Newsletter #11: Inventories

One thing after another

One of my favorite lists is Claude Lévi-Strauss’s memories of “oriental markets” in Tristes Tropiques:

I have visited all kinds of markets; in Calcutta, the new one and the old ones; the Bombay Bazaar at Karachi; the markets in Delhi and the Sadar and Kunari in Agra; Dacca, which is a series of soukhs, with families living huddled in the nooks and crannies between the stalls and craftsmen’s workshops; Riazuddin Bazaar and Khatunganj at Chittagong; all those at the gates of Lahore: Anarkali Bazaar, Delhi, Shah, Almi and Akbari; and Sadr, Dabgari, Sirki, Bajori, Ganj and Kalan at Peshawar. At country fairs in the Khyber Pass along the Afghan frontier, and at Rangamati near the Burmese frontier, I have visited fruit and vegetable markets, with their piles of egg-plants, pink onions and burst pomegranates releasing a heady, guava-like smell; flower markets where florists intertwined roses and jasmine with tinsel and angel hair; the displays of dried-fruit merchants, brown, tawny heaps on a background of silver paper; I have seen and smelt spices and curries, pyramids of red, orange and yellow powder; mountains of peppers, emitting a pungent odour of dried apricots and lavender which was enough to make the senses reel. I have seen meat-roasters, the boilers of milk-curds, the pancake-makers – nãn or chapati; tea and lemonade sellers, wholesale date merchants with their produce piled up in sticky mounds of pulp and stones suggesting the excreta of some dinosaur; pastry-cooks, who might have been mistaken for vendors of flies, presenting their wares on a base of cake; tinkers who could be heard a hundred yards away because of the loud rumble of their hammers; basket-makers and rope-makers, with their yellow and green straw; hat-makers who had arranged the gilded cones of kallas, resembling the mitres of the Sassanid kings, in rows interspersed with turban cloths; textile shops, hung with lengths of freshly dyed blue or yellow material, as well as with saffron and pink artificial silk scarves in the Bokhara style; cabinet-makers, wood-carvers and lacquerers of bedsteads; knife-grinders pulling on the cords of their grinding-wheels; scrap-iron fairs, separate from the rest, and cheerless; tobacco vendors with their heaps of golden leaves, alternating with russet masses of tombak, alongside bundles of chilam tubes; vendors of sandals, stacked in hundreds like bottles in a wine store; sellers of bracelets or bangles, like pink and blue glass intestines lying higgledy-piggledy as if they were the product of a recent disembowelling; potters’ shops, with oblong, varnished, chilam water-vases arranged in rows; jars fashioned out of micaceous clay, and others painted brown, white and red on a background of tawny earthenware, with vermicular ornamental markings; and chilam bowls strung together like rosaries; flour vendors sieving flour all day long; gold- and silversmiths weighing tiny fragments of precious braid in shopfronts which were less brilliant than those of the nearby tinsmiths; calico-printers striking the white cotton fabric with a deft, monotonous movement which left a delicate coloured pattern; and blacksmiths working in the open air. All this formed a swarming and ordered world above which rose a forest of multicoloured children’s windmills, mounted on sticks and fluttering like leaves stirring in the breeze.

This is a wonderful list. Each object arrives exactly when it must, like the German subway: the bakers who might be mistaken for vendors of flies; the piles of dates like dinosaur shit; sandals stacked like wine bottles; the punchline description of the scrap-iron fairs, “separate from the rest, and cheerless”; the final, Nabokovian children’s windmills, sad and wonderful—reading the list is like walking through the bazaars it works to describe. You can’t possibly see everything as it passes and so you have to double back, look again at the buzzing confusion.

Yet at the same time it revels in the exact sort of colorful and shallow exotica that elsewhere in Tristes Tropiques gets a brutal lashing. Everything sharply described, yes, but the details themselves are just as we expect: filth, disorder, noise, flies, earthiness, materiality. A collection of trivial tourist baubles remembered in exceptional prose. Why is Lévi-Strauss “allowed” to decontextualize his many markets—to orientalize—in contrast to the genre hacks he has no time for, the “traveling and explorers” he hates? It’s the kind of writing he even parodies in Tristes Tropiques’ famous opening pages, when he explains how begrudgingly and reluctantly he took to putting together the book we are now holding.

