Lunar Refractions: “If nothing changes, you’re an idiot.”

by Alta Price

It's the Ides of March, and thanks to daylight savings having stolen an hour from me today, my brain is tired. It's been months since I finished compiling a long series of texts to be included in the anthology portion of The Infinity of Lists, the third installment of Umberto Eco's “illustrated essay” trilogy, but bits and pieces of them keep coming back to me. Most notably, as I came to excerpt 59 of nearly 80 on the polymath's long and oft-revised list of literary lists, I found one that—although it seemed banal at first—has only grown in significance for me.

It's an unassuming little list included in Georges Perec's 1978 text Je me souviens, which has yet to be published in English. Like so many of his writings, I expect it may never appear in translation, as most of its puns and rich wordplay riffs would be lost in the process. But thanks to Eco's having selected it, present-day readers can get a little taste of what he was up to. Because the Internet as we now know it didn't exist when Perec passed away in 1982, I decided to spice it up with hyperlinks and illustrations—after all, I think the warm reception Eco's ideas have earned are due in large part to the timeliness of such reflections, as many of us are still learning to wade through (and often ignore) the tidal wave of images and information we're barraged by each day.

Rubirosa I remember that all numbers that add up to nine are divisible by nine (sometimes I’d spend an entire afternoon checking…).

I remember a time it was rare to see any trousers without turned-up cuffs.

I remember Porfirio Rubirosa (Trujillo’s son-in-law?).

I remember that “Caran d’Ache” is a Frenchified transcription of the Russian word (Karandach?) for “pencil.”

I remember the two Contrescarpe cabarets Le cheval d’or (“The Golden Horse”) and Le cheval vert (“The Green Horse”).

I remember Bob Azzam and his orchestra’s version of Chérie je t’aime, chérie je t’adore (“I Love You Dear, I Adore You Dear,” also known by the title Moustapha).

I remember the first movie I saw starring Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin was called Sailor Beware!

I remember the hours I spent—in my senior year of high school, I think—trying to retrofit three houses for electricity, gas, and water without having all the pipes cross (as long as you’re in two-dimensional space, there’s no solution; that’s one of the most elementary examples of topology, just like Koenigsberg’s bridges or playing-cards’ colors).


MastroianniMersault I remember that the name of the hero in The Stranger was Antoine (?) Meursault: a lot of people have noticed that no one ever remembers his name.

I remember cotton candy at fairgrounds.

I remember Baiser-brand lipstick, “The lipstick that lets you kiss.”

I remember terracotta marbles that would split in half if they struck too hard, and agate marbles, and large glass marbles that sometimes had little air bubbles in them.

I remember the Front-Wheel Drive Gang.

I remember the Bay of Pigs.

I remember the Three Stooges, and Bud Abbott and Lou Costello; and Bob Hope, Dorothy Lamour, and Bing Crosby; and Red Skelton.

I remember that Sidney Bechet wrote an opera—or was it a ballet?—titled La nuit est une sorcière (“The Night is a Sorceress”).

Hermesclasp I remember Hermès purses, with their tiny clasp closures.

I remember the “Enrich Your Vocabulary” game column in Reader’s Digest.

I remember Burma-brand jewelry (but wasn’t there also a jewelry line called “Murat”?).


I remember the teacher saying, “‘Nabuchadnezzar,’ write it all in two syllables!” and the students’ response, “‘It all’: it, dash, all.”


I remember that Jean-Paul Sartre wrote a series of articles on Cuba titled Ouragan sur le sucre (“A Hurricane Over Sugar”) for France-Soir.

Bourvilaffiche-Pas-si-bete-1946 I remember Bourvil.
I remember one of Bourvil’s sketches in which he repeated “Alcohol, no, rusty water, yes!” over and over, ending each paragraph of his pseudo-lecture with that little ditty.
I remember Pas si bête, and Madame Husson’s Rosier.

I remember the Wakouwa “The Wonder Dog” toy.

I remember there was an anti-submarine frigate called Georges Leygues.

I remember how happy I was when I learned a lot of words deriving from caput: capitaine, capot, chef, chete, caboche, capitale, Capitole, chapitre, caporal….

In an interview conducted last November, right as the book came out as an accompaniment to an exhibition he curated at the Louvre, Eco had a curious take on making lists and living life. The interviewer notes his inclusion of a list by Roland Barthes, who apparently loves “salad, cinnamon, cheese, and spices.” After dutifully noting that Barthes “doesn't love bikers, women in long pants, geraniums, strawberries, and the harpsichord,” the interviewer poses the implied “likes/dislikes” question to Eco, who give a delightfully cagey reply: “I would be a fool to answer that; it would mean pinning myself down. I was fascinated with Stendhal at 13 and with Thomas Mann at 15 and, at 16, I loved Chopin. Then I spent my life getting to know the rest. Right now, Chopin is at the very top once again. If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing. And if nothing changes, you're an idiot.”

I found that an uplifting sentiment as I reflected on how my perception of Perec's list of remembered things had changed over the past few months, and will (hopefully) continue to change as I devour more of his output.

And with that, my caput is kaputt.

Thanks for reading; previous Lunar Refractions can be found here.

[Hat tip: Luke Woods, who asked after Perec on the Bookforum website.]

And for those who are curious or already have The Infinity of Lists, this excerpt appears on pages 308–310.