Wallace Stevens’ poem “Connoisseur of Chaos” begins with two propositions:
A. A violent order is disorder; and
B. A great disorder is an order. These
Two things are one. (Pages of illustrations.)
The parenthesis promises pages of illustrations, but the poet’s manner makes clear that not only is he not going to give us those illustrations, but they never were meant to exist in the first place. Descending to the particulars would vitiate the connoisseurship of chaos. In another poem Stevens makes a French book title the target of a parallel complaint:
Livre de Toutes Sortes de Fleurs d’Après Nature.
All sorts of flowers. That’s the sentimentalist.
The negative gesture—the negation of illustrations and enumerations—tells us a lot about what is negated. Complaining about inventories, as Stevens does here, recognizes that such lists exist and have a long history of practice in or around literature, and it is that history that I will attempt to sketch here by interrogating a few examples and their differences. Not a full catalogue of “toutes sortes de fleurs d’après nature,” by any means, but an effort to express what these objects of our collective curiosity—“collections, lists, series and archives”—have to do with literary writing.
Literature has an uneasy relationship to the objects designated as “collections, lists, series, archives.” Literature is not just writing. Not all that is written is literature. Such is the ideology of the literary. To put that more even-handedly, literature tries (has tried) to differentiate itself from mere writing, and inventories are the closest thing there is to mere writing. For as long as there has been an avowed modern movement in literature, catalogues have been out of it. One example: when Antoine Houdar de la Motte, one of the most belligerent advocates of modernity in the “Querelle des anciens et des modernes” that so preoccupied the French literary world from the 1680s to the 1720s, critiques Homer, the old poet’s greatest flaw is his inability to leave out irrelevant detail. Homer repeats the same epithets again and again; when an object is to be described, he fails to discern what is significant from what is merely accidental; he has no sense of literary economy.
Il entre d’ordinaire dans un trop grand détail, et ses peintures, à force de minuties, deviennent froides et languissantes. S’il décrit un bouclier… il ne se contente pas d’en désigner en gros la matière et la forme ; il en peint séparément toutes les parties, et il en fait une espèce d’inventaire, d’autant plus ennuyeux quelquefois, qu’il tient à un autre détail aussi importun, je veux dire à la manière dont ce bouclier a passé de main en main jusqu’ à celui qui le porte : histoire qui entraîne encore ses parenthèses particulières.
S’il décrit les blessures, c’est, selon la portée de son temps, avec une précision anatomique qui refroidit l’imagination, et qui interrompt mal à propos l’intérêt qu’on prenait à la suite des combats.
(He usually enters into too much detail, and his depictions, burdened by minutiae, become cold and listless. If he describes a shield, it is not enough for him to indicate summarily its material and form: he depicts each of its parts separately, and makes a sort of inventory, all the more boring in that it often depends on some useless detail such as the way it was handed down from so-and-so to its present owner: a story that involves further parentheses of its own.
If he describes wounds it must be, according to the views of his time, with an anatomical precision that puts the imagination to sleep and awkwardly breaks up the reader’s interest in the outcome of the battle.)
“Une espèce d’inventaire,” “précision anatomique”: Houdard in 1714 accuses Homer not just of being a dull and redundant writer, but of not knowing what literature was. Inventories and anatomical descriptions belong to other types of writing, to functional, utilitarian, specialized bodies of information; they have no place in eloquence or poetry, which, for Houdar, is self-evidently writing that speaks to the imagination and the passions. In the translation of the Iliad which follows these remarks, Houdar shows that he is as good as his word: the famous Catalogue of Ships in book 2 is abbreviated for the modern reader from its original four hundred verses dense with the names of places and heroes to this:
Les hérauts diligents courent de bande en bande;
Tout accourt à leur voix, et les chefs différents
Marquent à tous les corps leurs emplois et leurs rangs.
(The diligent heralds run from group to group,
All answer to their call, and the various leaders
Assign to every unit its function and rank.)
