SPIEGEL Interview with Umberto Eco 'We Like Lists Because We Don't Want to Die'

Italian novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco, who is curating a new exhibition at the Louvre in Paris, talks to SPIEGEL about the place lists hold in the history of culture, the ways we try to avoid thinking about death and why Google is dangerous for young people.

Italian polymath Umberto Eco: "I like lists for the same reason other people like football or pedophilia."
Maurice Weiss / OSTKREUZ

Italian polymath Umberto Eco: "I like lists for the same reason other people like football or pedophilia."

By Susanne Beyer and Lothar Gorris

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.

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.

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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