Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Love of Lists

“We have always been fascinated by infinite space, by the endless stars and by galaxies upon galaxies. How does a person feel when looking at the sky? He thinks that he doesn't have enough tongues to describe what he sees. Nevertheless, people have never stopping describing the sky, simply listing what they see. Lovers are in the same position. They experience a deficiency of language, a lack of words to express their feelings. But do lovers ever stop trying to do so? They create lists: Your eyes are so beautiful, and so is your mouth, and your collarbone …”
Umberto Eco
I love lists.  I love pieces of writing that contain long paragraphs with a lot of commas or writing that travels down the page in column form.  
I do not write lists on a daily basis, but sometimes I will write lists of things that I remember or lists of songs or colours or interesting words or ideas that somehow interlink.
I feel a pleasurable sense of calm when I see a list.  The stacked juxtappsition of words can also hold a wonderful kind of random poetry.  A list innately implies a sense of order and yet the words found on them can be completely disparate and unrelated.  I like this anomaly.
Writing lists is a great way to follow the odd meandering pathways that our mind travels along.  A wonderful way of generating poetic imagery and a way of articulating half formed ideas and bringing them to life. A list is like doing a drawing with words.  We do not see a list as being terribly precious or important.  Perhaps it is for this reason we can write without self consciousness and then, without even trying, something quite golden can emerge.
My father used to write a daily list of things to do and other pages that itemized various technical things to do with the engine on his boat or navigational coordinates.  He filled numerous books with his lists.  I kept some of these books as they seemed like a very spare and unadorned form of biography.
I remember him once telling me that at the end of each day, whilst drinking his first beer of the evening, he would take great pleasure in running a line through all of the things on his list that he had achieved or dealt with.  After doing this he would think of any extra tasks completed that were not on the list.  He would then add them at the end and with great satisfaction, cross them out as well.  I found this sweet admission very endearing.
There is a story from the Thousand Nights and One Night called Ali The Persian and the Brazen Kurd.  This story has often made me weep with laughter.  It also happens to contain perhaps some of the most wondrous lists ever written.
Here it is:
It is related that one night, when the Khalifah Harun al-Rashid was plagued with sleeplessness, he called to him Jafar his wazir, saying: "O Jafar, tonight my breast is heavy for lack of sleep. I charge you with the lightening of it." "Commander of the Faithful," answered Jafar, "I have a friend called Ali the Persian, who has in his scrip many delicious tales which are sovereign remedies for the blackest humors and annoyances." "Bring him to me at once," said al-Rashid, and when Jafar had obeyed and the man was seated in the presence, he continued: "Listen, Ali, I am told that you know stories which can dissipate weariness and bring sleep to the sleepless. I require one of them now." "I hear and I obey, O Prince of Believers," answered Ali the Persian. "I pray you tell me whether you wish a story of things heard or a tale of things seen with my own eyes?" "One in which you have taken part yourself," said Harun al-Rashid. So Ali the Persian began:
I was sitting one day in my shop when a Kurd came up and began bargaining with me for certain of my goods; suddenly he took up a little bag and, without attempting to hide it, tried most openly to walk off with it, as if it had belonged to him ever since he was born. I jumped up into the street and, stopping him by the skirts of his robe, told him to give me back my bag. He only shrugged his shoulders, saying: "That bag, and all that is in it, belongs to me." In rising anger, I cried out: O Musulmans, save my goods from this wretched unbeliever!" At once all who were in the market crowded round us, and my fellow merchants advised me to lay a complaint before the kadi without further delay. I agreed to this, and immediately willing hands helped me to drag the Kurd who had stolen my bag into the presence of the judge.