The frontispiece of Houdar’s work makes the critical point with an arresting image. Houdar, standing up from his desk, is about to receive the lyre from Homer’s own hands, but Mercury—the modern god of people in a hurry—swoops down from heaven to interrupt: “Choisis, tout n’est pas précieux” (“Choose, not everything is precious”), he says. Leave the catalogue behind, in other words.
Conversely, when catalogues and archives do appear in literature, when literature adopts an archival form, it is the sign of a boundary being crossed, of literature failing to live up to its definition or else defying it. This merely indicative survey will make a few zigzags over this boundary.
Collections, lists, series and archives are older than literature. The words for storytelling in many languages are indistinguishable at their root from words for numbering and setting in order: in English we tell a tale, using two cognates of the German Zahl (number), itself the core of the word for “narration,” erzählen. If Flaubert had been a banker his Trois Contes might have been trois comptes, “three accounts.” At the historical common origin of the chant and the count stands, no doubt, some imaginary primitive man for whom pronouncing the series “one, two, three, four…” was exactly the same sort of act as uttering a spell or reciting a genealogy.
Writing begins with lists. That is what it was good for at first in the Ancient Near East. As the archaeologist of writing Denise Schmandt-Besserat reconstructs the process, once upon a time Mesopotamian shepherds used specially shaped tokens of clay to represent possessions. Eight tokens stood for eight sheep. At a later stage of the process, one sheep-token might be carved with eight notches, each standing for a sheep, and a differently-shaped token carved with three notches designated three goats. The separation of the number from the handful of tokens and its migration onto the single token, now taken as the category-designator for a kind of object rather than the substitute for that object, was the crucial step in making writing possible. And no archaeologist will contend that the Ancient Near Easterners, those pioneers of large-scale agriculture, taxation and city-building who wrote on clay, held back on the urge to make lists. If all the Babylonian, Sumerian, or Egyptian documents unearthed and examined to this day were sorted out by content, such unglamorous expressions of the human soul as inventories of property and business receipts would occupy by far the greater part of the census.
A more clear-cut case (and a smaller corpus) is presented by the Mycenaeans, whose palace economies were patterned on the more grandiose and successful example of the Euphrates basin. The corpus of writing in Mycenaean Linear B, without exception as far as anyone knows, consists entirely of personal names, offices, and lists of goods. There are no verbs in Mycenaean literature. The dullness of this archive is all the more noticeable in that the non-specialist’s interest in Mycenaean is mainly owed to that culture’s relationship to Homer, who is neither dull nor verbless. The idea of using writing to record the deeds of the great, to shape characters, to preserve turns of phrase and story—all that would have seemed strange and inappropriate to the people who wrote in the culture that produced the originals of the people we know as Agamemnon, Nestor, Achilles, Odysseus and Helen. Literature is a technological by-product, maybe a perversion, of accounting.
But when literature comes along, it includes lists. The Catalogue of Ships in the second book of the Iliad is one of the things a contemporary reader tends to skip over—Houdar de la Motte’s shortcut has already been mentioned. But the ancient Greeks paid it close attention, not least because the intellectual property contained there could be used in diplomatic wrestlings with one’s neighbor states. Possessing information about the inventory is almost as good as possessing the items in the inventory, and in some cases can lead to that very possession. The value thus attributed to a plotless interlude like the Catalogue of Ships indicates to many classical scholars the lingering of a preliterate economy of information, when the bard who carried the facts around in his head was a valuable person indeed, the reservoir of examples and adviser to kings. The seeds of this view were sown by Milman Parry in a series of publications in the early 1930s.Once the means for writing down the factual information of genealogies, geographies, and accounts had become widespread, the “collective memory” that had made epic poetry its “tribal encyclopedia” was presumably freed for other things. Writing helps to expel the list from the domain of literary creation.
