28 June 2012


Like most of us, I learned to read with the help of pictures.  Comic books remained favorite reading late into childhood, and there are panels from the "Classics Illustrated" editions of Journey to the Center of the Earth, The House of the Seven Gables, and Men Against the Sea which I still remember quite clearly after forty years.  Having graduated from books with pictures, my imagination was taught to make its own movies by the development of what one might call "headlong narrative lust": possessed by that same lust, my children become quite deaf while they're reading, just as I once did.  To me, reading is still driven by the engine of narrative, and my interest in considering other aspects of a text would have no real motive without it.  

When a narrative suddenly interpolates a list or catalogue into the text, interrupting that passionate onwardness of reading, it's usually about as welcome as a knot of half-cooked spaghetti in my carbonara.  It seems to promise nothing but boredom and anticlimax: I'm tempted to skip it, much as I skip wanton descriptions of landscape (which, come to think of it, are a kind of catalogue too).  Catalogues aren't supposed to be prose, they're archives for reference, and who wants to read a thesaurus in the midst of a thriller?  Having yanked us rudely out of the stream of time a narrative is happening in, a list reminds us that we're just ourselves, reading.  The story stops while the list is being read, just like when movie screens used to go blank for intermissions: when my daughter was three, the shock of such stopping would make her burst into tears when a movie ended, because she was so disappointed not to be still in it.

Reading a catalogue all the way through sacrifices living in the tale to a kind of contemplative quiescence.  It's a completely different mode of reading, comprising two distinct aims: the registration of each element in the catalogue piecemeal--my wife, speaking of flea markets, calls this "micro-hiking"--and the simultaneous effort to derive or imagine the relationship between elements without the guidance of plot or syntax.  Imagine Kipling's Kim, during his job interview for the Great Game, looking at Lurgan Sahib's tray of miscellaneous objects and trying to figure out what properties unite them into a collection.  However captivating such a puzzle might seem abstractly, when an actual list first looms up in the middle of a story, I anticipate the same tedium as any five-year-old contemplating a page without pictures.


Of course, I wouldn't be writing all this if that expectation of tedium were the whole story.  There's genuine pleasure in submitting to a well-crafted list--once that first impatient repulsion is overcome--a pleasure evoked by the sensory interest of each word or phrase in the list, the play of different elements' rhythms against one another, and the engineering by which a seeming hodgepodge of distinct particles aspires to (or even enacts) a sequence.  Some narrative lists manifest the mind of the writer or narrator in the act of composing them, others pretend to allude to taxonomies already formed.  Just as a long look at the night sky begins to hint at the underlying structure behind an appearance of random distribution--a lacy skein of stars surrounding bubbles of void--so a well-composed list hints at an implicate order in the universe it purports to describe, even while it may be subverting the idea of order.  An excellent example is this well-known list, from Borges's essay "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins," collected in Other Inquisitions:

"These ambiguities, redundances (sic), and deficiencies recall those attributed by Dr. Franz Kuhn to a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.  On those remote pages it is written that animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they are mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies at a distance.

Each successive element as it appears casts doubt on the criteria by which the catalogue has been devised.  They are alternately over-inclusive and over-specific; sublime, ridiculous, and indefinable.  Eventually the entire catalogue collapses, from something which pretends to be a comprehensive classification into nothing more than a manifestation of the apparent state of mind of the person devising it--who is of course an invention.  (Perhaps it is unnecessary to add that the actual Franz Kuhn played no part in this brilliant piece of whimsy.)  And yet (some inner metaphysician asks), might not there exist some meta-level on which these wildly different levels of abstraction--stray dogs, embalmed, fabulous, included in this classification, resembling flies at a distance--intersect seamlessly to parcel out the world?  After all, as Borges might have reminded us, certain modern cosmogonies postulate seven or nine dimensions, whose mathematics would allow objects galaxies apart--in the universe we think we know--to interact with and influence one another instantly, unpredictably, unimaginably. 