We [anthropologists] may endure six months of travelling, hardships and sickening boredom for the purpose of recording (in a few days, or even a few hours) a hitherto unknown myth, a new marriage rule or a complete list of clan names, but is it worth my while taking up my pen to perpetuate such a useless shred of memory or pitiable recollection as the following: ‘At five thirty in the morning, we entered the harbour at Recife amid the shrill cries of the gulls, while a fleet of boats laden with tropical fruits clustered round the hull’?

Two paths for the travel writer: inventory and memoir. The latter needs no explanation. It is newer, close to our current psychology. Its pleasures and sins are our own. But the former is older than written narrative. Most early writing was accounting-based, naming taxable objects or debts to collect, later on establishing hereditary legitimacy and laws: all those paternal descent trees in the Torah, and then the arcane and inscrutable prohibitions. Those cultures that rejected writing—in some cases many times over—had a vested interest in remaining untaxed, uncounted, and unremembered. Lists were a centralizing technology, produced by literate elites and invoked like magic spells to control and govern.

From the start, then, the list is a form of authority. The authority can be purely personal, like Joe Brainard’s I Remember, a list-memoir hybrid I often teach. Eliot Weinberger is fond of Lévi-Strauss-like lists. There is the famous emperor’s taxonomy of all the types of animals in Borges, part of the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge. Lists belonging to the emperor, embalmed lists, trained lists, and fabled ones.

So many poems are kinds of inventories. Octavio Paz’s long poem “Sun stone,” for instance, which begins mid-enumeration:

willow of crystal, a poplar of water,
a pillar of fountain by the wind drawn over, 
tree that is firmly rooted and that dances, 
turning course of a river that goes curving, 
advances and retreats, goes roundabout, 
arriving forever: 

On and on, page after page, Paz moves in and out of different lists, list-as-memory, life as one long remembered account:

names, places, 
streets and streets, faces, streets, circles,
railway stations, a park, the single rooms,
stains on the wall, somebody combing her hair,
somebody singing beside me, somebody dressing, 
rooms, places, streets, names, rooms, 
Madrid, nineteen hundred and thirty-seven,
on the Plaza del Angel seeing the women
doing their sewing and singing with their sons, 
and then the shriek of the siren and their shriek, 
houses brought down and crawling in the dust, 
the towers cloven, the faces running spittle 
and the hurricane of engines [...]

There are lists that want to prove how prodigiously fecund, if not febrile, their makers are, like the list that with no preamble opens William Gass’s On Being Blue:

Blue pencils, blue noses, blue movies, laws, blue legs and stockings, the language of birds, bees, and flowers as sung by longshoremen, that lead-like look the skin has when affected by cold, contusion, sickness, fear; the rotten rum or gin they call blue ruin and the blue devils of its delirium; Russian cats and oysters, a withheld or imprisoned breath, the blue they say that diamonds have, deep holes in the ocean and the blazers which English athletes earn that gentlemen may wear; afflictions of the spirit—dumps, mopes, Mondays—all that’s dismal—low-down gloomy music, Nova Scotians, cyanosis, hair rinse, bluing, bleach; the rare blue dahlia like that blue moon shrewd things happen only once in, or the call for trumps in whist (but who remembers whist or what the death of unplayed games is like?), and correspondingly the flag, Blue Peter, which is our signal for getting under way;…

I don’t think a contemporary travel writer would try to get away with the exhausting inventory of Greek enclaves and exclaves found toward the start of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Mani, and not just because the rare moments of fun come at the expense of readability. Here it is, in full, impressive and tedious:

