Year-End Lists and Other Hobgoblins of the Present

Year-End Lists and Other Hobgoblins of the Present

Year end lists are a mug’s game. But we are surrounded by it. In fact, by now, lists explode and tell us of hierarchies we probably hadn’t imagined possible. (How about: 75 most iconic things Britney Spears did in 2014).  Supermarkets, television, book stores, newspapers – each announce, with the frenzy of sugar-high children, the top 10, 20, or 100 of their wares. For the whole year, the very same lists were like gargoyles who sat quietly, watching the hurly burly of human life, and then suddenly, as the year comes to close, they fly into popular consciousness.  Some like Buzzfeed and others have made list-making their bread and butter business.

By the very act of picking-and-choosing, they bestow importance to some, deny the very same to others.  Year end lists, in a way, present themselves as promissory notes that can be cashed in exchange for understanding the chaos of the present by imposing an hierarchy, by excluding some others.  (When there is a list for best Twitter fights, does it mean the innumerable other Twitter fights aren’t acrimonious or salty enough?)

For those who watch this year end list-making mania with an ironic detachment, it is hard not to wonder if these lists that pick and promote a handful of authors, musicians, books etc are merely an effort to polish the credentials of the list-makers as ones ahead of the taste-curve.  Is it an effort to burnish their own luster in the glow of the efforts of others.  It is tempting to conclude with a mischievous laugh when someone pronounces authoritatively that Thomas Piketty’s dense volume on income inequality is one of the great books of the year. How many have really read it fully?  But of course, such an question is perhaps unfair. People often intuit importance of cultural works and individuals even if they don’t engage with it fully. But this sense of importance and hierarchy is questionable when seen over time. Mass perception and historical importance vary within a generation, and most definitely across generations.

Nowhere is this seen more vividly than in the case of how B.R. Ambedkar has become the only other national figure other than Gandhi unto whom all (at least claim to) genuflect to. But, this wasn’t always the case.  In his fascinating essay on the many confounding trends to select the “greatest” Indian, the historian Ramachandra Guha writes: “Obscure at the time of his death in 1956, condescended to by the academic community until the 1980s (at least), Ambedkar is today the only genuinely all-India political figure.”

Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital’, a regular feature of book-lists of 2014. How many have actually read it?
Thomas Piketty’s ‘Capital’, a regular feature of book-lists of 2014. How many have actually read it?

Perhaps the only lesson is to see these year end lists for what they are really all about: some mischief, some malice, and some fun. In short, if journalism is the first draft of history, list making is the first draft of journalism itself. The who, what, when, and where of the present. Lists are born by exclusion, by excision, and by elevation. But when the material conditions and political winds that facilitate these actions change, lists change too.

But nothing is that simple. Not everyone is quite as sanguine about being getting on lists or being left out of it. There is often a backlash by those who are left out. See here for a prominent author’s Twitter meltdown for being left out of the NY Times “Notable” book list. (It is silly but fun to ask: given his reticence to work the room or self-promote, would Kafka have made the NY Times list in his days?)  The real spice is that following the backlash, there is a backlash-to-the-backlash that involves other lists, a list for those left out of previous lists, a list for those who didn’t make it in the renegade lists.  Like some Borgesian puzzle, a list of all the lists is soon necessary.  Keeping track of all this is an inducement to suffer from a vertigo thanks to enumeration.  From the outside – all this has a certain comic flavor to it.  A stench of desperation. But, in our lives where much is quantified, lists are serious business.  Getting on prominent lists means more sales, more opportunities, getting on library distribution lists, special glossy embossed mentions on book covers, more dollar amounts for the mother corporation, pecuniary favors for the authors who know how to milk the ‘notable’ness into bigger contracts. 

The culture industry merely follows other industries. Year end lists, like humor, it turns out is no laughing matter. But, irrespective of what one makes of all this, lists speak to a certain natural suspicion in bourgeois society that suspects money might not be all that it is made out to be. Taste and refinement matter.  But here too, the tyranny of social competition comes to fore.  A character in Proust called Mme Vinteuil runs a salon, and the internal logic of cultural production demanded that she put forth a new pianist every so often.  But in true Proustian fashion, what we recognize is her own doubt as to does she really prefer the pianist’s playing or is it merely an effort to stay ahead of the hounds of bourgeois taste-makers who attend her salon.    

