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The Finger: A Handbook

The Finger: A Handbook

by Angus Trumble

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In this collision between art and science, history and pop culture, the acclaimed art historian Angus Trumble examines the finger from every possible angle. His inquiries into its representation in art take us from Buddhist statues in Kyoto to the



In this collision between art and science, history and pop culture, the acclaimed art historian Angus Trumble examines the finger from every possible angle. His inquiries into its representation in art take us from Buddhist statues in Kyoto to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, from cave art to Picasso's Guernica, from Van Dyck's and Rubens's winning ways with gloves to the longstanding French taste for tapering digits. But Trumble also asks intriguing questions about the finger in general: How do fingers work, and why do most of us have five on each hand? Why do we bite our nails?

This witty, odd, and fascinating book is filled with diverse anecdotes about the silent language of gesture, the game of love, the spinning of balls, superstitions relating to the severed fingers of thieves, and systems of computation that were used on wharves and in shops, markets, granaries, and warehouses throughout the ancient Roman world. Side by side with historical discussions of rings and gloves and nail polish are meditations on the finger's essential role in writing, speech, sports, crime, law, sex, worhsip, memory, scratching politely at eighteenth-century French doors (instead of crudely knocking), or merely satisfying an itch—and, of course, in the eponymous show of contempt.

Editorial Reviews

Troy Jollimore
On the whole, The Finger is a deft, enjoyable and often provocative investigation into some overlooked and interrelated aspects of human experience.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Trumble (A Brief History of the Smile), curator of paintings and sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art, blends art history, anatomy, and etymology in this analysis of finger lore that originated as a lecture to Australian orthopedic surgeons. Contrary to the OED, Trumble contends that the thumb is a finger. In the fraught world of human relationships, he says, the handshake is indispensable, and a proper one must include “the enclosing clasp of the thumb.” Queen Elizabeth I owned hundreds of pairs of gloves and gave gloves as gifts in a sophisticated diplomatic game; in portraying his right hand expensively gloved in a self-portrait, Rubens was affirming his rank; and Eleanor Roosevelt was the first first lady to wear colored nail polish. Trumble enumerates the necessities of fingers: they are indispensable in playing the violin and in sex; ancient Romans could count to one million using their 10 digits; babies' discovery of pointing with the index finger as a means of getting attention seems partly innate. This prodigiously researched work offers many gold nuggets of wisdom to a rarefied audience, though it's verbose and esoteric in the extreme. 22 b&w illus. (May)
Kirkus Reviews
Museum curator Trumble (A Brief History of the Smile, 2004) renders an adept cultural tour of our fingers. This "handbook" is not meant to be exhaustive, but rather, "in the manner of a trusty coastal lighthouse, it is intended to cast a revolving beam across a surprisingly complicated fingerscape, the particularities of which should make possible further navigation." That sentence captures the author's pleasantly antique tone. When he delves into physiology, it's never a dry anatomy lesson: "the lower row of carpals serves to bring about the miraculous transition from that beautiful wrist to the elegant baroque palace of the hand" Trumble periodically returns to fingers as anatomy, but his primary focus is the finger as a social being. He dives into the many religious affiliations, including the Sistine Chapel (the finger of God), the hand gestures of benediction, Jesus scribbling a runic something in the dirt during the tale of the adulterous woman, the many hand/finger movements associated with Buddhist and Hindu dance and meditation and the hand-signing of silent Trappist orders. Trumble also looks at the finger in relation to the economy-how numbering to the power of ten "originated with what our distant ancestors found at their fingertips," the use of finger-counting in Roman transactions and the grisly act of finger-lopping that literally put the overextended merchant out of business. The author covers gloves in matters of diplomacy, class and honor. As gloves fell from fashion, enter nail polish, that "moist dash of intense color." Last but certainly not least, Trumble examines the "ubiquitous gesture of defiance and contempt," the bird, the "digitus infamis." The author givesthese topics-and many more-full treatment, each emerging as a colorful vignette. Intelligent, passionate and amusing-though Trumble's old-fashioned voice may not appeal to some readers. Agent: Peter McGuigan/Foundry Literary + Media

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The Finger

A Handbook

By Angus Trumble

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2010 Angus Trumble
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-4561-5


The Finger: A Few Pointers

He has ears, and two eyes, and ten fingers, Leastways if you reckon two thumbs; Long ago he was one of the singers, But now he is one of the dumbs.

