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To think about collecting in this inclusive way requires, I believe, a definition that makes everyone a collector. I would say, simply, that collecting is the accumulation of tangible things. This definition covers the assembling of natural objects (like fossils and shells) and living entities (like plants and animals) as well as artifacts, the products of humanity; and it leaves open the manner in which the things are acquired, the mental processes leading to their acquisition, and the length of time they are held. Some would object that a definition under which everyone is a collector has insufficient precision to be useful for analysis. I would argue, on the contrary, that only by linking all forms of collecting can we illuminate the fundamental nature of the myriad directions it can take. The kinds of accumulating we are most likely to think of when we


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hear the word "collecting" are not separated by distinct lines from other types of gathering, and recognition of these relationships helps to clarify them all.

There is, for example, the matter of need. Some might feel that the concept of collecting must involve accumulations that are in excess of what is needed for survival—or, put another way, gatherings that serve no strictly utilitarian function. Collecting, so the argument runs, is a vestige of the instinct for foraging and hoarding found in animals and primitive peoples; when the "need" no longer exists, the hunting and gathering continue anyway and become attached to different classes of objects, now not connected with shelter or bodily nourishment. But such an argument, ignoring the reality of emotional demands, begs the question of what constitutes "need," which is never easy to answer. Even animals' hoarding does not always seem to be realistically related to the necessities of maintaining life;[1] and prehistoric human beings are now thought to have admired and saved certain tools for aesthetic reasons.[2] When one tries to identify human needs, one is bound to hear, in the back of one's mind, Lear's "Oh, reason not the need": the possessions not strictly necessary for bodily survival nevertheless may seem required for establishing a sense of human identity and defining one's place in the world. Nomadic tribes and homeless street-people have their possessions; and those persons or families who lose their accumulated store of objects through fires, storms, robberies, and other catastrophes generally find that their feelings of good fortune in still being alive are naggingly tempered by their sense of deprivation, since they are not as fully alive without the objects that they had made part of their existence. Lord Eccles, in On Collecting (1968), observes, "During the blitz on London I saw how simple and profound was the passion for things of one's own. The morning after poor people had been bombed out, they grieved far less for the house or rooms where they had been living than for their things, . . . the things their mother had left them, or their children had given them. The bomb which destroyed their things destroyed part of themselves" (p. 4).[3] It is unwise, then, to complicate a definition of collecting with the idea of need—not only because need is so difficult to pin down but also, and more significantly,


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because all forms of amassing objects can in fact be necessities of life, if the role of emotional well-being in physical survival is adequately taken into account. Indeed, it is not unreasonable to claim, as I hope to show, that the possession of objects is for everyone an essential element of life-support.

Another objection that might be raised against the simplicity of my definition is that it does not distinguish random accumulations of objects from purposeful selections. Surely, some will feel, the term "collection" should be reserved for those assemblages that have been systematically built according to a unifying principle and should not be used to dignify the miscellaneous stock of possessions (or even one class of them) that grows up around individuals year by year. It is, in fact, quite conventional to think of "collections" as different from "accumulations," but it is not very satisfactory,[4] because it skirts the question of how, or by whom, the coherence of a "collection" is to be determined. What one person accumulates haphazardly, another will regard as bearing a design; and even the product of a careful plan may turn out to be of interest to another person for an entirely different pattern that can be read into it. In any case, all accumulations are actually selections, and therefore imbued with meaning through that selectivity. Every object that is taken in, that is given entrance to one's house, or room, or personal space, acquires thereby a significance and alters the relationship of everything else within that domain; and every such object is a selection from the vast universe of objects. Some objects, of course, arrive unbidden, but if they are retained (even through inertia, and only temporarily) they are still revealing. Every accumulation, whatever additional significance it may be found to possess, has the unity that comes from its telling something about a human being who lived in a particular time and place. Archivists regularly deal with residues, and they have been wise to recognize that found arrangements of personal papers, in archeological layers that can seem random, carry meaning that is worth paying attention to. Clearly one may wish to distinguish different types of individuals and to separate those who deliberately pursue their own ideas of coherent groupings from those who give no conscious thought to why their possessions are multiplying as they are; but this discrimination will be richer if it is based on an acknowledgment that both types of persons are related, that they are overlapping varieties of "collectors."


