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The limits of narration: lists and literary history.

This special issue of Style proposes a topic of wide relevance for the formal and material discussion of enumerations: that it is possible to write a literary history of lists. The lists the contributors are concerned with are embedded in narrative contexts; thus this project could also be termed a literary history of form--of the formal feature of the list. At first sight, such a project may appear to be irrelevant, perhaps even impossible, given the simplicity of the form and its ubiquity. However, the opposite is the case. The seven authors make compelling cases for the significance of lists in literature, demonstrating that a literary history of lists, or rather, a literary history told through the feature of the list, is highly relevant. Such a "listory" brings together form and function, content and context, as well as genre and meaning and sheds new light on the interrelatedness of form and function across the centuries. At the same time, our undertaking also brings to the fore the limits of narration, which are inherent in the list as an element that defies the sequentiality of narrative and breaks open the successive flow of events. The diachronic trajectory spans more than two millennia: starting with ancient epic, the contributors cover classical and medieval examples of lists, the early modern period, the eighteenth and nineteenth century novel, and modernist as well as postmodernist fiction. At the heart of all essays lie the questions of how to define the list as a formal element, which functions it fulfills in a particular historical and generic context, and what its implications are with respect to the continuity of form in literary history. Hence the special issue makes a significant contribution to the ongoing debate of formalism in a diachronic perspective. Most crucially, the articles suggest that lists are used at potentially precarious moments of literary history and hence indicative of breaks, ruptures, paradigm shifts, and new negotiations emerging at the interface of form and context.


In everyday life, lists are so common that we barely even notice them--they are mere tools to remember things and events (shopping lists, calendars) and to plan ahead (to-do lists, grocery lists, bucket lists). The new technologies further support our list-making propensity: the Internet consists of numerous lists in various forms, from the list-structure of Google and the entries on a news page all the way to social media services and hugely popular sites such as Buzzfeed or Listserve, which are made up of nothing but lists. The newly coined blend "listicle" (list + article) describes the phenomenon of condensing information into the form of a list. As anthropologists have shown, lists and literacy are intimately connected. In the early high civilizations the itemization of knowledge, which in the form of the list could be reordered and restructured anew, marked a caesura in the development of thinking (Goody 78). Anthropologically, lists are first and foremost practical devices: the earliest forms of lists are administrative, mnemonic, or didactic. (1) Its firm ties with practical functions for its users made the list a highly versatile and flexible instrument, a primary function that it has maintained up to this day. Special forms of the list such as calendars, indices, genealogies, inventories, registers, dictionaries, and almanacs have ceaselessly served important practical purposes as devices for storing, ordering, and managing information. (2) The various forms and practical uses of the list provide ample evidence for their significance and remarkable longevity. It may not be an exaggeration to refer to the list as one of humankind's constants as a practice and device.

In view of the significance of lists in everyday contexts, it is small wonder that listing structures and enumerations have always found their way into literature. As a truly "simple form," the list can be straightforwardly incorporated into and be identified within a narrative while (and because) it forms a discrete unit within the text. (3) Thinking about lists and literature, then, implies a strong formal focus. Above all, the list is a formal device, and its analysis requires taking into account the idiosyncratic formal elements of a particular list in the context in which it occurs. The great advantage of being concerned with such a distinct form is that one can both concentrate on the list as a formal element across a range of texts and go beyond it by taking the fixed form as a starting point for further considerations about literariness, genre, literary history, and the functions of the literary text.

Despite the pejorative connotation that still clings to "formalism," the focus on the formal aspects of a work--narrative techniques, methods, textual strategies, elements--allows for seeing above all how a work is structured before one can proceed to analyze the functions and meanings of this structure. Obviously, this second step is crucial: the identification and isolation of formal elements are not ends in themselves but the beginning of a hermeneutics of interpretation. According to Ellen Rooney, the acute attention to form allows for overcoming the prevalent reductionist reading for themes: "Formalism is a matter not of barring thematizations but of refusing to reduce reading entirely to the elucidation, essentially the paraphrase, of themes--theoretical, ideological, or humanistic" (38). Hence in her outline of a "new formalism," Rooney envisages a theoretical practice that does not read form "for its own sake," but as "acknowledging the work that form does in every imaginable text" (45). (4) Samuel Otter argues that "form" "refers to disposition, contour, structure, and specificity. It opens, rather than closes, questions about the relations of parts to wholes and inside to outside... To attend to form, an object of sense and thought, is to press those relations and to assess the circumstances of perception" (118). Indeed, form brings together "sense" and "thought" exactly because form is not self-sufficient but always indicative of something else. Form makes sense structurally as well as ideationally. To lay open this intricate web of relations may be the actual secret of a successful analysis beginning with form.