— from Edward Lear, "How Pleasant to Know Mr. Lear!" 1879

In Middlemarch, George Eliot bequeathed to future generations the sobering example of the Reverend Mr. Casaubon, that "great bladder for dried peas to rattle in!" as Mrs. Cadwallader so memorably described him — a warning, in other words, against too ambitious or arid a scholarly enterprise, and too hopeless a quest for comprehensiveness. So while using my own fingers to write this book, I have from time to time experienced a sinking feeling that it might too closely resemble an absurd Key to All Mythologies. In those gloomy moments, I have paused for a cup of tea and tried to focus instead on the beautiful, and in our culture fortunately still flourishing, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century ideal of the essay, which, at least in its French derivation, means nothing more than "a try," a stab at it, a particular view at a given moment, a series of reflections that, by cutting deeply enough into (in this case) one narrow seam of human anatomy and experience, may with luck provide access to rather more.

So while this book contains a lot of information that may be useful for future inquirers about fingers and finger lore, I hope that it will give at least some pleasure and food for thought to nonspecialist readers in what we have conveniently come to know as the digital age. Nevertheless, the handbook portion of my title is a genuine aspiration, and it may be of some comfort to the reader in search of specific technical, historical, cultural, or other folkloric references that while, for obvious reasons, The Finger: A Handbook shuns footnotes, I have instead attempted to provide as much documentation as possible in the endnotes.

My last book, A Brief History of the Smile, began its life as a lecture at a conference of dentists. The Finger: A Handbook owes its existence to a similar collision between the world of art museums (in which I have made my career) and the medical profession. In 1998, a group of orthopedic surgeons in Adelaide, South Australia, led by Dr. Michael Hayes, invited me to give a talk at a conference about hand injuries. For this group, whose interests and activities were far more varied than those of the dentists, I proposed a talk about a particular gesture of the right hand, a pointing gesture. It is common enough, the index finger extended; the middle, ring, and little fingers folded onto the palm; and while the thumb is not necessarily held in along the side of the folded middle finger, or against the outer edge of the index finger, nor is it generally extended as far as possible, as in a child's worrying approximation of a loaded pistol. The specific, ancient Roman meaning of this more disciplined pointing gesture has today been largely forgotten, yet it crops up in many places.

In the courtyard of the Palazzo dei Conservatori in Rome, one may still see a disembodied right hand of this type, one of a number of fragments of a colossal marble statue of Emperor Constantine the Great (324–37 C.E.). In its present position, the enormous index finger points straight up. The expatriate Swiss artist Henry Fuseli was so moved by the scale of these pieces of marble — and the imagined magnificence of the vanished statue to which they once belonged — that he drew himself dwarfed by the stone hand, cradling his head in his own, the left. He called the drawing The Artist Moved to Despair by the Grandeur of Antique Fragments. This was in the years 1778–80, and Fuseli's fantasy self-portrait drawing has since become a popular and enduring symbol of European Romanticism. The most famous intact example of this ancient Roman gesture is that of the emperor Augustus, whose Prima Porta statue was one of the greatest archaeological discoveries of the nineteenth century (1863) and is now in the Braccio Nuovo of the Vatican Museums. His arm raised, Augustus makes the very same pointing gesture with his right hand.

