Sunday, November 15, 2009

Umberto Eco on Lists


As we know from Homer, Genesis, Rabelais, Joyce and many other writers, vast lists and catalogs have exercised a certain fascination even prior to the advent of writing.

The superb Italian scholar and novelist is curating a show at the Louvre about lists, and was recently interviewed by Der Spiegel:

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?

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.. . .

Homer's work hits again and again on the topos of the inexpressible. People will always do that. We have always been fascinated by infinite space, by the endless stars and by galaxies upon galaxies. How does a person feel when looking at the sky? He thinks that he doesn't have enough tongues to describe what he sees. Nevertheless, people have never stopping describing the sky, simply listing what they see. Lovers are in the same position.. . .

SPIEGEL: Why do we waste so much time trying to complete things that can't be realistically completed?

Eco: We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death.


Update: Harvard Berkman Center scholar David Weinberger triggers an interesting discussion as he takes issue with certain of Eco's assertions.

2 comments:

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