Saturday, November 21, 2009

Sontag on Lists and Collections

Susan Sontag seems to have been an inveterate collector and list maker. This is most clearly revealed in her novel The Volcano Lover, in which one of the nameless characters finds: "I'm checking on what's in the world. What's left. What's discarded. What's no longer cherished. What had to be sacrificed. What someone thought might interest someone else ... there may be something valuable, there. Not valuable, exactly. But something I would want. Want to rescue. Something that speaks to me. To my longings." For her (or her characters), "collecting expresses a free-floating desire that attaches and re-attaches itself—it is a succession of desires. The true collector is not in the grip of what is collected but of collecting."

And collecting leads to making lists: One wants to know what one has: "collecting is a species of insatiable desire ... there [is] ... a ledger somewhere ... But lists are a much more spiritual enterprise for the athlete of material and mental acquisitiveness. The list is itself a collection, a sublimated collection.
What you like.
What you have done.
What the world has in it.
What you actually have."
The maker of lists is essentially skeptical. She does not know for certain that what she has collected corresponds to any real purpose at all. It is enough that it is collectible. This is not enough for a lover. "The soul of the lover is the opposite of the collector's. The defect or blemish is part of the charm. A lover is never a sceptic." Nor is a lover a list-maker. That comes later ...

This account seems to be closer to the truth than Umberto Eco's musings—at least as far as I am concerned.[1] Both views seem to be influenced by Roland Barthes, another lover of lists (in my collection).[2]


1. See Umberto Eco on Lists.
2. See also Collecting.

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