Entering The Lists: One Damned Thing After Another

by J.D. Daniels

Reel-to-reel box, with handwritten track-listings by Sylvia Plath. Courtesy of the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University. PS3566.L27.A6 1959x.

Reel-to-reel box, with handwritten track-listings by Sylvia Plath. Courtesy of the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University. PS3566.L27.A6 1959x.

There was a single book in English in our haveli in Jodhpur, the Blue City. This was the paragraph I read in Campbell’s 1972 Myths to Live By: 

“The person remains alert and extremely sensitive to the world and its events, interpreting all, however, in terms of his own projected fantasies, fears, and terrors, and with a sense of being in danger from assaults. The assaults, actually, are from within, but he projects them outward, imagining that the world is everywhere on watch against him…unable to comprehend or tolerate the stark terrors of his inner world, [he] prematurely directs his attention to the outside world…The lunatic victim is at large, so to say, in the field of his own projected unconscious.”

As J.R. and I bicycled into and out of Marwar Junction and Jojawar, Ranakpur and the Chaumukha Mandir, through the Aravalli Hills on our way to Udaipur—nice list, but I bet it could be shorter—I found myself thinking of that paragraph, and of the orchidaceously craptacular New England horror writer H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), who once referred to a “single glimpse of forbidden eons which chills me when I think of it and maddens me when I dream of it. That glimpse, like all dread glimpses of truth, flashed out from an accidental piecing together of separated things—in this case an old newspaper item and the notes of a dead professor.”

A list—a piecing together of separated things—is not entirely different from a paranoid terror-fantasy. The fear of an all-powerful conspiracy is, transparently, the inverted desire that someone should be all-powerful, that someone should be organized and effective, and that someone, somewhere, should think always of you, even if only of harming you: better an evil overlord than no overlord whatsoever. But it seems far more likely that, as Mathieu has it in Sartre’s 1949 novel La mort dans l’âme, “No one has the right to judge me; no one is thinking about me; no one will remember me; no one can make up my mind for me.”

The list in our time (“28 Places To See Before You Die,” or else what?) makes its fantastical claim that order exists, that order can be known, that order is known by someone who will describe it to you, that you will be able to make sense of the description: but this is not true. In the simplest sense, there is no order, and what scanty order there is is almost incomprehensible; as the chair of Harvard’s physics department once told me about her research in Switzerland at the Large Hadron Collider, “If at any moment you think you understand it, that’s how you can tell you’ve made a mistake.” The majority of those who claim to comprehend the barely existing order are lying either to themselves or to us, or both: we can rescue splinters of temporary significance from the wreckage and general falsehood only after our most extreme efforts.

The list has another quality: the touching superstition that all can and will be made coherent and controlled by writing. There is a statue of Nabu, Assyrian god of writing, in the British Museum. Its cuneiform inscription reads, in part, “This god has power. Do not trust another god.”

Lovecraft was a kind of left-handed theologian. He believed that the truth was intolerable, even terrifying, but that it did exist and could be discerned, if not, perhaps, named outright, through “an accidental piecing together of separated things,” an accumulation, a flickering and nonspecific list:

No—it wasn’t that way at all. It was everywhere—a gelatin—a slime—yet it had shapes, a thousand shapes of horror beyond all memory. There were eyes—and a blemish. It was the pit—the maelstrom—the ultimate abomination. Carter, It was the unnamable! Shall I say that the voice was deep; hollow; gelatinous; remote; unearthly; inhuman; disembodied? What shall I say?

His gravestone reads I Am Providence—the name of his home, for the reason that it was, at the time of the town’s founding, the name of that which provides: the divinity, conceived as prescient guide and guardian of human beings. That famous fictional overlord also wrote a list establishing authority and hewing order from chaos: it was called The Ten Commandments.

Let us consult Rolling Stone and its list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” which can mean no sooner than the invention of the phonograph in 1877, but in practice:

10. The Beatles’ so-called White Album, 1968. 09. Bob Dylan, Blonde on Blonde, 1966. 08. The Clash, London Calling, 1979. 07. The Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street, 1972. 06. Marvin Gaye, What’s Going On, 1971. 05. The Beatles, Rubber Soul, 1965. 04. Bob Dylan, Highway 61 Revisited, 1965. 03. The Beatles, Revolver, 1966. 02. The Beach Boys, Pet Sounds, 1966. 01. The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967.

And these are very nice records. But a moment’s reflection will reveal that they were all made during the period when, to choose an example not quite at random, Rolling Stone founder Jann Wenner (b. 1946) was between the ages of 19 and 33; leave off London Calling and it’s ages 19-26. One’s own life and all time are not the same thing. “Not to know what happened before you were born,” said Cicero, “is to remain a child forever”; but more and more people I encounter have this as a consciously held aim.

It is intrinsic to the list that it should arrest time—noun, noun, noun; no verb, no action. It is terribly psychogrammatically interesting. Blake wrote, in his “Auguries of Innocence,” that we might “see a world in a grain of sand […] Hold infinity in the palm of your hand”; and Eliot wrote, “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” The list is a marriage of these ideas, a paralytic eternity: Auden wrote that “poetry makes nothing happen,” whereas prose is inescapably about things happening, the motion of time forward, age, development, cause and effect. Man has no nature, wrote Ortega y Gasset; what he has is history. The list as poetry is a species of terror: fear of making history, which is nothing but a series of failures, and consequent refusal of action. But let us be forgiving: where failure seems to risk extinction, it is rightly to be feared.

Cause and effect are missing from a list. They are under a larger relation, the items—they are all on the list—but what is their inter-relation? The king died, the queen died; that’s only an arrangement, a listAs Forster wrote: “We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief,’ is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say ‘and then?’ If it is in a plot we ask ‘why?’”—But this is what our evil overlords most fear: that we might ask why. Then, too, there was the case of the man who didn’t know what to do. Every time he understood something about how to behave, he wrote his discovery on a little slip of cut-out paper. All of the slips were on yellow paper, one inch by five-and-a-half inches: rules more complex than that had to be broken into sub-rules. The man made a list of rules, and he had a simple wooden chair to which his rules were affixed, like yellow feathers. It was not often that he understood something about how to behave, but when he did, he preserved that insight, and his insights began to add up. And when he grew nervous in a world he didn’t understand, he could sit in his command chair, safe and content in his knowledge that all relevant information was near at hand.

I can still see where I was standing when this story was told to me. Jeff was smoking a cigarette and telling me, not for the first time, how he wished he had never been a private detective. He had to keep it a secret, he said, or else people wouldn’t leave him alone, asking him questions about being a private detective: what was it like to be a private detective, wasn’t it exciting to be a private detective, and so on. He stood there, smoking. He was waiting for me to ask him about being a private detective. But I was thinking about the chair Jeff had told me about, the one with the list of rules written on it. He had found it in someone’s garage. Maybe I should make one of those, I thought.

None of this is meant to suggest that certain kinds of severely localized authority do not or cannot exist. The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, Seventh Edition, for example, is a helpful reference work. Its compilers—Richard Cook and Brian Morton—turned me on to Shelly Manne and His Men Live in 1959 at the Black Hawk, andI am grateful.

Written by J.D. Daniels