OUTSIDE THE INSIDES OF A PAINTING

By Gabriel Thy • Art Criticism, Art Theory, Interviews, Literary Observation, Music • 5 Sep 2010

Umberto Eco

Writer Umberto Eco

THE GERMAN MAGAZINE SPEIGEL recently interviewed noted Italian novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco about the context that “lists” hold in the history of culture as a way of avoiding thought about death. I thought that in the cafe spirit of Ferdinand Destouches (Celine) and his Invented Interviews that I would tag along the two giants Spiegel and Eco to offer my own honestly earned musings on the lay of the land as punctuated here…

Spiegel: Mr. Eco, you are considered one of the world’s great scholars, and now you are opening an exhibition at the Louvre, one of the world’s most important museums. The subjects of your exhibition sound a little commonplace, though: the essential nature of lists, poets who list things in their works and painters who accumulate things in their paintings. Why did you choose these subjects?

Umberto Eco: 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.

GT: As we are undoubtedly living in the era of the list, as propagated by such pop notables as the Guinness Book empire and David Letterman, I agree with Eco that his insight here is timely after all, I been swamped with ordering and reordering my music digital collection of nearly 14K individual works of art, ordering them according to the star system, the number of plays which accounts well with my lifelong need to offer a sincere analysis to someone who might ask me what is my four thousandth, three hundred and fifty-sixth greatest song of all time. Surely something my mother’s generation never perceived possible or even warranted, but I can now offer an educated response to that question once I refer to my nifty Mac database. Of course, this sublime  operation is reflective only of that music I have been able to experience first by radio, then via the electronic borg of my generation. To be fortunate enough to be impacted with such force of recall, that 20, forty years later we can find ourselves gripped with a desperation of faith and purpose to reassemble in digital form according to our own memory, lights, and accidental tourism of the times is remarkable.

Spiegel: Should the cultured person be understood as a custodian looking to impose order on places where chaos prevails?

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.

GT: Yes. Culture is understood as a list. A list of civic citizens whose names are engraved on a plaque or in stone, or in microfiche, and now hard drives, and on the Internet. Also is the list of criminals who fight against the civic, the civil, and the times themselves. 

Speigel: In your exhibition at the Louvre, you will also be showing works drawn from the visual arts, such as still lifes. But these paintings have frames, or limits, and they can’t depict more than they happen to depict.

Eco: On the contrary, the reason we love them so much is that we believe that we are able to see more in them. A person contemplating a painting feels a need to open the frame and see what things look like to the left and to the right of the painting. This sort of painting is truly like a list, a cutout of infinity.

GT: Yes. I have nothing to add to the latter’s remarks.

Speigel: You include a nice list by the French philosopher Roland Barthes in your new book, “The Vertigo of Lists.” He lists the things he loves and the things he doesn’t love. He loves salad, cinnamon, cheese and spices. He doesn’t love bikers, women in long pants, geraniums, strawberries and the harpsichord. What about you?

Eco: I would be a fool to answer that; it would mean pinning myself down. I was fascinated with Stendhal at 13 and with Thomas Mann at 15 and, at 16, I loved Chopin. Then I spent my life getting to know the rest. Right now, Chopin is at the very top once again. If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing. And if nothing changes, you’re an idiot.

GT: Yes. I am reminded of the long lists in the works of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg, and although I disagree with his adage, a human purpose to this habit of listing I suppose is the anthem of that other Paterson, New Jersey native, the good doctor, William Carlos Williams, “No ideas but in things…”

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