Michelangelo's Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence

March 25, 2010

Raymond Tallis, gerontologist and philosopher, has something in common with Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. He grabs readers as they pass and regales them with extraordinary accounts of impressive journeys - in the present case, into the metaphorical worlds opened up by contemplating his index finger.

One may wonder how he could fill 143 pages (excluding endnotes) with riffs on the many meanings and significations of the act of extending one's index finger and pointing, but when one learns he has been meditating on writing this book for more than 30 years, it becomes more comprehensible.

Pointing, Tallis argues, is a uniquely human act, with Michelangelo's finger-pointing God on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel being clearly made in the image of Man. We point to indicate direction, to draw something to another's attention, to emphasise "the point" of something we say, to accuse another. We use pointer-extensions such as sticks and lasers, and when finger-pointing is contraindicated, point unobtrusively with our eyes or shoulders. We even put our fingers to our lips to enjoin silence. Babies point before they speak, and through their caregivers' responses learn the names of the objects at which they are pointing. Tallis calls these objects pointees, which I suspect must be a neologism, as it doesn't appear in the two close-printed pages of my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary covering the various derivations of the word "point".

Human pointing is made possible by the unique anatomy of the human hand. Chimpanzees - at least in the wild - do not point, and not only because their fingers are not well adapted for pointing. Nor do pointer dogs, which, Tallis insists, can point at only one type of object. Further, they do not respond to another's - such as their owner - pointing. Like Tallis, I have spent hours throwing a ball for an enthusiastic but not over-bright Border collie and pointing in its direction when she fails to find the ball. So I have to agree that dogs do not "grasp" (another term that fascinates him) the meaning of pointing - or at least pointing by a human.

For someone to point, and another to respond appropriately, necessitates that both have a similar theory of mind, and can interpret the other's intentionality. It is this, for Tallis, that is uniquely human. However, I am not sure how a dog would respond to an equivalent signal from one of its own species. The day-old chicks that I work with in the lab do show some evidence of being able to respond to the experience of their hatch-mates.

The book's central chapter turns from points to language and the relationship of words to things, a philosophical minefield at least since the days of St Augustine. Naming would at first seem to be a form of pointing. However, the name and the object are not identical, and names, embedded in grammatical structures and cultural context, acquire a meaning independent of the object. Thus pointing and grasping describe both physical acts and mentations. I understand Tallis' fascination with the regressive and self-referential quality of language, neatly summarised by his amused reflection on observing "How's my spellin'" (sic) written in the dust on the side of a lorry. But the treatment here can be no more than once-over-lightly.

Amid the mix of carefully researched material and vertiginous speculation, there is much that is fascinating in Tallis' latest book. It follows earlier volumes on the head and the hand. We are not told if there is a sequel planned for other portions of human anatomy, but I would not be surprised, granted his ability to extract so much substance from a single finger.

Such meditations are currently much in vogue, as for instance in the rather analogous book by the anthropologist Tim Ingold, Lines: A Brief History (2007). However, it is hard to avoid being overwhelmed. There is a great deal of repetition. The same points about points (pardon the expression) are made in successive chapters. There are irrelevant side-excursions, such as a long account of the Victorian painting of the boyhood of Walter Raleigh, which apparently greatly impressed Tallis in his youth but whose connection to his main thesis is at best tangential. And there is a six-page reflection on the significance of road signs.

There is a good deal of fun in these endless plays on the word point, but there is a serious side. In speech, perhaps as opposed to writing, we use language in a rather carefree way. We do not (at least speaking for myself) often pause to consider the etymology of the words we use. Read Michelangelo's Finger, however, and you are unlikely ever to point innocently again.

Michelangelo's Finger: An Exploration of Everyday Transcendence

By Raymond Tallis. Atlantic Books, 192pp, £18.99. ISBN 9781848871199. Published 18 February 2010

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