I thought of the abundance of strange communities: the scattered Bektashi and the Rufayan, the Mevlevi dervishes of the Tower of the Winds, the Liaps of Souli, the Pomaks of the Rhodope, the Kizilbashi near Kechro, the Fire-Walkers of Mavrolevki, the Lazi from the Pontic shores, the Linovamvaki—crypto-Christian Moslems of Cyprus—the Dönmehs—crypto-Jewish Moslems of Salonika and Smyrna—the Slavophones of Northern Macedonia, the Koutzo-Vlachs of Samarina and Metzovo, the Chams of Thesprotia, the scattered Souliots of Roumeli and the Heptanese, the Albanians of Argolis and Attica, the Kravarite mendicants of Aetolia, the wandering quacks of Eurytania, the phallus-wielding Bounariots of Tyrnavos, the Karamanlides of Cappadocia, the Tzakones of the Argolic gulf, the Ayassians of Lesbos, the Francolevantine Catholics of the Cyclades, the Turkophone Christians of Karamania, the dyers of Mt. Ossa, the Mangas of Piraeus, the Venetian nobles of the Ionian, the Old Calendrists of Keratea, the Jehovah’s Witnesses of Thasos, the Nomad Sarakatzáns of the north, the Turks of Thrace, the Thessalonican Sephardim, the sponge-fishers of Calymnos and the Caribbean reefs, the Maniots of Corsica, Tuscany, Algeria and Florida, the dying Grecophones of Calabria and Otranto, the Greek-speaking Turks near Trebizond on the banks of the Of, the omnipresent Gypsies, the Chimarriots of Acroceraunia, the few Gagauzi of eastern Thrace, the Mardaïtes of the Lebanon, the half-Frankish Gazmouli of the Morea, the small diasporas of Armenians, the Bavarians of Attic Herakleion, the Cypriots of Islington and Soho, the Sahibs and Boxwallahs of Nicosia, the English remittance men of Kyrenia, the Basilian Monks, both Idiorrhythmic and Cenobitic, the anchorites of Mt. Athos, the Chiots of Bayswater and the Guards’ Club, the merchants of Marseilles, the cotton-brokers of Alexandria, the shipowners of Panama, the greengrocers of Brooklyn, the Amariots of Lourenço Marques, the Shqip-speaking Atticans of Sfax, the Cretan fellaheen of Luxor, the Elasites beyond the Iron Curtain, the brokers of Trieste, the Krim-Tartar-speaking Lazi of Marioupol, the Pontics of the Sea of Azov, the Caucasus and the Don, the Turkophone and Armenophone Lazi of southern Russia, the Greeks of the Danube Delta, Odessa and Taganrog, the rentiers in eternal villaggiatura by the lakes of Switzerland, the potters of Syphnos and Messenia, the exaggerators and the ghosts of Mykonos, the Karagounides of the Thessalian plain, the Nyklians and the Achamnómeri of the Mani, the little bootblacks of Megalopolis, the Franks of the Morea, the Byzantines of Mistra, the Venetians and Genoese and Pisans of the archipelago, the boys kidnapped for janissaries and the girls for harems, the Catalan bands, the Kondaritika-speaking lathmakers of the Zagarochoria, the Loubinistika-speakers of the brothels, the Anglo-Saxons of the Varangian Guard, ye olde Englisshe of the Levant company, the Klephts and the Armatoles, the Kroumides of Colchis, the Koniarides of Loxada, the smugglers of Aï-Vali, the lunatics of Cephalonia, the admirals of Hydra, the Phanariots of the Sublime Porte, the princes and boyars of Moldowallachia, the Ralli Brothers of India, the Whittals of Constantinople, the lepers of Spinalonga, the political prisoners of the Macronisos, the Hello-boys back from the States, the two pig-roasting Japanese ex-convicts of Crete, the solitary negro of Canea and a wandering Arab I saw years ago in Domoko, the Chinese tea-pedlar of Kolonaki, killed in Piraeus during the war by a bomb—if all these, to name a few, why not the crypto-Jews of the Taygetus?

This apparently spontaneous moment of elephantine recollection (“I thought of...”) arrives, so we are meant to believe, not in a well-stocked university archive but in the middle of a hot hike through windy, treeless scrubland on the Mani peninsula. OK, we’ve all done our homework late. There’s no law against slipping some post-hoc research into the journey for the sake of elegance, but Fermor’s fantasy of his own mnemonic powers is like a satire of the learned traveler. (When he finished, the professor was fired and everyone clapped.)  

To the extent that reading is an extended flirtation—a game of attention—between reader and writer, lists dare you to skip over them (to swipe left?). They are like a worn and overgrown lithograph of court records in an otherwise spectacular landscape of ruins. But for some reason I am often drawn back to them, even in otherwise uninspired pieces of writing. There is tension built into the form—where will it end? When will the next pleasure arrive? How long can the writer maintain? Too long? The inventory is the mind running at speed, from delight to delight and horror to horror, tricycling through its memory palaces like a homuncular Danny Torrence.

Is there any writing that is not an enumeration or accounting? Or am I list-mad? Is literature anything more than the act of clothing naked lists with artful “craft”? Disguising the simple iteration of what is? And—if we’re all just writing lists—why hide it? The authority of the list remains unshaken. As I read it now, I do not suspect anything has been left off Lévi-Strauss’s, at least nothing worth mentioning, and when his words reach me a half-century later and I know that all he saw and smelled is gone, the list stands as irrefutable evidence of that vanished world. Only later do its flaws appear, the standard ones—the gazes, white male and European—and by then I’ve moved on to the next diversion.