Umberto Eco on Lists and Making Infinity Comprehensible

by Maria Popova
What Don Giovanni’s lovers have to do with the poetics of catalogues.

As a lover and maker of lists, this made my heart sing: In 2009, the great
Umberto Eco became a resident at the Louvre, where he chose to focus his
studies on “the vertigo of lists,” bringing his poetic observational style
to the phenomenon of cataloguing, culling, and collecting. He captured his
experience and insights in The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay,
where he charts the Western mind’s obsessive impulse for list-making across
music, literature and art, an impulse he calls a “giddiness of lists” but
demonstrates that, in the right hands, it can be a “poetics of catalogues.”

Der Spiegel interviewed Eco about his project at the Louvre, yielding the
following perl:

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.” &; Umberto Eco

The interview is fantastic in its entirety, as is The Infinity of Lists: An
Illustrated Essay.

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