My next exhibit, from Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese, starts out irresistibly, 'dervishes of the Tower of the Winds' and all... and keeps on getting better:

"This was the road to Anavryti [in the southern Peloponnese], the approach march to our private invasion of the Mani. ...the bank manager of sleepy Sparta was waiting with his jeep as he had promised... I repeated my questions about the inhabitants of Anavryti... 'Yes,' he said, hooting his way through a clinking herd of goats; their twisted horns surrounded us for a moment in a tangled spinney: 'they all say they are Jews, but nobody knows why, or where they are from.  It's probably rubbish.'
     It was very puzzling.  Perhaps he was right.  And yet the Greek world, with all its absorptions and dispersals and its Odyssean ramifications, is an inexhaustible Pandora's box of eccentricities and exceptions to all possible rule.  I thought of the abundance of strange communities: the scattered Bektashi and the Rufayan, the Mevlevi dervishes of the Tower of the Winds, the Liaps of Souli, the Pomaks of the Rhodope, the Kizilbashi near Kechro, the Fire-Walkers of Mavrolevki, the Lazi from the Pontic shores, the Linovamvaki--crypto-Christian Moslems of Cyprus--the Dönmehs--crypto-Jewish Moslems of Salonika and Smyrna--the Slavophones of Northern Macedonia, the Koutzo-Vlachs of Samarina and Metzovo, the Chams of Thesprotia, the scattered Souliots of Roumeli and the Heptanese, the Albanians of Argolis and Attica, the Kravarite mendicants of Aetolia, the wandering quacks of Eurytania, the phallus-wielding Boumariots of Tyrnavos, the Karamanlides of Cappadocia, the Tzakones of the Argolic gulf... the Turks of Thrace, the Thessalonican Sephardim, the sponge-fishers of Calymnos and the Caribbean reefs, the Maniots of Corsica, Tuscany, Algeria and Florida, the dying Grecophones of Calabria and Otranto, the Greek-speaking Turks near Trebizond on the banks of the Of, the omnipresent Gypsies... the Bavarians of Attic Herakleion, the Cypriots of Islington and Soho, the Sahibs and Boxwallahs of Nicosia, the English remittance men of Kyrenia, the Basilian Monks, both Idiorrhythmic and Cenobitic, the anchorites of Mt. Athos, the Chiots of Bayswater and the Guards' Club... the Pontics of the Sea of Azov, the Caucasus and the Don, the Turcophone and Armenophone Lazi of southern Russia, the Greeks of the Danube Delta, Odessa and Taganrog... the exaggerators and the ghosts of Mykonos... the Franks of the Morea, the Byzantines of Mistra, the Venetians and Genoese and Pisans of the archipelago... the Anglo-Saxons of the Varangian Guard, ye olde Englisshe of the Levant company, the Klephts and the Armatoles... the Phanariots of the Sublime Porte, the princes and boyars of Moldowallachia, the Ralli Brothers of India, the Whittals of Constantinople, the lepers of Spinalonga... a wandering Arab I saw years ago in Domoko, the Chinese tea-pedlar of Kolonaki, killed in Piraeus during the war by a bomb--if all these, to name a few, why not the crypto-Jews of the Taygetus?"

"Both Idiorrhythmic and Cenobitic"--who could ask for anything more?  And here, to demonstrate the virtues of that Græcophile Leigh Fermor's talent even more plainly, is one of the original models for his list and for many others, (translated by Ian Johnston):

 "... But I shall list the leaders,
commanders of the ships, and all the ships in full.                            

Penelaus, Leitus, and Arcesilaus
led the Boeotians, with Clonius and Prothoenor.
Their men came from Hyria, rocky Aulis,
Schoenus, Scolus, mountainous Eteonus,
Thespeia, Graia, spacious Mycalassus,
men holding Harma, Eilesium, Erythrae;
men holding Eleon, Hyle, Peteon,
Ocalea, the well-built fortress Medeon,
Copae, Eutresis, Thisbe, city full of doves;
men from Coronea, grassy Haliartus;
men from Plataea, Glisas, those who held
fortified lower Thebe and sacred Onchestus,
with Poseidon's splendid grove; men from Arne,
land rich in grapes, Midea, sacred Nisa,
and distant Anthedon.  Fifty ships came with these men,
each with one hundred and twenty young Boeotians...

The Locrians were led by swift Ajax, son of Oileus,
the lesser Ajax, not the greater Ajax,
son of Telamon, but a much smaller man.
Though he was short and wore cloth armor,
among all Hellenes and Achaeans he excelled
in fighting with his spear.  Locrians came from Cynus,
Opous, Calliarus, Bessa, Scarphe,
lovely Aegeiae, Tarphe, Thronion,
and from around the river Boagrius.
Ajax brought forty black ships of Locrians
living across from sacred Euboea...

