On Collecting And Collectors

We are all collectors. Whether it is paintings, art objects, CDs, books, stamps, insects, pipes, watches, posters, napkins, match boxes, memories, connections and many other artful, useful or simply useless things, everybody has the instinct of gathering in a personal collection certain things which are invested with a precise significance by the collector, function of the latter's intellectual and psychological traits eventually imprinting upon them his/her personality. I have often wondered about the reason that prompts people to collect things, not without a slight anguish, as I couldn't find a satisfactory explanation that would validate what I considered an obstinate desire to possess. It was first the idea of possession that triggered apprehension on my part since I saw collecting as the act of imposing one's instinct of possession over a set of objects in an attempt to make them different, to arrange them in such a way as to acquire a significance that is forced upon them, an arrangement that suits the taste of the collector. This desire to possess ends up by shaping its own world, an artificial world that always struck me by its too obvious claim to existence. I tried to explain to myself the anxiety I experienced towards collections and collectors, hoping that after having explained it, that is, after having found a cause, I could overcome the effect. In my mind it was as if a series of inanimate objects leapt into life and forced themselves into the viewer's acceptance as living beings, claiming it by their too overt a presence. For a better illustration, I should mention that the feeling I am describing was enhanced especially after reading John Fowles's The Collector, which set me thinking about the reasons of having a collection. Reading it, I imagined the butterflies in Ferdinand Clegg's collection, all properly ordered, like rows of numerous soldiers, waiting to take action. Gathering insects with no scientific purpose and aligning them in a neat collection was like denying their uselessness and claiming they were still valid, therefore invalidating their death. Death means disposal, waste – and consequently abhorrence; even metaphorically, things no longer needed are considered dead. Keeping the waste is uncommon, finding it a use is rather unnatural. Moreover, killing insects for collecting them with no real scientific purpose that could authorize it, as Ferdinand Clegg did, seems the worst since it implies ending their natural course of life for creating an artificial life, a universe that is designed to suit the pleasure and purpose of the owner. Seen from this perspective the collector appears as one who tries to assess his personal worth in terms of the things he possesses, thus keeping the collection as an instance of self-assertion and a token of self-worth. Fowles's idea of foregrounding Clegg's passion for collecting by making him turn from butterflies to a collection of human beings, hence undermining the most valuable 'creation' on earth, life itself, seemed to me extremely subversive of the passion of collecting in general. However, after some time since reading the novel, overcoming my anxiety towards collecting, I started thinking of this undertaking from a different perspective. I realized that we are all collectors, that everyone has or has had the experience of collecting, whether deliberately or not, and that in so doing, the things gathered are filled with certain significance and imprinted with the collector's personality. Especially in our times, when the sacred has been obscured by the profane and we can only find glimpses of what used to be holy and divine, the significance that each object carefully preserved and displayed in a collection acquires is a projection of the collector's need for meaning in a world that seems to have lost any claim to the sacred. Seen from this perspective, the collection can be interpreted as a microcosm, copying the universe, a reminder of the time of mysteries and sacredness. The collection becomes thus a substitution and a representation of the macrocosm in the modern era, a time which, as Mircea Eliade would say, has decayed from story to history, from a time of eternity to one which rushes and wipes off the traces of the past in its flow. Hence, the survival of the symbolic in modern times is only possible through disguised forms. One of these forms through which the ancestral spirituality is disguised is the collection of various objects, no matter how valuable they are. The collector tends to invest them with a connotation that encapsulates a part of the human propensity for mysticism. The collection is a possible link to the lost spirituality, to a time when religion gave meaning to life and when many objects were valued not so much on a pragmatic level, but on an occult one, not so much as props to human needs, but as abstruse symbols before which man's amazement and interest increased. The same kind of feeling – worship and admiration – is triggered by the objects of collection for the collector. They reconstruct, by their presence and the emotion they generate, the status of the consecrated objects. Moreover, the former have a meaning because they stand for a particular geography and achieve a personal history, as each object comes from a certain place and has a certain history telling of how it was purchased. Could the passion for creating a collection, a meaningful microcosm, succeed in masking or thinning the rift between sacred story and profane history? Another question, another mystery to tackle. What is apparent from the account of reputed collectors – and I am referring to the art collectors' accounts in particular – is that achieving a collection requires much patience, endeavor, devotion and love. The reasons that prompt one to such an activity must be found in the attempt to recover a significant loss. For those having this passion, collecting becomes a purpose that orders life according to a specific calendar.Try to remember what you did in July 1995. If you can't remember, try to evoke the summer of 1995. If this time of your life has become a blur in your memory, think that such a thing could not happen to a collector.

by Ioana Stamatescu