Rarely have silent hands spoken so loudly. A photo captured in the Oval Office this week of US President Donald Trump sitting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has gone viral on social media – not because of anything explicitly stated during that meeting, but as a result instead of the mute dialogue that appears to take place between the two leaders’ hands. Caught in the millisecond before Trudeau responds to Trump’s invitation to shake hands, the image freezes the pair in what seems instead like a withering rebuff.
In the fiction of the photo, Trump’s jilted palm is left awkwardly hanging while Trudeau’s hands remain forever folded on his lap – a snub that appears amplified by the quizzical look on the prime minister’s face. The fact that Trudeau, barely a blink later, heartily accepted Trump’s overture hardly mattered; the memes had already been written and the photo had already seeped its way into every corner of Facebook and Twitter.
Not since the mid 17th Century and the publication in 1644 of the English physician John Bulwer’s eccentric tome Chirologia: Or the Natural Language of the Hand, Composed of the Speaking Motions, and Discoursing Gestures Thereof, has so much attention been lavished on the secret grammar of pinkies and thumbs. Accepting a challenge posed by the philosopher Francis Bacon a century earlier, Bulwer set about to decode the mysterious language of the fingers and single-handedly invented the science of ‘chirology’.
An esoteric illustration included in Bulwer’s book, or what he christened his ‘chyrogram’, is among the more intriguing visual documents of the age and sheds curious light on the Trump/Trudeau photo when placed alongside it. Bulwer’s chirogram is intended to provide a handy glossary on the unspoken significance of typical gestures by attaching to each a simple deciphering phrase. Beside the hieroglyph of clasped palms and intertwined fingers — the one most closely resembling the body language exhibited by Prime Minister Trudeau in the photo – Bulwer has scribbled the Latin phrase “Tristi animi signo”, or “a sad sign of the mind”.
Seen through the strange lens of Bulwer’s Chirologia, Trudeau is not exhibiting disdain, insolence, or defiance but rather a sort of psychological dejection. As for how we should interpret President’s Trump’s own idiosyncratic gesture – a hand outstretched towards his guest with the palm facing oddly upwards, rather than to the side as one might expect from a conventional handshake, as if expecting something to drop inside it – Bulwer is mute. His chirogram is, like many in the world’s media, lost for words.