Related to the two sides of form are Aristotle and Plato's divergent views on the connections between form and things: while Plato believed that "form is the idea that precedes the thing," Aristotle maintained that "form is the attribute that gives things their distinctive being." (5) What unites the two views, according to Christopher Cannon, is to conceive of them in terms of a movement "from one of these states to the other, as the informing of raw materials according to the script of some idea, as the forming of an object guided by some thought" ("Form" 177). Cannon argues that an analysis of form "takes neither a thing nor a thought as its analytic object but, rather, the common ground between them; its founding premise is that form is that which thought and things have in common" (Grounds 5; emphasis in the original). This common ground between thought and things is particularly fertile in the form of the list, which is a figure of thought and yet, while the list as a whole already suggests a thingness of its own, is very often preoccupied in the items that are listed, with things.

An additional aspect when interpreting lists in literature is, apart from their ideational content, the question of style and structure. Medieval scholastic theory distinguished between the forma tractandi, the "mode of proceeding," or the processual aspect of a work's style, versus the forma tractatus, which referred to the rather fixed and very basic categories of chapter or book divisions, number of stanzas and lines, and so forth. (6) This distinction between form as style and form as structure is useful for analyzing the internal logic of a list, which can be described both in their basic structural terms (quantity of items, their length, their divisions, etc.) and in their stylistic arrangement (syntax, connections between items, register, etc.).7 Importantly, thinking about lists always requires a twofold take: on the one hand, there is the list as a whole, that is, the framework of the list, and on the other hand, there are the individual items with their specific principles of order or disorder. Both of these takes are enmeshed with the question of purpose: indeed, as D. Vance Smith notes with respect to the medieval context, form "is neither merely aesthetic nor aesthetically disinterested; it is always tuned to purpose" (71).

Two further aspects require a brief explanation: our definition of "list," and the choice of texts. The term "list" is used as a hypernym that comprises special forms such as the catalogue and the genealogy, and rhetorical figures such as enumeration and accumulation. Robert Belknap suggests the following useful definition:

At its most simple, a list is a framework that holds separate and disparate items together. More specifically, it is a formally organized block of information that is composed of a set of members. It is a plastic, flexible structure in which an array of constituent units coheres with specific relations generated by specific forces of attraction. Generally such structures may be built to appear random, or they may be organized by some overt principle. (35-36)

Based on Belknap, and simplifying his description, one could argue that a list is a set of items assembled in a formal unit. This formal unit may be more or less prototypically list-like: a prototypical list does not use any syntactical framework whatsoever, that is, the items of the list follow one after the other and do not feature conjunctions or other connectives. A more open, less prototypical list-structure, by contrast, is embedded syntactically, that is, the items of the list form part of a sentence and are linked by connectives. Also, what counts as an "item" may vary: in prototypical lists, each item is usually relatively short and elliptic, whereas in other lists--such as the catalogue, for instance--one item may be a full sentence or even a short paragraph of several sentences. The overall list is then made up of a set of parallel sentences or paragraphs describing, or relating to, a shared topic or theme.

As to the choice of texts, all contributions focus on lists that are embedded in a narrative context: any free-floating lists, that is, texts that are nothing but a list, such as a to-do list, are excluded from this special issue. Whenever a to-do list features in a narrative context--as, for instance, the New Year's resolutions put down by Bridget Jones in Helen Fielding's novel--then these are of potential interest. "Narrative context" means both poetry and prose genres from the medieval to the modern period, in other words, texts that tell a story. Lyric is likewise excluded from our corpus because it is not concerned with "narrative" in the sense of emplotment.


To approach literary history from the perspective of lists is admittedly not an obvious undertaking. In view of the mundaneness of the list as a practical device, one could raise the question whether lists are a literary feature in the first place. Indeed, one could argue that lists, as inherently nonnarrative elements, constitute "the Other" in a literary work. Such an approach ties in with the fact that in narratological debates, lists are frequently mentioned in the context of description. Description is in itself a problematic category that has only recently returned to narratological attention. (8) Descriptions have traditionally been conceptualized in opposition to narration, as that which causes a pause in the narrative flow of events. While narration moves forward and always allows for deducing at least some sense of sequentiality, description has this flow come to a halt and opens up a narrative space that is a sequential and a-temporal with respect to the rest of the narrative. The strict opposition between description and narration as two distinct modes has been challenged, and rightly so. According to Ruth Ronen, narrative and description are remarkably similar with respect to their functions: "narrative fulfills a representational function no less often than descriptions impose narrative order" (284). If one conceives of both narration and description as cognitive frames "that serve to organize representations," as Werner Wolf argues, then the main difference is merely that narration focuses on "actantional representations implying motivated and (e.g., causally and teleologically) meaningful changes of situations," whereas descriptions are concerned with "existential" phenomena: while the typical suggestion of narrative is that "something happened because of something else and led to a certain end," the typical suggestion of description is simply that "something is there and like that" (33-34).