Warriors from Argos, fortified Tiryns, Hermione,
Asine, both with deep bays, Troezene, Eionae,
vine-rich Epidaurus, Achaean youth from Aegina, Mases--
all these were led by mighty fighter Diomedes,
skilled in war cries, and by Sthenelus, dear son
of famous Capaneus..."

And so on for another 232 lines.  Despite the Classical importance of this 'Catalogue of Ships,' I find it much more difficult to keep on reading through it--not to mention copying it out--than I find most of the other catalogues here.  I suspect that actually hearing it in Homer's incantatory voice--if I'd been born in Akhaia--might have supplied it with an interest otherwise missing.  What I mean is, I guess you had to be there.


By contrast, this next passage is a delicious primer in the art of pacing and grouping a catalogue--salting it with jokes and gossip, peppering it with names from the animal and vegetable kingdoms--so as to convert it into satirical drama:

     "From East Egg then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civet, who was drowned last summer up in Maine.  And the Hornbeams and the Willie Voltaires, and a whole clan named Blackbuck, who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whoever came near.  And the Ismays and the Chrysties (or rather Hubert Auerbach and Mr. Chrystie's wife), and Edgar Beaver, whose hair, they say, turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all.
      Clarence Endive was from East Egg, as I remember.  He came only once, in white knickerbockers, and had a fight with a bum named Etty in the garden.  From farther out on the Island came the Cheadles and the O. R. P. Schraeders, and the Stonewall Jackson Abrams of Georgia, and the Fishguards and the Ripley Snells.  Snell was there three days before he went to the penitentiary, so drunk out on the gravel drive that Mrs. Ulysses Swett's automobile ran over his right hand.  The Dancies came, too, and S. B. Whitebait, who was well over sixty, and Maurice A. Flink, and the Hammerheads, and Beluga the tobacco importer, and Beluga's girls.
     From West Egg came the Poles and the Mulreadys and Cecil Roebuck and Cecil Schoen and Gulick the State senator and Newton Orchid, who controlled Films Par Excellence, and Eckhaust and Clyde Cohen and Don S. Schwartze (the son) and Arthur McCarty, all connected with the movies in one way or another.  And the Catlips and the Bembergs and G. Earl Muldoon, brother to that Muldoon who afterward strangled his wife.  Da Fontano the promoter came there, and Ed Legros and James B. ("Rot-Gut") Ferret and the De Jongs and Ernest Lilly--they came to gamble, and when Ferret wandered into the garden it meant he was cleaned out and Associated Traction would have to fluctuate profitably next day.
     A man named Klipspringer was there so often and so long that he became known as "the Boarder"--I doubt if he had any other home.  Of theatrical people there were Gus Waize and Horace O'Donavan and Lester Myer and George Duckweed and Francis Bull.  Also from New York were the Chromes and the Backhyssons and the Dennickers and Russel Betty and the Corrigans and the Kellehers and the Dewars and the Scullys and S. W. Belcher and the Smirkes and the young Quinns, divorced now, and Henry L. Palmetto, who killed himself by jumping in front of a subway train in Times Square...
     In addition to all these I can remember that Faustina O'Brien came there at least once and the Baedeker girls and young Brewer, who had his nose shot off in the war, and Mr. Albrucksburger and Miss Haag, his fiancée, and Ardita Fitz-Peters and Mr. P. Jewett, once head of the American Legion, and Miss Claudia Hip, with a man reputed to be her chauffeur, and a prince of something, whom we called Duke, and whose name, if I ever knew it, I have forgotten.
     All these people came to Gatsby's house in the summer."


When an entire text resists the kind of headlong narrative pace I mentioned earlier, when reading it is a word-by-phrase experience similar to that of reading through a list, there's a special pleasure in encountering a list in a recognizable form, especially one that's been dramatized by a writer even more skillful than Fitzgerald.  Some of you will not be surprised to learn that I'm speaking of James Joyce (who was very fond of lists, as Ulysses shows) and of Finnegans Wake.  This is an excerpt from a catalogue of gifts, following the style of joke bequests or Christmas presents, brought by Anna Livia Plurabelle--the personification of Dublin's river--to all her children.  Reading it aloud enhances its pleasure: the rhythm of the text seems to follow the twists and turns--the 'baltering' and 'soodling,' as Auden has it--of a river making its way to the sea:

