The other Sunday, as I was taking my weekly televisual fix of gridiron football – not so much an athletic spectacle as an entrancing reconstruction of the wars of Pompey the Great – I learned that one of the luminaries of the sport (the particular name escapes me) had been accorded the title of the winningest coach of some recent season (the exact year eludes me). I thought of this remote and superlative man when I turned to consider the latest edition of The Guinness Book of Records, a compilation apparently based on the philosophy that winning is not everything, as long as there are some who are even winninger and a choice few who aspire to being the mostest, the bestest, the completest, the strivingest, in short – at least for the time being – the absolute winningest. Here they all are for another record year, contenders in pursuits familiar and bizarre: high jumpers, cliff divers, roller-skaters, the grower of the largest swede, the carrier of the heaviest hod, the baker of the deepest apple pie, the confectioner of the widest ice-cream sundae, bottomless eaters, legless drinkers, throwers of the farthest ball, peelers of most potent onions, Uncle Tom Cobbleighest winners as far as the eye can see. It ought to be said in fairness that the book is not wholly devoted to the documentation of humanity’s urge to compete in irrational undertakings. Much of it consists of presumably useful information on the wonders of nature and the fabrications of the engineer; if you want facts and figures about the world’s oldest plant, bulkiest reptile, or longest hydro-electric irrigation and sewerage tunnel, this is undoubtedly your source. Nevertheless, it is eccentric fantasy that catches the eye, and some of the ‘records’ here displayed will probably suggest to Martian observers that our planet is populated by stubborn eccentrics and deeply dedicated fantasists, or, as their lexicographers might say, fruit-cakes.
I looked hopefully through this year’s offering – nor were my expectations frustrated – for some notice of the sustained eminence of one of my favourite idiots, the Greatest Omnivore. This French gentleman, known to his admiring compatriots as Monsieur Mangetout, specialises in the regular ingestion of glass and metal objects, and since 1966 has reportedly seen off one supermarket trolley, six chandeliers, seven TV sets, ten bicycles, and ‘a low-calorie Cessna light aircraft which he ate in Caracas, Venezuela’. There is a picture of the master at work, his swivelled eye and loony rictus suggesting that he has lately been at the Castrol Multigrade, robustly tucking into a bicycle wheel. This procedure seems to be trickier than any of the table tasks that habitually baffle me, like eating crayfish or artichokes. To consume a bicycle wheel, it appears, you must first strip off the tyre and then, having thrust your head through the middle, grasp the rim in both hands and chew resolutely outward from the hub. I am afraid I would be a very messy bicycle-eater. The spokes would get up my nose, my companions would be inconvenienced by the gyrations of my elbows, and I would probably have to suffer the indignity of being cleaned up and shown to an adjacent table by some droll and dolichocephalic maître d’hôtel. But the Greatest Omnivore rises superior to petty embarrassments and little notions of absurdity – as indeed do his fellow Guinnessguys and gals, the egg-shellers, the escalator-riders, the stamp-lickers, the smoke-ring blowers, the participants in the Third International Spittin’, Belchin’ and Cussin’ Triathlon, and all who for charity’s sake, or for emulation’s sake, or in the mere love of idiosyncrasy, have booked themselves a place in this most engrossing of trivial fond records.
The Guinness Book sells by the million, which is not altogether surprising, for it has the form of a list, and lists, together with maps, are the stuff and nonsense of life, an expression of our assurance that we have the world in hand. Man is a list-making animal. Since writing was discovered, unceasing scribal energies have gone into the listing – on stone, on papyrus, on vellum, on Basildon Bond, on A4, on disks, on your Handipad Kwikstik Tear-offs-of historical and institutional and personal particulars: an unresting recital of inventories, requisitions, genealogies, enrolments, specifications, agenda, memoranda, desiderata, with the occasional pause of an et cetera. Lists have great psychological and stylistic interest, as ways of memorising, as modes of action (I cannot be the only person in the world to be comforted by the belief that writing something in a list is half-way to doing it), as acts of mischief or magic, as rhetorical devices.
It is the rhetorical function of lists, their place in the patterns of literary art, that is examined by Francis Spufford in The Chatto Book of Cabbages and Kings. Regard it, if you like, as a ripping anthology of runaway rigmaroles, from Tertullian to Cole Porter, with the added bonus of a brilliant introductory essay; or approach it more soberly, as a donnish disquisition supported by a considerable appendix of illustrative material. I suspect Mr Spufford would like us to take it both ways, and I should therefore perhaps advise readers who tackle his prefatory discourse not to be put off by the ebullient density of his style. Plain and pervasively simple it is not, and from time to time it presents you with the kind of raincheck sentence that tells you to go away and come back later for the meaning. Thus, on museums as lists: ‘So long as the conventions by which the world’s contents are classified have not been completely established for the class of things that compose the collection, the arrangement of the things can represent an understanding of the world that is not yet conventional.’ That, you might say, is perfectly lucid, but you might say that only after you have read the sentence twice. I take it to mean that as long as no one has laid down rules for arranging things, you are free to arrange them as you see fit.
