Umberto Eco's web of lists and The Name of the Rose

In an interview with the German newspaper SPIEGEL, Umberto Eco says that ‘We Like Lists Because We Don’t Want to Die.’ His first answer goes:

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.

One can see the intellectual footprints of Eco’s work at the Louvre—he’s curating an exhibit about lists—in Reflections on The Name of the Rose, where he discusses the composition and ideas behind The Name of the Rose: “I dug out a huge amount of material (file cards, photocopies, notebooks), accumulated since 1952 and originally intended for other, still-vague purposes: a history of monsters, or an analysis of the medieval encyclopedias, or a theory of lists. . . .” (emphasis added). On page 24, he says that he made “Lists of names and personal data for many characters [….]”

Alas: the interviewer didn’t know about these obscure references and missed the chance to ask about them. Does he perceive his books as an effort to order chaos? Do books bring a certain amount of chaos (intellectual, social) of their own? He describes The Name of the Rose as a text composed of other texts, as all books are to some extent, but how does this metaphor of the web fit with our conception of lists? I could try to answer some of these questions, and do in my mind, but I would like to see the master’s thoughts too.

Granted, maybe my curiosity simply implies I should see the exhibit, but the Louvre is a long way from Tucson. Eco, however, still firmly resides in my mind, and implicitly on the minds of others; over at The Atlantic Andrew Sullivan says that “It’s staggering really that modern American Christianism supports wealth while Jesus demanded total poverty [….]” Maybe Jesus demanded poverty and maybe he didn’t: as Eco says in both Reflections and The Name of the Rose, the “poverty debate” dominated learned circles in 1321, masking a larger debate about power and its deployment. The arguments Eco recounts in The Name of the Rose shows that, if the answer were as simple as Sullivan describes, there would be no debate. But where there is money, and by extension power, there is sure to be a multiplicity of interpretations based on who stands to materially gain—and lose.

As so often becomes the case after one becomes familiar with his work, Eco has already been there.

Late November Links: Academia, artistic dangers, reading, and more

The Ph.D. Problem: On the professionalization of faculty life, doctoral training, and the academy’s self-renewal.

* A Little-Known Occupational Hazard Affecting Writers: writing (or wanting to write) outside your field.

* When Great Artists Dry Up.

* Cellphones, Texts, and Lovers, on how technology is or is not reshaping romance in the digital age. I don’t really buy the argument, but I find it suggestive nonetheless.

* James Fallows has a typically nuanced, brilliant series on Obama’s trip to Asia, and especially its Chinese implications.

* Das Keyboard is sponsoring the Ultimate Typing Championship. Do you have the “fiercest typing skills around?” Me neither. But those who do can win $2,000 at the SXSW festival in Austin. The e-mail I got says, “Oh, and don’t forget to sign-up yourself to compete! At a minimum, it’s an opportunity for bragging rights among your friends and co-workers. :)”

Alas: I’m a relatively slow typist at 50-ish WPM. Usually the problem isn’t typing speed—it’s thinking speed, and I haven’t found a hardware solution for that yet.

* Local Bookstores, Social Hubs, and Mutualization. Like me, Clay Shirky finds it more than a little difficult to believe that cheap hardcover books are bad for readers, even if they might be bad for publishers as they currently exist.

* What the iPod tells us about Britain’s economic future.

* Secret copyright treaty leaks, and it’s bad. Very bad.

* Sunday afternoon at the Shenzhen Public Library. As James Fallows says at the link, “No wonder Shenzhen is on the rise.”

* Gossip Girl might be worth watching again.

* Are too many students going to college?

* Learn your damn homophones.

* No one wants America to be the sole global superpower, but no one wants to share the load.

* I love it: the bookstore Lorem Ipsum is having an “anti-sale.” As they say: “Everyone like’s a sale, right? But does anyone like an anti-sale? We hope so!

What’s an anti-sale, you ask? It’s when nothing in the store is on sale. We’re proud to announce that none of our items are on sale, instead they are for purchase for regular price. We think it’s ground-breaking.”

* Inculcating a Love for Reading: Children’s books that might help repel the armies of electronic distraction.

* From Oxford to Wall Street: what the rising number of Rhodes Scholars in business and finance means. Or, according to actual Rhodes scholar, maybe not.

* Are U.S. Wages Too High?

* Why are some cities more entrepreneurial than others?

* The Writing Habits of Great Authors.

* Hilarious search query of the day that brought someone to The Story’s Story: “bookworms sex.”

Martin Amis on book reviewing

“I think you have a duty to contribute, to go on contributing to what Gore Vidal calls ‘book chat.’ For certain self-interested reasons, you want to keep standards up so that when your next book comes out, it’s more likely that people will get the hang of it. I have no admiration for writers who think that at a certain point they can wash their hands of book chat. You should be part of the ongoing debate.”

That’s from Martin Amis’ interview in The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. III. After my last two posts, I keep thinking that I should write something more structured and unified about this collection, add a bit of book chat of my own.

But I don’t have much beyond enthusiasm to contribute, and all these wonderful quotes. It’s nice finding numerous contradictory opinions regarding what a writer should be, how one should write, and so forth, which primarily tell you that the primary thing that writers have in common is that, somehow, some way, they get the writing done and published. Everything else is gravy, random, individual, idiosyncratic. Insert your own analogy to another activity here.

Borges on national literatures

The Paris Review Interviews Vols. I – IV keep giving. In volume I, Borges says in a 1967 interview, “I’m going to deliver a course of lectures on poetry. And as I think that poetry is more or less untranslatable, and as I think English literature—and that includes America—is by far the richest in the world, I will take most, if not all of my examples, from English poetry.”

