And because we don’t want to die, we like limitless, endless things, which lists are, more so than definitions. At the same time that lists can be infinite and always added onto, they can also be ordered and thereby create a kind of protection from anarchy, by making infinity comprehensible.
So says Umberto Eco in an interview with Spiegel.
Eco’s current exhibition at the Louvre is about “the essential nature of lists, poets who list things in their works and painters who accumulate things in their paintings”:
“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. … And the list is certainly prevalent in the postmodern age. It has an irresistible magic.
“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. … The list is the mark of a highly advanced, cultivated society because a list allows us to question the essential definitions. The essential definition is primitive compared with the list.”