The left hand was humanized making it easier to sense what was hidden while building a tool.
In the previous chapter we saw that in the primitive construction of tools, each hand performs different functions. This chapter will discuss the functions of the left hand.
Hominins, like all vertebrates, have bilateral symmetry. This means that we are almost equal on the right and on the left of the sagittal plane that traverses the body from top to bottom and from front to back.
The brain, which controls the body, is also separated into two halves communicated with each other and with the rest of the body; and it has evolved to control the operation of each opposite side: the right hemisphere communicates with the left side of the body and vice versa.
The brain evolved before the hominins, to jump from one tree branch to another. The eyes evolved along with the hands. That is why we have our eyes so close to each other in front of the head, able to moving quickly and to focus the look on a nearby target located at any point and at any distance at an angle of almost 180º. This also provided a precise sight to hunt, adjusting the movements and displacement on the ground, to the position of the dam at every moment.
Evolution also rewarded another different function in the visual system of mammals: the separation of the visual field on the left and on the right side of the human body and its environment.
As shown in this graph, the retina of each eye and the nerves that connect it to the brain, are divided into two parts. The nerves are grouped in four beams and cross in the middle of the head, regrouping in two beams. The bundle of nerves (red) that informs from the left of the body (and from the left half of the world) connects to the right hemisphere; and the beam (not shown) that informs from the right of the body and from the world, is connected to the left hemisphere.
This mess of cables separating and regrouping, serves to ensure two differentiated functions: One, control the proximity or remoteness of the activities within reach of the hands. And the other, coordinate the sight, touch and motor control of arms and hands, so that the left hand takes care of the left part of the environment and the right hand of the right part of that environment.
This organization was very advantageous for hominins, when they had to adapt their life to the savannah. Thanks to her, the left hand could take care of a stone (the raw material that would become a tool); while the right hand handled the hammer: two completely different functions but dialoging with each other.
And thanks to the fact that the hominins did that, two million years later, a pianist could interpret a Bach fugue, playing with his left hand a melody and with his right hand, another different one. Something that a monkey can never do (neither me nor the vast majority of humans).
Adaptation from the left to the new environment
Reacting to new situations in hunting or facing predators, he had developed defensive functions such as hiding, protecting, moving carefully and with extreme precision. And also to anticipate perceiving the new: that is, what has not yet happened, but it is possible that it will happen. Of those functions the left side of the body was occupied. That’s why there are animals that sleep halfway, keeping the left side alert.(1)
With such qualities, the left hand and the cerebral hemisphere that controls it, could concentrate on the raw material: this is on the stone or bone that had to be transformed into an ax, knife or spear point. In holding it, place it in position, focus attention on the exact point and with the most effective angle of attack. In short, the left hand specialized in facilitating the executive action of the other hand.
The word Pragnanz
The word pragnanz (Prägnanz in German) derives from the Latin adjective praegnans for “pregnant“.
These qualities belong to the pragnanz (prägnantz in deutz). A concept discovered by Gestalt psychologists at the beginning of the 20th century and adopted by the artists of the Bauhaus school. Some of us learned it from the Basque sculptor, Jorge Oteiza, who sought to understand the mystery of art by carving stones: a task not very different from his artisan ancestors in Africa.
Carvers … and panel beaters like Ramón Argomaniz: a Basque craftsman, who seemed to have arrived directly from prehistory. When I told him what Oteiza was saying about instinctive and fast behavior on the left, he replied without hesitation: “-Sure: that’s the way to go! While I hit with the right, I feel with the left where it is already smooth and where you have to keep hitting.” And not like foreign panel beaters, who after each blow, set the hammer aside to feel the sheet with his right hand.
Pragnanz and pregnancy
A very common mistake in defining pragnanz is to confuse it with simplicity. Since the time of the Gestalt there is the error of believing that a simple form like the circle is prägnante because it is simple. But perfect beings, like ideas, lack aesthetic value.
The Anglo-Saxon words pragnanz and pregnancy can lead to confusion meaning simplicity and conciseness, or pregnant woman. This double meaning has an explanation. We must understand it in the time, because they refer a process.
A fixed shape in space, such as a triangle, a square or a circle, expresses simplicity. That has interest in math. But when entering time, a simple form can be a starting point or also an arrival point.
The concept pragnanz in esthetic
From a material that has a simple form, it can be emptied of matter to increase its pragnanz. When they asked Miguel Angel how he managed to make his wonderful sculpture of David, he replied: “David was always hidden in that large block of marble, all I did was remove the leftover parts.“
Pragnanz impregnates us with sense towards these simple shape, from different, complex or foggy origins. So we can anticipate them.
The forms present in this image on the right, are motionless in space: they are incomplete circles. But we imagine a triangle hovering between the circles. As if those three circles were pregnant with a triangle.
In this paradoxical experience, circles are simple shapes as a starting point; and the triangle is present only as a point of arrival. But when you perceive the triangle, it becomes a starting point pregnant with circles, which are now a point of arrival.
In short, pragnanz can be “the beginning of a beautiful friendship”. (2) between the artist and his work; and also between the creator and the viewer.
Pragnanz as a human touch to buid tools
When the stones began to be transformed into tools and weapons, the “simple” purpose was the point of arrival: the objective to be achieved. But to reach him, it was necessary to feel something like a fetus within the stone (3): the essential simplicity of the sharp edge or piercing of the tool that was not yet built. And the left hand took care of feeling and facilitating it.
Those artisans could not know, but they did, as if they knew. The pragnanz had no name, nor the cut, the hardness or the tool; But it didn’t matter. Pragnanz was the phenomenon that allowed a hominine to foresee the invisible hidden under the obvious. And it continues to happen that way today. In all the arts and in human existence.
Pragnanz in Existential Aesthetica(4)
Pragnanz defines the essence of the plastic arts. And even more: the essence of the aesthetic being. That is, of artistic languages in any of its manifestations. It is the existential phenomenon that brings meaning to any art.
A few decades later, Oteiza defined the aesthetic being as the result of eliminating expressive matter from a plastic (malleable) material in which an idea has previously been captured. Imagine a plastic artist removing matter from three circles so that a triangular shape emerges, but not quite. Or Oteiza himself starting from a simple cube and emptying it in part to increase his pragnanz, and with it his aesthetic value.
And as I have indicated above, it is no less interesting the path of pragnanz as impregnation in and with the work of both the artist and the observer.
In the next chapter –Determination in the right hand– we will see that the misty pragnanz on the left is interpreted by the right; and that this is the origin of language and the arts: because all arts are languages.
See the Chapters Index.
Current chapter NOTES
(1) Birds and dolphins sleep in a basic alert state with only one active cerebral hemisphere and one eye open.
(2) Like a fetus. In the previous chapter I asked the reader to put himself in the viewpoint of a hominin, imagining that the stones had life and teeth and that they could give birth like animals and humans. Some reader will have considered it as a fable of animals. But it was more than that, as we are now seeing with the concept of pragnanz.
(3) “The beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Final scene of the movie Casablanca: a true example of pragnanz in the gloomy brume.
(4) See in this blog: Existential Aesthetics.