I am right-handed, though I hold a phone to my left ear. I naturally favour sleeping on the left side of the bed. When walking with someone, I prefer them to be on my right.
John Ford in his 1939 film Stagecoach signalled a coach’s outward journey by filming from left to right. He signalled the return journey by filming from right to left. It has since become an established part of cinematic grammar for trains, cars, even people walking to and from places.
The human body may seem symmetrical but it isn’t. The heart lies mostly on the left side, as does the stomach, spleen and pancreas, while the liver and gallbladder are also off-centre, to the right. Even the testicles are asymmetrical in size and height. Indeed, this asymmetry is present at an extremely early stage of embryonic development.
In his fascinating study, Left Hand, Right Hand, Chris McManus reveals how asymmetric bodies have emerged from 550 million years of evolution, and shows how this seems linked to the asymmetric structure of matter. Left-handed proteins make up our bodies, while Louis Pasteur showed that molecules in living organisms are also asymmetric.
The double helix of DNA in humans is right-handed. Amino acids, meanwhile, are predominantly left-handed. The Italian chemist Primo Levi was fascinated by this topic. In 1984 he wrote an article entitled L’Assimetria e la Vita, speculating that there may have been millions of years of struggle between left-hand life and right-hand life.
Language is formed in the left side of the brain. European writing goes from left to right, while Arabic and Hebraic scripts proceed from right to left. Cultural orthodoxy dictates that we shake our right hands in greeting, and place our right hand on the Bible when taking an oath in a court of law.
In sport and art, left-handers often seem to have an advantage, as evidenced in tennis by players such as John McEnroe and Rafael Nadal. (The latter is in fact right-handed but was coached to play left-handed to give him a competitive edge). Maradona and Lionel Messi are left-footed. The artists Leonardo and Michelangelo were both left-handed, of course.
All of this is to say that a subtle asymmetry rather than symmetry is the natural condition of human life, of biology, and also reflects the way things spin in the universe. (All the planets spin anti-clockwise, except for Venus – named after the goddess of love – which spins in the opposite direction to all the other planets.)
So it is puzzling that our culture so prizes symmetry and often regards it as more beautiful. Think of the Parthenon, Leonardo’s Last Supper, his Vitruvian Man, the Taj Mahal, the cathedrals of Milan, Notre Dame, the films of Wes Anderson – all embody the ideal of symmetry as an expression of harmony, balance, equilibrium, and aesthetic perfection.
But symmetry represents a simple kind of beauty. As Chris McManus explains in his book, the more you introduce complexity into objects, such as a bicycle (adding gears, for instance), a jacket (adding buttons), or a trumpet (adding valves), then the more things tend to become asymmetrical.
The roulette wheel in a casino comprises black and red numbers except for ‘zero’, and it is this added bit of asymmetry that means – over time – the House will always win.
The gardens of Versailles together with the eighteenth-century fashion for the rhyming couplet both reflected the notion of an ordered and politically stable world, ruled by clear physical and human laws. But as the essayist Francis Bacon once observed: ‘there is no excellent beauty that has not some strangeness in the proportion’.
The tilted angle of the head subtly transforms the otherwise symmetrical figure of Jesus as represented in the crucifixion. The fourteen lines of a sonnet are more interesting when organised in stanzas of 8 and 6 lines rather than the more obvious and even distribution of 7 and 7 lines.
The Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi rejects perfection and symmetry, instead emphasising impermanence and imperfection as more vital and better reflecting the messiness of existence. A vase with a crack in it, a cup with a touch of rust, or a sketch that is unfinished all become part of this aesthetic and this attitude to life.
In Persian carpets there is always a detail that breaks or deliberately violates the symmetry, for only God can be perfect. (At the BSM, we sometimes choose to leave an error or a flaw in the system to make things more interesting for parents.)
In the same way, an element of asymmetry can add complexity to beauty. A perfectly symmetrical face may seem aesthetically pleasing, but asymmetry can make it more appealing and attractive, as in a lopsided smile or a raised eyebrow.
Piet Mondrian’s grid paintings (see top illustration) only work precisely because the primary colours are not arranged symmetrically.
Similarly, my love of The Beatles is surely quickened by the asymmetry of two right-handed guitarists disrupted by Paul McCartney’s left-handed bass. Or the fact that Paul leads with the opposite leg to the other three Beatles on the cover of their album Abbey Road.
This does not mean we should stop correcting asymmetries of power when we see them inequitably expressed in gender, race or class. Nor does it mean that we should abandon the idea of symmetry as a pleasing ideal. But perfection can be boring. The world is tilted. Orbits are wonky. Moreover, we may owe our very existence to asymmetry.
Long ago, all the ‘matter’ in the universe would have met its exact reflection in ‘anti-matter’ and exploded, the two states cancelling each other out. The fact that we are here at all is probably due to the fact that we are formed of the imperfect, asymmetrical, leftover bits of ‘matter’ that did not have a twin mirror image in anti-matter, so allowing us to survive.
Perhaps, then, we should glory more in our natural state of asymmetry, enjoy the world at a slant as in film noir, at ‘an angle to the universe’ as in the poems of Constantin Cavafy, or like the leaning Tower of Pisa, taking delight as they assert their peculiar beauty and knock us sideways with their antic charm.
Such unevenness in the universe and in our bodies might serve to console us for the freshly asymmetric relationship between Europe and the UK as we approach Brexit; for the unequal struggle between a stubborn virus and vulnerable human beings, between human beings and whatever gods preside over us, between the living and the dead.
Principal & CEO