WHY DO COLLECTORS COLLECT?
I have been making lists and been a collector of various bits and pieces since I was seven years old. This collection of essays has helped me to understand a little about who I am.
(Ed.) John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, The Cultures of Collecting: From Elvis to Antiques—Why do we Collect Things? Melbourne University Press, 1994.
An exceptional collection! of articles about collecting from many perspectives including psychoanalytical, economic and historic approaches and a scarifying analysis by post-modern French philosopher Jean Baudrillard. In most cases the picture painted of collectors is not pretty so genuine collectors should approach this book with care! Effectively illustrated with impressive academic reference resources. For a collector who wishes to delve into his or her own psyche this is the book!
John Eisner, one of the editors, in his Introduction notes, amongst other things, the following assertions:
– Noah was the first collector! (p1)
– The supreme pioneer is the totalling collector, the ‘completist’ …perhaps a fetishist! (p3)
– ..to collect up to a final limit is to exercise control over existence itself..like God. (p3)
– In the West…the great canonical collections…testify to the paradigm of Beauty as the exclusion of all ugliness, to the triumph of remembrance over oblivion, to the permanence of Being over Nothingness. Absurdly and dementedly eternalistic as they are, they carry such weight as to seem incontrovertible…one of the ambitions of this book is to challenge such self-assurance… (p4)
– [collectors] rivalling God and teetering between mastery and madness (p6)
– [for some]…building a collection of things is inseparable form building up wealth and prestige e.g. Henry Clay Frick, J.Paul Getty or Charles Saatchi. (p6)
– ….less perfective collectors whose vocation sends them across the confines of the reasonable and the acceptable. These last — people like John Soane, Charles Wilson Peale, Kurt Schwitters, Sigmund Freud and Robert Opie — exemplify a genuine exposure to existence: indeed their project, at times melancholy, even morbid, and perhaps ultimately tragic, often carries with it an intimation of the failure that is always on the cards once mortal desire reaches the limits of what can and cannot be done. (p6)
French philosopher Jean Baudrillard wrote Le Système des objets (Paris, 1968), which has never been translated in full but some sections are contained in chapter 1 of this collection entitled The System of Collecting. Baudrillard is scathing about collectors as a “class” and his criticisms sound very harsh and yet most collectors would own the truthfulness of many of his criticisms of collectors. Some points he makes are as follows:
– For the child, collecting represents the most rudimentary way to exercise control over the outer world. (p.9)
– …one invests in objects all that one finds impossible to invest in human relationships. That is why man so quickly seeks out the company of objects when he needs to recuperate…..this sort of passion is an escapist one….all kinds of neuroses are neutralized, all kinds of tensions and frustrated energies are grounded and calmed. Indeed, this is what lends them their ‘spiritual’ quality; (p11)
– ….the ridiculous facility with which they afford us a glorious, if illusory, gratification….the singular object never impedes the process of narcissistic projection. (p12)
– Here, indeed, lies the whole miracle of collecting. For it is inevitably oneself that one collects. (p12) …he plays the game of constituting himself as a serial progression, at the same time as he constitutes himself as a serial progression, also at the same time as he constitutes himself as the ultimate term of the series —the one that wins. Here we find an explanation of the psychology of the collector: in collecting privileged objects, he constantly confirms himself as the one who wins. (fn 5 p175)
– …the collection is never really initiated in order to be completed (p13)
– The man who collects things may already be dead, yet he manages literally to outlive himself through his collection…
– …possession derives its fullest satisfaction from the prestige the object enjoys in the eyes of other people, and the fact that they cannot have it ..…The jealousy complex, symptomatic of the passion of collecting at its most fanatical… What now comes into play is a powerful anal-sadistic impulse that tends to confine beauty in order to savour it in isolation….(p18)
– One is always jealous of oneself. It is always oneself that one watches over like a hawk. And it is always in oneself that one takes pleasure. (p18)
– …the reader who cannot settle down to read unless he is surrounded by his entire library of books…it is not the book that matters so much as the moment when it is safely returned to its proper place on the library shelf.(p23)
– ….can objects ever institute themselves as a viable language? Can they ever be fashioned into a discourse oriented otherwise than toward oneself?…By the same token, the discourse voiced through his collection can never rise above a certain level of indigence and infantilism.
