The Joy of Lists

I'm getting ready for a trip that I am taking to England next week, which means, of course, that I am making lots of lists: things to remember to pack, things to take care of before I leave, books to bring, music to put onto my iPod, libraries that I want to visit, manuscripts (particularly books of Hours) that I want to see, places that I want to go, people that I am going to want to look up. This is a lot of lists and might seem like a burden to be getting on with. But, in fact, it is remarkably pleasurable. There is something extremely satisfying about a list. I know that I am hardly the first to notice this about lists. There's even a song about it. And I'm sure I've read articles about the theory and meaning of lists.* But they fascinate nevertheless. What is it about a list that makes it so compelling?

I've been keeping a list on my iPod of blog posts to be. Some of these I think that I have already written (they tend to change as I write, so I may come back to some of them); others I may never write. But I put them on the list nevertheless. Here's the list as of this morning.

Blog posts to be
  • Prayer as a Martial Art
  • Violence vs Art
  • Yoga as a Martial Art
  • Teaching/Being a Student
  • Murdering Colleagues (can't remember why this one got on the list)
  • Where Do You Start?
  • One Touch at a Time (there's already a book on this)
  • Bhakti
  • "I'm not a Christian but..." (on spurious similarities)
  • Fencing Is Expensive (you've seen the t-shirt, I'm sure)
  • Wearing a Cross (i.e. necklace that others can see)
  • Work (as in not being a player; I read an article in Harper's about this several years ago)
  • "The better I get the less it seems like it is I who is doing it"
  • Believing in God (trust; what it feels like rather than as proof--see "Credo")
  • Foil is Art (art & worship)
  • Tears/Crying (as a gift; as a response to grief--see "Gift of Tears")
  • Hasidic prayer on words
  • Finish the Action
  • "I think I can" (when it does and doesn't work)
  • "She wants to win just as much as I do"
  • Street Cred (as in beliefs of Man in the Street--I think this one shows up in "Isn't that a bit narrow?", but there's still more to say)
  • Attention as Prayer (hesychasts, Simone Weil, Munenori)
  • Attention & Energy (relaxed concentration; why is it so difficult to sustain?)
  • Is it necessary to do something physical to learn?
  • Shopaholic buys a foil (see "Can I Buy That?")
  • Fencing in the movies (showing vs doing)
  • My Foil, My Self (becoming one with the weapon; care for self/weapon--see "My Foil, My Self")
  • Seven Deadly Sins (see label cloud)
  • Masks
  • The difference between 14-15 & 15-14
  • Physical Chess
  • Action & Contemplation (when action is contemplation)
  • Know-how vs Knowing-that
  • Song of Songs known only by experience; words as cues for what to watch for, not instructions on how to do it (see "By the Book")
  • Keeping Score (what actually counts)
  • Primary vs Secondary Worlds (home vs salle)
  • Sin vs Suffering, Christianity vs Buddhism as description of what is wrong
  • Sin as suffering; we suffer when we turn from God; failure of Thanksgiving & Praise
  • By the Book (experience vs booklearning--see "By the Book")
  • Learning from my Sword (epee without lessons)
  • Priority (who started it?; smiling first: creating the interaction--see "Priority")
  • God-talk (why I think/talk more about the Trinity than Christ)
  • "It's not about you/Yes, it is" (see "Seven Deadly Fencing Sins, no. 3: Envy")
  • Things coaches say: all contradictions apparently (see "Sound of One Bear Fencing")
  • Why play matters: importance of risk & possibility of failure; stochasticism (see, in part, "Into the Desert")
  • Serious Play
  • Death of an Ego (quitting but not quitting; practice without hope of expectations; calming but sad--see "Ego Death")
  • Fencing as going into the desert to fight demons (see "Into the Desert")
  • Inside & outside the blog: meditation on empathy (I think I mean here the difference between the emic and etic--see "There's a fencing analogy for that" for Lewis's description of difference)
  • Faith as trust not belief (see "Credo")
  • Prayer is... (in draft, hopefully up next week)
  • Joy of Lists

What did you do when you saw this list? Did you read through all of the items on it, thinking about each one? Or did you skim over it, looking for items that jumped out at you or ones that already had links? Do you hope that I will write posts on all of the topics? What if I never return to some of these ideas? Will that be a good thing? Did you wonder about the fact that more of the items towards the end of the list have actually resulted in posts, where as most at the top are still pending? Does the list seem to you promising--or off-putting? Hopeful--or overwhelming? Would you have preferred that I edited the list and presented only some of the things I've been thinking about with "etcetera" at the end? Are all lists the same? And so forth.**

I'll tell you some of the things I've been thinking about lists. Lists are both comforting and clarifying. Once I have something on the list, I am reassured that I will not forget it. I can also see clearly all that I want to remember to think or to do. But lists are also deceptive because they are almost always necessarily incomplete. On the other hand, lists are dynamic; they can always be added to; items can be crossed off. Lists order the world. Things are either on or off the list, and their order within the list may be meaningful in a number of ways, whether they were listed in the order in which they were found or thought (as above) or according to some other scheme (e.g. by initial letter or likelihood of occurrence). They are comprehensive but ever expanding. They define what is, but also what may be.