Be that as it may, list making isn’t new nor a bourgeois phenomenon.  Lists have been around since we can remember. In the Upanishads, elaborate lists of who is whose student are drawn out to chart out the ancestry of revelations to be presented. Similarly, the Semitic religions rely on charting out their own teleology of prophets. In our times, there is an instrumental nature to this exercise.  The deliciously compiled “Book of Lists” by Irving Wallace and his son David Wallenchinsky was the go-to book for many.  As a teenager, few things catered to my growing intellectual curiosity about the world and eagerness to giggle at the mere possibility of the salacious than lists like the ones Wallace compiled. These included “famous people who died during sexual intercourse” and “most popular sexual positions”. The facticity of his list hardly mattered to my teenage self and one suspects to millions of those who bought his book.  What those lists spoke to was a deeper truth: the promise of encapsulating the world into a tabulated series of facts, hierarchies and the emergent illusion of exhaustiveness. Nothing excites a teenage brain’s growing idea of his or her own Self than that the world is actually comprehendible, understandable, reducible to figures and a catalogue of items. Perhaps there is some deeper urge at work that speaks to this desire to catalogue.  T.S.Eliot speaks of his own being as “these fragments I have shored against my ruin.”  Lists, its manic detailedness, speaks to an effort to salvage the withering away of our inner selves.

The Book of Lists
The Book of Lists

Understandably then, from the beginning of literature, lists have been great narrative tools. The Mahabharata is full of lists. In the Southern Recension of the Mahabharata (what T. P. Mahadevan calls editio ornatio, the ornate text), each of the hundred Kaurava brothers are named, often without the pejorative suffix ‘-du’.  What could arouse the need for such an exhaustiveness? The Critical Edition of the Mahabharata includes types of warriors who fight, an elaborate list of names and kingdoms of who fights for whom on either side of the war and even the list of names of conches that the Pandavas blow into before the declaration of war (Panchanjanya by Krishna, Devadattam by Arjuna, Anantavijayam by Yudhishitra and so on…) Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is the same technique that Homer uses in the Illiad.  Homer, like Vyasa, describes the armies, but eventually recognizes that nothing hits home like a list of names.  This leads to his great 350-line list (a section called “the catalogue of ships”) of fighters who are to attack Troy. The conceit here is obvious. The world can either be described or enumerated.  When one is deemed limiting, why not try the other. The writer’s ambition remains simple: to be the world itself.     

The Mahabharat itself is full of lists.
The Mahabharat itself is full of lists.

But does one method – description versus ennumeration – triumph over the other?  When the historian Fernand Braudel went to elaborate lengths to describe the types of shifting tides of the Mediterranean, one is left with a belief that this sort of list making has a virtue, a “panoramic omniscience”.  We have forgotten this quality amidst our shopping lists, to-do lists etc – a list-making activity that can only be called “practical”.  But literature abounds with what Umberto Eco calls “poetic lists”.   But, like the world itself, lists don’t simply cleave into the “practical” and the “poetic”. Some like the Aarne-Thompson tale type index that lists traditional folklore motifs straddles both ends – the taxonomy necessary for scholarly study and the deeper reading of folk tales as a door that opens to a universal consciousness where forbidden longings and desires loiter.   

Lists, thus have been seen as a device that allows for the sense of incompleteness to manifest, as a way in which longing of something deeper, something ennobling, and even something transgressive can grow within by the mere act of listing out items. In the novel, ‘The English Patient’, Michael Ondaatje uses lists, not just as a technique to encompass all that the world contains, but also a secular hymn whose end goal is a kind of seduction. Of one character to the other, and more interestingly of the reader into the text.  He uses a recitation of a catalogue of winds that sweep North Africa to produce an extraordinary literary effect where the reader, like the adulterous wife, slowly abandons the expected rigors of prose and proper living.  This list is a set of pretexts that allows for one character to come closer to another, to allow for the promise of companionship that a bad marriage can never offer, to allow the seduced to willingly surrender themselves to the possibilities and perils of seduction.