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Still another element of my definition that must logically be dealt with is its limitation to "tangible things." If one is going to take a comprehensive view of collecting, as I am doing, can one not speak of collecting ideas and other intangibles as well as physical entities? The word "collect" can of course be used this way, and regularly is, as when people speak of collecting Caribbean cruises, or performances by Gielgud, or any other experiences—in the same way that Thoreau felt he could own something without taking physical possession of it. Every mindset (in which one "collects one's thoughts") consists of an ever-developing collection of mental routines. Everyone has this kind of collection as well as a collection of physical objects; and there is inevitably a reciprocal relationship between the two, since the mindset (or "temperament") determines which objects one allows to accumulate around one, and the environment created by those objects in turn influences the mindset. But there is a fundamental difference between thoughts and objects, between an internal repertoire of ideas and an external grouping of tangible materials; and this dividing line is more profound than any that may be formulated to separate one kind of assemblage of physical objects from another. (This point can be held even if one wishes to question the existence of the external world, for there is still a distinction between what seems, to any given individual, to come from within and what seems to enter one's consciousness from without.) It appears reasonable, therefore, to exclude mental repertoires from our present definition of a collection but not to eliminate any form of tangible accumulation.[5] Even so, the former remains relevant to the discussion because the latter cannot be thoughtfully considered without recognizing its source in the need of the individual to bridge the gap, to bring what is (or seems) external within one's personal orbit.

Werner Muensterberger, in Collecting: An Unruly Passion (1994), works from a somewhat more explicit definition than mine: collecting, he says, is "the selecting, gathering, and keeping of objects of subjective value" (p. 4). Although this definition is careful and useful, my reason for preferring an even simpler one—"the accumulation of tangible things"—is that, in my view, most of the words he uses may be inappropriately restrictive unless they are accompanied by particular explications (and definitions ought to be capable of standing alone). The idea of "selecting," for instance, may seem to imply a conscious and deliberate activity; but all collecting, as Muensterberger well knows (for


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his subtitle is "Some Psychological Perspectives"), involves a mixture of conscious and unconscious motivations. Deliberate selections have unconscious causes, and random accumulations are nonetheless selective. Collections may no doubt be classified according to the amount of conscious control they seem to reflect, but the differences among them are matters of degree; and the attempt to understand the nature of collecting must deal with these shifting proportions.

Similarly, to speak of "keeping" a group of things involves permanence, but the length of time one possesses something cannot be an element in determining whether or not one is a collector. The urge to possess must indeed be present, but once possession actually occurs, its longevity is not an essential factor: some people—at all levels of sophistication and deliberateness in their acts of gathering—willingly dispose of their assemblages and start on others; such assemblages, just as much as those held for a lifetime, are surely to be included within the concept of a "collection." And the word "objects" is likely to suggest inanimate entities, yet those who assemble varieties of orchids or breeds of horses must be encompassed by the definition, for they cannot be distinguished, in their motivations or behavior, from those who collect inanimate things.[6] Finally, Muensterberger's reference to "subjective value" is meant to make the point that the desirability of an object to a collector is independent of the market price it would fetch (now or in the future). But why should those who collect for investment (at least in part) or take some pride in the monetary value of what they possess be denied a place in the universe of collecting? If such motives enter (in one degree or another) into a person's gathering of objects, they are simply a part of the total


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psychological underpinning of the assemblage, and they do not affect the more fundamental question of why the various motivations involved led to the particular items present, or to tangible things at all. I make these points not to criticize Muensterberger (for his definition is more thoughtful than many that have been advanced) but to illuminate some of the considerations involved in thinking about collecting.