Chapter 2 of the book is a remarkable interview and defence of the value of collecting with collector Robert Opie who has spent a lifetime amassing over 3 million examples of marketing, packaging and advertising materials. He founded the Museum of Advertising and Packaging in the UK.
John Windsor is a teacher of transcendental meditation and spent two years with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi who introduced TM to the West. His contribution in chapter 3 of this collection of essays is entitled Identity Parades and deals with the Hindu texts of the Vedas (and the Pali texts of Theravada Buddhism)…the fulfilment of the individual becomes pitifully dependent on the objects and circumstances of the outside world….Object-referral instead of self-referral. Its symptoms are tiredness and frustration…. (p49). This is in line with the tradition of Indian, Sri-Lankan, Tibetan and South East Asian Hindu and Buddhist holy men and women for whom possessions are not sought and who rely on the gifts of others (who earn good karma for generosity) for their survival. When Ghandi was murdered (by a devout Hindu!) his possessions numbered his scuffs, staff, very thin garment and I think one or two pieces of written material. Clearly collecting objects was very low indeed on the list of priorities in Eastern religious thinking!
Roger Cardinal’s essay in chapter 4 is entitled Collecting and Collage-making: The Case of Kurt Schwitters. Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948) was an amazing multi-media artist in Germany who escaped to Norway to avoid Nazi imprisonment for producing “degenerate art” in Goebbels’ definition. After the German invasion of Norway Schwitters fled to Scotland and was interned in England. Cardinal’s essay focuses on the extent to which Schwitter’s famous collages called Merz art [from comm-merce?] pictures could be called collections. This was because Schwitters built his collages basically from bits of flotsam picked up from the street- paper scraps, fragments of newspapers, billboards, transport tickets and anything else left lying around on the street. Nevertheless close analysis of many of his Merz art reveals that certain clear messages are being sent from words that can be read within the collages and from the arrangement of seemingly totally abstract and haphazard bits and pieces. Amongst many other artistic endeavours Schwitters produced over 2000 collages throughout his career from his earliest days experimenting with Dadaism in Germany to his final exile in Britain. Cardinal writes:
– ….Inexorably categorised as we are under the category of mortals we may envisage collecting as an existential project that seeks to lend shape to hapless circumstance. To collate and arrange any objects, culturally marked or otherwise, is to invent a space of privileged equilibrium offering at least some respite from the pressures of life. What is curious to behold is that, for many collectors, existential tensions tend to derive not just from the plain business of living, but also from the collecting activity itself, by means of which they had hoped not to repeat life but to transcend it. I see the collector as one caught in a constant vacillation, between the hankering for perfection and the need to tolerate imperfection, between an ideal of wholeness and the anxiety of incompleteness, between mature composure and the immature thrills of hunting and scrounging. (p70)
– …The final element that, I believe, clinches,my comparison [between a collection and a collage] is that there is almost always an intention eventually to place the collage or the collection on display. Both ultimately exist to be shown, and implicitly to be shown to impress. We can say that both aspire to be noticed, inspected, admired, even envied? (p71)
– [Schwitters] routinely labels the completed set with a number and a title….the practice is symptomatic of a collector’s scrupulous devotion to itemising and listing…(p78).
– [Merz art was] …a diary in which the individual subject records his struggle to hold together a few meagre certainties in a world that is being torn apart.
– Cardinal quotes Susan Stewart, writer of several books on aesthetic theory; …’the possession of the metonymic object is a kind of dispossession in that the presence of the object all the more radically speaks to its status as a mere substitution and to its subsequent distance from the self.’ (p93)
– Cardinal writes …while it may be true that Schwitters was conscious of handling the myths and mirages that help soothe the collective libido, documenting the little gratifications of contemporary Londoners in an epoch of austerity, his compilations of cigarette wrappers, food ads and jam labels can equally be read as a sublimation of private longings and grieving. (p95)
….the aroma of nostalgia the collages insinuate to us has to be measured against our own proclivity to romanticise the text of the past.. (p95)
– Chapter 5 of this collection is written by Mieke Bal, a tertiary teacher in the Theory of Literature and lecturer in Visual and Cultural studies.Theories of literature regularly ask the question what is the true nature of narrative?
