Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The book of lists

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Richard Wilbur

I love a good list. Whether it’s the catalog of ships in the Iliad or the titles of the books in the fallout shelter in Farnham’s Freehold, I find it impossible to resist, at least when I’m in the hands of a talented writer. Take, for instance, the inventory of Tyrone Slothrop’s desktop that we find toward the beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow:

…a scatter of paperclips, Zippo flints, rubber bands, staples, cigarette butts and crumpled packs, stray matches, pins, nubs of pens, stubs of pencils of all colors including the hard-to-get heliotrope and raw umber, wooden coffee spoons, Thayer’s Slippery Elm Throat Lozenges sent by Slothrop’s mother, Nalline, all the way from Massachusetts, bits of tape, string, chalk…above that a layer of forgotten memoranda, empty buff ration books, phone numbers, unanswered letters, tattered sheets of carbon paper, the scribbled ukulele chords to a dozen songs including “Johnny Doughboy Found a Rose in Ireland”…an empty Kreml hair tonic bottle, lost pieces to different jigsaw puzzles showing parts of the amber left eye of a Weimaraner, the green velvet folds of a gown, slate-blue veining in a distant cloud, the orange nimbus of an explosion (perhaps a sunset), rivets in the skin of a Flying Fortress, the pink inner thigh of a pouting pin-up girl…

It takes up a whole page, and I’ve always felt that I could go on reading it forever. An attentive critic could probably mine it for clues, using it as a skeleton key for the rest of the book, but the real point seems to be showing off Pynchon’s exuberant command of the real, until it becomes an emblem of the entire novel.

In a wonderful essay titled “Poetry and Happiness,” Richard Wilbur calls this impulse “a primitive desire that is radical to poetry—the desire to lay claim to as much of the world as possible through uttering the names of things.” He quotes the list of smells from the eighteenth chapter of Hugo Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle, and then observes:

A catalog of that sort pleases us in a number of ways. In the first place, it stimulates that dim and nostalgic thing the olfactory memory, and provokes us to recall the ghosts of various stinks and fragrances. In the second place, such a catalog makes us feel vicariously alert; we participate in the extraordinary responsiveness of Doctor Dolittle’s dog, and so feel the more alive to things. In the third place, we exult in Jip’s power of instant designation, his ability to pin things down with names as fast as they come. The effect of the passage, in short, is to let us share in an articulate relishing and mastery of phenomena in general.

Wilbur continues: “That is what the cataloging impulse almost always expresses—a longing to posses the whole world, and to praise it, or at least to feel it.” He offers up a few more examples, ranging from the Latin canticle Benedicte, omnia opera domini to “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and closes on a profound observation: “When a catalog has a random air, when it seems to have been assembled by chance, it implies a vast reservoir of other things which might just as well have been mentioned.”

Jorge Luis Borges

What Wilbur calls “the itch to call the roll of things,” then, is simultaneously a natural human instinct and a useful narrative trick, which is a nice combination. Even a grocery list represents an attempt to impose some kind of order on existence, and like the lists in poetry or fiction, the part comes to stand for the whole: the real to-do list of our lives is endless, but we feel more capable of dealing with it once we’ve written some of it down. A novelist is constantly doing much the same thing, and one measure of craft is how conscious the author is of the process, and the extent to which the result evokes a larger reality. And this applies to more than just inventories of objects. Any narrative work, fiction or nonfiction, is a list of things that happened, and even the most comprehensive version is bound to be a subset of all possible components. As a biographer, I’ve become acutely aware that any account of a person’s life consists of a selection of facts, and that there are countless possible variations. As Borges puts it:

Let us greatly simplify, and imagine that a life consists of 13,000 facts. One of the hypothetical biographies would record the series 11, 22, 33…; another, the series 9, 13, 17, 21…; another, the series 3, 12, 21, 30, 39… A history of a man’s dreams is not inconceivable; another, of the organs of his body; another, of the mistakes he made; another, of all the moments when he thought about the Pyramids; another, of his dealings with the night and the dawn.

Borges continues: “The above may seem merely fanciful, but unfortunately it is not. No one today resigns himself to writing the literary biography of an author or the military biography of a soldier; everyone prefers the genealogical biography, the economic biography, the psychiatric biography, the surgical biography, the typographical biography.” And when he evokes a biographer of Edgar Allan Poe who barely mentions the stories or poems but is “fascinated by changes of residence,” it feels like a devastating commentary on the whole art of biography. But the deeper—and more frightening—implication is that we’re engaged in much the same process when it comes to our own lives. We don’t have access to all of our past selves at once: I find it hard to remember what happened last week without writing it down, and there are years of my life that I go for long periods without consciously recalling. This means, inevitably, that our personalities are a kind of list, too, and even though it seems complete, it really only represents a tiny slice of our whole experience. I’m no more complicated a person than average, but there are times when I’m amazed by how little of myself I need to access on a daily basis. It’s a random sampling of my internal contents, assembled only in part by choice, and I live with it because it’s the most my imperfect brain can handle. In a different essay, Borges says: “The steps a man takes from the day of his birth until that of his death trace in time an inconceivable figure. The Divine Mind intuitively grasps that form immediately, as men do a triangle.” We can’t see it for ourselves, but we can list a few of the steps. And in the end, that list is all we have.

Written by nevalalee

August 31, 2016 at 9:14 am

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