Close by, on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (1508–12), Michelangelo Buonarroti brilliantly represented the account in Genesis of the creation of man by means of two proximate gestures of the hand. The ingenious sense of drama with which the artist prevented the fingers of those two powerful hands from touching — the hand of God the Father with the pointing index finger, and the awakening hand of Adam, his left — gives the image its emotional charge. No wonder many people read the tiny intervening space as filled with energy, traversed by a powerful aesthetic "zap." The junction of these two magnificent hands, the one brimming with energy, the other with incipient life, is endlessly reproduced as a detail — these days in advertisements for electrical goods or financial services. We tend to see it as magical, animating, supremely eloquent. But there is good evidence to suggest that the gesture with which God the Father summons Adam into being is not magical so much as military, at the very least commanding in flavor, specifically a gesture of command generally associated with Roman emperors such as Augustus and Constantine, and generals upon whom imperial authority devolved in the field. Its meaning was well understood. Supported by angels, God commands man into corporeal existence: "Be!"

Comparatively few of us employ our fingers as instruments of command, but everyone uses them to indicate. Indeed, for the infant pointing is an indispensable tool for the miraculous acquisition of language itself. But the fundamental act of pointing at people and things is only the beginning. Our fingers ultimately follow in gesture many syntactical trajectories. In his great 1632 group portrait of doctors observing an anatomical dissection, The Anatomy of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632), Rembrandt chose as the focus of the composition the moment when Dr. Tulp takes up with his forceps certain tendons of the cadaver's forearm. Those tendons were (correctly) thought to help produce the opposition of the thumb and index finger — that single most important physical asset that has made it possible for us to ascend to our present position at the top of the evolutionary tree. It is rare to find a work of art that pays such tribute to the exact motor functions of the index finger and thumb, though, of course, it is precisely those that painters rely on, and rely on completely, when they tackle the complicated task of picture making. Rembrandt further emphasized the specific meaning of the subject, because with his own free left hand Dr. Tulp offers a vivid demonstration of the physical mechanism of the same tendons he holds with the forceps in his right.

Unlike Rembrandt, most artists have been content to exploit the full range of gestures of which our hands and fingers are capable, to which generations of observers have willingly attached an enormous range of meanings over the centuries. One thinks of the German Renaissance Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald, that terrifying portrayal of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in which an out-of-time St. John the Baptist, that powerful presence in the opening verses of the Gospel of John, "bears witness" to the light by pointing at Jesus' dying body with the elongated, outstretched, tautly upward-sloping, tapering index finger of his right hand.

John's gesture is as controlled as the carefully articulated fingers of the expiring Christ, extending from mutilated palms at the summit of the altarpiece, writhe and curl and twitch in agony. In doing so, they carry for Grünewald a considerable part of the heavy burden of the baffling, mystical narrative of the cross: the instrument of torture, the tree of life. To the left, John, the beloved disciple, supports the Virgin Mary, his slender fingers trained gingerly around her waist, while St. Mary Magdalene, kneeling at the foot of the cross, raises her clasped hands, the fingers tightly intertwined but straight, stiffened by hot grief and dismay, a fervent gesture that contrasts sharply with the folded hands of Jesus' fainting mother.

Some of the earliest of all surviving man-made images are of fingers — the silhouettes of disembodied hands with spreading fingers that adorn the walls of caves and other rock shelters in Spain and France and China and Australia. The artist simply placed his hand against the rock, fingers splayed, then took a mouthful of paint, and blew a fine spray over the back of the hand and the immediately surrounding rock surface. When the hand was lifted of , a ghostly "negative" image remained — the earliest form of printing. Primitive man knew perfectly well that the image he produced by this method was far more durable and accurate than the poorer substitute produced by dipping the hand in paint and applying a handprint. Thin coatings of paint, sprayed from the mouth, adhere better and last longer than thicker ones applied under pressure, which tend to crack and peel off.

