The current rage for making, perusing and comparing lists has all the earmarks of a passing fad. Remember the pyramid thing? A great spree for Sunday supplements for a few months, a few quickie paperbacks, and where is it now?
As a longstanding victim of the list fetish syndrome, however, I would argue that there is something enduring and significant about listomania that goes beyond any fleeting vogue.
This something, ancient in origin and mystical in nature, inspired Guillermo Cabrera Infante's engagingly droll story. "Revelations of a List-Maker," as translated by Alastair Reid for the New Yorker several weeks ago.
"Lists thrill me," the story began. "A pity I am obliged to express it in that manner, for I would much prefer to put it:
Some of us are fond of lists, but positively compulsive about them. Our shirt pockets and our mental reservoirs are stuffed with them, and no step, no matter how small, seems possible without them. Perhaps it's a matter of a normal human instinct for cataloging things being carried to pathological extremes.
Anyone who has tried to be a critic, amateur or professional, will know what I mean, for the act of critism is inextricably linked to that particular kind of list known as a hierarchy - not just a collation of items, but a ranking according to some measure of preference or worth.
As democratic a people as we profess ourselves to be, we Americans seem afflicted with a profound lust for such lists - vis., our league standings, our Top 40 hits, out "10 best" this or that. Perhaps our hunger for lists has been accentuated of late by the proliferation of options in daily life - it becomes a matter of self-preservation to have at hand some ready means of choice.
In a sense, the whole drift of civilization in our century has been toward a more list-oriented world. The great atomic physicist Werner Heisenberg couched his theory of quantum mechanics in the mathematical language of infinite matrices, which are nothing but endless, two-dimensional lists of quantites. All the intricacies of submicropspic processes were reduced, in effect, to tabulation.
As computers have taken over more and more human tasks, more and more aspects of our lives must be rendered numerically. Remember, too that a hierarchy is nothing more than a numbered list. We've already seen the colorful word-prefixes of telephone addresses give way to the featureless numbers of "digital dialing". Now we're witnessing the disappearing of the dial clock - a holistic device that gives us a picture of the present in relation to the past and the future - in favor of the digital watch. Time is no longer a cycle, but a list.
Of course, the arts have been affected as well. It's no accidental that this was the century which saw the introduction of "serial" music (we've had serial painting, too, and similar developments in other media), in which musical composition takes as its departure point ordered series of tones ("tone-rows") or rhythms - i.e., numbered lists of musical elements.
In critism, lists are often a convenient starting point - the three most salient features of a new composition, or the six most perfectly realized roles of a dancer's career, or the four prevailing weaknesses in the work of a filmmaker. But there's a grave danger in relying on lists: namely, the tendency to use a list, not as a shortcut to judgment. Lists are flat and itemized. They don't follow for shadings or nuances, for the interplay or adjoining levels, for fractional degrees or simultaneous oppositions. Lists simplify; that's one of their great advantages, but it's also a pitfall. In an era marked by an increasing pressure for speedy, concise appraisals - we are constantly demanding instant ratings, polls, reviews - there's a temptation to be ever more hasty and arbitrary about evaluation, and list-making seems an easy way out.
Another kind of artistic list appears to be an almost universal indulgence - I think of it as the apocalypse of desert island phenomenon. Civilization faces imminent destruction, and there is room in the time vault for just 10 plays, or symphonies, or ballets, or movies, which you must choose, or you are cast adrift on a desert island with a phonograph or a movie screen and projector, and the same limited choice of alternatives. We seem to relish envisioning such catastrophes, and the predicaments of selection they force upon us. Maybe they flatter our own sense of importance, as the imagined arbiters of such ponderable questions. But they are also a part of the endless human quest for permanently treasurable values, in a world rifle with disillusion and apathy. In my own list of lists, this kind of list comes close to the top.