The same rough distinction can also be drawn between lists, which are "existential" contrasted to the narrative--that is, "actantial"--context in which they are used. The two are then regarded as two poles on a continuum that may verge on one another to a greater or lesser degree. Such an approach is constructive because it does not attempt to gloss over the difference we clearly perceive between that which is narrated and that which is listed. It is the purpose of narrative theory not only to recognize such instances of potential rupture in narrative texts, but also to acknowledge and analyze their occurrences as prime generators of tension created in and through a particular text. It seems pertinent in this context to recall Gerard Genette's warning that we should not give in "to the idea or feeling that narrative tells itself" but instead pay careful attention "to the singular, artificial, and problematic aspect of the narrative act" (127, emphasis in the original). Lists are one of the most obvious elements in narrative texts that remind us of the constructedness of the discourse, and with it its potential problematic aspects. Lists resist the immersive impetus and challenge readers on a cognitive level, requiring, to varying degrees, strategies of familiarization and narrativization in order to make sense of their meaning.

Let me go one step further: against the backdrop of the differences between narration and description, it becomes possible to draw an analogy between lists and literariness. This is another pair that suggests a dichotomy, given the practical usage of lists in everyday life. As a formal element, however, lists can contribute to literariness just as much (or as little) as other formal features. In fact, lists and literariness are intimately connected: lists provide a means of pushing the boundaries of narration, of negotiating meaning, of exploring the roles of poet and narrator, and of playing with the audience's expectation. All of these functions can be aligned more generally with questions of literariness. That which makes a piece of writing "literary" can be said to be situated at the crossroads of form and meaning, at a point where the two become particularly dense, or, alternatively, particularly translucent and open. A useful indicator that allows for measuring these issues is the notion of experientiality: to what degree are readers invited or thwarted to engage with the contents of the lists? In other words, the ultimate question is not whether lists are literary, but rather, how they actively promote literariness in the trajectory of experientiality. (9) Crucially, I do not claim that any list can have these effects, nor that by simply scrutinizing lists it becomes possible to deduce general qualities of the text in which they are used. But let me stress that there is a wide range of texts in which lists feature prominently, and on the grounds of their analysis, it is justified to attempt recalibrating literary history, as a history of form, through the lens of the list. In what follows, then, I am going to provide initial sketches of how such a "listory" could be told.


In terms of genre, the obvious starting point for a literary history of lists is the epic. The most heroic of genres features its special form of the list, which looms large in the tradition of all list-writing in literature: the catalogue. The following overview of epic catalogues does not claim to be comprehensive; it is exemplary, rather, and necessarily selective. The Ur-catalogue, for the Western tradition, is the catalogue of ships in the second book of Homer's Iliad, which strictly speaking, as Benjamin Sammons notes, "is not merely a catalogue of leaders, but a full description of the Achaean army divided into contingents" (136). The focus is put on the geographical origin of the ships and their leaders, which functions as the main internal cohesive device of the list. Disqualified by one critic as a "poetic absurdity" ("ein dichterisches Unding"), (10) the long list of Greek leaders and their fleets remain puzzling.

For a long time it was believed that the geography constituted the key to unlocking the catalogue's function: that the description was meant to be read as a map--whether heroic, or historical, or both--of ancient Greece, providing a Pan-Hellenic framework for the Trojan War. Yet, many of the place names cannot even be located while others seem to be purely fictitious, so that the overall "map" that is created does not allow for drawing general conclusions about a specific period of the Greek past The question of whether written sources underlie the catalogue, or whether it is an example of oral improvisation, has likewise dominated the scholarly debate, to no conclusive end. (11) What is certain, however, is the significance ascribed to the ship catalogue: it is introduced by a ten-line invocation of the Muses, in which the poet claims that without the Muses' help he would not be able to recall all the Greek leaders and their ships. The passage is thus marked twice: by the invocation, and by its form as catalogue.