In a surprisingly large number of examples there are parts of fingers missing or distinctly shortened, possibly the grisly evidence of Ice Age frostbite, or else some form of prehistoric ritual mutilation, scarification, or punishment. In some places there are dozens of these spectral hands and fingers; elsewhere only one has survived. It has occasionally been suggested that prehistoric hand images in caves and rock shelters that apparently lack one or two of the outermost finger joints or, at times, whole fingers, are in fact the result of folding under the relevant digit and spraying over the hand configured so as to deploy one of a range of carefully differentiated signs with particular meaning. While it may never be possible to rule out this possibility, the available photographic evidence suggests that this is unlikely to be true.

It is not physically possible to fold double only the terminal bone or "phalanx" of any finger. This would be necessary to produce those images in which only that phalanx is missing. When a film of paint is sprayed over an object of relatively consistent depth that is placed flat against a supporting surface, any variation in depth such as one might expect to observe in a hand placed flat against a stone but with one finger (or more) folded under will tend to produce in the resulting silhouette a corresponding variation in the consistency of line. By the technique of spraying paint from the mouth, the outline of a folded finger ought to be fuzzier and less distinct than the crisper outline of its outstretched neighbors. As far as I can tell, this is not generally the case. Prehistoric hand and finger silhouettes are remarkably even in outline. Either they genuinely preserve the profile of a hand with partly missing digits, or the image was tampered with or "corrected" after the initial spraying so as to adjust the outline for clarity.

Why are these mysterious prehistoric relics so moving? It is not merely their extreme antiquity. It is also, I think, the fact that they correspond so exactly with what most of us now observe projecting fussily from the end of each arm — every day, all day long, the only parts of our bodies, moreover, that we see (without the aid of mirrors) routinely uncovered, acceptably naked. Today we might expect to create an almost identical imprint with our own hands were we to follow those simple steps, and indeed, until recently some Australian Aborigines still added their handprint to that chorus of ancestors with whom they cherish an unbroken connection. This is humbling.

That constant visual engagement with our own hands and fingers, often at extremely close range, can have unexpected consequences. Beginning in 1958, the British Broadcasting Corporation aired a series of television programs entitled Your Life in Their Hands, which was all about surgery. This was not for the fainthearted, because a number of these presented whole operations, benefiting from what was still in Australia the relatively recent introduction of color television, in graphic close-up. As a schoolboy, I remember being fascinated and far from repelled by most episodes. There was mostly an abstract quality to that tightly circumscribed rectangle of sanitized operating-theater green cotton which placed at one remove the untidy jumble of shiny pink organs wobbling inside the tummy or chest cavity. One saw the surgeon forthrightly thrusting his gloved hands inside, rummaging for arteries, extracting tumors, then sewing the whole thing up with a needle and thread. There was in this spectacle a detached quality that for the layman made it not merely tolerable, but at times engrossing too.

Only one of these programs, I recall, induced a certain clamminess in the palms of the hands and sharp intakes of breath, and eventually caused me to change channels. This dealt with an operation on the tendons of somebody's hand. There is something particularly desperate about seeing the surgeon's scalpel gain entry to a part of the body that is as constantly before one's eyes as a thumb or finger. In that sense only, it is impossible to place at arm's length. Which makes you wince more readily, the thought of hitting the top of your head on a low beam, developing acute appendicitis, or by accident getting your finger jammed in a door? "Men's natures wrangle with inferior things, / Though great ones are their object ..." says Desdemona. "For let our finger ache, and it indues / Our other healthful members even to that sense / Of pain."

From the earliest days of our infancy we rely upon our fingers to explore, then navigate through, a gradually loosening confinement in space, and to reach vital conclusions about temperature, motion, texture, weight, sharpness, hardness — in other words, about practically everything our eyes and ears cannot yet comprehend. In the evolution of language, it comes as no surprise therefore to find that finger words, expressions, and sayings are extremely ancient.

