Sunday, November 22, 2009

Instrument of Wondrous Hypotyposis

Umberto Eco discusses our interest in lists:

The list is the origin of culture. It's part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order -- not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists -- the shopping list, the will, the menu -- that are also cultural achievements in their own right.


I'm not really convinced, though, with Eco's moral psychology of the list, in which we like lists because we like things without limits. I think, if you must speculate in such terms, that the reverse is more plausible; we like lists because we love limits. And even death: what frightens people about death is not that it is a limit but that it itself is not limited. The list of things that death destroys can never be completed. But I don't think our taste for lists really has much to do with death rather than, say, order.

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