The right patronage can keep it there, however. A genre of poetry much in favor in the early Chinese empire, the fu, consists largely of long descriptions of palaces and hunting preserves. Not only are the things inventoried, but also the words that go with them. A typical passage runs:
Its trees include:
Tamarisk, pine, cherry, water pine,
Vitex, arborvitae, fragrant cedar, sweet oak,
Liquidambar, jia, sumac, serrated oak,
The mulberry of the Celestial Lord’s daughter,
Coconut and windmill palm,
Black plum, silkworm thorn, linden, dalbergia,
With interlaced roots, upthrust trunks,
Pendent boughs pulled tightly together,
Green leaves spread lush and full,
Gorgeous blossoms hanging thick and heavy….
The trees stand in clusters and groves,
All is black and gloomy, somber and dark.
Dense and luxuriant at the bottom of the valley,
In great profusion and splendor they pierce the sky.
Tigers, leopards, and brown bears romp beneath them,
Weasels, hoolocks, gibbons and apes play on their tops.
Simurghs and phoenixes soar above them;
Leaping gibbons and flying monkeys perch among them.
(Zhang Pingzi, “Nan du fu,” tr. D. R. Knechtges.)
This traditional style of enumerative description would have made sense to the Myceneans, in the sense that the poet here is the representative of state power, tallying off the possessions of the chief, in his honor, like an African praise-singer. The poet’s display is double: prodigious vocabulary to match prodigious scenery. But the fu is precisely the kind of Chinese poetry that almost nobody but literary historians reads any more. Boredom with lists may be a cross-cultural value, or an after-effect of media transformations rather than of culture per se.
As the enabling conditions of literary discourse—its social functions, the rewards for participating in certain styles and genres—change, inventories do not just disappear, but change their value. From being necessary, they become optional; they now have to be motivated if they are to have any role in the literary text. As genres arise to replace the epic, they define themselves as anti-epic, and never more than when they imitate epic. Parodic and comic catalogues express the novel’s mock-epic or anti-epic bent.
When Houdar de la Motte excluded the catalogue-element from what was truly poetic about Homer, he may have had in the back of his mind—very far in the back of his neoclassical mind—the parodic examples of Cervantes and Rabelais. (What Houdar and Cervantes did with the Amadis legend they had in common tells a lot about the evolution of taste and genre.) Inventories—particularly inventories of unwritten books—interrupt the great late-Renaissance burlesques.
Et trouva la librairie de sainct Victor fort magnifique, mesmement d’aulcuns livres qu’il y trouva, comme Bigua salutis, Bragueta iuris, Pantoufla decretorum, Malogranatum viciorum, Le Peloton de theologie, Le Vistempenard des prescheurs, composé par Pepin, La Couillebarine des preux, Les Hanebanes des evesques, Marmoretus de babouynis & cingis cum commento Dorbellis, Decretum universitatis Parisientis super gorgiasitate muliercularum ad placitum, L’apparition de saincte Gertrude à une nonain de Poissy estant en mal d’enfant, Ars honeste petandi in societate per M. Ortuinum, Le moustardier de penitence, Les Houseaulx, alias les bottes de patience, Formicarium artium, De brodiorum usu et honestate chopinandi, per Silvestrem prieratem Iacopinum, Le beline en court, Le cabatz des notaires, Le pacquet de mariage, Le creziou de contemplation, Les faribolles de droict, L’aguillon de vin, L’esperon de fromaige, Decrotatorium scholarium, Tartarerus de modo cacandi, Les fanfares de Romme, Bricot de differentiis soupparum, Le Culot de discipline, La savate de humilité, Le Tripiez de bon pensement, Le Chaudron de magnanimité, Les Hanicrochemens des confesseurs, Les Lunettes des romipetes, Maioris de modio faciendi boudinos, La cornemuse des prelatz, Beda de optimitate tripatum, La complainte des advocatz sus la reformation des dragées. Des poys au lart cum commento. La profiterolle des indulgences.