The long migration of the English words finger and thumb commences even before the advent of Old English (where they had already assumed the familiar forms of fynger and thuma). They had solidified already in the Gothic, Old Teutonic, even apparently pre-Teutonic languages (extending far back into antiquity, as far as we can tell from those few texts that have insured their survival in one form or another). Thenceforth, both words found their way into Old Frisian, Old Swedish, Old High German, Old Norse, and other archaic languages. Thence they descended to our northern European cousin languages, which still retain essentially the same word: Finger and Daumen (in German); vinger and duim (Dutch); finger but interestingly tommelfinger (Danish); finger and tumme (Swedish); and so on. It seems likely that the pre-Teutonic origin of finger is somehow bound to the simple concept of five, while I suppose for obvious, if somewhat gloomy reasons the word thumb owes its existence to the idea of shortness, stoutness, or "wanting."

In fact, the gradual accretion of finger words, expressions, and sayings in English seems to have occurred in connection with a few highly specific concepts, including measurement (a finger's breadth), resemblance (dead men's fingers, fish fingers), skill (having a green thumb, or nimble fingers), precision (snapping the fingers), desire (itchy fingers), concision (thumbnail sketch), clumsiness (all thumbs), slightness of motion (to stir or lift a finger), manipulation in its sinister sense, and theft. And it is surprising to find just how many of these are apparently distasteful. True, we keep our fingers crossed for luck, and when at times we succeed in grasping an idea we may say we put our finger on it. If, with luck, that idea stayed with us, we may once have boasted that we had it at our fingers' ends, or nowadays at our fingertips. In Pamela (1740), Samuel Richardson mentioned that Miss L — — has "an admirable finger upon the harpsichord." In other words, she played well. It was said of the English actor George Arliss (1868–1946) that he could "express more with one finger than most actors can express with their entire bodies."

The fingers certainly offer convenient opportunities for nicely crafted superlatives, which even crop up in the Hebrew Bible, where "my little finger shall be thicker than my father's loins," and often in Shakespeare ("Thy hand is but a finger to my fist"). But for each of these, there is a host of less attractive concepts for which the fingers have clearly provided a suitable metaphor. In Troilus and Cressida, mention is made of "the devil Luxury, with his fat rump and potato-finger." And among the ingredients of the witches' cauldron in Macbeth, perhaps the most revolting is "Finger of birth-strangled babe, ditch-deliver'd by a drab."

No doubt this vulnerability to pejorative usage is at least partly due to the persistent idea, originating with Aristotle, that the sense of touch is comparatively "dark," or at least lower in rank than sight, hearing, smell, and taste — in that order. To Aristotle the sense of touch was the most basic of all the senses, indeed the only one common to all animals. As Cynthia Free-land has observed, the fact that certain creatures such as barely animate sponges seemed to possess the sense of touch alone, and none of the others, was sufficient to distinguish them from the apparently senseless plants that they so closely resemble. Perhaps because of its innateness, indeed complexity, Aristotle saw touch as far more fundamentally linked to certain biological and bodily processes, such as eating, drinking, having sex, going to sleep, growing old, getting sick, and dying than the other, "higher" senses, even though vision and hearing demonstrably wobble and diminish as a more or less direct result of any one of these phenomena.


Excerpted from The Finger by Angus Trumble. Copyright © 2010 Angus Trumble. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Angus Trumble is the youngest of four brothers and was born and raised in Victoria, Australia. He is a graduate of the University of Melbourne, and of New York University's Institute of Fine Arts, where he was a Fulbright Scholar in 1994–95. From 1996 to 2001 he was Curator of European Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, and since 2003 has been Senior Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.

Angus Trumble is the youngest of four brothers and was born and raised in Victoria, Australia. He is a graduate of the University of Melbourne, and of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, where he was a Fulbright Scholar in 1994–95. From 1996 to 2001 he was Curator of European Art at the Art Gallery of South Australia in Adelaide, and since 2003 has been Senior Curator of Paintings and Sculpture at the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut.

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