Following this ‘museum’ principle, Spufford sets out his representative texts in accordance with a personal understanding of the literary functions of lists. The salient points in his argument are, first, that lists generally lack the connectives and deictics that frame a text and create its orientation to narrative sequence, to time, to causality, and to the notion of interpersonal address. This, according to Spufford, makes them intrinsically tedious; nothing ever happens in a list, and nothing ever follows from it. Consequently, if a list has any appeal it must be because we discern in its accumulations the gesture of an authorial personality, an index to states of mind and emotion; or else the expression of some kind of Zeitgeist, the theology, politics, intellectual cast and general humours of an age. These propositions entail a significant distinction between lists which are orderly, rational, ‘assembling’ (Spufford’s word), and those which are disorderly, irrational, ‘sundering’. An extreme example of an orderly list would be a mathematical expresssion such as a Fibonacci series; and of a disorderly list, an inventory of items drawn blindfold from a bran-tub or spotted at random in an auctioneer’s yard (for a literary instance, one might cite the stage direction at the beginning of Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker). The perceived tendency of lists to be orderly or disorderly is linked to the perception of literary periods and philosophies or genres: lists are epic, or romantic, or comic, or existential. Viewed thus, the list is an index to varieties of literary practice and authorial intention. Those tedious old rows of cabbages may, after all, represent a sovereign design: cabbages are kings, OK?
This is a very interesting argument, presented with an energy and volubility powerful enough to command assent. I balk pleasurably at a few marginal things, but find only one matter that might be considered centrally, as a moot point. Spufford himself touches on it when he says, of lists, ‘My own inclination is to think of them as a rhetorical figure – like hyperbole, say, or zeugma – an essentially humble figure that can be extended indefinitely and still flavour what it is applied to.’ (But zeugma cannot be ‘extended indefinitely’: within the frame of a tight syntactic structure, zeugma ‘lists’ two apparent incompatibles – as in ‘She gave him a dirty look and a mint humbug.’) Lists are certainly to be perceived as rhetorical figures, particularly as discursive figures like hyperbole, or paradox, or irony, or periergeia. But these modes of discourse belong to the general class of figures called tropes or figures of meaning, as opposed to so-called figures of language, or schemes. Spufford’s inclination to perceive lists as tropes is symptomatic of his almost exclusive concern with semantic matters, with lexis. As he puts it, the figure ‘flavours’ its reference. He appears not to be particularly interested in the formal patterning, or taxis, of the catalogues he has assembled in his anthology, and he uses the word ‘list’ comprehensively, to cover various ways of organising sequences of words, or phrases, or clauses: ways identified in such schemes of traditional rhetoric as asyndeton, polysyndeton, anaphora, parison, anadiplosis, epistrophe. These devices are appropriate to different kinds of ‘orderly’ or ‘disorderly’ arrangement – they are in effect the operators of the syntax Mr Spufford says lists do not have. More than that, however, the choice of a particular scheme may be related to the design and purpose of the higher literary structure into which the scheme enters. In Shakespeare’s sonnet ‘Tired with all these’, polysyndeton is the linking principle of a list that virtually fills the poem. In one of Mr Spufford’s prose extracts, a fiercely denunciatory passage from Tertullian’s De Spectaculis, the binding and ordering devices are anaphora and parison. To make these observations is not to point to something merely incidental. There are interrelated rhetorical functions, and to understand these may be to understand something about literary composition. Lists, considered as tropes, enter into the forms of lists considered as schemes, and the schematically-patterned tropes are accommodated in larger designs. A text that illustrates this with paradigmatic elegance is Robert Graves’s poem ‘Warning to Children’ – not included in Spufford’s collection.
But then which of us in his right mind or with money in her purse is going to worry about the theoretical considerations motivating the presentation of this amiable anthology? Prospective purchasers of a Book of Cabbages and Kings do not expect a postgraduate seminar paper on literary hermeneutics. Dip into the text first, they should be told – ramble around, browse, enjoy yourselves; and afterwards, if you have time and strength on some vacant evening, attempt the commentary. There are, I am glad to say, a great many treats to savour. Here is the Lord High Executioner getting them on a list, here is Cole Porter taking it from the top (ah, nostalgia – ‘You’re the National Gall’ry,/ You’re Garbo’s sal’ry,/ You’re cellophane’), here is Homer at war, here is George Herbert at prayer, here are the irrepressible inventorial masters like Rabelais and Dickens and Edward Lear, here, indeed, is a collection with so many fine exhibits that Mr Spufford might give some consideration, for future purposes, to the possibility of furnishing an index of opening phrases, so that we might find our way more promptly round the gallery. There is an obsessional appeal, which Mr Spufford understands very well, in this kind of activity. We are the catalogue-makers, we are the listers of lists. It is great fun; it is also quite sad, a clever madness, a symptom of our despairing knowledge that the recital of the world’s contents can have only one end, towards which we are driven by Time, cruel Time, edax rerum, the Omnivore’s Omnivore, your only consumer of babies and bicycles. Put that into your record, Goodman Guinness.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.