(In his abode there he found the library of St. Victor a very stately and magnific one, especially in some books which were there, of which followeth the Repertory and Catalogue. Et primo, The for Godsake of Salvation. The Codpiece of the Law. The Slipshoe of the Decretals. The Pomegranate of Vice. The Clew-bottom of Theology. The Duster or Foxtail-flap of Preachers, composed by Turlupin. The Churning Ballock of the Valiant. The Henbane of the Bishops. Marmotretus de baboonis et apis, cum Commento Dorbellis. Decretum Universitatis Parisiensis super gorgiasitate muliercularum ad placitum. The Apparition of Sancte Geltrude to a Nun of Poissy, being in travail at the bringing forth of a child. Ars honeste fartandi in societate, per Marcum Corvinum (Ortuinum). The Mustard-pot of Penance. The Gamashes, alias the Boots of Patience. Formicarium atrium. De brodiorum usu, et honestate quartandi, per Sylvestrem Prioratem Jacobinum. The Cosened or Gulled in Court. The Frail of the Scriveners. The Marriage-packet. The Cruizy or Crucible of Contemplation. The Flimflams of the Law. The Prickle of Wine. The Spur of Cheese. Ruboffatorium (Decrotatorium) scholarium. Tartaretus de modo cacandi. The Bravades of Rome. Bricot de Differentiis Browsarum. The Tailpiece-Cushion, or Close-breech of Discipline. The Cobbled Shoe of Humility. The Trivet of good Thoughts. The Kettle of Magnanimity. The Cavilling Entanglements of Confessors. The Snatchfare of the Curates. Reverendi patris fratris Lubini, provincialis Bavardiae, de gulpendis lardslicionibus libri tres. Pasquilli Doctoris Marmorei, de capreolis cum artichoketa comedendis, tempore Papali ab Ecclesia interdict. The Invention of the Holy Cross, personated by six wily Priests. The Spectacles of Pilgrims bound for Rome. Majoris de modo faciendi puddings. The Bagpipe of the Prelates. Beda de optimitate trip arum. The Complaint of the Barristers upon the Reformation of Comfits. The Furred Cat of the Solicitors and Attorneys. Of Peas and Bacon, cum Commento. The Small Vales or Drinking Money of the Indulgences.
(François Rabelais, Pantagruel, ch. 7.)
We see quickly that the book titles are jokes, but the fact that they come in the ancient, serious and bureaucratic format of the library catalogue, and such a long one at that, redoubles the joke: it’s not just a list of funny things, but funny too because it’s a list. Here writing mocks its most ancient purpose—the cataloguing of data and ownership. The catalogue is pure digression, but what in Gargantua is not digression? Rabelais’ readers were in no hurry to get to the point. An episodic and wandering tale, with no end in sight, might as well be interrupted here and there.
Something of the mocking quality of the list—merely because it is a list—survives in Flaubert and is integral to the “free indirect discourse” technique with which he is associated. Madame Bovary offers many examples. Here is one from early in the novel, a passage about the illustrations in the books Emma, while at the convent school, most liked to read in secret.
C’était derrière la balustrade d’un balcon, un jeune homme en court manteau qui serrait dans ses bras une jeune fille en robe blanche, portant une aumônière à sa ceinture ; ou bien les portraits anonymes des ladies anglaises à boucles blondes, qui, sous leur chapeau de paille vous regardent avec leurs grands yeux clairs. On en voyait d’étalées dans des voitures, glissant au milieu des parcs, où un lévrier sautait devant l’attelage que conduisaient au trot deux petits postillons en culotte blanche. D’autres, rêvant sur des sofas près d’un billet décacheté, contemplaient la lune, par la fenêtre entrouverte, à demi drapée d’un rideau noir. Les naïves, une larme sur la joue, becquetaient une tourterelle à travers les barreaux d’une cage gothique, ou, souriant la tête sur l’épaule, effeuillaient une marguerite de leurs doigts pointus, retroussés comme des souliers à la poulaine. Et vous y étiez aussi, sultans à longues pipes, pâmés sous des tonnelles, aux bras des bayadères, djiaours, sabres turcs, bonnets grecs, et vous surtout, paysages blafards des contrées dithyrambiques, qui souvent nous montrez à la fois des palmiers, des sapins, des tigres à droite, un lion à gauche, des minarets tartares à l’horizon, au premier plan des ruines romaines, puis des chameaux accroupis ; – le tout encadré d’une forêt vierge bien nettoyée, et avec un grand rayon de soleil perpendiculaire tremblotant dans l’eau, où se détachent en écorchures blanches, sur un fond d’acier gris, de loin en loin, des cygnes qui nagent.