It seems that both a strictly historical reading as well as a purely literary one are too narrow to comprise the complexities of the catalogue. From the perspective of literary history, however, the actual purpose of the ship catalogue for its intended audience, while relevant for understanding the history of the form, is not the most crucial aspect. Much more important, rather, is that the catalogue as a formal element was subsequently turned into a sine qua non for writers of epics in the Homeric tradition. Given the enormous influence of Greek literature on Roman literature, Roman authors followed Homer's cue and incorporated catalogues into their epics as well. Indeed, already in antiquity the catalogue was firmly established as one of the stock elements of the epic--Virgil, Ovid, Lucan, and Statius all include catalogues in their works. Often, these catalogues feature troops and tribes (or both): Virgil enumerates the Italic people as well as the Etruscans, and thus, like Homer, combines geography and ethnography, while Lucan lists Caesar's troops just after the crossing of the Rubicon, and Statius presents his readers with the Argives and their captains in the fourth book of the Thebaid. (12) Turning away from the military context, Ovid in the Metamorphoses, in a mock-epic vein, enumerates trees (in the story of Orpheus) and dogs (in Actaeon's metamorphosis into a stag). (13) Here the model is not the ship catalogue, but the general tendency of epic to include lists of people or things, such as the women Odysseus saw in Hades, the catalogue of Nereids when Thetis mourns for Patroklos, the exemplary list of Dione in which she comforts her daughter Aphrodite, and the list of ransom Priam assembles as an offering. (14) Tree lists also feature in Virgil, Lucan, Statius, and Claudian's De Raptu Proserpinae. (15)

These latter lists--not strictly speaking the epic catalogue, but the epic predilection for lists of various sorts--retained their importance throughout the Middle Ages. The Old English heroic epic Beowulf, for instance, features a number of shorter lists, such as Hrothgar's list of how Beowulf may find death and Beowulf's account of the hall in Denmark. (16) Later medieval poets engaged with the ancient traditions directly and referenced epic catalogues in intertextual variation. Thus Geoffrey Chaucer incorporates a tree list in the dream vision The Parliament of Fowls as well as in The Knight's Tale. The Knight's Tale is based on Boccaccio's epic Teseida, from which Chaucer took the list of trees and altered its items and the overall number (17):
   PL: But, Lord, so I was glad and wel begoon!
   For overal where that I myne eyen caste
   Were trees clad with leves that ay shal laste,
   Ech in his kynde, of colour fresh and greene
   As emeraude, that joye was to seene.

   The byldere ok, and ek the hardy asshe;
   The piler elm, the cofre unto carayne;
   The boxtre pipere, holm to whippes lashe;
   The saylynge fyr; the cipresse, deth to playne;
   The shetere ew; the asp for shaftes pleyne;
   The olyve of pes, and eke the dronke vyne;
   The victor palm, the laurer to devyne. (171-82)

   KT: But how the fyr was maked upon highte,
   Ne eek the names that the trees highte,
   As ook, firre, birch, aspe, alder, holm, popler,
   Wylugh, elm, plane, assh, box, chasteyn, lynde, laurer,
   Mapul, thorn, bech, hasel, ew, whippeltree--
   How they weren feld shal nat be toold for me[.] (2919-24)

Already in these two passages it becomes obvious how the epic element has been transformed and creatively functionalized in its new contexts. Both lists are clearly employed in full awareness of their epic heritage, yet to very different ends: in the Parliament of Fowls, Chaucer displays his own erudition and playfully claims epic space. In this case, the experiential quality of the passage is suppressed: the self-fashioning throws the poet into sharper relief and only includes the audience in so far as they may feel flattered to catch the gesture to epic. Put differently, one may say that the very literariness of the transformed epic list is privileged here, which does not have a bearing on the plot of the poem. It constitutes a meta-poetic reference. The very same function of the tree list also applies to Edmund Spenser's list of trees: the eighth and ninth stanzas of the Faerie Queene (1590) are modeled upon Virgil and Chaucer's tree lists and, at a very early stage in the poem, make claims of literary tradition and poetic succession. (18)

In the Knight's Tale, by contrast, the tree list has decidedly tragic overtones: it describes the funeral pyre prepared for the young knight Arcite. Through the enumeration of the trees, the cosmic dimension of the epic is exploited in order to give weight to the final message of the tale in which the romance genre is overshadowed by a graver, indeed, epic, air. Crucially, the description is negated; the poet does not want to name everything in detail and yet, in employing the praeteritio, does so. Even though the list is relatively short, its semantic density and counterfactual claim heightens the feeling of loss and despair, but also of the inescapability of the events within the larger scheme of the world. Hence here the list in its reduced and stylized urgency draws the audience into the melancholic mood of the passage and is both a literary nod to the epic and a trigger for experientiality.

