Monday, October 16th, 2006

Georges Perec and Classification

The brilliant, eclectic French writer Georges Perec is best known for his unconventional novel Life: A User’s Manual. Others may know him as the guy who wrote a novel, La disparition, without using a single e–which is at least as hard to pull off in French as it is in English—and followed it up with the shorter Les Revenentes, which used e as its only vowel! (La disparition was translated into English by Gilbert Adair as A Void; Les revenentes hasn’t been translated.) He wrote a 5,000 word palindrome—much harder to do before computers—and a fake paper on the “yelling effect” produced when a soprano is pelted with tomatoes. He died of lung cancer in 1982 at age 46.

What does any of this have to do with classification? Well, for much of his life Perec worked as a archivist and classifier for a scientific laboratory. He thought deeply about classification and its consequences, a topic which appears often in his essays and other (unclassifiable) short pieces, published in English as Species of Spaces.

Two essays are particularly relevant: “Think/Classify” and “On the Art and Science of Classifying ones Books.” Both are personal and non-systematic. “Think/Classify” is (intentionally) an unordered grab bag of thoughts on the topic—Sei Shonagon’s lists, French place-names, the organization of the 1900 World’s Fair, his personal filing system, etc. “On the art…” aligns nicely with what Thingamabrarians say about what really happens when you try to put your books in order (below). I also enjoyed his discussion of what books are easy or hard to arrange on a shelf–”the big Jules Verne’s in the red binding” vs. “journals of which you possess only a single issue.” Haven’t we all felt that?

Some choice bits:

All utopias are depressing because they leave no room for chance, for difference, for the “miscellaneous.” Everything has been set in order and order reigns. Behind every utopia there is always some great taxonomic design: a place for each thing and each thing in its place. ["Think/Classify"]

Disorder in a [personal] library is not serious in itself; it ranks with “Which drawer did I put my socks in?” … Opposed to this apologia for the sympathetic disorder is the small-minded temptation toward an individual bureaucracy: one thing for each place and each place for its one thing, and vice versa. Between these two tensions, one which sets a premium on letting things be, on a good-natured anarchy, the other that exalts the virtues of the tabula rasa, the cold efficiency of the great arranging, one always ends by trying to set one’s book in order. This is a trying, depressing operation, but one liable to produce pleasant surprises, such as coming upon a book you had forgotten because you no longer see it and which, putting off until tomorrow what you won’t do today, you finally re-devour lying face down on your bed. ["On the art..."]

So very tempting to want to distribute the entire world in terms of a single code. A universal law would then regulate phenomena as a whole: two hemispheres, five continents, masculine and feminine, animal and vegetable, singular plural, right left, four seasons, five senses, six vowels, seven days, twelve months, twenty six letters. … Unfortunately, this doesn’t work, has never even begun to work, will never work. Which won’t stop us continuing for a long time to come to categorize this animal or that according to whether it has an odd number of toes or hollow horns. ["Think/Classify"]

Taxonomy can make your head spin. It does mine whenever my eyes light on an index of the Universal Decimal Classification (UDC). By what succession of miracles has agreement been reached, practically throughout the world, that 668.184.2.099 shall denote the finishing of toilet soap, and 629.1.018–465 horns on refuse vehicles; whereas 621.3.027.23, 621.436:382, 616.24—002.5—084, 796.54, and 913.15 denote respectively: tensions not exceeding 50 volts, the export trade in Diesel motors, the prophylaxy of tuberculosis, camping, and the ancient geography of Japan! ["Think/Classify"]

*Perec shares a lot with my favorite author, Vladimir Nabokov–verbal gymnastics, the sense of literature as game, the indirect way they dealt with personal tragedy in their work. Nabokov too had an abiding interest in classification, at one point being forced to choose between careers in writing and butterfly biology, in which he pioneered classification by sex organs. It was therefore spooky and sad to find at the end of Perec’s essay “Things I Must Really do Before I Die” (written the year before he did):

“Finally, there are things it’s impossible to envisage from now on but which would have been possible not so long ago, for example:
36 Get drunk with Malcolm Lowry
37 Make the acquaintance of Vladimir Nabokov”

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