Umberto Eco Explains List Mania

Italian author and semiotician Umberto Eco tells Der Spiegel about the place lists hold in the history of culture, the ways we try to avoid thinking about death and why Google is dangerous for young people:

SPIEGEL: Mr. Eco, you are considered one of the world’s great scholars, and now you are opening an exhibition at the Louvre, one of the world’s most important museums. The subjects of your exhibition sound a little commonplace, though: the essential nature of lists, poets who list things in their works and painters who accumulate things in their paintings. Why did you choose these subjects?

Umberto Eco: 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.

SPIEGEL: Should the cultured person be understood as a custodian looking to impose order on places where chaos prevails?

Eco: The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists.

SPIEGEL: Accountants make lists, but you also find them in the works of Homer, James Joyce and Thomas Mann.

Eco: Yes. But they, of course, aren’t accountants. In “Ulysses,” James Joyce describes how his protagonist, Leopold Bloom, opens his drawers and all the things he finds in them. I see this as a literary list, and it says a lot about Bloom. Or take Homer, for example. In the “Iliad,” he tries to convey an impression of the size of the Greek army. At first he uses similes: “As when some great forest fire is raging upon a mountain top and its light is seen afar, even so, as they marched, the gleam of their armour flashed up into the firmament of heaven.” But he isn’t satisfied. He cannot find the right metaphor, and so he begs the muses to help him. Then he hits upon the idea of naming many, many generals and their ships…

[continues in Der Spiegel]

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  • Mr B

    I’m sympathetic to Heidegger’s: ‘Angst (dread) is a fundamental part of …[mankind’s] consciousness, a symptom of the gravity of their situation with its radical freedom of choice and its horizon of death.
    Consequently we are continually in flight from our destiny, disguising it and distracting our attention from its inevitability’. ~ Oxford Encyclopaedic English Dictionary

    But unconvinced by this article. ‘Every word written is a victory against death.’ – Michel Butor

    Btw:

    ‘Eco: The people from the Louvre approached me …I felt like a character in a Dan Brown novel. It was both eerie and wonderful at the same time.’

    ‘SPIEGEL: Mr. Eco, you are considered one of the world’s
    great scholars,’ [!]

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