Enumeration Sensation

The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay BY Umberto Eco. Rizzoli. Hardcover, 408 pages. $45.

Middle of the night and your head teems with half-formed thoughts: Did I pay the car insurance? Where did I park the car? Is my best dress shirt at the dry cleaners? What time’s the wedding on Saturday? Need a map of Vermont to get there. I should frame my vintage maps one of these days. Maybe start with that bird’s-eye view of New Amsterdam, or the blue-tinted mariner’s chart . . .

How stop this ceaseless ticker tape? The mind’s associative reflex is as rapid as it is circuitous, myriad things and things-to-do always unspooling in the brainpan. If you get out of bed, though, and grab a pen, you can at least slow it down by making a list. You can rank items in importance, annotate, categorize, and subcategorize—in short, you can give some material shape to and make some order of what Samuel Beckett dubbed “the big blooming buzzing confusion.” So somewhere between penciling “Pick up prescription” and “Live a more examined life,” a portion of calm might be found.

The notion that unwieldy consciousness can best be tamed by enumerative form has beguiled more than a few writers and artists. Umberto Eco, in The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay (Rizzoli, $45), recounts his own fascination with lists, lists of lists, and the infinite regress of adding up and counting down any- and everything. In compiling this roster—its own sort of metacollection—Eco ranges widely through Western civilization to include lists verbal (from Homer to Pynchon) and visual (from a fifth-century Greek shield to an installation by Christian Boltanski). Like any good cataloguer, Eco subdivides: His big two kinds of lists are those that evidence the “poetics of 'everything included’” and those that express the “poetics of the 'etcetera.’” The first aims for completeness and closure (provisionally so); the latter takes its cue from the mind’s perpetual-motion association machine. It’s the difference between a New York telephone directory and, say, J. A. S. Collin de Plancy’s nineteenth-century Dictionnaire infernal, which offers a census of demons (“Aamon, Abigor, Abracace, Adramelech . . . Xafan, Zagam, Zaleos, Zebos, Zepar”). The phone book includes the more or less fixed number of names of actual phone owners; the roster of devils is limited only by the imagination’s disinclination to invent more.

List making is therapeutic: Either tack—“etcetera” or “everything included”— offers some measure of respite from the big blooming buzzing. It’s easy to imagine that, when an endless chain of fiends swirled through his midnight mind, Collin de Plancy quieted his jitters by filling out his roster. In less dire circumstances, many prospective parents no doubt cope with prebirth worries by creating checklists of baby names. But lists are not only tools to quell anxiety; they are just as often celebratory. Eco treats us to choice samples from the usual literary suspects, epic enumerators like Joyce, Cervantes, Borges, Calvino, and Whitman. The selection from Proust—biographies note that he lulled himself to sleep by perusing railway timetables—handily captures the joy to be taken in prolific accounting, in this case of small French towns:

I compare and contrast them; how was one to choose, any more than between individual people, who are not interchangeable, between Bayeux, so lofty in its noble coronet of rusty lace, whose highest point caught the light of the old gold of its second syllable; Vitre, whose acute accent barred its ancient glass with wooden lozenges; gentle Lamballe, whose whiteness ranged from egg-shell yellow to a pearly grey; Coutances, a Norman Cathedral, which its final consonants, rich and yellowing, crowned with a tower of butter; Lannion with the rumble and buzz, in the silence of its village street, of the fly on the wheel of the coach . . .

This single sentence speeds along, trainlike, through many more locales while improbably seizing at every pointillist detail. Even while caught up in Proust’s propulsive naming, we are also made mindful of, if not stalled outright by, the dilemma—“how to choose”—that serves as a kind of muse’s invocation at the start of this litany. Indeed, the list maker often is compelled to acknowledge that each accounting predicates an uncountable number of shadow lists, alternative choices abounding. Such recording seeks order even as the process implies the chaos of ever-lengthening inventories—thus the “infinity” of lists.

If the list maker’s first task is to choose, the next might be to make more from those choices than mere addition: A list can tell a story. What Eco dubs the “rhetoric of enumeration” we might understand as the drama that flows from rhythmic excitation. In Leaves of Grass, Whitman’s incantatory compilations rise to crescendos and fall back to rumination, taking accurate measure of the pulsing landscapes the poet feels compelled to swallow whole. Eco cites one Georg Philipp Harsdörfer, whose seventeenth-century treatise on linguistics at times exemplifies the list as an undeterred refinement of a single property. Harsdörfer wrings from his premise—to sing the praises of German— every last metaphoric turn: The language “speaks with the tongues of nature. . . . It thunders with the heavens, flashes with the swift clouds, glitters like hail, whistles with the wind, foams with the waves, clatters like locks, resounds with the air, detonates with cannons, roars like the lion, lows like the ox, snarls like the bear, bells like the deer . . .” As the similes grow wilder and wilder, less and less tethered to any comprehensible comparison, the rhetoric of the list qua list supersedes its ostensible point. Quickly readers are tapping their feet (“caws like the crow”!), having pretty much forgotten about an actual language and what it sounds like. The list instead becomes a self-enacting tale about the meaninglessness of words, all the while praising speech as in-expressively expressive.

Repetition drives any good list; it is the engine that shapes the compulsion behind the mnemonic chants of poets and bookies, manic prophets and neurotics. No matter how epic the scope of inclusion or diverse the items inventoried, a locution assiduously repeated binds it all, makes a wholeness out of particularity. Eco offers a snippet from the Carmina Burana in which humankind is revealed as both multifarious and monomaniacal:

The mistress and the master drink
the soldier and the cleric drink
that man and that woman drink
the servant drinks with the maid
the fast man drinks, so does the slow
the white man drinks, so does the black
the stay-at-home drinks, so does the wanderer
the fool drinks, so does the scholar.

A list is an intimation of totality, a simulacrum of knowing much, of knowing the right much. We select our ten best big-band recordings, all-time basketball starting fives, mysteries to read this summer; add up the people we’ve slept with or people we wish we had; index our movie-memorabilia collection; count our blessings; list reasons for not getting out of bed. We jot these accounts on envelopes, store them on hard drives, murmur them under our breath as we ride home from work—it’s no accident that many prayers are really nothing more than lists.

Eco is especially fond of lists that take visual form and includes many, such as medieval mosaics that assemble masses of angels; the congeries of Joseph Cornell; and Max Ernst’s painting Thirty-three Girls Chasing White Butterflies, a detonation of bright shards scattering to the corners of the canvas. But it is Giuseppe Arcimboldo’s Spring of 1573 that most strongly evokes not just the visualization of a list but the core predicament of the enterprise. Arcimboldo painted a series of portraits using fruits, vegetables, and flowers as anatomical elements. In the case of Spring, he musters a veritable encyclopedia of flora to fill out and color the face and upper body of an aristocratic young woman. Her head is a compendium of flowers—their names and lore, their very stems and petals. Truly blooming and buzzing, she looks more than a little perplexed. The lady is in need of pen and paper so she can begin to make sense of herself: daisies, nightshades, daffodils, thyme, anemones, azaleas, irises, bloodroot, cornflowers, et cetera. She’s in need of a list. To make order. To understand what’s on her mind.

Albert Mobilio is an editor of Bookforum.