– Bal writes: Objectively narratives exist as texts, printed and made accessible; at the same time, they are subjectively produced by writer and reader. (p98)
– ….it is also obvious that verbal texts are not the only objects capable of conveying a narrative. Language is just one medium, perhaps the most conspicuous one, in which narrative can be constructed. Images, as the tradition of history painting demonstrates, can do so as well ….[cf the use of stained glass window images in Gothic cathedrals in the C13th and C14th when many worshippers could not read.] …not to speak of mixed media like film, opera and comic strips….What if the medium consists of real, hard material objects?…In other words, can things be, or tell stories? (p98f) [eg a stamp collection teaching history such as the gradual change in images of Hitler on German stamps of the 1930s.]
– Bal quotes cultural and museum historian S M Pearce as follows: …the emotional relationship of projection and internalisation which we have with objects seems to belong with our very earliest experience and (probably therefore) remains important to us all our lives. (p102 and ref. fn7)
– Bal continues: From motivation in childhood Pearce moves to phenomenologically defined essential humanness — and storytelling is again an indispensable ingredient. [Pearce’s work shows that ] collecting is an essential human feature that originates in the need to tell stories..(p103).
– Hence, collecting is a story, and everyone needs to tell it. (p103)
– Bal notes that Pearce identifies 16 different possible motivations for folk commencing collections. They are as follows: leisure, aesthetics, competition, risk, fantasy, a sense of community, prestige, domination, sensual gratification, sexual foreplay, desire to reframe objects, the pleasing rhythm of sameness and difference, ambition to achieve perfection, extending the self, reaffirming the body, producing gender-identity, achieving immortality! (p102)
-Bal notes that some of these motivations require wealth e.g. aesthetics…can only be constituted within an experience of the world freed from urgency…[Pierre Bourdieu, fn13] (p103)
– Bal quotes W. Durose: If the predominant value is aesthetically pleasing it is not a collection. But, if it bears a relation to some other object e.g. one of a series, it is a collection. (p111)
– replotting an existing collection….the objects as signs become radically different. (p112) [eg changing a book collection from alphabetical by author to arrangement by content; or a stamp collection from by country to by theme e.g. animals].
– If completion is possible, perfection is dangerous. (p113)
– Perfection, the equivalent of death in the sense that it can only be closely approximated, not achieved ‘during the life time’ of the subject, is one of those typically elusive objects of desire like happiness….
In chapter 6 Nicholas Thomas, senior research fellow in anthropology at ANU writes about the nature of traditional museum methods of displaying collections. He writes about the fetishism, the lack of context and dehumanising factors involved in the collection of native items during early European exploratory voyages to Africa, Asia, the Americas and the Pacific including Cook’s journeys. He is equally critical of the clinical display of such objects without context in C19th European museums and presentation documents.
Challenging the almost sacred vision of James Cook’s work and that of Robert Banks, his naturalist on his first journey, in the annals of Australian history, Thomas is quite critical of Cook’s voyages. He describes them as dedicated to the disclosure of the novel, and shifted restlessly from one discovery to the next, in a fashion reminiscent of Burke’s giddy curiosity, but affected a “great command’ through its assertiveness with respect to novelties, expressed graphically in charts and coastal profiles… (p128). Thomas draws attention even more strongly to the failings of Robert Banks to adopt an appropriate scientific discipline….The editor of Cook’s account, John Hawkesworth, was less circumspect than he might have been in alluding to the sexual contacts between the sailors and Tahitian women, and the prominence of Banks in his account suggested to many readers that Bank’s botany was fraudulent, ‘that he was more interested in exotic women than exotic plants.’ Banks’ doubtful behaviour was satirised on his return for example in the satirical verses entitled Transmigration, which read in part:
Ye who o’er Southern Oceans wander
With simpling B——ks or S——r;
Who so familiarly describe
The frolicks of the wanton Tribe,
And think that simple Fornication
Requires no form of palliation… (p129)
Thomas further notes the presentation of dislocated and out of context Chinese and Iranian artefacts in the early drawings by John and Andrew van Rymsdyk as presented in the British Museum….The giddy and random vision that this eclecticism prompted is distinctly Borgesian. (p134).