As we all stood respectfully before him, he asked: "Which of you is the plaintiff and which the defendant?" Without giving me time to open my mouth, the Kurd stepped forward, crying: "Allah increase the power of our master the kadi! This bag is my bag, and all that it contains belongs to me! I lost it and then found it again on this man’s counter." "When did you lose it?" asked the kadi. "I lost it yesterday," answered the impudent fellow, "and I could not sleep all night for thinking of it." "In that case," said the judge, "give me a list of its contents." Without a moment’s hesitation, the Kurd answered: "O kadi, there are in my bag two crystal flasks filled with kohl, two silver sticks for putting on kohl, a handkerchief, two lemonade glasses with gilded rims, two torches, two ladles, a cushion, two carpets for gaming tables, two water-pots, two basins, one dish, one cook-pot, one earthen water-jar, one kitchen dipper, one large knitting-needle, two provision sacks, a pregnant cat, two bitches, a rice-jar, two donkeys, two bedroom sets for women, a linen garment, two pelisses, a cow, two calves, a sheep with two lambs, a camel with two little camels, two racing dromedaries with their females, a buffalo and two oxen, a lioness and two lions, a female bear, two foxes, one couch, two beds, a palace with two reception halls, two green tents, two canopies, a kitchen with two doors, and an assembly of Kurds of my own kind all ready to swear that the bag is my bag."
Then the kadi turned to me, saying. "What answer have you to this?" I was so astonished by what the Kurd had said, O Commander of the Faithful, that it was a little time before I was able to advance and answer: "May Allah lift up and honor our master the kadi! I know that, in my sack, there are only a ruined pavilion, a house without a kitchen, a large dog-kennel, a boys’ school, some jolly young fellows playing dice, a brigand’s lair, an army with captains, the city of Basrah and the city of Baghdad, the ancient palace of the amir Shaddad son of Ad, a smith’s furnace, a fishing net, a shepherd’s crook, five pretty boys, twelve untouched girls, and a thousand leaders of caravans all ready to bear witness that this bag is my bag."
When the Kurd had heard this answer, he burst into tears and cried between his sobs: "O our master the kadi, my bag is known and well known; it is universally acknowledged to be my property. Beside those things which I mentioned before, it contains two fortified cities and ten towns, two alchemical alembics, four chess players, a mare and two foals, a stallion and two geldings, two long lances, a buggered boy and two pimps, a blind man and two far-seeing men, a lame man and two paralytics, a sea captain, a ship with sailors, a Christian priest and two deacons, a patriarch and two monks, and a kadi and two witnesses ready to swear that this bag is my bag." Then the kadi turned to me again, and said: "What answer have you to all that?"
Being filled with hot rage, even to my nose, O Commander of the Faithful, I advanced and replied as calmly as I could: "Allah lighten and make strong the judgement of our master the kadi! I ought to add that there are in the bag, beside the things which I have already mentioned, headache cures, filtres and enchantments, coats of mail and armories filled with arms, a thousand rams trained for fighting, a deer park, men who love women, boy fanciers, gardens filled with trees and flowers, vines loaded with grapes, apples and figs, shades and phantoms, flasks and cups, new married couples with all their marriage fresh about them, cries and jokes, twelve disgraceful farts and as many odorless funks, friends sitting in a meadow, banners and flags, a bride coming out of the bath, twenty singers, five fair Abyssinian slaves, three Indian women, four Greek women, fifty Turkish women, seventy Persian women, forty women from Kashmir, eighty Kurdish women, as many Chinese women, ninety women from Georgia, the land of Irak, the Earthly Paradise, two stables, a mosque, many hammams, a hundred merchants, a plank, a nail, a black man playing on the clarinet, a thousand dinars, twenty chests full of stuffs, twenty dancers, fifty storehouses, the city of Kufah, the city of Gaza, Damietta, al-Sawan, the palace of Khusran Anushirwan, the palace of Sulaiman, all the lands between Balkh and Isfahan, the Indies and Sudan, Baghdad and Khurasan, and—may Allah preserve the days of our master the kadi—a shroud, a coffin, and a razor for the beard of the kadi if the kadi does not recognize my rights and say that this bag is my bag."
When he had heard all this, the kadi looked at us and said: "As Allah lives, either you are two rascals mocking at the law and its representatives, or else this bag is a bottomless abyss or the Valley of the Day of Judgement itself." Finally, to see which of us had spoken the truth, the kadi opened the bag before his witnesses and found in it a little orange peel and some olive stones. At once I told the flabbergasted kadi that the bag must belong to the Kurd and that mine had disappeared. Then I went my way.
When the Khalifah Harun al-Rashid heard this tale, he was knocked over on his backside by the explosive force of his laughter. He gave a magnificent present to Ali the Persian, and that night slept soundly until the morning.
From The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, Vol. II, London and New York: Routledge, 1964, pp. 370-373.

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