Now, things may have changed since 1967, and maybe Borges today would have a different opinion than Borges then, but I still think it useful to juxtapose him with Horace Engdahl, who I wrote about in Kundera, Horace Engdahl, and the Nobel Prize. Engdahl said:

Speaking generally about American literature, however, he said U.S. writers are “too sensitive to trends in their own mass culture,” dragging down the quality of their work.

“The U.S. is too isolated, too insular. They don’t translate enough and don’t really participate in the big dialogue of literature,” Engdahl said. “That ignorance is restraining.”

I think the U.S. is neither too isolate nor too cosmopolitan; it merely is, like the literatures of most other countries. I cannot really comment on Borges’ assertion that English literature is richer or less rich than other literatures because I am not familiar enough with the other literatures to say, but to have such an assertion is to remember that, when making pronouncements of small mindedness, the person with the greatest small mindedness is often the person making the pronouncement.

To me, the vastness of literature in almost any major language is so great that it is probably impossible to experience all of it. Hence the comment I love from Ursula K. Le Guin: “Literature is huge — they can’t fit her even into the Library of Congress, because she keeps not talking English. She is very big, very polyglot, very old, even older than I am by about 3000 years, and she weighs a lot.”

To read the Paris Review Interviews is to be reminded of that, and the vastness of influence, and yet how certain writers keep reappearing over and over. I am probably seeing more in these interviews than in all but a very tiny number of scholarly monographs. To read them is also to be reminded of literature’s evasive quality, and of its habit of squirming away from definition.

Harold Bloom on word processors (and, for good measure, editing)

Interviewer: Do you think that the word processor has had or is having any effect on the study of literature?

Bloom: There cannot be a human being who has fewer thoughts on the whole question of word processing than I do. I’ve never even seen a word processor. I am hopelessly archaic.

Interviewer: Perhaps you see an effect on students’ papers then?

Bloom: But for me the typewriter hasn’t even been invented yet, so how can I speak to this matter? I protest! A man who has never learned to type is not going to be able to add anything to this debate. As far as I’m concerned, computers have as much to do with literature as space travel, perhaps much less. I can only write with a ballpoint pen, with a Rolling Writer, they’re called, a black Rolling Writer on a lined yellow legal pad on a certain kind of clipboard. And then someone else types it.

Interviewer: And someone else edits?

Bloom: No one edits. I edit. I refuse to be edited.

This passages comes from The Paris Review Interviews Vol. II, which is much recommended, and should be considered in light of my recent post on The computer, operating system, or word processor a writer or novelist uses doesn’t matter much, although I still like Macs. If Bloom, Freud, and Shakespeare could get by without debating the operating system or word processor being used, so too should you (this isn’t the same as saying you shouldn’t use a word processor, but rather that you should spend the minimum amount of time worrying about it, and the maximum amount of time worrying about your writing).

Max Jamison — Wilfrid Sheed

Really good and really bad books often announce themselves early: in the case of the former, you find that moment of shock and astonishment that propels you forward. In Max Jamison, that moments hits on page 7, when Flashman is described not as “a theater critic at all, but a maid-of-all-work gossip columnist and second-string reviewer who scooped up free tickets like a mechanical crane and prowled the lobbies for carrion.” Status and aesthetic contempt intermingle: Flashman doesn’t appreciate art because he’s “like a mechanical crane,” and yet at the same time he feeds on the dead—dead plays, dead reviewers, dead everything.

Max, on the other hand, sees himself as an antidote of sorts to that: he’s a theater critic with, if not heart, then at least acerbic taste, which is better than no taste at all. But he’s not terribly happy and is too aware of his own faults to let something like sentimental happiness buoy him; in another early scene, he thinks that “The actors he talked to were dull as ballplayers and degradingly anxious to please.” Or, more likely, the actors are worried about angering critics on whose fancy rides their career. But if that critic is sufficiently cantankerous, their actions simply won’t matter, and Max is holding the line against—what? Not the cavalry charge, certainly, but against something, even if he’s not sure what.

In the two paragraphs above, I’ve utterly failed to convey how funny Max Jamison is, perhaps because explaining the joke also kills it. Max is funny to himself but to few others; his estranged wife says, “I wish you wouldn’t attend so much. I wish I could split an infinitive with you sometime, or have a really silly discussion.” If Max worries about split infinitives, he truly is a nasty pedant, since split infinitives are a problem in Latin, not in English. Pedants who half understand their problems and are trying to remedy them are sometimes the most amusing of all, since they’re in the joke enough to be aware of their situation but not so much that they can remedy it.

Saul Bellow frequently exploits this metaphysical, intellectual, and sometimes sexual state; so does Mordecai Richler in Barney’s Version. It also might lend heft to a novel that could otherwise flutter—what’s most fascinating about Max is his sense of infinity within a confined space, which avoids the flutter problem. He’s a theater critic, unlikely to change professions, and stuck (if one can ever use the word “stuck” with this city) in New York by virtue of that profession. He’s confined, like so many of us, by those proverbial silk chains, given that he makes enough money, gets to sleep with admirers if he wants to, doesn’t have to worry about food, and only carps about status—which is difficult, since he’s at the top of his pyramid. But the pyramid is too short for him, and there’s probably none tall enough for him, and seeing him try to climb is hilarious without being mean.

(Note: I read Max Jamison thanks to D.G. Myers’ post on The Hack, which says that Sheed wrote “… perhaps the best novel ever written about a critic. Max Jamison (1970) is about a Broadway theater critic who no longer believes in what he does for a living.” It used to be that we thrashed when we no longer believed in God. Now we thrash when we no longer believe in ourselves. What will we thrash about next?)

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