Umberto Eco on Why We Love Lists

By Rebecca J. Rosen

What is it about humans that make lists so appealing to us? According to Umberto Eco, "We like lists because we don't want to die."


A perfect list from earlier this year (Buzzfeed)

As each year comes to a close, we engage in a ritual of list-making. We account for the year -- the places we have been, the accomplishments we are proud of, the people we have lost -- in lists of one sort of another. The lists are everywhere -- so many that one person alone was able to count 1,320 that enumerated the year's best books. Through these lists we organize a world that is messy, a life that is confusing.

What is it about lists? Why do we love them so? Is it just that journalists are hard up for content around the holidays? 

We prefer this (mega deep) explanation from the Italian author and semiotician Umberto Eco: "We like lists," he told Der Spiegel, "because we don't want to die." An excerpt from the interview is below, and the entire extended conversation is available here.

Eco: 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.

SPIEGEL: Accountants make lists, but you also find them in the works of Homer, James Joyce and Thomas Mann.

Eco: Yes. But they, of course, aren't accountants. In "Ulysses," James Joyce describes how his protagonist, Leopold Bloom, opens his drawers and all the things he finds in them. I see this as a literary list, and it says a lot about Bloom. Or take Homer, for example. In the "Iliad," he tries to convey an impression of the size of the Greek army. At first he uses similes: "As when some great forest fire is raging upon a mountain top and its light is seen afar, even so, as they marched, the gleam of their armour flashed up into the firmament of heaven." But he isn't satisfied. He cannot find the right metaphor, and so he begs the muses to help him. Then he hits upon the idea of naming many, many generals and their ships.

SPIEGEL: But, in doing so, doesn't he stray from poetry?

Eco: At first, we think that a list is primitive and typical of very early cultures, which had no exact concept of the universe and were therefore limited to listing the characteristics they could name. But, in cultural history, the list has prevailed over and over again. It is by no means merely an expression of primitive cultures. A very clear image of the universe existed in the Middle Ages, and there were lists. A new worldview based on astronomy predominated in the Renaissance and the Baroque era. And there were lists. And the list is certainly prevalent in the postmodern age. It has an irresistible magic.

SPIEGEL: But why does Homer list all of those warriors and their ships if he knows that he can never name them all?

Eco: Homer's work hits again and again on the topos of the inexpressible. People will always do that. We have always been fascinated by infinite space, by the endless stars and by galaxies upon galaxies. How does a person feel when looking at the sky? He thinks that he doesn't have enough tongues to describe what he sees. Nevertheless, people have never stopping describing the sky, simply listing what they see. Lovers are in the same position. They experience a deficiency of language, a lack of words to express their feelings. But do lovers ever stop trying to do so? They create lists: Your eyes are so beautiful, and so is your mouth, and your collarbone ... One could go into great detail.

SPIEGEL: Why do we waste so much time trying to complete things that can't be realistically completed?

Eco: 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.

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