Saturday, December 04, 2010

`Listing Toward Oblivion'

By nature, lists are funny. It’s their pretensions to comprehensiveness, the idea that mapping the human genome, for instance, a grand sort of list-making, will somehow tell us all we need to know about homo sapiens. There’s also the randomness of juxtapositions, as in Borges’ sample from the catalog of books in “The Library of Babel”:

“…the detailed history of the future, the autobiographies of the archangels, the faithful catalog of the Library, thousands and thousands of false catalogs, the proof of the falsity of those false catalogs, a proof of the falsity of the true catalog, the gnostic gospel of Balilides, the commentary upon that gospel, the commentary on the commentary on that gospel, the true story of your death, the translation of every book into every language, the interpolations of every book into all books, the treatise Bede could have written (but did not) on the mythology of the Saxon people, the lost books of Tacitus.”

In “The Joy of Lists,” Arthur Krystal cites the cosmic list in “The Aleph,” another story by Borges, whom Krystal calls “the great contemporary list maker”:

“This list is Borges, and it suggests — does it not? — the continuing incalculable exchange between the self and the world. So we catalog as we go, itemizing things seen and unseen, as we move inexorably forward, listing toward oblivion.”

Krystal notes the reaching after comprehensiveness implied by lists – he calls them “reassuring” and says they possess “a precision and formality that makes us think we’ve got a handle on things” – but doesn’t dwell on what I deem their fundamental quality: comedy. Think of the writers not mentioned by Krystal who reveled in cataloging the stuff of the world. Let’s start our list with the Irish – Sterne, Joyce, Beckett and Flann O’Brien. Let’s add Rabelais, Montaigne, Burton, Browne, Coleridge, Lamb, Melville, Liebling, Bellow and Ian Frazier, among others. Whitman listed like Homer – too often too solemnly. In contrast, O’Brien was a master of the straight-faced, almost scholarly list as parody – here, from At Swim-Two-Birds, is part of the list of the boasting Finn Mac Cool:

“I incline to like pig-grunting in Magh Eithne, the bellowing of the stag of Ceara, the whingeing of fauns in Derrynish. The low warble of water-owls in Loch Barra also, sweeter than life that. I am fond of wing-beating in dark belfries, cow-cries in pregnancy, trout-spurt in a lake-top. Also the whining of small otters in nettle-beds at evening, the croaking of small-jays behind a wall, these are heart-pleasing. I am friend to the pilibeen, the red-necked chough, the parsnip land-rail, the pilibeen mona, the bottle-tailed tit, the common marsh-coot, the speckle-toed guillemot, the pilibeen sléibhe, the Mohar gannet, the peregrine plough-gull, the long-eared bush-owl, the Wicklow small-fowl, the bevil-beaked chough, the hooded tit, the pilibeen uisce, the common corby, the fish-tailed mud-piper, the cruiskeen lawn, the carrion sea-cock, the green-lidded parakeet, the brown bog-martin, the maritime wren, the dove-tailed wheat-crake, the beaded daw, the Galway hill-bantam and the pilibeen cathrach.”

This always cracks me up though I’m also easily amused by dictionaries, books of quotations, encyclopedias, manuals, pharmacopoeia, almanacs, handbooks, field guides, grammars, enchiridia, books of quotations, directories, atlases, phrase books, concordances, anatomies, gazetteers, thesauri and other compendia.


Hannah Stephenson said...

How interesting. I find this particularly timely--so many articles and blog posts lists dedicated to gift ideas right now. And "To Do" lists, of course, prominently figuring into many of our New Year's Resolution-making strategies.

I think I feel a poem coming on...

William A. Sigler said...

Astute to catch the fundamental humorousness of lists, and to identify Borges as the master of the idiom. His bibliography for Pierre Menard is to me one of the funniest moments in literature.