that, the division of
    labour thus brought about is certainly a gain to those who possess it:
    for if it were not so, the ambidextrous races would have beaten the
    dextro-sinistrals in the struggle for existence; whereas we know that
    the exact opposite has been the case. Man's special use of the right
    hand is one of his points of superiority to the brutes. If ever his
    right hand should forget its cunning, his supremacy would indeed begin
    to totter. Depend upon it, Nature is wiser than even Charles Reade. What
    she finds most useful in the long run must certainly have many good
    points to recommend it.

    And this last consideration suggests another aspect of right and left
    which must not be passed over without one word in this brief survey of
    the philosophy of the subject. The superiority of the right caused it
    early to be regarded as the fortunate, lucky, and trusty hand; the
    inferiority of the left caused it equally to be considered as
    ill-omened, unlucky, and, in one expressive word, sinister. Hence come
    innumerable phrases and superstitions. It is the right hand of
    friendship that we always grasp; it is with our own right hand that we
    vindicate our honour against sinister suspicions. On the other hand, it
    is 'over the left' that we believe a doubtful or incredible statement; a
    left-handed compliment or a left-handed marriage carry their own
    condemnation with them. On the right hand of the host is the seat of
    honour; it is to the left that the goats of ecclesiastical controversy
    are invariably relegated. The very notions of the right hand and ethical
    right have got mixed up inextricably in every language: _droit_ and _la
    droite_ display it in French as much as right and the right in English.
    But to be _gauche_ is merely to be awkward and clumsy; while to be right
    is something far higher and more important.

    So unlucky, indeed, does the left hand at last become that merely to
    mention it is an evil omen; and so the Greeks refused to use the true
    old Greek word for left at all, and preferred euphemistically to
    describe it as _euonymos_, the well-named or happy-omened. Our own
    _left_ seems equally to mean the hand that is left after the right has
    been mentioned, or, in short, the other one. Many things which are lucky
    if seen on the right are fateful omens if seen to leftward. On the other
    hand, if you spill the salt, you propitiate destiny by tossing a pinch
    of it over the left shoulder. A murderer's left hand is said by good
    authorities to be an excellent thing to do magic with; but here I cannot
    speak from personal experience. Nor do I know why the wedding-ring is
    worn on the left hand; though it is significant, at any rate, that the
    mark of slavery should be put by the man with his own right upon the
    inferior member of the weaker vessel. Strong-minded ladies may get up an
    agitation if they like to alter this gross injustice of the centuries.

    One curious minor application of rights and lefts is the rule of the
    road as it exists in England. How it arose I can't say, any more than I
    can say why a lady sits her side-saddle to the left. Coachmen, to be
    sure, are quite unanimous that the leftward route enables them to see
    how close they are passing to another carriage; but, as all continental
    authority is equally convinced the other way, I make no doubt this is a
    mere illusion of long-continued custom. It is curious, however, that the
    English usage, having once obtained in these islands, has influenced
    railways, not only in Britain, but over all Europe. Trains, like
    carriages, go to the left when they pass; and this habit, quite natural
    in England, was transplanted by the early engineers to the Continent,
    where ordinary carriages, of course, go to the right. In America, to be
    sure, the trains also go right like the carriages; but then, those
    Americans have such a curiously un-English way of being strictly
    consistent and logical in their doings. In Britain we should have
    compromised the matter by going sometimes one way and sometimes the
    other.
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