De Waal does all of his making (he calls it, invariably, ‘‘making’’) on an old, uncomfortable, paint-covered, backless wooden stool that he inherited during his apprenticeship in the 1980s. The stool and the wheel are very low, so he has to fold his long body over, basically in half, as he sits. Shaping a pot is still more or less an ancient activity: wet earth yielding to human pressure. De Waal prefers to be slightly distracted as he does it, by music or conversation, so that his conscious mind can get out of the way of his hands.
De Waal worries that modern humans are beginning to lose our fluency in touch. He thinks that we live in a world impoverished by a lack of attention to tactility. Our culture has a deeply embedded shame of the body, shame of skin, shame of ‘‘mere’’ sensation — a desire to transcend the animal coarseness of nerves, hair, blood flow. To live in clean, noble abstractions: things that we think will last. All of our digital technology, all of these portable virtual worlds, only make it easier to live in touchlessness. If you put on virtual-reality goggles, there will be plenty to look at and pretend to touch, but nothing to actually feel. But touch, de Waal insists, is fundamental to the human experience. If we can’t fully inhabit and value the world of touchable objects, de Waal told me, then we can’t fully value other human beings.
— Sam Anderson, for The New York Times