Friday, November 20, 2009

Umberto Eco on Lists

Umberto Eco claims in an interview in Der Spiegel that "the list is the origin of culture. It's part of the history of art and literature." And: "We also have completely practical lists -- the shopping list, the will, the menu -- that are also cultural achievements in their own right." While we might think "that a list is primitive and typical of very early cultures, which had no exact concept of the universe and were therefore limited to listing the characteristics they could name. But, in cultural history, the list has prevailed over and over again. It is by no means merely an expression of primitive cultures."

This must be true, even though it is not very interesting. Making a list is often an end in itself. And sometimes it is the beginning of serious engagement with what we take care to list. Among other things, lists are primitive outlines.

Eco has more "interesting" things to say, however: People have never stopped "describing the sky, simply listing what they see. Lovers are in the same position. They experience a deficiency of language, a lack of words to express their feelings. But do lovers ever stop trying to do so? They create lists: Your eyes are so beautiful, and so is your mouth, and your collarbone ... One could go into great detail." And: "we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It's a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don't want to die."

This must be false, even though it is very interesting—not because of what it reveals about lists, but about Eco himself. Lists qua lists have as little to do with falling in love as they have to do with our fear of dying. The first and last things we list are likely things. They may be things we love, but they may also be things we need or want to avoid.

Listing things is a formal way of taking note of things we want to remember, it is not primarily a device for making love or escaping what is inevitable. None of this means, of course, that we cannot, like Eco, (ab)use lists in this or many other ways which I do not care to list here.

As for my love of lists, I am sure it has nothing to do with not wanting to die.

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