Of course, epic catalogues of the ship type also find numerous successors in the medieval and early modern periods: the Siege of Thebes, by John Lydgate, is a case in point. The romance recounts the fight between Eteocles and Polynices about who is to rule Thebes. The third part features a straightforward epic catalogue of the kings assembling upon King Adrastus's request in order to support Polynices' cause: (19)
   And as I rede, ful worthy of degree
   Thider cam first Prothonolope,
   The which was, by recorde of wrvting.
   Of Archada sone to the kyng.
   And fill prudent found in werre and pees
   Ther kam also the kyng Cylmythenes.
   And as I fvnde, ful famous of renoun
   Thyder cam ek the kyng Ypemedoun.
   And passing all of knyghthode and of name
   And excellyng by worthynesse of fame,
   The noble kyng callyd Campaneus
   Kam ek to Arge, the story telleth us,
   Proved ful wel and hadde ryden ferre,
   And thider kam the kyng Melleager,
   Kyng Genor ek that helde his royal sete,
   Mvn autour seith, in the lond of Crete,
   Kyng Laeris and the kyng Pyrrus,
   And ek the kyng called Tortolanus. (2597-614)

Though clearly epic in scope and tone, this passage lacks the bold authority with which Chaucer stages himself as a poet. Instead, Lydgate is cautious to acknowledge his sources and the supposed authority he follows (see the underlined phrases). Writing in the early fifteenth century, Lydgate is acutely aware of his potentially precarious position as a writer, dependent on his patrons, which holds him back even in the catalogue. The overall result--which corresponds to the impression one gains when reading the whole poem--is one of a deep tension between the inherent demands of the genre and Lydgate's torn position between aspiring to be an epic poet and his status as unofficial royal poet who is not writing for a particular patron. (20) The frequent narratorial intrusions hinder the mimetic illusion, an illusion that is already obstructed by the form of the catalogue and its loose connection to the plot.

In the seventeenth century, John Milton, too, firmly ranks himself in the tradition of epic poets: his strategy is one of subverting the paradigm of catalogue writing. In the first book of Paradise Lost (1667), the legions of Satan and their rulers who follow Satan's call are presented in the form of a catalogue. The introduction recalls the Iliadic beginning of the ship catalogue: "Say, Muse, their names then known, who first, who last, / Roused from the slumber on that fiery couch, / At their great Emperor's call" (I.376-78). (21) The procession of devils follows, which, like Homer and Virgil's catalogues, are mixed with topographical information. The first to enter is Moloch, "horrid king, besmeared with blood / Of human sacrifice and parents' tears" (I.392-93); followed by "Chemos, th' obscene dread of Moab's sons" (I.406). Upon Chemos, Baalim, and Ashtaroth follow (see I.422), then Thammuz (I.446), and finally Belial (I.490). Upon closer inspection, Milton's list of devils defies the traditional parameters of epic catalogues. Earlier catalogues, even in their playful and humorous manifestations, still assumed the fixedness and clear identification of the items that were enumerated, often coupled with claims of quasi-universal validity. Especially the lists of heroes or troops were fundamentally based upon the (real or imagined) ascription of their stable place in the overall order. The devils, however, haunt or inhabit various places simultaneously, and are venerated in diverse places. Moloch is said to be worshipped in Rabba, Argon, and Basan (I.397-98), while Chemos spans even more regions (22):
   Next Chemos, th' obscene dread of Moab's sons,
   From Aroer to Nebo and the wild
   Of southmost Abarim, in Hesebon
   And Horonaim, Seon's realm, beyond
   The flow'ry dale of Sibma clad with vines,
   And Eleale to th' Asphaltic Pool. (I.406-11)

What is more, the devils can assume any form or shape, and often bear several names. Chemos's "other name" is Peor (I.412); Astoreth is called "Astarte, Queen of Heav'n" (I.439) by the Phoenicians; and Baalim and Ashtaroth, being spirits, "can either sex assume or both, so soft / And uncompounded is their essence pure" (I.424-25). Thus, instead of signaling wholeness and authority, Milton's devils deconstruct the very same values associated with the form in which they occur. The catalogue of devils, then, can be read as a condensation of Paradise Lost, an epic in nuce: the multiple gaps opened up between form and content, between traditional claims and actual realization, between the classical past (in the form) and the Christian theme, and thus between the attraction of temptation and the moral challenge of living in a post-Edenic world. Experientiality is evoked through the juxtaposition of the epic form with Christian narrative, which call one another in question and unsettle the audience in their daring undercurrent of moral stability and instability.