(Here behind the balustrade of a balcony was a young man in a short cloak, holding in his arms a young girl in a white dress wearing an alms-bag at her belt; or there were nameless portraits of English ladies with fair curls, who looked at you from under their round straw hats with their large blue eyes. Some there were lounging in their carriages, gliding through parks, a greyhound bounding along in front of the equipage driven at a trot by two midget postilions in white breeches. Others, dreaming on sofas with an open letter, gazed at the moon through a slightly open window half draped by a black curtain. The naive ones, a tear on their cheeks, were kissing doves through the bars of a Gothic cage, or, smiling, their heads on one side, were plucking the leaves of a daisy with their tapered fingers, that curved at the tips like peaked shoes. And you, too, were there, Sultans with long pipes reclining beneath arbours in the arms of Bayaderes; Djiaours, Turkish sabres, Greek caps; and you especially, pale landscapes of dithyrambic lands, that often show us at once palm trees and firs, tigers on the right, a lion to the left, Tartar minarets on the horizon, with Roman ruins in the foreground, next to them some kneeling camels; the whole framed by a very neat virgin forest, and with a great perpendicular sunbeam trembling in the water, where, standing out in relief like white excoriations on a steel-grey ground, swans are swimming about.)
(Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, with trans. by Eleanor Marx-Aveling.)
As in the Rabelais example, the point is not just that these are typical sentimental illustrations of Romantic-period keepsake books, or even that some of them are absurd in themselves. Their assemblage into a list condemns them to the status of being typical, threadbare, banal, predictable, the confirmation of Emma’s ordinariness. The very fact that this is a list guarantees irony. Emma’s earnest absorption of and in these images, the fuel of her desire for imaginary adventure, and the narrator’s disabused cataloguing of them as stereotyped cultural products, coexist and are separated by the device of the list, as if the succession of commas drew a framing line around its banality. List-making operates like unattributed quotation to create the style indirect libre. The catalogue format carries throughout Flaubert’s development, from La Tentation de Saint Antoine to Bouvard et Pécuchet, but with what differences in the implication: almost the same difference as that which appears here between Emma’s and the narrator’s attitude to the series, the desire for more of the same versus the awareness of the sameness of the more.
But Flaubert’s list is not just a list. The passage from Madame Bovary ends in a way that could not have been predicted from its beginning, with a vocative appeal to the fantasy landscapes most often featured in these engravings: “you too were there… and you too,” says the narrator, emerging momentarily from obscurity. This shift in tone and mode introduces concerns that have been dealt with brilliantly by Francesco Orlando in his 1993 book Gli oggetti desueti nelle immagini della letteratura. Rovine, reliquie, rarità, robaccia, luoghi inabitati e tesori nascosti, recently translated as Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination: Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures (Turin: Einaudi, 1993; English translation by Gabriel Pihas, Daniel Seidel, and Alessandra Grego, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006). Orlando sees the making of lists and inventories as one of the ways that fictional realism incorporates history and the unconscious, against the background of a modern society that has less and less time for anything that does not serve economic ends. (Orlando’s first job, as personal secretary to Giuseppe di Lampedusa, author of Il Gattopardo and renowned dandy, prepared him for this critique.) Orlando interrogates the lists he culls, in Auerbach-like fashion, from dozens of works of European literature, for signs of the relation to non-functional objecthood, and coins subtle and suggestive terms such as: the venerable-regressive, the reminiscent-affective, the threadbare-grotesque, the worn-realistic, the desolate-disconnected, the pretentious-fictitious, etc., to capture these modes of relation. The story culminates, more or less, in Georges Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi: in Orlando’s eyes it is evidence that
