Arthur, Chris, Contemporary Review
OFTEN, the books that really influence us are neither the bearers of profound ideas nor works of any great literary accomplishment. They are, rather, those accidental volumes that just happened to be there, accompanying our growing up, or that we came across by chance at moments in our lives that made us particularly susceptible to them. Such susceptibility, unsurprisingly, is most pronounced in childhood. Though I'd find a place in any auto-bibliography for a selection of expected names, if I was honest about which books shaped me I'd also have to include some far less well known candidates. These, assessed on any objective scale of merit, would have no claim to canonicity. Despite this, they are for me as important as any approved syllabus of classics.
It would raise few eyebrows to include works by Plato, Thucydides, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Austen, Orwell, Joyce, on the list of books that left their mark. Such names successfully court the approbation of general cultural approval. But alongside these thoroughbred authors, capable of conferring an instant aura of respectability on the bloodline of my reading, there is a mongrel crowd of others, unsanctioned, illegitimate, whose rogue presence compromises any claim to intellectual purity or literary good breeding. Prominent among these outlaw bibliogenes--the sinistral current of the accidental, the individual, meandering alongside orthodoxy's channelled dextral flow--would be Hans Hvass's Mammals of the World. It's not the kind of book that can claim the licence of widespread recognition. It's neither original nor profound. Stylistically, it's quite ordinary. But, for all its modest status, it left a deep impression on me.
My memory of its provenance is hazy. I think the book was a Christmas or birthday present from my parents--a response to, and further stimulus of, my interest in animals and the natural world. The original was published in Danish in 1956 as Alverdens Pattedyr. My English translation (by Gwynne Vevers) is dated 1961, though whether it was given to me that year, or sometime later, is uncertain. In 1961, I was six. Certainly the handwritten name and address on the front endpaper corresponds in style to someone of around that age--the laborious shaping of each individual letter fracturing the words with its staccato awkwardness. The effort of shaping my name and address shows in the pressure exerted to do it--more akin to that needed for engraving than for writing, leaving the paper permanently indented by the gouged trough of the lead's clumsy ploughing progress. This juvenile mark of ownership contains no trace of the easy flow one associates with the fluent penmanship of adulthood.
Mammals of the World is profusely illustrated. Wilhelm Eigener's colour pictures were appealing and introduced me to a whole range of species I'd not come across before--serval, ocelot, anoa, orongo, tarsier--but the book's impact wasn't at a pictorial level, nor was what I took away from it primarily zoological. What fascinated me about it was the way it constituted a list. In fact Hans Hvass's book is, essentially, a linked series of lists with illustrations of the items they enumerate. Instead of chapters, it's structured according to the major families within the mammal group. Pages are divided into sections dealing with primates, ungulates, whales, rodents, carnivores, marsupials and so on. Then, within each of these divisions, alongside Eigener's illustrations, the species that belong to them arc listed, with brief notes, detailing habitat, distribution, behaviour and so on.
I was spellbound by this framework of types, its systematic inclusiveness, the way it offered a place for each mammal of the world. It opened up entrancing possibilities of mapping life's rich abundance--almost catching it--on the page. The order that it offered had about it a kind of austere elegance that I considered beautiful, even exciting--it seemed like a skilfully worked magical lasso, capable of catching all manner of creatures in its effortlessly thrown loops of graceful classification.
Many children would probably have been inspired by Mammals of the World to copy out their favourite picture. In my case this would undoubtedly have been the Beech Martin (Martes foina), an animal I've never seen in the flesh and so have not been able to establish how closely it approximates to the improbably cute, elfin-looking creature Eigener has drawn on the page. I remember looking at it often, but I don't think 1 ever did drawings inspired by Hvass's book. Instead, Mammals of the World made me want to construct a list of my own.