Lists come in many different genres: there are, of course, "to do" lists and "to be" lists (as above, suggesting not that I must write all these blogs, but that I might), but there are also taxonomies, bibliographies, directories, chronologies, canons, prosopographies, dictionaries, genealogies, archives, catalogs, indices, syllabi, and inventories. Elaine Scarry has a wonderful meditation in The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World (1985) on the lists of "begats" in Genesis and how they show God actualizing his power over the world through the bodies of women and men.*** Some people love lists; others (I'm guessing here, being one of the list-lovers) hate them. Almost every academic argument I've been party to over the course of my career has, in some way or other, involved a list: of sources to consult, whether the list of sources should (or can) be exhaustive or not; of books to read, whether for comprehensive exams as a graduate student or to assign in a course (this one becomes particularly heated when the title of the course is "The History of European Civilization"); of candidates to interview for a job or applicants to admit to my department's graduate program; of fields that our department should have. Much of my job involves making lists, and every research project begins with a list. I am greatly comforted by the wonderful expansion of lists that computers and the World Wide Web have made available: of the corpus of Latin ecclesiastical chant, but also of weblogs; of items in libraries around the world (sorry, no public access to WorldCat), but also of tournaments that I might like to fence. Some of the greatest advances in civilization have been, yes, lists, from ancient Sumerian lists of taxes paid to the lists of bishops at the great ecumenical councils to the encyclopedias of the Middle Ages to the taxonomies of Linnaeus to all of the catalogs and databases of our own day. (I'm sure you can think of more examples; this is, after all, only a partial list).

Disparate as they may be, there is one thing nevertheless that all lists have in common and this, I think, is arguably what makes them so fascinating: in order to be listed, something must have a name. Recall Merry and Pippin's concern when Treebeard can't find "hobbits" in any of the old lists and how anxious they are to tell him their names. It is not that something needs a name in order to exist, but without names--as Tolkien himself put it--things mean nothing to us. Naming is a form of magic, second only to the adjective that can make the sun green or the grass orange.**** As Dana Gioia put it in his poem "Words," "Yet the stones remain less real to those who cannot / name them.... To name is to know and remember" (Interrogations at Noon [2001]). (I'd quote the whole poem here, but I'm not sure that's appropriate. Read it; it's what words were made for.)

What power must there, therefore, be in a list of names? For example, this one:

  • Holy Mary
  • Holy Mother of God
  • Holy Virgin of Virgins
  • Mother of Christ
  • Mother of divine grace
  • Mother most pure
  • Mother most chaste
  • Mother inviolate
  • Mother undefiled
  • Mother most amiable
  • Mother most admirable
  • Mother of good Counsel
  • Mother of our Creator
  • Mother of our Savior
  • Virgin most prudent
  • Virgin most venerable
  • Virgin most renowned
  • Virgin most powerful
  • Virgin most merciful
  • Virgin most faithful
  • Mirror of justice
  • Seat of wisdom
  • Cause of our joy
  • Spiritual vessel
  • Vessel of honor
  • Singular vessel of devotion
  • Mystical rose
  • Tower of David
  • Tower of ivory
  • House of gold
  • Ark of the covenant
  • Gate of heaven
  • Morning star
  • Health of the sick
  • Refuge of sinners
  • Comforter of the afflicted
  • Help of Christians
  • Queen of Angels
  • Queen of Patriarchs
  • Queen of Prophets
  • Queen of Apostles
  • Queen of Martyrs
  • Queen of Confessors
  • Queen of Virgins
  • Queen of All Saints
  • Queen conceived without original sin
  • Queen assumed into heaven
  • Queen of the most holy Rosary
  • Queen of Peace

Or this one:

  • God
  • Trinity in Unity
  • Father, Son and Holy Spirit
  • Uncreated
  • Boundless
  • Eternal
  • One eternal being
  • Omnipotent
  • One God not three gods
  • Lord
  • Father not made, nor created, nor generated by anyone
  • Son not made, nor created, but begotten by the Father alone
  • Holy Spirit not made, nor created, nor generated, but proceeding from the Father and the Son
This, of course, is only a very short list. Here are some rather longer ones. How many names are there in total? One could spend a lifetime listing them and never get to the end. Would it even be possible? For, after all, to come to the end of the list would be to describe God in full, and how could humanity ever do this?

Meanwhile, over the course of the day, I have added a few more entries to my "blog posts to be" list:

  • Footwork (on shoes via Rebecca's Pocket & pedicure fish via my husband, and what this has to do with moving on the strip)
  • Secrets & Lies (on what the difference is)
  • Naming God

Ah, lists! Where would we be without them?

*If you think of any, please let me know. All I can remember right now is Hayden White's article in The Content of the Form (1990), where he talks about annals as a form of narrativity. And I'm pretty sure there's an essay somewhere on a laundry list, but that could be a Sherlock Holmes or maybe a Peter Wimsey mystery. I don't think it's the same as Foucault's use in The Order of Things (1966) of the taxonomy that Borges (says he) found in Franz Kuhn's translation of the Chinese Heavenly Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, but it could be. And then, of course, there are all those discussions about literary canons. If only I had made a list!
**Note how this phrase helpfully suggests that there are other questions I could list, but won't.
***Of course, Scarry is an atheist, so the arc of agency is reversed in her telling.
****See Tolkien, "On Fairy Stories" (1939; 1947), in The Tolkien Reader (1966).


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