Thomas further draws attention to the fact that in addition to the scientific work of “scientific” men like Robert Banks many ordinary sailors were busy collecting their own supply of native curiosities …it is clear …that many common sailors acquired substantial collections, often with a view to sale at home. [p135]; The availability of these on-sold objects appearing on the open market would again be presumably without geographic or scientific context. The whole article draws attention to the different motives behind collections…especially formal museum collections …the curious, the scientist, the true connnoisseur, the commercial, the licentious….Even the triumph of capitalism did not enable this shadow of commerce to transcend the ambiguous licence of an endless, rapacious, unstable and competitive pursuit of novel objects.
In chapter 7 Thomas Dacosta Kaufmann, Princeton Professor in the Dept of Art and Archaeology writes about the treasuries and collections of the Hapsburgs as a precursor to Museum collections.
The Hapsburg treasury goes back at least to the rule of Duke Rudolf 1V of Hapsburg in the C14th whose records refer to keeping family property together, undivided by bequests; we also have information about the second Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Albrecht 11 whose historical records refer to a jewellery collection and in addition references to ornaments, silver plate, documents, insignia, royal regalia, crowns, sceptres, orbs and sacramental relics, books, reliquaries, as well as works of art. These collections were reorganised by Frederick 111 Hapsburg (ruled1440-93) and his successor Maximilian 1 (1493-1519) through new impulses transmitted from Burgundy and Italy. Justifications for a doctrine of magnificence were able to be found in Aristotle’s Ethics! and the hapsburgs were influenced by the example of the rulers of Medicean Florence and Aragonese Naples who justified the notion of expenditure on objects not just for their use but for their splendour, rarity or expense, thereby expanding the reputation of a prince. Jacobo Pontano of Naples thought that magnificence could be demonstrated by collecting objects such as bronzes, tapestries, furniture, carpets, carved ivory, precious boxes, books, vessels made of rock crystal, gold, onyx and other precious stones.
The Hapsburg collections were further refined by Ferdinand 1 and his brother Charles V, Holy Roman Emperors of the C16th where the term kunstkammer referring to a work of art (kunst) began to take over from schatzkammer (treasury). Ferdinand 11 maintained and added to the collection including a library and a collection of arms and armour. (a rustkammer). The collection was continued under the reign of Maximilian 11 and reached a peak in the reign of his son Rudolf 11 (reigned 1576-1612) developed at the Hradčany Palace in Prague which included formal gardens, wild animals, tamed deer and aviaries.
Kaufmann notes that Rudolf’s possession of a universal collection could symbolically represent his claims to mastery of the macrocosm of the greater world, and over the body politic of which he was sovereign. There was also an occult element to this collection….the sort of Hermetic project encouraged by Francis Bacon and reflected in some of Newton’s studies. The Hapsburg collection was diminished by the Thirty Years War but continued in the C17th under the Ferdinand 111 who ruled to 1657 and by now included a coin collection. During the reign of Emperor Leopold 1 (1658-1705) another collection was established in Vienna with an emphasis on northern European paintings and sculptures. Kaufmann notes that these tendencies came to fruition in the C18th with Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach [who] adumbrated an independent history of architecture….Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten [who] developed a philosophical aesthetics, …Gotthold Ephraim Lessing [who] laid the ground for an independent criticism of the visual arts …and Johann Joachim Winckelmann [who] established an independent history of art. (p147)
During the reign of Charles VI (died 1740), [the impact of the Enlightenment (Aufklärung) ], ..a rationalized and orderly approach continued to be applied to the collections….some of the collections were even made accessible to the public…Fundamental transformation in the organisation of the collection had to wait until the reigns of Maria Theresa (d.1780) and Joseph 11 (d.1790) with new positions including a “Schatzmeistev”, a gallery inspector and other curators. In Maria Theresa’s reign and independent public picture gallery was established and the collections were organised with new goals resulting from the imposition of what could be called modern rational principles of organisation. Educational or didactic goals, rather than a quest for rarity or a desire for splendour became the norm. (p148f)
Before the Musée Napoleon, the British Museum or the Altes Museum in Berlin, a public museum was created in Vienna that was devoted to the presentation a separate category of visual art….The importance of these innovations may be insufficiently appreciated, perhaps because their further consequences for both the museum and academic milieux were somewhat slow to be realised due to the Napoleonic wars and the era of reaction that set in after Prince Metternic’s direction after 1815. (p151). It remains clear that the succesion of Hapsburg rulers who maintained the royal collections from the C14th can be genuinely regarded as the forerunners of the modern museum culture.