Hans Hvass makes clear at the start of his book that in fact it only includes a relatively small selection of the world's mammals, now reckoned to number over 5,000 species in total. Even so, to accommodate all the animals he includes required much more than a single page, and a notebook somehow didn't seem quite right. I was looking for something that would reflect the conlinuousness of a list, that would be both singular, unbroken, encompassing, yet able to catch a wide diversity of types. The serial division imposed by having things on separate pages seemed to risk severing into bits the lasso of naming and classification that so entranced me. I decided that a scroll would serve my purpose best. So, I cut paper into narrow columns--no more than a finger-length in width--sellotaped them together, and copied out in pencil with my heavy engraver's touch, the names of all the mammals in Hvass's book. The scroll could be rolled up for easy storage, an elastic band put round it, then unrolled for reading and adding additional names. When I'd finished I felt a sense of satisfying completion. The scroll made it almost seem as if I'd written out a single complex name capable of ordering within its many syllables a whole menagerie of types. Due to the heavy pressure I exerted on the pencil with my clumsy, unpractised touch, the obverse of the list was ridged, as if it bore upon it a simultaneous translation into crudest Braille.
Kneeling on the floor of my bedroom in our house in Lisburn, County Antrim, intently inscribing my list of mammals of the world on that homemade scroll, I was innocent of all those adult lists that were burgeoning around me, gathering up their cargoes of deadly consequence. Completely absorbed in the moment, in the way that only a child can be, my world was shielded from the forces that were inexorably pushing Northern Ireland towards its dark appointment with upheaval. The sombre lists of unemployment, poverty, discrimination, blinkered intransigence were swelling daily towards a point of rupture. Terence O'Neill would shortly come to power. His premiership in 1963 seemed to offer a narrow window of opportunity for a breeze of curative change to blow through the Province. But the opportunity was lost. When he resigned on April 28, 1969, O'Neill said: 'I have tried to break the chains of ancient hatred'. Link by link they reasserted their hold so that the next three decades would itemize with grim reiteration the consequences of hugging ancient hatred so close that its hideous features become familiars. In each community its distorted and distorting contours were disguised by partisan mappings; atrocity and mayhem were allowed to happen under cover of 'Republican', 'Loyalist' and other masking names.
My mammals of the world is the list from childhood I remember best, my first and most ambitious. Beside its fat scrolled fullness a list of car registration numbers would probably come next, but it was a poor second. This was a later collaborative effort with torn-out pages from different notebooks glued stickily into a common jotter. My friends and I shared the numbers written down as vehicles drove past our various houses. The relative paucity of the finished list was as much a reflection of the fewer cars on the roads back then as of our quickly fading interest in so monotonous a catalogue. But I've often wondered since what stories our little log of numbers told, what journeys they mapped, what hidden tangles of passing lives they caught. Embedded in those anonymous numbers there were, I'm sure, sagas of love and endurance and betrayal. If we could have followed the passing vehicles whose numbers we noted down, traced out their journeys, eavesdropped on their occupants, we would have been led into the labyrinth of life in Ulster in the mid-1960s with its sectarian poisons fast pooling into the caustic distillate that was soon to erupt, branding the ugly signature of the Troubles so deeply on the communal psyche. But, like everyone else, we concentrated on the easily noted externals, the registration numbers of local assumption and valuation. Their bland simplicity obscured the nexus of causes and connections that seethed below the surface. Just a few years after she stood outside its front door, innocently noting down the numbers of passing cars, the house of one of my friends was gutted by a terrorist bomb. Now, I see that cameo scene as prophetically symbolic: our focus on what can be enumerated, listed, written in neat columns, tabulated. Below it all the while--unmapped and unmeasured--something darkly carnal began to flex its muscles.
As well as mammals of the world and car registrations, I had lists of birds seen in the garden, a list of different types of tree--complete with pressed leaves and bark rubbings showing the grain of the wood (these made by rubbing a brown wax crayon across a sheet of paper held closely against the trunk). I also had a list of all the books on my shelves, at that point almost exclusively on natural history, with the wonderful Ladybird and Observer series well represented. There were no doubt others too, but a list of lists is not my intention here. It is, rather, to reflect upon how strong the currents are in mind and heart that call out for lists, to recognize the power of the imperative behind making them; to ponder their strengths and weaknesses and see how the strategy that informs them is far more fundamental than our most obvious lists might suggest.