Another set of catalogues that playfully undermines the epic tradition--but on much less serious grounds--can be found in Alexander Pope's mock epic The Rape of the Lock (1712/1714; 1717). (23) As the translator of Homer, Pope was well versed in the art of epic. He creates his satire not by subtly undermining form and theme, but by replacing epic gravity with the light-heartedness and triviality of the commodities of beauty. Two mini-catalogues come close to providing a frame for the poem: Belinda's dressing table in Canto I and the 'lost and found' located in the lunar sphere in Canto V:

   The inferior priestess, at her altar's side,
   Trembling begins the sacred rites of Pride.
   Unnumbered treasures ope at once, and here
   The various offerings of the world appear
   From each she nicely culls with curious toil,
   And decks the Goddess with the glittering spoil.
   This casket India's glowing gems unlocks,
   And all Arabia breathes from yonder box.
   The tortoise here and elephant unite,
   Transformed to combs, the speckled, and the white.
   Here files of pins extend their shining rows,
   Puffs, powders, patches, bibles, billet-doux. (127-38)


   Some thought [the lock] mounted to the lunar sphere,
   Since all things lost on earth are treasured there.
   There heroes' wits are kept in ponderous vases,
   And beaux' in snuff-boxes and tweezer cases.
   There broken vows and deathbed alms are found,
   And lovers' hearts with ends of riband bound,
   The courtier's promises, and sick man's prayers,
   The smiles of harlots, and the tears of heirs,
   Cages for gnats, and chains to yoke a flea,
   Dried butterflies, and tomes of casuistry. (113-22)

While Milton's catalogue is at least significant in terms of what is being enumerated--the devils gathering in hell--Pope empties the catalogue of its substance by listing trifles (in the first case) and ephemeralities (in the second case). Belinda's dressing table, ironically inflated to an altar at which "the sacred rites of Pride" (I.128) are performed, is a hotchpotch of female beauty accessories. In addition, both "bibles" and "billet-doux" (I.138) are interspersed in the cosmetics. Drawn together by alliteration and their ontological difference from the pins, puffs, powders, and patches, the two sets of writing form an impossible pair: as part of the rites of Pride, the love letters can be seen as the extension, or rather, the successful result, of Belinda's focus on her outward appearance. (24) The bibles, by contrast, call the whole passage into question: the plural suggests both indifference and insignificance, reducing the book of books to a reproducible commodity that is purely decorative rather than a moral institution. In the fifth canto, Pope proceeds similarly: he lists that which cannot be counted or kept (wits, vows, hearts, promises, prayers, smiles, tears, as well as the pseudo-scientific adynata "cates for gnats, and chains to yoke a flea"; V.121). Like the dried butterflies, which can fall apart at the slightest touch, this catalogue disintegrates if one challenges its meaning. Pope's mock-epic catalogues propel the reader to embark on the limits of signification. Textual authority is deconstructed against the backdrop of the epic and its claims of meaningfulness and significance. At the same time, experientiality is reconfigured as the experience of playful textuality, which is both exhilarating and frustrating.

As a final example of what has become quite a catalogue in itself, I turn to a contemporary example: Fredy Neptune by the Australian poet Les Murray. The epic, published in 1999, recounts in five books the unlikely story of the eponymous hero, Fredy Boettcher. Born of German ancestry in Australia, Fredy develops super-powers after a traumatic incident on one of his many travels (he witnesses the genocide of Armenian women by the Turks). In Kentucky, he is forced to join a community of strongmen led by mad Basil Thoroblood. The men in the community are introduced in a catalogue:

So there was the butcher's block man, the only Australian; his name was Tiny Calser, which I found out was McAlister. There was Jesus' true servant, that worked in the gardens on his own and was called just Iowa. There was Hortensius O Morahan known as Hort: he was a circus trouper. There was a fat man who slept a lot and never worked but put the front gate back on where Tiny couldn't; he had been hung and lived, they said; he gave his name as Sibling.