Muensterberger's book, indeed, may be the most thorough and engaging treatment of the psychology of collecting written for a general audience. (Psychologists have naturally been intrigued by the phenomenon of collecting, for it clearly results from deep emotional drives, and there is an extensive technical literature: the modern tradition of such psychological inquiry goes back to Freud and, perhaps less obviously, to William James—who brought up the subject repeatedly, as in the influential 1892 "Briefer Course" of his Psychology where he treated the collecting of "property" as an instinctive impulse" and the resulting collections as "parts of our empirical selves.")[7] If one wishes to think seriously about the nature of collecting, one has no choice but to ponder human psychology, for collecting often causes people to seem driven by uncontrollable urges that they cannot rationally explain—a fact that has made collecting of interest to a number of novelists, such as, most famously, Balzac (Cousin Pons) and, among more recent writers, John Fowles (The Collector), Evan S. Connell, Jr. (The Connoisseur), and Bruce Chatwin (Utz). Muensterberger, a practicing psychoanalyst himself, sees the origins of collecting in childhood traumas. When infants or children have the experience of feeling deprived (even for a short period) of the protection and support of those close to them, they tend to look for relief in their immediate inanimate surroundings and find in controllable physical objects the solace they require. The situation illustrates, in Muensterberger's neat phrase, "the interlocking of biological needs and environmental conditions" (p. 19). Children find in objects a means to keep anxiety under control, and thus they become emotionally attached to one or more items that are associated in their minds with the relief of frustration and mental distress. The holding of these objects, the act of demonstrating that one possesses and controls them, is a pleasurable experience, and one that is repeatedly satisfying because it creates "the illusion of being able to cope" (p. 29).


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Muensterberger's discussion, however one feels about Freudian, or Freud-inspired, or post-Freudian interpretations of human behavior, does go deeper into the psychology of collecting than many of the writings on the subject. Philippe Jullian's Les Collectioneurs (1966), for example, though it is in some ways a charming book, remains relatively superficial. At one point he says (in the words of his 1967 translator, Michael Callum), "Every collection is inspired by the same basic factors: fear of boredom, desire for immortality, aesthetic sensibility, vanity, speculation" (p. 74). Similarly, Holbrook Jackson, in The Anatomy of Bibliomania (1930-31) offers—under the heading "The Causes of Bibliomania"—sections on "Greed," "Vanity," and "Fashion" (II, 273-289). All these motivations may certainly be involved, in varying proportions, in every individual's collecting, but identifying them does not explain why collecting is the route taken to those ends. There are other ways of passing the time, or securing fame, or satisfying a love of beauty, or feeding one's self-importance, or taking financial risks, or amassing wealth, or following fashion; and the most fundamental question in trying to understand collecting is to ask why it should be the path, rather than some other, that is chosen (consciously or unconsciously) to reach certain personal goals. One may subsequently turn to defining the particular combinations of goals that characterize individual collectors; but such analysis does not reach the deepest levels of the drive to collect. Thus an inquiry like Muensterberger's, which tries to identify the mental processes underlying the more overt motivations, is taking an important step, even if it does not tell the whole story.

That there is more to be said is suggested by Walter Benjamin's characteristically perceptive—but disappointingly elliptical—essay, "Unpacking My Library: A Talk about Book Collecting" (available in Harry Zohn's 1968 English translation in Illuminations). One of Benjamin's most penetrating observations is framed as a question: "For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?" (p. 60). The pleasures of the chase and of adding to one's assemblage are framed by Benjamin in the same terms: "The most profound enchantment for the collector is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them." The boundaries of a collection enclose a "magic" space because any object, once "fixed" within it, becomes part of a created order. Benjamin recognizes that collectors deal with "a dialectical tension between the poles of disorder and order," but he does not go much beyond these few sentences in exploring the point. Whether, if asked to expand his discussion, he would have taken the direction I shall take here is impossible to say; but


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I do believe that the human need to find order should be thought about as a fundamental—and possibly the most fundamental—explanation of collecting.

I wish to emphasize, however, that this style of explanation is in no way incompatible with psychoanalytical analyses like Muensterberger's. He talks about the individual's need to feel in "control," and such a feeling could also be described as the perception of some degree of order and stability in what previously seemed unyieldingly chaotic. When infants reach out and take charge of objects, they are comforted because they have domesticated what had seemed foreign; by taking physical control of something, they have imposed an order on their relationship to it and thus have made one small part of their environment less mystifying and disorienting. Whether infants require such comfort because of experiences that make them feel abandoned and insecure, or simply because the world around them seems curious or bewildering, can be forever debated. I believe it can be plausibly argued that, even without specific traumas, infants feel the need to bring order to their surroundings through the acquisition of objects, thus setting in motion a lifelong pattern. This hypothesis is not necessarily more universal than Muensterberger's; for if he is right that everyone experiences childhood traumas, then his explanation is also universally applicable. But an hypothesis not dependent on any one category of event (such as a trauma) may perhaps be regarded as more basic.