Lists are conceptual blood relatives of names. They share the urge to label, order and arrange, to crystallize something recognizable out of the mass of things we encounter. Lists are a kind of verbal equivalent of route maps. They offer the possibility of tracing in manageable symbols the daunting features of experience's physiognomy--a far more complex face than the visage presented to us by any landscape. Though I didn't recognize it back in 1961, my first list, pencil written on that crude scroll and simply copied out of Hans Hvass's book, provided a kind of annotated spine that enabled order to cohere into recognizable substance, allowed it to arise and stand upright in the morass of impressions that, without it, would quickly drown the mind in a disorientating deluge. Each tiny verbal vertebra--'mammal', 'primate', 'monkey', 'ape'--provided a cognitive pivot on which wider taxonomies than I was then capable of imagining could turn in their wheeling orbits of meaning, pulling things into place with the accumulated gravity of their declensions. Each one seemed to offer a key to meaning, unlocking doors that allowed me to take a small step forward in understanding the world. The realization only came later that they also locked me into their particular way of seeing (and of failing to see).
The desire to order things, to find palatable interpretations of the world, is at the heart of much of our endeavour. We are a pattern-seeking species hungry for the articulation of experience into sense and for those shapes of intelligibility by which the brute fact of being may be tamed into person-centred scale. We need to extract the distillate of navigable meaning from life's gargantuan liquid flow which, without our efforts to dam and irrigate it, would sweep us away in a tidal wave of incomprehension. Language is our primary tool in this. And though we soon grow beyond its obvious reliance on lists--those little collections of vocabulary and spelling that we're charged with learning in our early years at school and that act as stepping stones of fluency--it is its list-making potential that gives language much of the potency it has. Its codes of sounds and shapes enable us to name things, put them into categories, group them in different ways, discern in the pattern of our utterances a way through otherwise impassable terrain. The lists our words allow us to assemble are like harpoons that can pull from the water of experience a rich catch of meaning to feast on. Language's listing potential grafts human pitch onto the noise of existence. Left untuned by our talk, it would be a terrifying cacophony; we would be deafened by the roar of randomness. Without the enumerations provided by our lists--however incomplete they are, however superficial--the inexhaustible plenitude of things would soon overwhelm us. Lists are our scaffolding, our crutches, our walking sticks. Our edifices of sense lean heavily on them for support.
Lists can easily seem of only slight significance, constituting no more than ephemeral reminders of mundane tasks, or offering distracting assemblages of trivia. It's easy to dismiss them as unimportant--particularly if you bring to mind such arid formulations as: '20 films to watch before you die'; 'Hollywood's 10 sexiest women'; 'the world's richest people', 'America's most notorious serial killers' and other such vacuous assemblages. But lists are of far greater significance than such trivial instances suggest. How would we structure our understanding without them? Take away the pillars built by lists and watch how much of our knowledge would come tumbling down without them. Could any discipline dispense with lists? They provide the basis for our inquiries. History is structured around lists of who was and what they did. Science happens on a platform made substantially out of carefully compiled lists of substances and structures, of properties and precedents, of laws and exceptions to them. Lists form the backbone of our encyclopaedias and dictionaries, our gazetteers, catalogues, registers and databases. How would we do without the lists we rely on to achieve a whole array of practical day-to-day tasks--our shopping lists, our lists of names and addresses, times and places, ingredients, dos and don'ts? Lists are wired into the deep structure of language and provide much of the foundation on which our societies are built. Being on or off a list, seeing your name included or excluded, can carry a spectrum of implications from the terminal to the trivial. Without voters' rolls, registers of those newly born, married, dead, lists of account holders, who owes what to whom, payrolls, phone directories, stock exchange lists, duty rosters and cargo manifests, could the complex social structures we've created continue? Could communities happen on any scale without lists to nurture and support them?
There is at once a heroism and tragedy about our lists. They stand witness to our determination to make sense of things, to get things done, but they also signal the impossibility of ever doing so more than momentarily and in part. We strive for the order of meaning as we incrementally place our agendas and interpretations on the fabric of existence, but the mesh of our categories is cut so much wider than the shoals of complexity that surround us, and the time that we have to try to net a manageable catch is vanishingly brief. A lifetime would not be enough even to list everything in a single room. It may seem straightforward to do so--a few books, a desk, a chair, a vase of flowers. But in each constituent so crudely labelled whole galaxies of things lie waiting. At one level, unproblematically, 'Hans Hvass's Mammals of the World' describes well enough the book that sparked this essay and that sits beside me now as I write this. But a moment's reflection on what it contains, all it suggests, the weight of its adjoining connections and complexities, is enough to show that it's the beginning of a whole clutch of other lists beyond the relatively straightforward ones that it contains. The list of readers, of those who contributed to its writing, publication and distribution, the list of people who made possible its physical form--from loggers to typesetters. The list of places in which copies of the book can be found, the lives it has influenced, the list of words it contains, the thoughts spawned by its pictures, the spelling out of substances needed to make it--all the chemistry of ink and paper, of thread and glue and binding. Each of these implicit lists is interrelated to others; one thing leads on, always, inexorably to something else, everything is embedded finally in the overarching list of What There Is. We are all constituents of the awesome inventory of being, the vertiginous itemization of which can be begun from anything.
