The Finger: A Handbook

Despite our species’ epochal shift away from manual work, in a digital age the finger finds itself as important as ever. Even as palms, wrists, and forearms recede into doughy disuse, the finger’s role touches upon not only the world of objects, but information as well. The devices by which we come to grips with the world demand ever-more sophisticated grammars of pettings, rubbings, and fingerings; gesture, perhaps the most ancient form of human communication, achieves a kind of apotheosis by way of keyboard and touchscreen.

But fingers have always fascinated and repelled us, according to Angus Trumble, whose The Finger: A Handbook is a dazzling glossary of digital significance. Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at Yale’s Center for British Art, Trumble brings the eye of an art historian to bear on the “cathedral of the hand,” describing manual anatomy in breezy and breathtaking detail. The esoteric systems of finger-based calculation employed by Roman merchants, Trumble avers, may be due for a revival in an era when economic rudiments seem to have slipped our grasp. He somewhat casually brushes aside the history of sign languages, which were developed by silent medieval monks as well as by the deaf (a detour into the history of Braille here seems an uncharacteristic slip in this otherwise-dexterous book).

Trumble’s meditations on the divine and creative importance of finger imagery, on the other hand, are subtle and thought-provoking. Fingers have long shaped and signaled elemental forces of nature and religion: the mudras of the East are yogic gestures frequently seen in images of the Buddha and Indian deities; the finger of Yahweh both kills and creates; and the benedictory digit of Jesus scribbles enigmatic lessons in the dirt. Trumble’s examination of the history of gloves and painted fingernails, of hands at play and at war, and of the lonely career of the thumb, likewise are never less than engaging.

But it’s when he turns to the hands of artists — both as subjects and organs of image-making activity — that Trumble gestures towards the poignant. In Rembrandt’s The Anatomy of Dr. Nicolaes Pulp (1632), the doctor indicates the tendons of the forearm while making a circle with his own thumb and forefinger — a gesture which I had always taken as a sort of professorial mudra, but which Trumble explains is the very motion which the indicated tendons make possible. Rembrandt’s clear-eyed portrayal of this anatomy — the fragile machinery of his own craft — is in Trumble’s telling a nervy look into the wriggling, carnal roots of artistic creation. Those same tendons also play a memorable cameo role in Michaelangelo’s depiction of creation on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, where God’s forearm flexes while an arc, invisible and energetic, bridges the synaptic gap between his and Adam’s outstretched digits. For Trumble, these artist’s fingers are uncanny reminders that we never reach out to one another without effort. As our smudged touchscreens attest, to make contact we must risk dirtying our hands.