Collecting: An Unruly Passion: Psychological Perspectives

Collecting: An Unruly Passion: Psychological Perspectives

by Werner Muensterberger


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From rare books, valuable sculpture and paintings, the relics of saints, and porcelain and other precious items, through stamps, textiles, military ribbons, and shells, to baseball cards, teddy bears, and mugs, an amazing variety of objects have engaged and even obsessed collectors through the ages. With this captivating book the psychoanalyst Werner Muensterberger provides the first extensive psychological examination of the emotional sources of the never-ending longing for yet another collectible. Muensterberger's roster of driven acquisition-hunters includes the dedicated, the serious, and the infatuated, whose chronic restlessness can be curbed—and then merely temporarily—only by purchasing, discovering, receiving, or even stealing a new "find." In an easy, conversational style, the author discusses the eccentricities of heads of state, literary figures, artists, and psychoanalytic patients, all possessed by a need for magic relief from despair and helplessness—and for the self-healing implied in the phrase "I can't live without it!" The sketches here are diverse indeed: Walter Benjamin, Mario Praz, Catherine the Great, Poggio Bracciolini, Brunelleschi, and Jean de Berry, among others.

The central part of the work explores in detail the personal circumstances and life history of three individuals: a contemporary collector, Martin G; the celebrated British book and manuscript collector Sir Thomas Phillipps, who wanted one copy of every book in the world; and the great French novelist Honoré de Balzac, a compulsive collector of bric-a-brac who expressed his empathy for the acquisitive passions of his collector protagonist in Cousin Pons. In addition, Muensterberger takes the reader on a charming tour of collecting in the Renaissance and looks at collecting during the Golden Age of Holland, in the seventeenth century. Throughout, we enjoy the author's elegant variations on a complicated theme, stated, much too simply, by John Steinbeck: "I guess the truth is that I simply like junk."

Originally published in 1993.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691604282
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #268
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

Read an Excerpt


An Unruly Passion Psychological Perspectives

By Werner Muensterberger


Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-03361-7


Passion, or the Wellsprings of Collecting

Certain aspects of human conduct seem at first glance not at all exceptional or mysterious. Yet on closer inspection we see that they can be quite perplexing and not easily understood. One such trait is collecting. Collectors themselves—dedicated, serious, infatuated, beset—cannot explain or understand this often all-consuming drive, nor can they call a halt to their habit. Many are aware of a chronic restiveness that can be curbed only by more finds or yet another acquisition. A recent discovery or another purchase may assuage the hunger, but it never fully satisfies it. Is it an obsession? An addiction? Is it a passion or urge, or perhaps a need to hold, to possess, to accumulate?

Observing collectors, one soon discovers an unrelenting need, even hunger, for acquisitions. This ongoing search is a core element of their personality. It is linked to far deeper roots. It turns out to be a tendency which derives from a not immediately discernible sense memory of deprivation or loss or vulnerability and a subsequent longing for substitution, closely allied with moodiness and depressive leanings.

It is not even the phenomenon of collecting as such which may seem strange to the outsider, but rather the spectacle many collectors make of themselves, their emotional involvement in the pursuit of objects, their excitement or distress in finding or losing them, and their at times peculiar attitudes and behavior. Indeed, a detached observer often finds it difficult to understand the immense passion and overriding concern a collector can exhibit about such things as old maps or a rare coin or military ribbons.

Is it more like an unquenchable thirst? Even a very serious and reflective collector is hard put to offer a clear, convincing explanation of his inclination or the intense emotion that occasionally occurs in the process of obtaining an object.

The aim of this book is to throw some light upon the habits of collectors in an effort to answer these questions and explore the underlying emotional and experiential conditions that provide a setting for this kind of craving. In order to do so, I shall first offer a definition of what I consider collecting. I will define collecting simply as the selecting, gathering, and keeping of objects of subjective value. Note that I emphasize the subjective aspect of collecting because the emotion and often the ardor attached to the collected object or objects is not necessarily commensurate with its specialness or commercial value, nor does it relate to any kind of usefulness. To the truly dedicated collector, the "things" he collects have a different meaning and indeed even a potentially captivating force.

