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Lists

I recently bought a used copy of Ivan Illich’s Gender, and it had a slip of pink paper as a bookmark that contained this wonderful list:

1. Call Mom

2. Natural to be afraid

3. Card from Faith Church

I am not sure whether the items are meant to relate to one another, but there is a sort of poetry about them.  I am happy they were left for me.

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I have been looking to buy New Jersey Tea Tree saplings for some time, but they have proven difficult to locate, so I decided to buy some seeds from a native seed distributor.  While I was on the site, I also picked up a few other things.  The package arrived today, so I have only had time to plant the New Jersey Tea Tree seeds, but here is the list of what I purchased, with links to pictures for those who need help with identification.

Pearly Everlasting (Anaphalis margaritacea)
Pasque Flower (Anemone patens wolfgangiana)
New Jersey Tea Tree (Ceanothus americanus)
Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis)
Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
Water Arum (Calla palustris)
Partridge Pra (Cassia fasciculata)
Fringed Gentian (Gentiana crinita)
Great St. John’s Wort (Hypericum pyramidatum)
Praries Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius)
Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum canaliculatum)
Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis)
Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)
Large-flowered Trillium (Trillium grandiflorum)
Common Ironweed (Veronia fasciculata)

I am rereading Jorge Luis Borges’ Collected Fictions,  and he has a lovely list, a literary form that I have grown to appreciate more and more since reading Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces.  The list appears in the story, “The Cruel Redeemer Lazarus Morell”.  I included it here, its spacing slightly rearranged, in its entirely, for your enjoyment.

In 1517, Fray Bartolome de las Casas, feeling great pity for the Indians who grew worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines, proposed to Emperor Charles V that Negroes be brought to the isles of the Caribbean, so that they might grow worn and lean in the drudging infernos of the Antillean gold mines.  To this odd variant on the species of the philanthropist we owe an infinitude of things:

W. C. Handy’s blues;

The success achieved in Paris by the Uruguayan attorney-painter Pedro Figari;

The fine runaway-slave prose of the likewise Uruguayan Vicente Rossi;

The mythological stature of Abraham Lincoln;

The half-million dead of the War of Succession;

The $3.3 billion spent on military pensions;

The statue of the imaginary semblance of Antonio (Falucho) Ruiz;

The inclusion of the word “lynch” in respectable dictionaries;

The impetuous King Vidor film Hallelujah;

The stout bayonet charge of the regiment of “Black and Tans” (the colour of their skins, not their uniforms) against that famous hill near Montevideo;

The gracefulness of certain elegant young ladies;

The black man who killed Martin Fierro;

That deplorable rumba The Peanut Seller;

The arrested and imprisoned Napoleonism of Toussaint L’Ouverture;

The cross and the serpent in Haiti;

The blood of goats whose throats are slashed by the papaloi’s machete;

The habanera that is the mother pf the tango;

The candombe.

I have written several timed on the poetry of the list, particularly with reference to the writing of Georges Perec, so I enjoyed what Umberto Eco had to say on the subject in an interview with Spiegel, a piece to which Dave Humphrey directed me this afternoon.  You should read the interview yourself, so I will not say very much about it.  I will just list the following ideas that I think deserve some future discussion.

1. “The list is the origin of culture.”

2. “How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists.”

3. “The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it.”

4. “We like Lists because we don’t want to die.”

5. “I like lists for the same reason other people like football or pedophilia. People have their preferences.”

6. “The list is the mark of a highly advanced, cultivated society because a list allows us to question the essential definitions.”

Of course. Eco has much more to say about lists than a list could convey, about education and about culture and about libraries and about many other things, so you should take this list only as an invitation to read further.

I have a kind of fascination with what I might call the poetics of the list.  While most lists have little poetry about them, I sometimes do come across one that manages to achieve something that is actually beautiful or ironic or profound.  I first started noticing this in some of the lists in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and I have been finding them ever since, most recently in my friend Dave Humphrey’s post on spring.

This morning I discovered another such list in Georges Perec’s Species of Spaces, a book that was recommended to me by TC in a comment that she left many months ago and that I am now making the time to read.  The list appears in an early section of the book  where Perec is describing how just about every aspect of our culture, even what is most mundane, passes through writing.  He begins to list the ways that these things become inscribed, among which he includes the form of the list itself. In his own words,

“A list of urgently needed supplies (coffee, sugar, cat litter, Baudrillard book, 75-watt bulb, batteries, underwear, etcetera).”

There is something beautiful to me about Baudrillard being listed among Perec’s necessities, but at the same level as cat litter and underwear. This says much about Perec, and it may even say something about Baudrillard. It certainly says something about me, that I am so entertained by it.