Another circus veteran was Tommy Dynamic, who never stopped skipping and pumping and slapping on powder by the fistful. Peyrefitte was a quicksilver smiling fellow built like scaffolding, thin and jointy: I couldn't see how he'd be strong. Adelphus was a burning quiet angry man,

one of only a few that ever put the wind up me and I've never quite grasped why. That leaves Iron Rees who was frightened of something; he said Strength will never save you,

and trained like a demon, and last was Bulba Domeyko. He was truly what Thoroblood called him, the Short Giant. (Book 3, 120)

Murray's catalogue harks back to the Homeric model of providing names with additional information. As in the classical catalogues and its followers (such as Lydgate), this list is one of, literally, strong men: Tiny Calser, Hortensius O Morahan, Sibling, Tommy Dynamic, Peyrefitte, Adelphus, Iron Rees, and Bulba Domeyko. These men, however, are not heroes or famous kings; they are an eclectically formed group of stranded men, all prone to violence and crime. Not at all dissimilar to Paradise Lost, we can indeed find traces of Miltonic openness and suspension of authority, which clashes with the claims of the genre. For instance, four of the nine characters bear two names (Tiny Calser, called McAlister; Jesus's servant--Iowa; Hortensius O Morahan-Hort; Bulba Domeyko-Short Giant). In contrast to the earlier examples, this catalogue is an example of homodiegetic narration, which further enhances the deferral of authority. (25) Fredy relies on his own perception of the men as well as on their self-description and their description by others ("they said"; "he said"). The narrator's limited perspective strongly qualifies his catalogue ("I couldn't see"; "I've never quite grasped why"). The tendency to comment upon the items on the list, and to base them on one's own judgment and analysis rather than on a different source of authority clearly marks off this catalogue as a modern one. Because of the narrator's personal involvement in the list, the list loses its air of otherness and separation from the main plot. The readers are led through the description and can share Fredy's attempt at making sense of the men around him.


Let me draw a preliminary conclusion. My focus on the epic catalogue and its tradition is perhaps the most obvious choice for a literary history of lists. Yet it is striking that in discussions of the genre and its development, the catalogue tends to be marginalized. For instance, in the 1999 edited collection Epic Traditions in the Contemporary World, there is only one single reference to epic cataloguing--in a footnote. (26) Likewise, the 2010 Cambridge Companion to the Epic mentions the catalogue only three times in total, in very brief references. (27) In the foregone analyses, however, we have witnessed the pervasive stability of form, partly due to the weight of tradition, partly due to the potential of the catalogue as a formal element. Franco Moretti has argued that "form is precisely the repeatable element of literature: what returns fundamentally unchanged over many cases and many years. This, then, is what formalism can do for literary history: teach it ... to recognize instead the regularity of the literary field. Its patterns, its slowness. Formalism and literary history; or, literature repeats itself" (301, emphasis in the original). In the case of the epic catalogue, however, literature does not repeat itself, at least not functionally: on the contrary, it is repetition with variation, induced by the changing demands of taste and time, and by new audiences, which lead to new spheres of experientiality that are opened up. The writers' commitment to tradition can be realized in various different ways: by imitating, emulating, revising, alluding to, subverting, undermining, and creatively reinventing the form of the catalogue. The awareness of a form as traditional and stable as the epic catalogue is by no means limiting but, on the contrary, both challenging and liberating because it provides the security of a formal frame while allowing for the exploitation of this frame in creative infinity. What emerges from my brief overview of the epic catalogue is a shift in the functions of the lists--from creating authority and making authoritative claims to undermining authority and introducing playful mundaneness. At the same time, there is also a discernible shift in the readers' involvement in the catalogue, from external observer to accomplice in the game to the reader's active involvement in following the first-person narrator.

The list, then, is far from being (to use D. Vance Smith's phrase) aesthetically disinterested: by testing and transgressing the limits of narration, lists challenge our reading habits and force us to leave the comfort zone of sequential reading and reading for the plot. In their protean usage they can take many different shapes, yet their basic configuration as list is always readily identifiable. Where does form begin? Perhaps "the list," as the abstraction from any actual realizations in literary texts, is a non-form; it is the narrative and literary "Other" that does not narrate. The list as abstraction is a device and a practice, inextricably linked to the list-maker and her cognitive input. Whenever it is incorporated in a narrative, however, the list becomes form: the form given by the work in question (the epic catalogue, New Year's resolutions, Robin Crusoe's list of items assembled from the wreck, etc.), that prompts the reader to read the list narratively as form and hence to make it meaningful in and for the context in which it occurs. These issues will be explored more fully in the following articles. Lists, because they encapsulate the tensions and fascinations of narration and dis-narration, are a perfect way of throwing new light on the complex interplay of the creation of meaning in and through narratives, of involving the readers in the processes of sense-making, and, ultimately, of the inextricable connection between form and function that lies at the heart of all literature.