It is, of course, a given that whatever is collected is of particular significance to the individual collector. Obviously, his collection is bound to reflect certain aspects of his own personality, his taste, his sophistication or naïvete; his independence of choice or his reliance on the judgment of others. While others go their own independent way with no need for role models and with little or no regard for what is in fashion in this respect, many collectors tend to be affected by current trends or the opinion of fellow collectors, specialists, or dealers.

Here is a reason why it is not uncommon to find collectors among the nouveaux riches, for the objects contribute to their sense of identity and function as a source of self-definition. They then seem to justify a feeling of pride, even superiority.

Irrespective of what kind of objects collectors choose to assemble, there are clues that help us understand their behavior and the nature of their passion, which is often marked by feelings of exhilaration and states of transport but is also reflected in moments of tension, sensations of distress or restless nights, and harrowing doubts. Often the very process of acquisition is a transparent source of excitement, though at the same time it may prompt stirrings of guilt and dis-ease. If one observes collectors in pursuit of an object, one quickly recognizes conspicuously telling individual attributes—the different ways of how they go about acquiring a new object, how they express their craving, or how they transmit overwhelming feelings of pleasure; on the other hand, after having obtained an object, they may maltreat themselves with doubts and self-reproach, often quite incomprehensible to the noncollector. For there is no "average collector."

Many years ago, I was fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of an outstanding and truly dedicated man, Georg Tillmann. A German by birth, he was first known as a collector of exquisite porcelain. Scholars, always welcome guests in his house, made studies of many objects in his possession. He visibly enjoyed company with which he and occasionally his wife could share his interest. His astonishing knowledge and discerning eye enabled him to assemble superb specimens, and his name is still mentioned with awe among porcelain connoisseurs to this day, more than half a century after his death.

Tillmann eventually left his native Hamburg for the Netherlands where he first became acquainted with ethnographica, especially Indonesian works of art and textiles. Here, not at all untypical for collectors, he embarked on an entirely new collection, containing predominantly sculptures and textiles from West and Central Africa, Indonesia, and the Pacific. As before with porcelain, he ventured into his newfound field with zeal and thoroughness, and the sure instinct of a man of impeccable taste. He sent scouts to Indonesia and West Africa, again sought the acquaintance of specialists in the respective fields, and soon became as knowledgeable as he had been with porcelain.

Tillmann was a very engaged collector who liked to share his enthusiasm with like-minded people—fellow collectors, specialists, students, and aestheticians. He also kept an extensive correspondence and often had prominent scholars as houseguests, who had a small cottage located behind his townhouse at their disposal. A man with boundless energy, he was often carried away with a new find, a recent purchase, or the result of his last research. There seemed to be no end to his passion. Among other things, he made a study of Indonesian textile designs, and discovering what he felt was a hitherto unknown or different pattern or type was like a spiritual victory for him, and quickly became an incentive for elaborate enquiries and spirited discussions. I recall when my telephone rang long after midnight. When I answered, he did not even mention his name but spoke right away about an exquisite African mask he had just brought from Paris and asked me to come over and share his excitement.

A telephone call at any hour of day or night was no exception. It was a testimony to his total engagement. When in the company of fellow collectors or scholars, he often forgot about time and conventions, not infrequently carrying on conversations until the early morning hours. Such conversations usually took place in a very large kitchen clearly designed for the purpose because these gatherings were often accompanied by memorable meals which he himself would prepare while continuing to talk with his guests about this or that object either in his collection or in a museum or in somebody else's hands.

I am sketching this setting because scenarios of this kind are not at all uncommon among collectors who delight in sharing their joy and appreciation with like-minded enthusiasts. Such dedication of collectors can be all-absorbing—now and then exhilarating, at times tyrannizing, and, indeed, occasionally ruinous.

