(E)valuating: Sontag, Lists, and Making Sense of Liking and Disliking

The list is the origin of culture. It’s part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order — not always, but often. And how, as a human being, does one face infinity? How does one attempt to grasp the incomprehensible? Through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries. There is an allure to enumerating how many women Don Giovanni slept with: It was 2,063, at least according to Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte. We also have completely practical lists — the shopping list, the will, the menu — that are also cultural achievements in their own right.” ~ Umberto Eco.

From making lists of to-dos to those that our social medias inspire us to engage with, or which factually present information in what appears to be a structured manner, we humans seem to love engaging with lists. In an information-heavy age, these lists also generally seem to enjoy us, whether we use them for a short distraction from our daily routines or as a wider rubric of what we intend to accomplish with our lives. Lists help us to feel structured, and they provide us with the fodder we need to go through with our days.

Susan Sontag’s diaries, released last year, As Consciousness Is Harnessed to Flesh: Journals and Notebooks, 1964-1980 (public library), contains insights on every topic ranging from censorship and boredom to writing and aphorisms, Sontag alludes to how making lists is important, on August 9, 1967:

perceive value, I confer value, I create value, I even create — or guarantee — existence. Hence, my compulsion to make “lists.” The things (Beethoven’s music, movies, business firms) won’t exist unless I signify my interest in them by at least noting down their names.

Nothing exists unless I maintain it (by my interest, or my potential interest). This is an ultimate, mostly subliminal anxiety. Hence, I must remain always, both in principle + actively, interested in everything. Taking all of knowledge as my province.

Sontag’s observations continue into a list form that she makes for herself in 1977, where she lists many of her likes and dislikes, in a cyclical and repetitive narrative, which explores the nature and boundaries of her own value creations.

I was inspired. Hence, find below, some resultant lists of my own.

What I Like: train journeys, changing landscapes, the smell of fresh leather, tiny alleyways, cobbled streets, mountain air, Mussoorie, bagpipes, cold winter sunrises, the earthy smell after it rains, Seurat, walking, pomfret, sashami, sweet peas, a bottle of vintage Bordeaux, alabaster, green marble, teddy bears, hardcover novels, old currency notes, pearls, the Oxford Comma, fluffy cats, love, empathy, taking photographs, hot weather, green eyes, sunlight, Mozart, the color blue, honey, warmth, silk, love, sunlight, sapphires, sonnets, Miro, mynah birds, exploring, still water, sleeping on the grass, elephants, and phosphorescence.

Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel prize for li...

Rabindranath Tagore won the Nobel prize for literature. It is the first Nobel prize won by Asia. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What I DislikeExtravagance, pretentious people, lies, condescending attitudes, pollution, cars treating rickshaws like ants on the street, ants, drums, over-boiled vegetables, bruises, suicide, diamonds, cancer, colds, Rip Van Winkle, urine on the streets, exuberant romancing, masked disdain, polite society, new money tendencies, cats which bite, Budapest, supremacist ideals, taking videos, public speaking, Michelangelo, uncouth tourists, dogs, excessive photography, Rodin’s personal life, corruption, frills, guns, plastic, velvet, paparazzi, twitter, potholes, explosions, Coca-Cola, Lyme Disease, and religions.

What I like: Watching eggs coalesce and harden in a pot, owls, the tide washing over my feet, mulberries, Rabindranath Tagore, silence, laughter, urinating, little babies who are curious, courage, optimism, wrinkles, old churches, graveyards, Byzantine mosaics, Paris, being photographed, the smell of barbecue on charcoal, walking in the rain, oranges, sorbets, warm blankets, snow, the Acropolis, red dresses, dark chocolate, e.e. cummings, swimming, twirling, diving, freshly laundered clothes, Shostakovich, Mario Brothers, happiness, black and white cinema, Risk, margheritas, skyscrapers, bridges, freshly squeezed lemonade, Caraveggio, Audrey Hepburn, experimental cooking, lace, Dali, handwritten letters, windmills, loyalty, truth, control, Medusa, eccentricity, spectacular sunsets, and pistachios.

What I Dislike: Tears, snakes, venom, cockroaches, being videoed, umbrellas, defeatism, depression, cigarettes, floods, war, violence, blizzards, patronizing, unnecessary politics, polarizing, drama, messiness, Hungarian wine, Salman Rushdie, cricket, doing laundry, ballads, desert storms, cleaning up, tube lighting, death, formulaic novels, apocalyptic prophecies, shamanism, sugar, garden gnomes, sunburns, Picasso, cottages, cracks in buildings, postcards, semi colons, hypocrisy, Robinson Crusoe, policemen, Adolf Hitler, showing off, obsessive tendencies, and monkeys.

What I Like: Momos, Tibet, Wong Kar Wai, alliteration, khaki, overlarge sunglasses, banana trees, family, hot chocolate with whipped cream, fondue, flan, forests, cherry and crabapple blossoms, crocuses, kissing, hugging, loving, freedom, horses, strangers, surprises, NYC’s subway system, hope, pagodas, stupas, Ajanta, Ellora, style, the left side of the road, the 1856 War of Independence against the British Raj, implementation of justice, isolated beaches, cheese, green tea, bubble tea, Darjeeling tea, canals, imagination, poise, passion, monochrome, mythology, candles, fire, the word “mesmerizing,” and popcorn.

What I Dislike: Flights, flying, roller coasters, heights, chipped nailpolish, excessive patterns, Rococo, sibling rivalry, the word “pansy,” fines, spitting, slowing down, stagnancy, initiating, rats, accidents, falling, fatalistic tendencies, captivity, crows, cushions, fashion, stuttering, straight lines, large corporations, the division of Bengal in 1905, capital punishment, milk, calling tea “chai tea,” excessively manicured lawns, fragments, clashing colors, porcupines, limestone, wax figurines, mannequins, cotton candy.

In a culture where we’re often told to “like” or “unlike,” thanks to facetious Facebook categorizing, I reckon we’re also being given subliminal messages on how we should only have interests that go in one direction, to please our palates. What do YOU like? And dislike? I think it’s great to have such distinctions, and completes you as a person.

This post was very directly influenced by Maria Popova’s article on Susan Sontag, in her excellent website, Brain Pickings. 


6 thoughts on “(E)valuating: Sontag, Lists, and Making Sense of Liking and Disliking

  1. I understand lots of consumers have had different things to say about this publish, and some of them are making a very good stage, but I do value the way you see it. Many thanks for sharing.

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