First love

Umberto Eco is President of the Scuola Superiore di Studi Humanistici at the University of Bologna. His latest book is The Infinity of Lists (MacLehose Press).

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Infatuated with armies of angels

When Kant had a sense of the sublime on gazing at the starry sky above him he had the feeling that what he was seeing went beyond his sensibilities, and so he postulated an infinity that not only our senses fail to grasp but that even our imagination cannot embrace in a single perception. Hence our uneasy pleasure in being capable of wishing for something we cannot have. The infinity of the feeling Kant experienced has a highly emotional and subjective charge, but the innumerability of the stars is an infinity that we should call objective. The artist who attempts only a partial list of all the stars in the universe in some way wishes to make us think of this objective infinity.

In Book II of the Iliad, there is a point in which Homer wants to give a sense of the immensity of the Greek army in order to conjure up the mass of men whom the terrified Trojans see spreading out along the sea shore. At first he attempts a comparison: that mass of men, whose arms reflect the sunlight, is like a fire raging through a forest, it is like a flock of geese or cranes that seem to cross the sky like a thunderclap. But no metaphor comes to his aid, and he calls on the Muses for help: "Tell me, O Muses who dwell on Olympus, you who know all... you who were the leaders and the guides of the Danae; I shall not call the host by name, not even had I ten tongues and ten mouths", and so he prepares to name only the captains and the ships. It looks like a shortcut, but this shortcut takes him three hundred and fifty verses of the poem.

It is no accident if Homer, in wishing to talk to us about form, chooses the example of visual works of art (albeit recounted in words with the rhetorical technique known as hypotyposis), whereas when he had recourse to the list he did this with words and it did not cross his mind to recount a visual list verbally. Think of Pannini's "picture galleries": they are not intended to represent merely what is shown but also the rest of the indefinitely large collection of which they are only an example. Think of Bosch's "The Garden of Earthly Delights": it suggests that the marvels it hints at should continue beyond the limits of the picture. The same holds for Carpaccio's "The Crucifixion and the Apotheosis of the Ten Thousand Martyrs on Mount Ararat" or Pontormo's "Eleven Thousand Martyrs". In principle the list can be found in other art forms: Ravel's "Bolero" with its obsessive rhythms suggests that it could continue infinitely – heaven forbid – and it is no accident that an artist such as Rybczynski drew inspiration from it for a film in which certain characters (which he chooses from the leading figures of Russian revolution, but from a formal standpoint nothing would change were they angels ascending to seventh heaven) move up a stairway that is potentially endless.

With his catalogue of ships Homer does not merely give us a splendid example of the list, he also brings on what has been called the "topos of ineffability". Faced with something that is immensely large, or unknown, of which we still do not know enough or of which we shall never know, the author tells us he is unable to say, and so he proposes a list very often as a specimen, example, or indication, leaving the reader to imagine the rest.

The topos of ineffability recurs several times in Homer, and we might continue almost ad infinitum (and it would be a fine list) citing occurrences of this topos in the history of literature. In his Ars Amandi Ovid warns, with regard to the arts of women: "I could not name all those sacrilegious and meretricious arts, even had I ten mouths and as many tongues", and in Book II he says that citing all women's outfits would be like counting the acorns on the oak tree or the wild beasts on the Alps. And in Metamorphosis he complains about the impossibility of mentioning all the metamorphoses – but after all what else did he do for fifteen books and twelve thousand verses but list 246 metamorphoses.

Just as Homer was unable to name all the Argive warriors, in the same way, and indeed even more so, Dante was unable to name all the angels in the heavens because he did not know so much the names but the numbers. And so in Canto XXIX of Paradise we find another example of the topos of ineffability, because the number of angels exceeds the possibilities of the human mind.

But Dante, faced with the ineffable, does not fall back on the list insofar as he tries to express the ecstasy of it; and still on the subject of the number of angels, when he yields to the dizzying fascination of geometrical progression, he alludes to the legend according to which the inventor of chess had asked the King of Persia, by way of a reward for his invention, for one grain of wheat for the first square on the board, two for the second, four for the third and so on until the sixty-fourth, thus reaching an astronomical number of grains: "In number did outmillion the account / Reduplicate upon the chequer'd board."

Yet there is a difference between complaining about not having enough tongues and mouths with which to say something and then refrain from saying it while trying variations on the topos of ineffability, and attempting a list in some way, albeit incomplete and by way of a sample, as Homer and Virgil did, or as Ausonius did with his list of fishes in La Mosella.

Some have observed how the topos of lacking tongues or mouths is typical of oral poetry, and so the Homeric bard needed a lot of puff to recite at a steady rhythm the list of ships (as well as a good memory to recall all the names of Hesiod's mythological characters), but this topos is also found in periods where texts circulated in written form, as for example Cecco Angiolieri's Sonnet 103, "If I had a thousand tongues in my mouth", and at a certain point this device was perceived as so threadbare that it was employed ironically by Boiardo and later by Ariosto who, in Orlando Furioso, mentions lovers who took great pleasure from the fact that "they often had more than one tongue in their mouths".

Translated by Alastair McEwen.

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