Whorls and Loops
A narrative history of the fingerprint, told through nine lives
A fingerprint is like a book, though what exactly it contains – one’s life story, psychology, genetics – has long been debated. Over two centuries its concentric swirls have mesmerised and misled, and even betrayed, as people try to disappear. In Whorls and Loops, Geertjan de Vugt collects the lives of doctors, administrators, artists, eugenicists, writers, illusionists, palm readers and weather predictors to weave together a history of fingerprints – and reveal an obsession with presence and absence.
Since their original classification in Prague in the 1800s, fingerprints have been celebrated as physical proof of our individual uniqueness. However, it didn’t take long for colonial administrators in British India to see in that same uniqueness a tool for supervision and control. From there, the practice of registering fingerprints made its way to policing and forensics in Western Europe and the United States, where scientists would repeatedly try and fail to connect fingerprints to race. At the same time, though, engravers discovered in fingerprints a method of fighting forgeries, and illusionists a new source of tricks. Chirologists found reason to make palm reading a science and later artists considered god’s fingerprints on the world.
De Vugt playfully unfolds this mixed history through nine disparate lives, and yet each is also a story of fascinations. We join the 19th-century Czech doctor Jan Evangelista Purkinje as he descends into an herb-induced hallucination, whose Flimmerrosen (‘flickering roses’) find echo in the swirls of his hands. German émigré Charlotte Wolff’s psychoanalytic approach to palm reading not only attracts the attention of the Surrealists, for whom hands are a source of human mystery, but also the writer Virginia Woolf. In the States, Mark Twain is captivated by fingerprints and includes ground-breaking forensics in his fiction, while British woodcut engraver Thomas Berwick sees fingerprints as nature’s own engravings. Arthur Kollman, a German illusionist intent on categorizing fingerprints by species, finds himself infatuated with a graceful chimpanzee. In the 1970s, the Austrian painter Arnulf Reiner’s bold attempts at painting himself out of the world are foiled by his unnoticed fingerprints on his canvases.
Sensitive to coincidences and resonances, De Vugt stitches these histories together with literary flair. He plays with the line between fact and fiction, connecting fingerprints with social, philosophical and existential themes for an age in which they form part of our daily lives as ID, bank card and key. For readers of Matthijs Deen and Charlotte van den Broeck.