More on the Pointing Finger

READER SAM’S REFERENCE, in a comment on the previous post, to the biblical story of Adam naming the animals lends thrust to Tallis’ argument on—for lack of a better term—the metaphysics of pointing.

Bestarium, Latin (late 12th C.)


The Genesis narrative distills into a simple, vivid anecdote the substanceN of Raymond Tallis’ thesis in Michelangelo’s Finger. The mythical Adam could hardly identify every beast of the field or fowl of the air. He did not emerge from the dust of creation a systematic taxonomist on the qui vive for all that tagging and classifying. The humane grandeur of the tale lies in its figurative, not its literal, telling.


Creation mosaic, San Marco, Venice

Genesis depicts Adam—man himself—as sovereign over all other species. In the providential ordering of things, Adam alone has the power to grant names, to acknowledge and identify all other items in the wealth of creation. In raising his index finger to distinguish one stratum of nature from another, he asserts his domain over all. He is distinct from each of them; and, in his distinction, is ascendant over them. Tallis, a self-confessed atheist enchanted by the concept of transcendence, puts it more obliquely:

This complexity [of the act of pointing] points back at the complexity of our human being. We have noted that, notwithstanding certain questionable exceptions, pointing is well-nigh universal in humans and, what is more, unique to humans. Human groups who do not utilize index-finger pointing are in a tiny minority, and individuals within them still make indicative gestures—deitic gestural references—with other parts of the body. Those animals who have been credited with pointing, namely chimpanzees, do not do so in the wild, and their apparent comprehension of pointing in captivity turns out to be due to a rather over-eager application of the argument by analogy.

A man touches the hand of a caged chimpanzee


Is Jane Goodall listening? Tallis continues:

Chimpanzees, what is more, do not point for each other’s benefit nor do they encourage their young to point. The notion of pointing as referring to an object, and a mode of meant meaning, lies beyond the horizon of chimpanzee consciousness.

Serious images of Adam naming the animals become increasingly rare as we move along the art historical timeline into the modern era. Yes, there are images, but few that indicates a serious sensibility behind them. Contemporary culture, with its bias against human exceptionalism, provides no context for depictions of the ancient Adamic myth that are neither cartoony nor debased. Tallis, despite his expressed atheism, comes close to a religious understanding of the gesture:

. . . I want to investigate the link between pointing and transcendence, from its most ordinary manifestations through the sense of the transcendent realm which is discussed in religious discourse. The transcendent, which is the most salient condition of our being able to point, and which is then enhanced by pointing, is rooted in the intuition of the hidden, in the presence or reality of that which is the unobserved, absent, beyond. The intuition of the hidden ies at the heart of man, the Pointing Animal—and indeed, man, the Knowing or Explicit Animal. It is this—transcendence, the present of the absent that pointing, ultimately, points to.

Capitalize that word Absent, and Tallis the disbeliever is brother to the mystics.

© 2011 Maureen Mullarkey




  1. Chris Alridge

    “Y en el monte, Nada.” And on the mountain, Nothing. [John of the Cross]
    Is it unfair to say that the poets and painters get there more easily than public intellectuals?

  2. Sam

    I think some Walker Percy is in order here. A selection from Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self Help Book:

    16. The Lonely Self: Why the Self feels alone and seeks to somehow communicate with Chimps, Gorillas, or Dolphins. After extreme effort to teach animals language, raise them as humans, etc, after glorious first reports, it turns out that they never acquire sign usage, only responses. They have communication, but not language. Why the effort? Is it since man was progressively dethroned the last few hundred years so as to be nothing special in the cosmos, and if animals can learn language, the dethronement will be complete. Or is it because we feel special somehow, yet seem inferior to animals since we are often torn, empty, hateful and irrational, stupid and self destructive?

    Also the search for aliens as well falls into this. People will believe any any strange claim of extraterrestrial intelligence by any odd guru in order to believe we are not alone and left with ourselves without explanation.


    Percy was of course Catholic and his writing eschatological. I’ve always taken his theological existentialism to be like what’s found in Ecclesiastes, an unflinching diagnosis that anticipates a cure to come.

    (Okay, now I’m going to quit dominating these comment threads.)

  3. Studio Matters

    Think of it, Sam, as extending the essay. Here, for example, you distinguish between communication and language. Spot on! Popular imagination equates the two. But, in truth, language is just that—language. It developed in order to perfect communication, to advance on it. Thanks.

  4. Christopher S. Johnson

    Maureen, Your posts on pointing made me think immediately of Leonardo’s St. John the Baptist (, the most famous point in art after Michelangelo’s, and one that captures the transcendent in the most explicit manner – which as you have shown is not quite the contradiction it first appears.

  5. Dawn Gill

    Another famous pointer! How could I forget? Kenneth Clark, in his classic study of Leonardo’s development, makes little of the upraised index finger beyond the obvious. He does not like the painting and assumes you don’t either. He might have been kindlier toward it if he saw pointing in a larger dimension.

  6. Fascinating posts and discussion. I am curious if Tallis explores beyond Western art. Images of the finger, and hand have been used in spiritual symbolism for milennia – from Australian aboriginal cave paintings from 40,000 years ago to Buddhist and Hindu motifs still used to this day, sometimes even seen hanging off rear view mirrors(as I discovered on a trip a few years ago)!

    Gestures intimated by the hands are a tradition extending even beyond speech and text itself, not just western archetypes on church walls.


  7. Studio Matters

    No, H., Tallis limits himself to the Michelangelo image. That is all he needs as springboard into the topic of transcendence. His primary interest is not art history as such but the utility of one famous image to indicate the universality of pointing.

    Images of hands and fingers are not necessarily identical with images of pointing. [cf. the fingers of a man and a chimp touching, above] Nevertheless, Tallis’ emphasis on the ubiquitous commonality of the pointing gesture leaves much room for exploration of non-Western art. [There’s a thesis subject in that for somebody.] Your comment supports his argument.

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