John Elsner, an editor of the whole book and Lecturer in classical art at the amazing Courtauld Institute (study centre and art gallery) in London wrote chapter 8 called A Collector’s Model of Desire: the House and Museum of Sir John Soane.
Sir John Soane, (1753-1837) was a major British architect and artist who designed many of the C18th and early C19th civic buildings of London. He was also an avid collector of art (amazing Canaletto and Hogarth and much more) and European historical artifacts and books especially the sculpture and artifacts of classical history. His collection was donated to the nation on condition that it remained in his house in Lincoln’s Inn and that it be kept in its original state and order that he left it. I have been several times to this house museum and it is a truly wondrous place of joy, delight and awe for collectors. Eisner’s rather jaundiced view is that Soane wanted this memorial to himself to stand egotistically as evidence that he himself was the C19th successor to the classical architects of old and his British forerunners like Wren and that the arrangement of his three storied collection is designed to prove this case. Whilst I am sure that Soane had his normal share of egotism which belongs naturally to “the great” my own view is that this collection has a unique charm and power in its original setting and it is a wonderful privilege to have a glimpse into Soane’s passions, gifts and interests displayed just as he himself wanted. Soane is the collector’s collector and in my view one of the greats and a must see for anyone interested in history and art who gets to London.
Anthony Alan Shelton wrote Chapter 9 in this collection of collections. His topic is Cabinets of Transgression: Renaissance Collections and the Incorporation of the New World. Shelton notes that some scholars thought of mediaeval attitudes and modes of persisting through the ‘Middle Ages’ from the third century A D to the mid-nineteenth century. Nevertheless all sides agree that the discovery of the “new world” made a significant impact on Renaissance thinking. Shelton comments that cosmological uncertainty shadows the difference behind, and organisation of, Renaissance collections that attempted to incorporate representations of the fourth continent. (p177)
Shelton comments that the Mediaevals traditionally attributed marvellous and exceptional craftsmanship to communion with the divinely sanctioned order or the world (p180). On the other hand the mediaeval world also saw the marvellous as including contingent and altogether exceptional events. (p180). In particular William of Ockham, who denied the existence of any cosmic order or chain of being that linked phenomena or events. According to Ockham, objects had only a nominal existence, and were unregulated by the mind of God. (p180)
For collectors of a nominalist persuasion, what was important were curiosities, rare or near-unique phenomena that were thought to have resulted from some exceptional condition or circumstance….collections of this kind flourished from c.1550, began to wane in the seventeenth century, and by 1750 were very rare indeed. (p180). Renowned collections included those of Ulisse Aldrovandi at Bologna who used his collection for teaching and research, (p185); Antonia Giganti and the University of Leiden. Other collections included those of the Copenhagen Museum and the Bodleian Library in Oxford and the Museum of Ferdinando Cospi in Bologna.
The perfection of the secularised model of the encyclopaedic ideal was achieved by the Medici when Francisco 1 became Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1574..[who] put his collections on public display in the newly bullt Uffizi Palace in Florence….a representation of creation that allowed each princely ruler symbolically to claim his dominion over the world as a means of glorifying and celebrating a family’s influence, and legitimating its titles and position (p186)….This transfer to the public gallery of sumptuous private property, paralleling a change in its perception from souvenirs to the ‘great world’ metaphor, consecrating collection as an expression of the worthiness of an individual life. (p187).
This highly academic article proceeds to demonstrate with how much difficulty European collectors and the public struggled to cope with New World artifacts and works of art that were not modelled in gold or precious stones but were in fact uniques and highly creative works of heart requiring enormous artistic skill and merit. A particular example is that of feather costumes and other exceptional items made of feathers which the “old world” did not value and managed to lose or destroy. On the other hand exceptional articles made of gold and precious metals from the new world were often sent back in vast quantities to Europe as “tribute” to European overlords seeking to avoid annihilation.
