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John Walsh

John Walsh: 'My daughter's Christmas list appears to solicit a profusion of luxury goods'

Tales of the City

I have before me a handwritten list of 20 objects, ranged down the page in a teenage scrawl. They appear to solicit a profusion of luxury objects:

"Cath Kidston knitting kit
XL jar of fizzy sweets
Laptop and case
Daisy (perfume) by Marc Jacobs
Fake fur jacket ... "

with an airy confidence that the list-maker will get everything she asks for.

It's a dismaying document (the total cost, I nervously estimate, would be in the region of £5,000), but without it, I'd spend days wondering what my daughter wants for Christmas. Now that I know, I'm alarmed by its open-endedness. Since she whimsically fancies so many things (an inner voice tells me,) she's capable of wanting a thousand others that haven't occurred to her yet. So this group of 20 apparently random consumer requirements ("...Shu Uemera mascara, pedicure, tortoise...") doesn't represent the sum of her desires, only a tiny corner of them. There's an unvoiced et cetera at the end of every list like this one. It's an expression of apparent finitude that's really a synecdochic nod towards infinity.

You think I'm making heavy weather of the children's Christmas lists? You probably haven't yet read Umberto Eco's magisterial new work, The Infinity of Lists, from Homer to Joyce. It's wonderful, inspiring, suggestive, magisterial, pretentious – but I mustn't make a list of its virtues; that would be weird. Eco inspects lists of angels in Dante's Paradiso, lists of mythical beasts in medieval bestiaries, deranged taxonomies of insects or fossils in naturalists' collections, cabinets of curiosities, inventories of obscure plants, processions of ships into battle, even catalogues of books in a library. After a while, everything looks like a list.

His book is illustrated with paintings that show hundreds of variants of people or things (Bosch's damned souls, Warhol's Campbell soup tins), like visual corollaries of written lists. He brings in movies (like the geometrically arrayed, identical girls in Busby Berkeley epics), even catwalk shows with their lists of 20 models coming and going endlessly.

His thesis seems to be that "a culture prefers enclosed, stable forms [of art] when it is sure of its own identity, whereas, when faced with a jumbled accumulation of ill-defined phenomena, it starts making lists." Heaven knows if that's historically true, but it's certainly true at Christmas.

It's not just Santa who's making a list and checking it twice. Everyone's doing it. The children's lists are magnetised to the fridge. The socially adept are making lists of Christmas-card recipients, and lists of guests (not necessarily the same people) to invite for New Year's Eve. Restaurants are full of business colleagues scanning wine lists and weighing the chances of a snog in the car park. Supermarkets are full of shoppers with lists of things never consumed in the rest of the year (walnuts, Stilton, candied oranges, port, goose fat, Baileys Irish Cream). Across the nation, amateur cooks are digging out lists of ingredients for fruit cakes weighing several kilos. The run-up to Christmas Day becomes a countdown, a list of temporal imperatives, to do with stuffing, basting and not panicking.

In our moments of respite, we look up the Christmas chapter of The Pickwick Papers and read the most inveterate list-maker in English literature as he gets stuck into the wassailing, the puddings, the mistletoe, the turkeys and the 200 other details of conviviality which (Dickens probably doesn't need Professor Eco to explain this) may sound like an exhaustive inventory, but are a gigantic hint that there's far more stuff around, more cakes and games and kisses and songs than can possibly be itemised, and that the jollity of Christmas is, in fact, infinite.

That's lists for you: emblems of wild profusion masquerading as expressions of calm order. Eco quotes a bit in Homer's Iliad where he tries to describe the alarming size of the Greek navy on the shore. It is, he says, not possible to name them all, "not even had I ten tongues and ten mouths". Instead he just names the captains and the ships, and it takes him 350 verses. The reader has to imagine the full horror of of the sight -- like me contemplating my daughter's list of Yuletide requirements and wondering at the appalling infinity that lurks beyond it.