everything endures in a contemporary culture that destroys nothing and creates nothing…. The predominating documentary impulse, parodying the faith in cognition that sustained the monumental cycles of Balzac or Zola, arranges facts as though in a reference book. Its all-inclusive form is the list: even when we count only lists of things, this novel has more of them than any other text I have quoted so far. It is true that these lists defunctionalize things, and that defunctionalized things constitute reality; but here the excess of lists, by a transitive property, amasses too much reality with the sole intention of reporting too little of it. (372)
As a paraphrase of Perec’s own satire of consumer society (most sharply put in Les Choses) this will do, but it supposes Perec to be a realist, someone who lists things and thereby “defunctionalizes” them; it forgets that Perec wrote in a constructivist manner, beginning with rules and remorselessly “functionalizing” (for the non-functional purposes of literary production) any things with which the rules came into contact. What Orlando gives us is extremely valuable, but the epic figures only as a distant ancestor of his repertory of repertories, and the twentieth-century genres of non-representational art are alien to his concerns. Two list-makers who thought they were dynamizing things by putting them into series, Marinetti and Pound, demonstrate what happens when the avant-garde and its peculiar habits are stirred into the mix. The Cantos, which Pound famously called “the tale of the tribe,” may begin with a rewriting of the Odyssey’s visit to Hades, but its true predecessor is the Catalogue of Ships. The Cantos are one long associational catalogue, a list of fragments, quotations and other bits of evidence meant to add up to a “Homeric encyclopedia” for the twentieth-century man. Marinetti’s inventories are another thing altogether, meant to go off like strings of Chinese firecrackers, no element lasting longer than the time of its detonation. These are literary practices that hardly lead back to Baudelaire’s armoire full of memories or Scott’s cupboard of old papers. Their lists are like lists of criminal charges, they are meant to provoke antagonistic action.
Still, it’s not every critic who can formulate a problem as well as Orlando. If Perec’s lists “amass too much reality with the sole intention of reporting too little of it,” Ulysses, another work that incorporates a great deal of cataloguing as an essential part of its strategy, amasses more reality with the intention of reporting more of it than had any previous novel. Like Rabelais, Joyce is never in a hurry. There is always room for one more detail in the second-by-second account of Stephen’s and Bloom’s day. No narrator was ever so omniscient. And like Homer, Joyce dignifies what he mentions by the mere fact of mentioning it—the truly epic effect, where genre overwhelms occasional content. (It didn’t work for everyone. The seventeenth-century Abbé d’Aubignac observed that the Homeric heroes are described as “well-booted” in many circumstances where footwear is irrelevant.) Of many inventory-like sequences in Ulysses, I choose one which mirrors the upstream and downstream progression that the narrator can unleash from any moment in the day under consideration:
What did Bloom do at the range?
He… carried the iron kettle to the sink in order to tap the current by turning the faucet to let it flow.
Did it flow?
Yes. From Roundwood reservoir in county Wicklow of a cubic capacity of 2,400 million gallons, percolating through a subterranean aqueduct of filter mains of single and double pipeage constructed at an initial plant cost of £5 per linear yard by way of the Dargle, Rathdown, Glen of the Downs and Callowhill to the 26 acre reservoir at Stillorgan, a distance of 22 statute miles, and thence, through a system of relieving tanks, by a gradient of 250 feet to the city boundary at Eustace bridge, upper Leeson street, though from prolonged summer drouth and daily supply of 12 ½ million gallons the water had fallen below the fill of the overflow weir for which reason the borough surveyor and waterworks engineer, Mr. Spencer Harty, C. E., on the instructions of the waterworks committee, had prohibited the use of municipal water for purposes other than those of consumption (envisaging the possibility of recourse being had to the impotable water of the Grand and Royal canals as in 1893) particularly as the South Dublin Guardians, notwithstanding their ration of 15 gallons per day per pauper supplied through a 6 inch meter, had been convicted of a wastage of 20,000 gallons per night by a reading of their meter on the affirmation of the law agent of the corporation, Mr. Ignatius Rice, solicitor, thereby acting to the detriment of another section of the public, selfsupporting taxpayers, solvent, sound.
