The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. 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. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right. — Umberto Eco ( via , via )

Talk about bad examples. Mozart’s librettist, an amazing and in some respects ominous figure , used the Don to dramatize very near the opposite of what Eco claims. Da Ponte was born and raised Jewish; before his Catholic conversion, his name was Emanuele Conegliano. He was well-educated. Any learned Catholic Jew writing a Don Giovanni libretto knows well enough where the Don came from — the Spanish priest Tirso de Molina, whose Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest brought Don Juan into the world. Trickster is too coy a word for the Don, one the Don would use himself to mask what he is. The Don, with his lists, counts his conquests (i.e., rapes and cruel seductions) of women (and girls) as conquests of the world. But the Don’s conquests bring death, not life, to culture. The Don’s stone guest is the ghost of Don Gonzalo, the father of yet another poor conquest, who tried to avenge her honor but failed to kill the Don. But the stone guest is also Fate, whom the Don mocks and defies. Fate gets him in the end. The Don is an agent of destruction; to rebel against death and damnation, he deals death and dishonor. The Don is not trying to reconcile himself to the infinite but to use finitude as a weapon against that which endures. The Don must know his war on the very foundations of culture is ‘futile’ from his own point of vantage. He will mock and deride daughters, fathers, and Fate until whichever day, whether near or far, some combination of the three catch up with and destroy him. No matter how he lowers, parodies, and disgraces, order (and, in a Christian formulation beyond the pagan one of Fate, grace) will prevail. Yet the Don carries on. The Don is a nihilist. Masquerading as a great achiever of culture, he is actually a scourge of culture. His defense of his list is just as Eco hints — those seductions are, merely, ‘completely practical’. The achievement of that line of argument is not cultural but anti-cultural.

UPDATE: Read Alan’s selections from Auden’s “Infernal Science”! The difference between an itemized list of provisions or words and a list of conquests or captives or kills is a difference between the life and death of culture because it is the difference between not cursing and cursing unique persons and souls. The Don curses by reducing persons to numbers — and there is no consolation in the ‘specificity’ of being, say, the 7th victim of a rapist, the 284,341st victim of a Great Leader, or the 1,984th score of a sexual athlete.

Articles by James Poulos

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