Linnaeus--Carl von Linne (1707-1778)--is the great hero of lists, their patron saint and founding father, at least so far as the world's flora and fauna is concerned. This brilliant Swedish botanist developed a system of naming that allowed our mapping of the plants and animals around us to be undertaken in a systematic, non-ambiguous way. Though Hans Hvass's Mammals of the World employs Linnaen nomenclature, it was only years after reading it that I encountered the originator of this method. Turning from mammals to birds for a well worn example, ornithologists everywhere know what species a Parus major is. That twin Latin naming translates into an internationally recognized identification what to the Danes is a musvit, a talgoxe to Swedes, a bird that in France is called a mesange charbonniere, that's rendered meantan mor in Irish or great tit in English. Linneaus introduced rigour into taxonomy. In System Natura (1735) and other works, he laid down a foundation for the naming of all the species then known (at that point only some four and a half thousand plants and under eight thousand animal species). The two Latin names provided the pillars for a standardized consistency in naming, a uniform approach that could transcend all the local and national variants with one universally agreed on label. Linnaeus' strategy of binomial naming provided the building blocks out of which a whole collection of specialist taxonomies could be built. Lists like those which provide the underlying organization for a book like Mammals of the World are structured according to the principles Linnaeus laid down. His system provides the foundation on which much of our knowledge of the natural world still rests.
Some lists have about them a particular sadness. One of the material remnants from my mother's life that I find most affecting are her shopping lists. Sometimes these ended up as bookmarks so that, years after her death, I can still open a book sometimes and find one of her small squares of paper fluttering out like a hibernating butterfly disturbed from its nook. On its faded wings there will be a list of modest needs and tasks written in her instantly recognizable hand--bread, cheese, apples, butler, stamps, return library books. These are so evocative of how she lived, her tastes and habits, her familiar routes, that they can still mist my eyes with tears. Looking at these little lists not only reminds me of the person and her places, but of the fact that she doesn't need these provisions--any provisions--any more and never will. We all leave with tasks uncompleted, needs unmet; finitude means our departure ruptures all our lists.
More obviously, if less intimately tragic--since they move beyond a single natural lifespan to those whose lives ended violently and early--are the lists of the fallen given on war memorials. The neat columns of names, row upon row, give some sense of the terrible scale of loss that war inflicts. But the isolation of each individual's name--or its juxtaposition only to comrades-in-arms, not to friends and family--obscures the extent to which each one was implicated in a network of relationships, so that their deletion severs precious threads of kinship and belonging. There is about such memorial listing almost the same anonymity that characterised our list of car registrations. If the names were depicted in the dense tangle of relationships that holds each of us in our place, perhaps it would better show the pain these deaths caused. But the logic of lists--at once their strength and weakness--is linear; the delicate cobwebs of our social existence are harder to write on the page, still less engrave on stone.
Akin to war memorials--yet more affecting because of the recentness of the events, the closeness and familiarity of the places, and because enough detail is given to suggest a sense of the other lives affected--is the list of all those killed in Northern Ireland's Troubles. This is contained in a hefty book simply entitled Lost Lives (1999). It was compiled by David McKittrick, Seamus Kelters, Brian Feeney and Chris Thornton, with David McVea added to this list of authors for the new updated edition, brought out in 2004. Lost Lives contains 'The stories of the men, women and children who died as a result of the Northern Ireland Troubles'. This sad and shocking directory of death begins only five years after the English translation of Mammals of the World appeared. The first death recorded is on June 11th 1966. There is then a gap of three years, but from July 1969 for three decades, on a year by year basis, the authors catalogue the more than 3,600 people who perished. Its compilers note that despite most of them being 'seasoned Belfast journalists', researching and writing Lost Lives led them to shed tears; a reaction no doubt repeated by many readers of this terrible but moving list. It provides a kind of dark Linnaen taxonomy of death, a naming of names, a spelling out of the brutality, tragedy and waste that underlay the sometimes blandly formulaic news reporting of what took place. Each name is embedded in a family, a neighbourhood. Each snuffing out sends fracture lines through other lives. Cumulatively, the book plots the shattering lines of loss that criss-cross Northern Ireland, providing a contour map of sorrows superimposed on the physical landscape.