"she'd neb in her culdee sacco of wabbash she raabed and reach out her maundy meerschaundize, poor souvenir as per ricorder and all for sore aringarung, stinkers and heelers, laggards and primelads, her furzeborn sons and dribblederry daughters, a thousand and one of them, and wickerpotluck for each of them.  For evil and ever.  And kiks the buch.  A tinker's bann and a barrow to boil his billy for Gipsy Lee; a cartridge of cockaleekie soup for Chummy the Guardsman; for sulky Pender's acid nephew deltoïd drops, curiously strong; a cough and a rattle and wildrose cheeks for poor Piccolina Petite Macfarlane; a jigsaw puzzle of needles and pins and blankets and shins between them for Isabel, Jezebel and LLewellyn MMarriage... a drowned doll to face downwards for modest Sister Anne Mortimer... Wildairs' breechettes for Magpeg Woppington; to Sue Dot a black eye; to Sam Dash a false step; snakes in clover, picked and scotched, and a vaticanned viper catcher's visa for Patsy Presbys; a reiz every morning for Standfast Dick and a drop every minute for Stumblestone Davy... a whippingtop for Eddy Lawless; for Kitty Coleraine of Buttermans' Lane a penny wise for her foolish pitcher... for Seumas, thought little, a crown he feels big; a tibertine's pile with a Congoswood cross on the back for Sunny Twimjim... penteplenty of pity with lubilashings of lust for Olona Lena Magdalena; for Camilla, Dromilla, Ludmilla, Mamilla, a bucket, a packet, a book and a pillow... a Missa pro Messa for Taff de Taff; Jill, the spoon of a girl, for Jack, the broth of a boy... 
     My colonial, wardha bagful!  A bakereen dusind with tithe tillies to boot.  That's what you may call the tale of a tub!"


Next, I offer a certain kind of catalogue in nearly its purest form, a miscellany of words, higgledy-piggledy, from the extraordinary novel Garden, Ashes by Danilo Kiš.  This reading list, in its sublime uselessness, reminds me of Dorothea Casaubon's unfortunate husband (Edward, not Isaac), trying to derive the key to all mythologies:

"Conscious... that I am demystifying the significance and magnitude of my father's undertaking, I nevertheless repeat here that there was nothing extraordinary or grandiose in his intentions at first.  In the beginning... these were [to be] modest tourist baedekers containing notations on landmarks, museums, fountains, and monuments, sometimes including brief commentaries on customs, religions, history, the arts, and culture.  But once my father had started consulting encyclopedias and lexicons for this purpose... he assembled an enormous listing of literature in the most diverse disciplines... and the lexicons came to be replaced by alchemical studies, anthropological studies, anthroposophical studies, archeological studies, studies in the doctrine of art for art's sake, astrological studies, astronomical studies, studies in autobiography, cabalistic studies, Cartesian studies, cartographic, cataleptic, cataplectic, causalistic, causistic (sic), characterological studies, studies in chiromancy, comedic studies... studies in dichotomy, diathetic studies, diluvial, diplomatic, dualistic, dynamic, eclectic, ecliptic, ecological, economic, embolismic, embryological, emotionalistic, empirical studies, studies in empirical criticism, studies in empirical monism, empiricist studies, encyclopedic, entomological, Epicurean, epizootic... paleographic, paleontological, paleophytological, pantheistic, parasitological, particularistic studies, studies of pedigrees, phantasmagoric studies, phantasmic, pharisaical, phenological, phenomenological, philological, philosophical, phylogenetic... toponymic, toxicological studies, studies in unanimism, uranographic studies, studies in urbanism, urological studies, utopistic, venereological studies, studies in versification, voluntaristic studies, vulcanological, Zionist, zoogeographical, zoographic, zoological studies... Abbreviations became subchapters, subchapters became chapters.  The original idea of a combined guidebook-baedeker had become just a tiny, provocatory reproductive cell that was dividing, like a primitive organism, in geometrical progression... the underlying text and marginalia and footnotes had absorbed this delicate, utilitarian, unstable structure that now stood almost invisible and wholly adjunct on the varicolored map of the world of essence..."

It was the question "Why is this particular list so difficult to read?" that prompted me to write this essay.  Even at a quarter the length of the original passage, this excerpt seems interminable.  Its confusion of modes is nearly as wild as that of Borges's catalogue, but Kiš has left us no point of entry for understanding how the terms are associated.  Each term seems interesting at first--diluvial, embolismic, paleophytological, pharisaical, uranographic--but without the occasional word 'studies,' the repetition of which is stultifying in itself, this would just be a bewildering mess of glittery, unconnected adjectives.  No meaning can be derived from the sequence of terms, since it's strictly alphabetical.  Even the narrator's father's ostensible task of compiling a guidebook doesn't guide our understanding.  This catalogue's bizarre but suggestive juxtapositions play against its length and the monotony of its structure to produce moments of fascination quickly swamped by nausea, tedium, and a feeling of overloaded repulsion.

