“The list is the origin of culture”–Umberto Eco.
Psychologists say that obsessive compulsive list makers are trying to create an illusion of control in otherwise chaotic lives.
And, there’s nothing wrong with that. In the words of the American abstract artist, Charles Green Shaw: “Real happiness consists in not what we actually accomplish, but what we think we accomplish.”
In 1983, Susan Sontag edited an anthology of French critic Rolande Barthes’s work and penned the introduction to it. She included Barthes’s own list of likes and dislikes, originally titled J’aime, je n’aime pas (I like, I don’t like):
I like: salad, cinnamon, cheese, pimento, marzipan, the smell of new-cut hay (why doesn’t someone with a “nose” make such a perfume), roses, peonies, lavender, champagne, loosely held political convictions, Glenn Gould, too-cold beer, flat pillows, toast, Havana cigars, Handel, slow walks, pears, white peaches, cherries, colors, watches, all kinds of writing pens, desserts, unrefined salt, realistic novels, the piano, coffee, Pollock, Twombly, all romantic music, Sartre, Brecht, Verne, Fourier, Eisenstein, trains, Médoc wine, having change, Bouvard and Pécuchet, walking in sandals on the lanes of southwest France, the bend of the Adour seen from Doctor L.’s house, the Marx Brothers, the mountains at seven in the morning leaving Salamanca, etc.
I don’t like: white Pomeranians, women in slacks, geraniums, strawberries, the harpsichord, Miró, tautologies, animated cartoons, Arthur Rubinstein, villas, the afternoon, Satie, Bartók, Vivaldi, telephoning, children’s choruses, Chopin’s concertos, Burgundian branles and Renaissance dances, the organ, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, his trumpets and kettledrums, the politico-sexual, scenes, initiatives, fidelity, spontaneity, evenings with people I don’t know, etc.
The recently released volume of Susan Sontag’s diaries, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 and has already given us Sontag’s wisdom on writing, boredom, censorship, and aphorisms, her radical vision for remixing education, and her illustrated insights on love and art. All through her list making.
This is the very first entry in Sontag’s earliest published journal, dated November 23, 1947
(a) That there is no personal god or life after death
(b) That the most desirable thing in the world is freedom to be true to oneself, i.e., Honesty
(c) That the only difference between human beings is intelligence
(d) That the only criterion of an action is its ultimate effect on making the individual happy or unhappy
(e) That it is wrong to deprive any man of life
[Entries “f” and “g” are missing.]
(h) I believe, further more, that an ideal state (besides “g”) should be a strong centralized one with government control of pulic utilities, banks, mines + transportation and subsidy of the arts, a comfortable minimum wage, support of disabled and age. State care of pregnant women with no distinction such as legitimate + illegitimate children.
from Sontag’s journals, December 19, 1948 (NB: she’s 15)
There are so many books and plays and stories I have to read—Here are just a few:
The Island Within—Ludwig Lewisohn
Esther Waters—George Moore
Diary of a Writer—Dostoyevsky
Against the Grain—Husmans
The Disciple—Paul Bourget
Johnny Got His Gun—Dalton Trumbo
The Forsyte Saga—Galsworthy
The Egoist—George Meredith
Diana of the Crossways—”
The Ordeal of Richard Feverel—”
poems of Dante, Ariosto, Tasso, Tibullus, Heine, Pushkin, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Apollinaire
plays of Synge, O’Neill, Calderón, Shaw, Hellman . . .
[This list goes on for another five pages, and more than a hundred titles are mentioned.]
from Sontag’s journals, December 31, 1956
1. Nothing is uninterpreted.
2. To interpret is to determine, restrict; or to exfoliate, read meaning into.
3. Interpretation is the medium by which we justify context.
4. To interpret a word is different from defining it; it means to specify a range of contexts (not equivalents)
Rules + duties for being 24
from Sontag’s journals, January 15, 1957 (the day before her 24th birthday)
1. Have better posture.
2. Write Mother 3 times a week.
3. Eat less.
4. Write two hours a day minimally
5. Never complain publicly about Brandeis or money.
6. Teach David to read.
Later, undated but “most likely late February or early March 1957”:
1. Criticize publicly anyone at Harvard—
2. Allude to your age (boastfully, mock-respectfully, or otherwise)
3. Talk about money
4. Talk about Brandeis
1. Shower every other night
2. Write Mother every other day
from Sontag’s journals, 1957
What do I believe?
In the private life
In holding up culture
In music, Shakespeare, old buildings
What do I enjoy?
Being in love
Never on time
Lying, talking too much
No volition for refusal