Trapped inside a car during a sandstorm, in that novel, one character says to the other, or is it the author whispering into the readers’ ear that in the Sahara, the deserts are ransacked by an army of winds. Not just any wind, but winds with names such as the aajej, the africo, the alm, the arifi, the bist roz, the hot and dry ghibli from Tunis, the Sudanese haboob, the harmattan, the imbat from the seas, the khamsin, the datoo that carries fragrance, the nafhat out of Arabia, the mezzar-i-foullousen, the beshabar, the samiel, the simoom and the solano which causes giddiness.  There are also winds, the narrator tells us, the _____ whose name was erased by a king after his son died within it.  This list progressively drowns the reader, and lulls one character into a state of soporific vulnerability that makes us willing to buy into the peculiar madness that both love, and deserts, can be.  For all of this, Ondaatje uses the “finite form” of the list (since Homer and Mahabharata) to leave open the door to an infinite longing.   

Perhaps, this linkage between finiteness of the list-making form and the emergent promise of sublimation suffuses religious imagination with its promise of the transcendent. Be it the Vishnu Sahasranamam (the thousand names of Vishnu) in the Anushasana Parva of the Mahabharata, the many name-generation schemas in Jewish Kabbalah, or the claim of the Hadiths that Allah has three thousand names – with ninety nine of them in the Quran. Lists can drown us, and it is precisely this drowning that those longing for spiritual ecstasy often seek.  This value of lists is born from the correspondence between man’s material reality and his imaginations’ longing to describe it all. Lists, as Umberto Eco writes in his wickedly delightful compendium called ‘The Infinity of Lists’, may have been born out of man’s efforts to find his coordinates beneath the canopy of infinite stars.  Patiently, ploddingly, he counted, and counted. Till the skies changed and his list grew.         

Umberto Eco
Umberto Eco

 That tale of origins that Eco lists has a certain charm to it. But, lists pose more immediate questions about the here and now.  They bite into deep questions of ontological structure of the world itself.  How should we divide the world to make it more manageable?  Borges writes about a list of animals that is found in an ancient Chinese encyclopedia called ‘Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’.  The Chinese, it turns out thought that the entirety of the animal kingdom can be exhaustively described by dividing them as those who were:

– Belonging to the Emperor

– Embalmed

– Tame

– Sucking pigs

– Sires

– Fabulous

– Stray dogs

– Included in the present classification

– Frenzied

– Innumerable

– Drawn with a very fine camelhair brush

– et cetera

– Having just broken the water pitcher

– That from a long way off look like flies.

When this list came to the light in the West, much debate followed in the Academy.  What a monstrously silly taxonomical structure it seemed, at least as far as a Western way of thinking was concerned.  It pointed to the “stark impossibility of thinking” in this manner in the post-Enlightenment world that all of us sleepwalk through. When faced with the above list the most common response, as Michel Foucault writes, is laughter. It is a “laughter that shattered…all familiar landmarks of my thought – our thought, the thought that bears the stamp of our age and our geography – breaking up all the ordered surfaces and all the planes with which we are accustomed to tame the wild profusion of existing things, and continuing long afterwards to disturb and threaten with collapse our age-old distinction between the Same and the Other.”

Lest one thinks that list making was a Chinese obsession, further south of the Himalayas in India – there are innumerable list makers over the last three thousand years, who themselves could perhaps be summarized in the list as puzzling as above.  Perhaps, most intriguing among these list making texts is the Mānasollāsa, a 12-14th century Sanskrit encyclopedia from the reign of Someśvara III of the Chalukyas.  Here, the organizing principle – hard to discern at first, given the exploding flora of ideas in it – is based on the purushartha  of a human life.  Arguably, this encyclopaedia is arranged according to the three divisions that underscore daily existence – dharma, artha, kāma (righteousness, acquisitiveness, sensuousness). 

Unlike the discreteness of the Chinese lists that cleave away the imaginary from the real, which allows us to sidestep the modern post-Enlightenment angst about “dangerous mixtures”, the Indian list making schemata seems to suggest there is an underlying wholesomeness to the exercise that neither seeks to partition neatly nor worry about miscegenation of classes.  The Indian schema suggests that only by taking into account differing modes of human pursuits will any list making schema, be it an encyclopedia or some other invention, fulfill the hidden conceit of all list making: the exhaustion the human experience.

For now, as the year comes to an end, and our world explodes with information and, sometimes, wisdom – endowing any single list with too much importance is as foolish as the blind man who congratulates himself for understanding the elephant of human knowledge by grasping onto its tail.  Lists are a useful technique to skin away the excess of the feline temperamentalism of the present.  But, as the wit goes, there are many way to skin the cat. 

Happy New Year.    

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