Eva von Contzen


EVA VON CONTZEN is assistant professor of English literature at the University of Freiburg, Germany. She received her PhD on medieval saintsrature at the University of Freiburg. Her research focuses on historical narratology, the forms and practices of medieval narration, saints' legends, and the reception of ancient literature in the medieval and early modern periods. She is the author of The Scottish Legendary: Towards a Poetics of Hagiographic Narration and has co-published an edition and commentary of Marco Girolamo Vida's sixteenth-century epic poem Christiad and a volume on Sanctity as Literature. Her current book project is devoted to the functions of lists in literary texts from antiquity to postmodernism.


(1.) See Veldhuis for more detail.

(2.) A significant aspect of all list-making is power: the list imposes and creates order (who or what is on the list and on which position?). A special and hugely influential case in this context are genealogies, in particular those of the Bible. See, for example, the genealogies in Gen and l Chr 1-10.

(3.) My use of the term "simple form" is different from Andre Jolles's, who uses it as a heuristics for genre analysis.

(4.) The proclaimed "new formalism" is in fact strongly indebted to practices of reading and interpreting that scholars have always been committed to, even if they are largely unaware of it. See Mitchell.

(5.) See Plato, Parmenides, 920-56 (ed. Hamilton and Cairns); Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1552-728 (ed. Barnes).

(6.) The two formae are divisions of one of the formal causes, one of the four Aristotelian causes (material cause; final cause; efficient cause).

(7.) See Minnis, esp. Chapter 4.

(8.) See Fludernik and Keen; Niinning; Sternberg; Wolf. Hamon's studies remain crucial (Introduction; Description).

(9.) Monika Fludernik has introduced the notion of experientiality in Towards a 'Natural' Narratology; it refers to "the quasi-mimetic evocation of 'real-life experience'" (12).

(10.) Jachtnann, cited by Sammons on 5.

(11.) See, for example, Kuhlmann; Kullmann.

(12.) Verg. Aen. 7.641-817 and 10.163-214; Lucan. 1.392-465; Stat. Theb. 4.1-344.

(13.) See Ov. Met. 10.86-105 and 1.206-25 respectively. In Horn. Od. 24.366-44, Odysseus, trying to prove his identity to Laertes, recounts how Laertes named the trees for him when he was a little boy.

(14.) The passages are the following: Od. 11.235-327; II. 18.38-49; 5.382-405; 24.228-37.

(15.) See Verg. Aen. 6.179-82; Lucan. 3.440-45; Stat. Theb. 6.98-106; Claud. 2.107-11.

(16.) See 1762b-68 and 2107-13a respectively (Swanton). Hrothgar's list in particular is strongly reminiscent of the gnomic tradition and harks back to the enumerations of the kind we find in Old English wisdom literature such as the Maxims. See Howe.

(17.) Boccaccio has eighteen trees, Chaucer twenty-one (of which ten correspond to Boccaccio's). See in more detail Boitani. All references from Chaucer refer to the edition by Benson.

(18.) See Hamilton.

(19.) For the text, see Edwards.

(20.) Or so it seems--it has been suggested that Henry V's brother, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, may have been the addressee.

(21.) All references from Milton are taken from the edition by Teskey.

(22.) On the shape and structure of the catalogue within the larger context of Book 1, see Quint.

(23.) Famously, the poem was inspired by an incident that caused considerable stir between two Roman Catholic families in 1711: Lord Robert Petre had cut off a lock of Arabella Fermor's head. For the text, see Greenblatt at 2686-704.

(24.) The actual goddess in the passage is not Belinda herself but her mirror image rather ("a heavenly Image in the Glass appears, / To that she bends, to that her Eyes she rears"; 11. 125-26). The passage recalls Eve "pined with vain desire" (Paradise Lost IV.466) when she looks at her image in a pool (IV.456-75)--a passage that in turn goes back to Narcissus in Ovid's Metamorphoses (3.407-36). Milton's passage was quoted in an issue of the Spectator in 1712 and hence available as a point of comparison to Milton's readers. See Kinsley 270.

(25.) The Parliament of Fowls is also told by a first-person narrator, yet here the narrator does not come to the fore in the catalogue. In The Siege of Thebes, Lydgate's heterodiegetic narrator includes himself in the catalogue through metanarrative comments, which, though, are located on a different narrative level.

(26.) In the chapter by Farrell, note 24. See Beissinger et al.

(27.) See Bates. The references occur in the chapters by Loewenstein, Bates, and Freccero.


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