Much of this work was melted down and re-made in a European tradition and the protection of the new world was most usually not completed. In particular Motecuhzoma 11 sent to the Spanish explorer and overlord over 13 massive collections of gold and precious items in a vain bid to save his civilisation from rapacious Spanish acquisition. In addition to the treasures from Mexico the conquest of Peru in 1533 yielded further quantities of Indian bounty. The objects obtained by Pizarro from the ransom of Atahualpa alone were said to be sufficient to fill a room 25 feet long and 15 feet wide even when piled higher than the upraised arms of a tall man. P195)….none of the Peruvian artefacts from this period are thought to have survived. Much of the state treasure formerly belonging to Axayacatl was melted down and cast into ingots, while the jewellery was ‘undone and taken to pieces.’ (p197)
Shelton’s article moves forward to demonstrate that individual items of “paganism” from the New World were collected and analysed in Europe ..to consciously substitute the terms of the indigenous discourse to those commensurate with sixteenth-century Europe. (p202)…The subordination of accurate cultural data to the vastly more important need to demonstrate the inclusiveness of paganism created an apparent homogeneity between the different high civilizations of the Americas, as well as blurring the their distinctions from other ‘pagan’ cultures. (p202)
Whether they mirrored the God-centred universe inherited by the Renaissance, or the emergent man-centred, pragmatic world manipulated by merchant princes and aristocrats, cabinets expressed a visual image of the inclusiveness of the European view of the world and its facile ability to incorporate and domesticate potentially transgressive worlds and customs. The truly marvellous and extraordinary accomplishment of mediaeval thought was that it made marvellousness itself a category of the mundane. (p203)
This article I found perhaps the most depressing of the analyses in this collection by reminding me of my own love of European culture and the danger of thinking of European hegemony over thought and art as the only way to look at this world of wonder and delight.
Chapter 10 in this collection is written by Susan Stewart, Professor of English at Temple University in Philadelphia who writes on literary and aesthetic theory. Her particular interest here is the extraordinary life of the multi-talented revolutionary soldier, propagandist, civic official, engraver, museum keeper, zoologist, botanist, inventor, painter and founder of the first American museum…Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827) (p205)
Charles Willson Peale is probably the most amazing single life described in this collection of essays which has already dealt with some very amazing folk. It is difficult to imagine anyone with the multifarious talents and courage and self-belief of Charles Willson Peale. Perhaps William Morris or Benjamin Franklin are the only other individuals that immediately spring to mind as bearing comparison.
Stewart notes that there is a passage underlined in a copy of Rouseau’s Emile that was once owned by Peale, which urges teachers never to substitute representation for reality, or shadow for substance, but to teach only from actual objects and the underlining is probably in Peale’s hand. (p209).
Peale’s Discourse Introductory to a Course of Lectures of 1800 is perhaps the fullest statement of his philosophy of collecting. He links himself in a great chain of largely unrecognised founders of national museums, from the Alexandrian library and repository of Ptolemy Philadephus (a kind of historical pun on his own name and location) to contemporary British and Continental museums. (p217).
Stewart notes in conclusion of this essay…Peale develops his museum as an antidote to war’s losses and as a gesture against disorder and the extinction of knowledge. In this nexus of motion and emotion, arrested life and animation, loss and memory, that Peale has bequeathed to us we can begin to recollect, with both a sense of difference and sense of urgency, a central issue regarding representation. (p223) I felt impelled to add, after reading of Peale’s life (he was a Deist)…a sense of a deeper pool, a wider vision, a longing for eternity, a sure and certain hope of resurrection life in the eternal kingdom of God. This is a man we need to know more about!
Chapter 11 in this collection is written by John Forrester, Cambridge Lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science and discusses Sigmund Freud and his collection of Egyptian artifacts.
Sigmund Freud, arch demystifier of religion and darling of the liberal left surprised many to learn that throughout his life he amassed a substantial collection of over 3000 Renaissance, ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Chinese sculptures and other figures. Freud criticised one of his biographers, Austrian Stefan Zweig, for the emphasis he placed ‘on the element of petit-bourgeois correctness in my person’ (p228) and responded by saying, amongst other things I have actually read more archaeology than psychology…(p229). Forrester notes that his daughter Anna fostered the transformation from living collection into dead museum by preserving Freud’s study, with his collection intact and untouched over four decades. (p229).
