It didn’t take long for Fukuyama’s trumpet blast of triumphalism to sound tinny and off key. But this change did seem to coincide with an era of micro-historical focus. If big historical subjects and players were no longer fashionable subjects, how about the small ones? How about the life of a village rather than the nation-state? Or the story of a building or an object as it changed through time? Or the history of the body and its individual parts?
The growing genre of socio-anatomical micro-histories has given us histories of hair, blood and the heart, the penis, the vagina, and of the smile. Now the author of the history of the simile, Angus Trumble, presents a history of the finger — a consideration of the essential digits of the hand as they relate to learning, to communication and economics, to battle, play, artifice and art.
We know that it is the all-important thumb that is the hand’s manipulation enhancer — the thing that lets us grasp, make tools, clench a paint brush, type an e-mail or fashion a nuclear weapon. It is the digit that sets us apart. But what about the other digits?
In The Finger, Trumble, an art historian by trade and senior curator at the Yale Center for British Art by profession, thumbs through a trove of sources (the book is copiously footnoted) in medicine, art, science, economics and literature to arrive at a compendium of facts, anecdotes and observations that fill in the contours of that question.
Beginning with the fundamentals, Trumble highlights the role the fingers play in human development. A baby’s use of the outstretched index, or “pointer” finger, to signal interest or direct attention is universal and linked to the acquisition of language and knowledge. This trait, it seems, is partly learned, partly innate. Fingers play a critical role in communication. Sign language for the deaf is obviously indebted to the fingers and their dexterity for it fluency. Trumble tells interesting stories of how this dexterity has allowed the non-deaf (cloistered monks, etc.) to communicate in sign thereby breeching socially imposed mandates of silence.
In Trumble’s accounting, fingers have had a hand in: the expression of divinity (Christianity and Buddhism), the development of numeracy (Romans could count to one million using the fingers of both hands); the blossoming of commerce and accounting (and the obviously related growth of banking and finance and, therefore, capitalism); the proffering of affection and facilitation of play; the progress of war (the trigger finger); the expression of fashion and class differentiation (the glove as social plumage); the development of personal augmentation and embellishment (Eleanor Roosevelt was the first First Lady to have her nails done).
While some passages drag, and some points are belabored, it’s with otherwise dexterous prose that Trumble grafts onto the body of anatomical-historical literature this tale that prompts us to reconsider the humble, resourceful fingers. Their story goes hand in glove with humanity’s larger one.