The Vertigo of Lists

Giovanni Paolo Pannini, Picture Galleries with Views of Ancient Rome, 1759

As the end of the year approaches, it seems as if everyone is compiling or discussing lists. This morning on my drive into work there must have been at least five different “end-of-year” lists referenced (and I live very close to my workplace), including “Top 100 Songs of 2011,” “NPR‘s Favorite 50 Albums of 2011,” and “Top 20 Books by Readers of 2011.” With this endless listing, it seems as if we attempt, looking back on the year, to make sense of it by creating these tidy catalogues. But that’s exactly the function of the list, to create order out of chaos; to organize, categorize, rank, and define. To reference a post from a couple of weeks ago, lists essentially act as a cultural Maxwell’s Demon.

But for Umberto Eco, lists do more than simply impose or express order, they function as creators of culture and windows into history. In late 2009, Eco curated an exhibition at the Louvre where his chosen subject was “The Vertigo of Lists.” Through this subject he intended to take us on a grand tour of art, literature, and music, all through the focus of lists. He was interviewed by Spiegel about this exhibit, and when asked why he chose the seemingly commonplace subject of lists for his work, he explained,

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.

He then continues to say,

The list doesn’t destroy culture; it creates it. Wherever you look in cultural history, you will find lists. In fact, there is a dizzying array: lists of saints, armies and medicinal plants, or of treasures and book titles. Think of the nature collections of the 16th century. My novels, by the way, are full of lists.

According to Jean-Marc Terrasse, auditorium manager of the Louvre,

his central thesis is that in Western culture a passion for accumulation is recurring: lists of saints, catalogues of plants, collections of art, all show how in the right hands there can be a ‘poetics of catalogues’.

Based on his work at the Louvre, Eco wrote a truly beautiful book  titled The Vertigo of Lists (or The Infinity of Lists in the US). This book is a continuation of the work he had begun with his books History of Beauty and On Ugliness.  It is replete with vivid images of the art he wants us to look at as exemplifying his argument, and selections of the literature he cites. In this book, as with his work with the Louvre, he takes one on a whirlwind tour of Western art, literature, and music, selecting pieces that not only reinforce the idea of enumeration, but that also give one the sense of voluptuousness, abundance, infinity, or “vertigo.”

He certainly succeeds at conveying this sense of the infinite through his meticulously chosen examples. In literature he begins with Homer’s Iliad, and continues with lists care of Vergil, Dante, Shakespeare, Proust, Calvino, Zola, Cervantes, Rimbaud, Neruda, etcetera (he even includes a selection from his book, The Name of the Rose, a book full of lists). In art, the list is also exhaustive, including the works of Pannini, Bosch, Dürer, Brueghel, Goya, Ernst, Warhol, among hundreds of others. This along with myriad reliquaries, scenes from Hollywood musicals, images of nerve cells, and photographs of collections. Merely listing what he includes seems to give one that sense of vertigo. In addition to all of this, he also cites music, my favorite mention of which is Ravel, of whose “Bolero” he writes that  “its obsessive rhythms suggests that it could continue infinitely.”

For Eco, in both the exhibit and the book, the list is a “cutout of infinity,” an intimation of what may lay beyond the frame of a painting, or behind the shop window. It is not only what is explicitly mentioned in the list that is significant, but also the ellipses and “etcetera” at the end of that list; the indication that there is more that cannot even be mentioned, the implication of the infinite.

We have a limit, a very discouraging, humiliating limit: death. That’s why we like all the things that we assume have no limits and, therefore, no end. It’s a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don’t want to die.

Although I never had an opportunity to view the exhibition at the Louvre, I did recently read the book (I purchased a copy for my grandmother for Christmas, and bought one for myself, too). I’m sure on some level I had always thought about the significance of list and listing, on personal, cultural, and aesthetic levels. That being said, I’d never quite thought it all the way through in the way that Eco proposed. The list, not as the obvious expression of the finite, but as the intimation of the infinite and the ineffable.

Here is a video of Eco discussing his work at the Louvre, his book, and, of course, lists. Umberto Eco: The Vertigo of Lists.

And if you haven’t heard (or are haven’t listened in a while) to Ravel’s “Bolero,” here it is…


I’ll end this post with the words that Eco used to end his introduction to his book …

In conclusion, the search for lists was a most exciting experience not so much for what we managed to include in this volume as for all the things that had to be left out. What I mean to say, in other words, is that this book cannot but end with an etcetera.

7 thoughts on “The Vertigo of Lists

  1. “We like lists because we don’t want to die.” I love lists but had never thought of them in this light. What an extremely profound idea. And yes, I’ll be making my lists before the end of the year! Just as a way to keep the Smiling Mortician at bay, you understand. :>}

  2. Certainly brings a new appreciation for the modern inclination to ‘go list’ everything at the end of the year, what a wonderful discovery you have made and shared, love it.

  3. I wonder if this penchant for bringing order out of chaos is primarily a Western phenomenon. Do Eastern cultures make lists? Do they seek to thwart death and explore infinity? Or do they celebrate redundancy and abundance not by organizing it but by putting themselves in the midst of it? I think of Chinese landscapes with humans, very small in one corner.

    • You know, Eco explicitly states that its a Western phenomenon, or at least that he’s looking at the Western manifestation of it. He includes no Eastern art or literature in either the exhibit or the book deliberately. It’s an interesting question, though, to see how this would apply, or not, in Eastern culture.

  4. Pingback: Day 10: A book by my favorite author |

  5. This is really interesting. I had just read a short article by Eco in ELG magazine entitled “Rhythm and the Poetic List” looking specifically at the work of the poet Antonio Porta. I had no idea that Eco had looked at this idea in so much depth!

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