What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire?
Its universality: its democratic equality and constancy to its nature in seeking its own level: its vastness in the ocean of Mercator’s projection: its unplumbed profundity in the Sundam trench of the Pacific exceeding 8,000 fathoms: the restlessness of its waves and surface particles visiting in turn all points of its seaboard: the independence of its units: the variability of states in the sea: its hydrostatic quiescence in calm: its hydrokinetic turgidity in neap and spring tides: its subsidence after devastation: its sterility in the circumpolar icecaps, arctic and Antarctic: its climatic and commercial significance: its preponderance of 3 to 1 over the dry land of the globe: its indisputable hegemony extending in square leagues over all the regions below the subequatorial tropic of Capricorn: the multisecular stability of its primeval basin: its luteofulvous bed:… (Ulysses [New York: Penguin, 1982], pp. 591-593.)
— and so on, for another full page. Like the water system of Dublin ending up in the Blooms’ kitchen faucet, a network of implications reaches across literary history and even before the history of anything called “literature,” and it connects the devices of narration with the purposes of those long-ago scribes who scratched their tallies into fresh clay, never knowing that a Flaubert or a Joyce would come along to transform the meaning of inventory. Inventory never sits easily with narrative: it interrupts, it ironizes, it breaks into the irrelevant, it marks a difference between the counter and the counted. If narrative is a syntax—an enchainment of before and after and a subordination of episodes to higher-level story units—then a list is an outcropping of vocabulary. With this minimal degree of combination and maximal extension of selection, to borrow the terms of Roman Jakobson’s classic essay “Linguistics and Poetics,” the list puts the narrative function in suspense, in sufferance—and suspends the poetic function as well.
The catalogue of books admired by Gargantua could have included quite other titles; they could have come in a different order; the story of his travels would not have been greatly affected if this part had been left out, though it is the narrator’s game to treat the plethora of details as significant and worthy of report. Far from being projected, as Jakobson said in describing poetic meter and metaphor, onto the axis of combination, the axis of selection here seems to bend toward a potential axis of relevance or combination but eventually, once the reader’s attempts at synthesis fail, projects itself back into the axis of selection. That is the joke of the list’s narrative non-functionality.
An economy of attention articulates narrative expectations and their frustration by non-narrative interludes. One thing that distinguishes Ulysses from its peer works is its lordly attitude toward the reader. Disappointing the reader who has conventional expectations about pacing and relevance is part of the game. Consider the interruption of the narrative of Bloom’s preparations for bed by the description of the Dublin water system, which taps (literally) into the global supply of H2O in its endless cycles of recirculation. The story stops, or flows upstream; we can no longer navigate our way back to Leopold in his bathroom; only the narrator’s decision to insert a period and a paragraph break restores the dominance of story. We are entirely at the mercy of the narrator’s powers of selection, with combination on pause (combination being the nagging sense that we ought to get on with it before we lose the thread entirely).
Novels like Ulysses and poems like Raymond Roussel’s La Source abandon the consensual fiction that there is a right proportion between the matter told and the manner of telling. Any description is an abyss. It could go on forever. It opens up catalogues of elements, causes and circumstances that nothing limits.
And with this looming threat of the infinite catalogue, the Aleph in every word, comes a departure from the idea of literature as aesthetically guided selection and combination, of literature as different from just writing (or typing). Warhol’s real-time movies of sleepers or the sky around the Empire State Building, John Cage’s inventories of foods eaten over a period of several months, or Fidget, Kenny Goldsmith’s exhaustive list of every bodily motion made by him on June 16, 1997, to take only a few examples, do not recognize any specificity of the literary—and it is not by chance, I think, that they take the form of the list. For that is what writing was invented to do; and the adaptation of writing for the purposes of what we call literature must be an amazing and variously contexted accident.
(From a talk given at the Fundaçao Casa de Rui Barbosa, Rio de Janeiro, May 2006.)