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.
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.
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.
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