It took me a while to see that this catalogue's resistance to being read, its senselessness, was a performance.  It is not really meant to be read, although it had to produce the same combined effect of flashiness and frustration--seduction and abandonment--wherever the reader entered it.  Kiš meant it to be a tease, but not a pleasant one.  Paradoxically enough--for a piece of writing from which narrative thrust has been actively eliminated--it is meant to serve a definite narrative purpose.  Kiš's point is that this guide for writing a guidebook, so carefully alphabetized, goes nowhere.  It comprises nothing less than a lifetime of false starts: it expresses not only the narrator's attempt to represent his brilliant but manic father's inner quagmire, but also the mixture of fascination, nausea, tedium, and overloaded repulsion he himself feels, in trying hopelessly to come to terms with his father.  To put it more simply, the narrator's effort to reach his crazy father drives him crazy; trying to read his catalogue drives me crazy.  Only a writer of consummate skill could have composed a list so maddeningly boring.


And finally, to demonstrate that alphabetical lists not incorporated into a narrative can offer a very distinct pleasure, here are some random definitions from the glossary to The Poems of Edward Taylor, edited by Donald A. Stanford.  Taylor was a Puritan divine in Westfield, Massachusetts from the 1670's until his death in 1729.

Angell:  English coin (1470-1634) showing archangel Michael slaying the dragon
Baracadoes:  barricadoes, barriers
Beetle:  heavy mallet use for driving stakes
Bemegerim:  inflict with a severe headache
Buskt:  dressed, attired, adorned
Butter teeth:  buckteeth, large projecting front teeth
Chalybdine:  of steel, steely
Chuffe:  swollen, puffed out with disease
Coursey park:  course-a-park, a country game in which a girl calls out a boy to chase her
Crincht:  cringed
Crouce:  pert, brisk, lively, jolly
Dead head:  the residuum remaining after distillation or sublimation; worthless residue
Delph:  quarry, mine
Emmet:  ant
Empt:  empty, exhaust
Fardells:  bundles, esp. burdens or loads of sin
Fleer:  make a wry face, laugh in a coarse manner; mock, sneer; flare
Foist:  stink, musty smell
Frim:  vigorous, flourishing, luxuriant
Gastard:  astonished; terrified; struck with amazement
Glaver:  flatter
Glout:  frown; sullen look
Grudgens:  gurgeons, coarse meal
Harish:  mad
Hopt:  happed, covered, wrapped
Keck:  retch, reject with loathing
Kit:  small fiddle
Layes:  layers or courses of masonry
Learch:  lurk
Mammocks:  scraps, shreds, broken pieces
Maukin:  scarecrow
Mence:  adorn, grace
Mullipuff:  fuzz-ball (used as a term of contempt)
Neckt:  dialectal pronunciation of 'naked'
Obsignation:  ratification, action of sealing
Officine:  workshop, laboratory
Olivant:  horn of ivory
Paintice:  penthouse, a sloping roof, awning, canopy, shed
Pald:  enclosed with pales, surrounded, fenced in
Panchins:  pancheons, circular pans made generally of earthenware
Peps:  pepse, pelt, throw at
Pickpack:  pick-a-back, on the shoulder or back, like a bundle
Pillard:  one who is peeled or stripped
Pink:  peep, blink, wink
Quorn:  quern, a simple mechanism... for grinding corn
Riggalld:  verb formed from the noun riggal 'ring-like mark' (or 'groove in wood or stone')
Rive:  pierce
Sawceboxes:  persons addicted to making saucy or impertinent remarks
Silverlings:  shekels
Slatch:  lazy idle vagabond
Standish:  inkstand, inkpot
Tazzled:  tangled, fuzzy
Wamble:  feel nausea
Womble-crop:  nauseate, make sick

Had enough?  Feeling a bit wambly and listless?  Sorry.  I'll return you to your story.

1 comment:

  1. Luckily for all of you, when I wrote this, I hadn't yet read Georges Perec's delicious parody of French recipes, "81 Easy-Cook Recipes for Beginners," all of which rely either on four sweetbreads, two sole, or some veal. It's to be found in the collection "Thoughts of Sorts," issued by Godine in 2009.