Timms and Segal, who edited a collection of studies of Freud in exile in London (1988) noted that when Freud parted with most of his professional library when forced to leave Germany, very few books on archaeology or editions of the classics were sold—an indication of what lay closest to his heart. (noted in Forrester p296 fn6)
The majority of historians agree that the death of Freud’s father was a major turning-point in his life and work, precipitating him into a neurotic crisis of self-doubt and obliging him to undertake his self-analysis. (p232)….Beginning with the father’s death …Freud’s collection of antiquities elegantly demonstrates how a collection can symbolise the battle of life within death, of life being infiltrated by death, of a space cleared for the expression of this battle by the objects the collector has chosen as his personal representatives. (p232)
Freud himself wrote about the collector who directs his surplus libido onto the inanimate objective love of things. (p236) and that some collectors talk to their collections, just as dog-owners talk to their dogs. Forrester notes that Freud is a collector of farts and grimaces, an archeologist of rubbish avant la letter, as well as a collector of the fading, yet precious detritus of Western civilisation. The public Freud, with his reputation for shocking, distasteful and immoral claims about all human beings; the private Freud, with his well-ordered life and his bourgeois collection of culturally respectable art objects….how could the founder of the quintessentially modernist movement that is psychoanalysis have had such unimpeachably conservative taste in art?….this criticism has often been illustrated by referring to Freud’s own confessions of his inability to appreciate beauty in art in any other way than by analysing and understanding it. (p239)
Forrester notes that collections of jokes and dream texts must, without the benefit of hindsight, rank with stamp collecting and bottle-top collecting as narrowly conceived and single-mindedly eccentric. (p241). In Freud’s defence against eccentricity, Forrester notes that collected antiquities represent the first appearance of Freud’s vision of his work as embodying essential elements of the cultural traditions to which he was selfconsciously heir. Winckelmann the archaeologist; Goethethe worshipper of Italy; Akhenaten the founder of monotheism; Moses the Egyptian; Aeschylus the teller of ancient family tragedies; and Athena, representative of justice, mercy and wisdom: all these are embodied in the collection of objects, and it is their possession that realises Freud’s desire to be a universal and public citizen of this world, walking through the Museum of history and culture. (p241)
…all of Freud’s collections were permeated by a public and enlightenment ideal….like all other ideals, it was revealed as an illusion by the First World War.
The remainder of Forrester’s analysis of Freud’s collections is an attempt to demonstrate the value of his collections to illustrate his psycho-analytical techniques. The degree to which the reader will find this analysis persuasive will depend on the value placed by the reader on Freudian psycho-analysis. I personally find Forrester’s argument unconvincing..but then I would, wouldn’t I!
The final essay in this collection of essays on collecting is written by Duke University Romance Studies and Literature Professor Naomi Schor and is called Collecting Paris. It focusses on her personal collection of magnificent black and white Paris postcards of the belle epoch.
Schor’s essay is a useful summary of the whole collection. She begins with a very helpful analysis of the ideas of German/Jewish philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin who channelled Proust in arguing that most closely approximates that of the author in that collecting and especially (though not exclusively) book-collecting involves the retrieval and ordering of things past; (p252) Schor quotes a Benjamin lecture: ‘every passion borders on the chaotic, but the collector’s passion borders on the chaos of memories.’ (p252)
Schor notes that ..collecting, is for Benjamin a form of psychotherapy, a healing anamnesis, a means of re-membering his fragmented past (p253) ..and that act is figured as profoundly magical. (p254)
Schor usefully re-summarises the “phallo-centric” view of collectors demonstrated by Jean Beaudrillard and Susan Stewart’s distinction between souvenir and collection.
Schor’s belle epoch postcard collection beautifully illustrated in this book demonstrates the recording of a place in time, in this case Paris, arguable the world’s most visited city. Schor notes that being and collecting are intimately related (p259) The poignant part of this collection is her ambivalent relationship with Paris having Jewish parents who fled Poland to Paris and then fled Paris successfully to Spain (sadly unlike Walter Benjamin who was caught at the Spanish border). The anti-semitism rife in Paris leading up to and during World War 11 conflicts deeply with her architectural and lifestyle love affair with Paris as demonstrated in belle epoch post-cards. The essay doubles as a useful history of post-cards…a major collection area for many. Along the way Schor notes that post-card collecting is largely a feminine affair…men do not write post-cards to each other. (p262).
In a way Schor’s essay is a fitting conclusion to this collection of collections because it demonstrates that collecting fulfils many important functions central to human existence, eccentric and at times chaotic though many collectors may be.