For anyone tempted to glorify this period of Irish history, or to resort to violence again, McKittrick and colleagues suggest that they will find in Lost Lives 'more than 3,600 reasons for thinking again'. Any history of modern Ulster needs to have this list set securely into its foundations. Part record, part memorial, part lament, I sometimes think it would be fitting for everyone in Northern Ireland to copy out on some homemade scroll the names that are catalogued in Lost Lives, try to imprint on memory the folly and the waste and the terrible human cost of violence. Perhaps if they leaned hard enough a kind of Braille memento mori might be forged, imprinted as a warning threnody on the fabric of the national psyche.
I still have my copy of Mammals of the World. The dustjacket is torn and stained but still more or less intact; the price of sixteen shillings seems laughable now. The pictures on the front show a jaguar, a koala and a group of guenon monkeys. As I worked on this essay, I reached out every now and then to touch it, as if the object itself might act as a kind of magic portal, taking me back through time to my six-year-old self laboriously writing out his scroll of names, which is long since lost--one of those childhood treasures that are precious only for a while and whose star then wanes. I've since discovered that the book is part of a series. Hans Hvass also wrote Fishes of the World, Reptiles and Amphibians of the World and Birds of the World. Perhaps there are others too, a useful reminder of the partialness of any list, the fact of its incompleteness, the way in which it abuts other lists. The list of all the things that have happened since I copied out the list of mammals of the world onto my homemade scroll underscores the distance between then and now. Yet, for all its irretrievability, for all the gulfs that time creates, perpetually marooning us on the little island of the present, reaching out to touch the same object that inspired my six-year-old self helps to confer some sense of continuity to set beside all the changes that separate now from then. Thinking of that vanished boy also sparks the realization that there will be a list--and a long one at that--of a different sort of vanishing: all the children in the world who died before their seventh birthday. There are lists of children lost and lonely, starving and terrified, abused and killed. Perhaps the lists of happiness that could be drawn up beside these grim registers of loss might act, in the end, to outweigh them--but even if they did, it would be small comfort to anyone whose name, or whose loved one's name, happened to fall in the column of the damned rather than the blessed. Other people's happiness is a poor antidote to those in anguish.
'List' in the sense of 'an area used for jousts or tournaments' and, more widely, as 'the arena for any combat', is derived from the same Anglo-Saxon root as 'list' in the sense I've been using it here. Both emerged from 'liste', originally meaning 'border'. One would hope that the terrible list contained in Lost Lives will prevent anyone in Ulster from seeking again to enter the lists of sectarianism and bigotry that have for so long disfigured our history. And yet, at the time of writing this (March 2009), some individuals have again crossed the border of humanity to slaughter their fellows for no justifiable reason. New names are queued to be added to Lost Lives--Mark Quinsey and Patrick Azimkar, the soldiers murdered at Massereene Barracks in Antrim, Stephen Carroll, the fist officer to be murdered by paramilitaries since the formation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2001 (when it replaced the old Royal Ulster Constabulary). A list of the reasons given for such carnage, set beside Lost Lives, looks bankrupt indeed. Trying to disguise such abhorrent acts of brutality behind the flag of a united Ireland is no longer credible; it never was. The silent protests in Belfast, Londonderry, Lisburn, Newry and Downpatrick are surely more of an indication of the national mood than the obscenity of bullets. The crowds gathered to register their outrage underscore with mute and moving eloquence the desire to close the lists of the Troubles, to stay out of the arenas of conflict that the years of venomous internecine strife opened up like sores on the body politic. The healing process is well underway. Why would anyone wish to reverse it? Why would anyone want to inscribe their own name, in other people's blood, on a list so universally reviled and so completely devoid of any honour?
Chris Arthur's fourth collection of essays, Irish Elegies, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in June 2009. More information about his writing can be found at www.chrisarthur.org…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Lists. Contributors: Arthur, Chris - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 291. Issue: 1694 Publication date: Autumn 2009. Page number: 364+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2009 Gale Group.
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