In some instances collecting can become an all-consuming passion, not unlike the dedication of a compulsive gambler to the gaming table—to the point where it can affect a person's life and become the paramount concern in his or her pursuit, overshadowing all else: work, family, social obligations and responsibilities. We know of numerous cases in which moral standards, legal considerations, and societal taboos have been disregarded in the passion to collect.

Historical examples of this mental attitude are indeed too numerous to mention. There was, as an instance, Philip von Stosch (1691–1757), a German scholar and antiquarian, who became a willing spy for the British government in order to fulfill his overwhelming passion for the finest gems, and apparently thought nothing of stealing from collections he was invited to visit as one of the foremost experts of his day. Or take Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792–1872), who, in his never-ending pursuit of "one copy of every book in the world," was not perturbed by letting his wife and daughters live in squalor and putting off his material obligations to the suppliers of his books and manuscripts for years, in some cases driving the dealers to bankruptcy. Even so august a collector as Queen Christina of Sweden, whom Hugh Trevor-Roper described as "that dreadful woman, the crowned termagant and predatory bluestocking of the North," was not above letting her passion swamp her moral sense, as in 1648, when she seized the extraordinary art collection of Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor, only a few days before the Peace of Westphalia, bringing an end to the Thirty Years' War, was to be signed.

In the context of our observations, there is a valuable lesson to be learned from such examples. For the dedicated, the "hooked" collector—an occasionally fitting designation used by some collectors in referring to their own habit—the experience is not simply recreational but an enriching respite from the sometimes frustrating demands of everyday life. My focus is psychological. By that I mean that I want to explore the generative conditions leading up to the cause of the collector's obsessional infatuation with the objects. Their presence reduces—for a period—an inner longing or, in psychoanalytic terms, the tension between id and ego. Inner longing and external representation achieve a temporary balance. Anyone acquainted with habitual collectors is well aware of how much of their time and effort is absorbed by their hobby and how the never-ending search for yet another acquisition generates excitement, anxious expectations, a thrill, but also, almost unavoidably, uncertainty and indecision as well. At the same time, it is transparent that this kind of involvement has also other dimensions and is usually determined by unconscious concerns as a device to screen off and master deeper doubts and ambiguities, a point I shall deal with in greater detail.

Still, I must emphasize that, while the response to ownership, the love of one's possessions, the inner pressure for more and more acquisitions, and the manner of giving expression to the ownership of the objects, among other things, exist in all collectors, neither personal style nor circumstances are ever identical. Rather, they differ according to the inner causes or what one might describe as the particular individual's collecting sentiments. This is true even when collectors pursue similar objects and similar aims.

Indeed, each single item in a collection usually has a distinct meaning for the owner, and this meaning is inevitably determined by a great many external and experiential factors. Thus, while two collectors may crave the same object (think of several bidders for a specimen in the salesroom), their causal reason for desiring it, and the way they may go about obtaining it, may be, and usually are, entirely different. As a result, their individual choices or tastes may coincide, but what drives them depends on their personality, on particular sociocultural conditions, and, in a deeper sense, on the nature of their antecedent mental experience.

There is, then, a distinctly individual and often wide disparity in the private incentives that motivate collectors. My stress lies on the affective value which pari passu contains both a projective and a creative element by contributing to the collector's fantasy world. The reasons they themselves give for their infatuation, their taste, and their personal preferences are, needless to say, subjective, and, considering the unavoidable self-consciousness of collectors I have interviewed, I tend to question the validity of the various conscious explanations they give in this regard. Taste, choice, style are inevitably affected, albeit often unconsciously, by the Zeitgeist, the spirit and the sociocultural climate of an era.

What concerns us here is the question of the causality of the drive to collect. This can only be understood if one is aware of certain underlying factors, the most important of which is the constant search for new objects, new additions or acquisitions. My emphasis is on the overwhelming significance of objects to the collector. In this context I should stress that the area of specialization is not without relevance, but my focus is centered on the complexity of the collector's total experience.

