Monday, March 1, 2010

The Collectors

"I didn't play at collecting. No cigar anywhere was safe from me."
~ Edward G. Robinson

Last month the U.K. newspaper the Daily Mail published a fascinating story about the late Malcolm Guest, a British Rail employee who collected classic railway posters that would otherwise have been discarded for more than 40 years. Here are two examples.

It was only recently, when Mr. Guest died, that his family discovered the collection's value — an estimated £1 million — and poster aficionados learned of its existence. 

Mr. Guest seems to have been a collector with a single, focused passion and a discriminating eye. But others are not so discriminating. My mother, whose compulsion was throwing things away, made an object lesson of the sad tale of Homer and Langley Collyer, the famous hoarders whose towering, boobytrapped heaps of newspapers, books, gardening tools, furniture and umbrellas (and more) led to their tragic undoing. Today, of course, cable television harbors a popular show about hoarders.

And then there are those who collect humans, like the protagonist played so chillingly by Terence Stamp in William Wyler's 1965 film The Collector. Based on the John Fowles novel of the same name, The Collector introduced us to Freddie Clegg, a lonely butterfly hunter who decides, instead, to hunt and hoard Samantha Eggar. The annals of true crime include all too many entries about real-life Freddie Cleggs.

Freud famously blamed hoarding on poor potty training. In contrast, Mark B. McKinley, Ed.D., provides pleasantly easygoing theories about the psychology behind both collecting and hoarding on the Web site of National Psychologist magazine. He offers reasons from investment to fun to social contact to preservation of the past as drivers for true collectors. But even McKinley admits hoarders are a sadly different story.

Museums are, of course, the cathedrals of collecting. Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk's latest work, The Museum of Innocence (which I have not yet read, but absolutely must), is about a collector. In an interview about the novel on the Web site the Big Think, he said, "Museums put collectors on pedestals...But if there are no museums, then your habit of collecting, and also your collections, exhibits only your personal wounds....My character...likes the empty, melancholic old museums where no one goes...There you feel the venture of a prince, a rich guy, a sad guy, a poor collector who thought that he would transcend history by his collection, by his objects. But then it's how successful — no one comes."

As a side project, Pamuk has created his own museum and filled it with 83 objects. Judging by the brief sampling shown in this slide show on the Web site of the New York Times, it contain things that are not strange in themselves, but seem quite strange in this context. Pamuk said this about the collection to the Times: "I want my museum to be modestly filled with the ordinary things that make up the city, that make up any city. I want my museum to be a museum of the city, to include everything from street maps to locks to door handles to public telephones and the sound of foghorns."

Not everyone is a fan of museums. Consider D.H. Lawrence, who lived in the days when British museums were sacking and plundering the antiquities of the world, carrying them home as trophies. "Museums, museums, museums," he wrote, "object-lessons rigged out to illustrate the unsound theories of archaeologists, crazy attempts to co-ordinate and get into a fixed order that which has no fixed order and will not be co-ordinated! It is sickening!"

While I can understand Lawrence's ire, in the end I side with Margaret Mead, who said, “A city must have a soul, a university, a great art or music school, a cathedral or a great mosque or temple, a great laboratory or scientific center, as well as the libraries and museums and galleries that bring past and present together.”

Thinking about collecting and hoarding made me wonder about greed. Isn't the insatiable quest for more and more money a form of hoarding? We see it as hoarding when the ultra-rich binge on acquistions. Think of Charles Foster Kane. Think of the basement of Xanadu.

So why isn't it also hoarding when money-collectors keep their assets in liquid form and store them in offshore accounts instead of vast basements? Maybe we should start thinking of those imbeciles on Wall Street as deeply neurotic. Maybe what they need is an emergency intervention. Maybe we should deliver it to them.

"I'd go stupid collecting and counting my money."
~ Thelonious Monk

Full disclosure: I am not a collector myself, but I do have far too many books and, at the same time, never enough.

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