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I’ve been reading a fascinating book, The Hummingbird Cabinet: A Rare and Curious History of Romantic Collections, by Judith Pascoe. It’s a discussion of obsessive collecting in England in the romantic period (around 1829-1910). The book tracks a number of collectors, like Edward Silsbee, an elderly American sea captain, who became obsessed with the poet Shelley and did everything he could to buy Shelley objects: from his guitar, to Shelley watch fobs, snuffboxes, a Shelley baby rattle, a raisin plate, Shelley hair and Shelley doodles. In short: craziness. But really, I keep thinking, if it’s craziness, it’s a brand that comes right down to the present. Think about Diana, for example. Who doesn’t know someone who either once or still collects Diana stuff? It’s hard to get hold of a Diana rattle, but these days the adoring collector can break out into commercially produced memorabilia: Diana dolls, cups, buttons, books… The desire to have something—or many things—that remind one of a famous figure has definitely not abated its fierceness. Napoleon’s grave site foliage was stripped off all branches by souvenir seekers; Stonehenge had to be fenced for similar reasons.
Doctors have spent a good deal of time trying to analyze the impulse to collect: the wish to have souvenirs is obviously different from the wish to own a cup with Diana’s picture on it, for example. And both of those are somewhat different from the wish to own 900 barbie dolls. Freud himself was a great collector of figures of Egyptian, Greek and Roman gods—apparently he had so many that they lined the walls and clustered all over his desks and tables, even in his office. Freud thought collecting had to do with lack of satisfactory interpersonal contacts. While generally I don’t think much of his ideas, I can certainly see that idea working in the most famous movie image of a collector lately on the screen, our beloved Forty-Year-Old Virgin! I’ve known a lot of happily married collectors, though, so I think this may explain some collectors--definitely not all!
So here’s my question: do you collect? Do you know someone who collects? What do you collect? And why? Where does the pleasure come from owning 40 barbies as opposed to 400? Or 4? Why do people start collecting Rolling Stones memorabilia, or Shelley rattles, for that matter?