A confession: I like lists. They soothe, placate, facilitate me. They beguile me, siren-like, with their ominous but irresistible logic. One of my novels begins with a list-as-quest when an elderly woman gives her neighbour a list and asks him to do her grocery shopping. In another novel, the suicidal hero sits in a fast food restaurant where he drunkenly draws up a list of his favourite vegetables (in no particular order) in a desperate attempt to restore some order to his life.
Umberto Eco arguably had the last word on the subject with his impressive, list-laden, The Infinity of Lists. He begins his ‘list of lists’ with Homer’s Iliad. Homer meticulously lists the warriors and ships on their way to Troy having first tried – and failed – to express the unprecedented power of the army through simile. It seems that listing was the only way Homer could satisfactorily express the sheer force of numbers involved.
Language itself is a sort of ever-spiralling list when you consider that lexical definitions are based on a concise list of characteristics. And what is history if not a chronological list of events? The infinity of Eco’s title refers to the fact that lists are dizzyingly self-perpetuating. He gamely tries to subdivide the list into two categories. The first is the list that expresses the “poetics of ‘everything included’”: these are closed, self-contained lists, such as the telephone directory (Eco’s preferred book of choice, incidentally, in the event of being stranded on a desert island). The second category consists of lists that express the “poetics of the ‘etcetera’”: these are more open-ended and inconclusive.
Eco mines a fascinating range of material. There are thrilling examples from Joyce, Borges, Calvino, Whitman and Cervantes. He provides a memorable excerpt from Proust in which the author recounts how he would lull himself to sleep by reading through the names of provincial French towns listed on a railway timetable. An example from Carmina Burana playfully lists the people from all strata of society, from the fool through to the scholar, who like to drink.
The book also gives a delightful (and insightful) list of Roland Barthes’ likes and dislikes. We learn, for example, that Barthes loved: salad, cinnamon, cheese and spices. He didn’t love: bikers, women in long pants, geraniums, strawberries and the harpsichord.
Inevitably, Eco’s book is neither conclusive nor comprehensive. One of the most intriguing and provocative lists I can remember is the British artist Tracey Emin’s installation, Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963–1995. Emin appliquéd a tent with the names of everyone she had slept with, faithfully including her grandmother and teddy bear. That particular list was too long for some, however, and caused a scandal (veiled as art criticism in some quarters). Men compile such lists all the time (think of Don Juan) without a murmur of condemnation; the longer the better as a rule. Apart from art, Emin’s list was also a nominal indictment of male hypocrisy.
Another personal favourite was drawn up by the character Brod in the novel Everything is Illuminated, in which he manages to come up with 613 unique kinds of sadness, such as Mirror Sadness and Sadness of Being Sad in Front of One’s Parent. It is irresistibly tempting to add a few sadnesses of one’s own to this gently melancholy list (Sadness of Writing a Blog?).
Roberto Bolaño resorts to list-like language to devastating effect in 2666 (his masterpiece) in describing the details of the deaths of numerous young women in Santa Teresa. Like a coroner, he records the bare facts: what they were wearing, what was done to them, the resultant injuries, the final cause of death. The reader is left numb and dumbly disturbed as if Bolaño has just exposed a furtive secret of language: it is a catalogue of horrors. Cruelty upon cruelty. Rape upon rape. Death upon death. He dryly records the details, lists them, commits them to the historic record.
One of the saddest examples of resorting to listing I have come across was when I read in the news about the elaborate suicide of a gifted, well-liked 15-year-old boy (by a shotgun triggered by a wooden spoon). He killed himself after meticulously listing the pros and cons of the life he believed was ahead of him. According to the coroner, John Burton, the boy “came down on the side of suicide.”
We resort to lists: as a means of weighing up a difficult decision, as mnemonic tools, as a way of ordering chaos. They serve as rambling role calls for the dead on war memorials. They taxonomize the unknown. They even help repel disorder at home.
Lists endlessly ramify into more lists. They are language stripped of grammar. They are borne of the linearity that threatens to sweep us away while helping keep it at bay. A confession: I list the books I read, the films I watch, the myriad mistakes I make. A fatal pattern forms; I try to outwit it with other lists. But it can’t be superseded. The list has an integral order: one thing after another. As literature goes, lists can be singularly heartbreaking.
In the end, we disappear into a list (the death registry): our names, the cause of death, the date of our demise, duly recorded as part of the vastest list ever undertaken. Whenever I feel listy, my lists spiral downwards, my ledgers spill into lop-sidedness: like every mode of language I use to bespeak me, they end up as damning evidence of my failures as a human being.