It is this aspect of his or her concerns that should provide some clues to the individual collector's urge if not nagging obsession. It is an intrinsic element in any collector's repertoire, although it should be evident that this is but a surface deflection. I could describe it as a feedback mechanism arising from deeper needs and salient causes. There is an essential underlying condition that is reflected in the collector's use of the object.

Observing dedicated collectors in their often consuming pursuits, one can detect an overmastering search for objects. Paying attention to certain people as they browse through flea markets, one has here and there a chance to recognize a kind of persistence behind which seems to lie a compulsive preoccupation, and like all compulsive action is molded by irrational impulses. As I shall describe shortly, these may range from such concrete incidents as physical hurt or emotional trauma or actual neglect to more or less tangible states of alarm and anxiety, particularly when no real help and comfort was forthcoming. In one case, I encountered a collector of bells of all sorts, from cowbells from the Swiss Alps to Tibetan prayer bells and Chinese temple bells. I soon learned that the man had been brought up in a Catholic missionary orphanage under conditions that seemed pitifully grim and depressing. Only the sound of the bells of the little mission church had seemed to provide some source of comfort. There may be other considerations that motivated this man, but there is much empirical evidence to indicate how crucial such childhood experiences are.

The significance of early events like these lies in the fact that they may establish a disposition for special techniques to alleviate the lingering dread of a repetition of exposure to trauma providing the hurt child with a sense of security. Child observation shows us that the infant may look to alternative solutions for dealing with the anticipation of vulnerability, of aloneness and anxiety, and often will be looking for a tangible object like a comforter, a cushiony doll, or the proverbial security blanket to provide solace which is not, or rather was not, forthcoming. Thus, the collector, not unlike the religious believer, assigns power and value to these objects because their presence and possession seems to have a modifying—usually pleasure-giving—function in the owner's mental state. From this point of view objects of this kind serve as a powerful help in keeping anxiety or uncertainty under control. This has little to do with an objective appraisal of the actual situation. Rather, emotionally fragile children may just be afraid of the dark and seek protection by holding on to an object that will, in the child's mind, magically alleviate the dread of aloneness and provide instant support.

Thus, favoring things instead of people may be one of several solutions for dealing with emotions that echo old traumata and uncertainties. What I am suggesting is that affection becomes attached to things, which in the eyes of the beholder can become animatized like the amulets and fetishes of preliterate humankind or the holy relics of the religionist. Such special objects may even be given a name, like a person, and help assure the child of companionship and open an avenue for mastering doubt and anxiety.

This is not a fanciful assumption. Many observers have pointed out how one or the other kind of fear or anxiety can invoke a wide array of precautionary measures. Giving a doll or some other object a "soul" or a name is one telling example. This is a phenomenon anthropologists are long acquainted with. It is known as animism. In psychological terms, it has been described as "attachment," or "clinging response," not only among children but in adults as well.


Excerpted from Collecting by Werner Muensterberger. Copyright © 1994 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Preface, pg. ix
  • Chapter 1. Passion, Or The Wellsprings Of Collecting, pg. 3
  • Chapter 2. First Possessions, pg. 14
  • Chapter 3. Of Toys And Treasures, pg. 25
  • Chapter 4. Skulls And Bones, pg. 51
  • Chapter 5. The Headhunter's Bequest, pg. 62
  • Chapter 6. "One Copy Of Every Book!“, pg. 73
  • Chapter 7. Two Collectors: Balzac And His Cousin Pons, pg. 101
  • Chapter 8. Ventures Of Passion: The Vicissitudes Of Martin G., pg. 135
  • Chapter 9. Renaissance And Reconnaissance, pg. 165
  • Chapter 10. The Age Of Curiosity, pg. 183
  • Chapter 11. In Praise Of Plenty: Collecting During Holland's Golden Age, pg. 204
  • Chapter 12. Ways And Means, pg. 227
  • Chapter 13. The Promise Of Pleasure, pg. 251
  • Notes, pg. 257
  • Bibliography, pg. 273
  • Index, pg. 289

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