Tuesday, September 24, 2013

On the strange brevity of Montaigne's "Of Thumbs"

The first strange thing about Michel de Montaigne’s “Of Thumbs” is that it reads like a Montaigne essay's worth of historical references, but instead of the quotations from Martial and Horace coming couched in between the author’s own anecdotes, reflections, and arguments, the whole thing is condensed to such a degree that the references are the essay. From Tacitus in the first line to Lacedaemon in the last, the piece is really just a series of notes on the symbolism and history of thumbs in the classical world, six short, bursting paragraphs of examples of the human thumb in law, war, and language:

The doctors say that the thumbs are the master fingers of the hand and that their etymology in Latin is from pollere. The Greeks call it Aντιχєιρ, as though to say “another hand.” And it seems that sometimes the Latins also take it in the sense of the entire hand:

                        But not excited by the gentle voice,
                        Nor summoned by the soft thumb, does it rise

            It was a sign of favor in Rome to close in and hold down the thumbs —

                        Your partisan with both his thumbs will praise your game

— and of disfavor to raise them and turn them outward:

                                    When the people’s thumb turns up,
                        They will kill their man to please them.

There are no interjections of Montaigne’s own opinions about thumbs and their best uses, and certainly no Montaignian digressions about kidney stones, morality, or sleeping habits. The essay is, essentially, a list. There is no connective tissue, which gives it, as a piece of writing, a great sense of pace and a kind of limited depth of field. And like any list, its meaning comes first from the arrangement and juxtaposition of the items it contains. “Of Thumbs” is brief but concentrated, finding room in its scant 350 words for accounts of Roman citizens who cut off their thumbs to avoid military service (apparently the blighty wound of its day), for “barbarian kings” who sealed deals by pricking each other’s thumbs and sucking the other’s blood, and for Greek schoolmasters who bit their students’ thumbs as physical punishment. The examples function kind of like images in a montage, and, after giving a couple sentences of etymology, the images Montaigne selects to focus on become increasingly bloody and specific and human: the knight who “maliciously” cut off his young sons’ thumbs, the gladiators who lived and died by the crowd’s thumb signals, the Aeginetan prisoners of war whose thumbs were severed by their captors so that they could not raise arms again in future. In Montaigne’s juxtaposition of these facts, he makes a case for the thumb as both an instrument of war and a symbol of human frailty, our other Achilles heel.

The essay takes a turn in the second to last paragraph. For the first and only time, Montaigne himself appears, speaking in the first person. “Someone,” he writes, “I don’t remember who, having won a naval battle, had the thumbs of his vanquished enemies cut off.” Someone, I don’t remember who. This is the only time Montaigne addresses us as I. The only time in the essay that the essayist sees fit to remind the reader that he himself is a presence in the piece — that all these images and examples of thumbs were written and revised and ordered by an author, that an essay is always filtered through a human mind — is when he is telling us not what he does know, but what he doesn’t. In this whole piece, Montaigne only makes his presence known in an expression of doubt. (Which is perhaps typical.) Then, suddenly, he comes up with another example, another item for the list, and leaves the stage. It’s an abrupt ending, but its lack of resolution has a certain elegance.

A little bit like a stoner who has spent so long staring at her own hands that she’s only just noticing how weird thumbs are, if you really think about them, I feel like I see thumbs in a new way having looked at them through Montaigne’s eyes. Homo sapiens have more thumb dexterity than any other primate — the pads of our thumbs can touch the pads of any other one of the hand’s fingers, even the pinkie — and this adaptation makes possible so many human activities. Including war, but also writing. Reading Montaigne, I am glad to live in an age where fathers no longer cut off their sons’ thumbs to save them from the draft.

The very brevity and compactness of “Of Thumbs” help to give the reader a sense of Montaigne’s mind in action as he contemplates our first digit. He looks at a mundane part of the human anatomy, and he sees something that contains hidden significance and historical and cultural resonance. This point of view, typical of Montaigne, has a sort of leveling effect across the essays that comprise his oeuvre: he understands the humble thumb as being as worthy of contemplation as his other topics, like education, repentance, the relationship between age and wisdom, and the nature of cowardice. And the essay he gives us has a disjointed quality that is perhaps more revelatory of the feeling of a mind at work, turning over the thumb and studying all of its areas of significance, than some of Montaigne’s longer essays. Someone, I don’t remember who. We feel more keenly in “Of Thumbs” the sense that this is a portrait of a line of inquiry as it is taking shape, and one of the essay’s great joys is that the author chose to preserve that sensation and transfer it so seemingly directly to the reader.

Jenna Sauers is a student in the University of Iowa's nonfiction M.F.A. program. Previously working as a journalist, her work has appeared in the New York Times, GQ, The Village Voice, Bookforum, and the New York Observer, and she was a longtime blogger at Jezebel


  1. Thanks, Jenna, for this championing "Of Thumbs." I'm with you: it's a wonderful essay that often gets overlooked precisely because it doesn't fulfill our expectations of the "I"-centric genre that Montaigne invents. I'd add to your insights that the essay bears all the signs of coming more or less raw from Montaigne's commonplace book, where he would have kept and sorted a list of quotations on topics as diverse as the titles of his essays. In this, you can see the growth of the essay out of the practice of common-placing: the writer gradually becoming bold enough not merely to curate quotations, but to begin interjecting his thoughts between them, until eventually we have a genre in which Montaigne's passages are no longer interjections, but the very meat of the essay. "Of Thumbs" is a peek into the origins of the genre. To say it another way, it might not just be the case that Montaigne makes a brief appearance in the essay and leaves the stage; it might be that, in "Of Thumbs," he's figuring out that there's a stage onto which he can step, and that step leads him to the essay.

  2. It may be that the writer feels his quotes are self-explanatory, that to add further notes would be idle self-indulgence.