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Collecting: An Unruly Passion

Collecting: An Unruly Passion: Psychological Perspectives

Werner Muensterberger
Copyright Date: 1994
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    Collecting: An Unruly Passion
    Book Description:

    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 inCousin 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.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback 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.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6347-1
    Subjects: Art & Art History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)

    • CHAPTER 1 Passion, or the Wellsprings of Collecting
      (pp. 3-13)

      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?...

    • CHAPTER 2 First Possessions
      (pp. 14-24)

      Listen to a dedicated collector’s penetrating observation regarding his own habits: “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…. One has only to watch a collector handle the objects in his glass case. As he holds them in his hands, he seems to be seeing through them into their distant past as though inspired.”²

      This is part of a self-observation by Walter Benjamin, a highly perceptive essayist who loved books. Benjamin was musing over his...

    • CHAPTER 3 Of Toys and Treasures
      (pp. 25-48)

      The discovery that the passion for collecting is closely linked to a deep attachment to objects which substitute for, and quite often supplant, people still leaves us with a number of unsolved questions.

      Why, for example, do some collectors hoard, while others search and select with great care and discrimination? Why does one man assemble his objects in the most meticulous manner while another one buys or makes his finds at random? Why does one person choose to collect campaign buttons, while another accumulates paperweights, and a third amasses American quilts? What is the lure of candlesticks, or candy wrappers?...


    • CHAPTER 4 Skulls and Bones
      (pp. 51-61)

      An eighteenth-century scholar, had he tackled the subject of collecting, would hardly have begun with the pursuits of Don Juan. Nor would he have turned to the treasured possessions of children, since he would have seen no essential link between a child’s anxiety and an adult’s passion.

      But let us for a moment follow the eighteenth-century scholar’s lead and begin, as he might have done, with the craze known as Anticomania.32Roman collectors of Greek works of art and artifacts have left behind enough signposts to tell us that the drive to collect anything Greek was even then not just...

    • CHAPTER 5 The Headhunter’s Bequest
      (pp. 62-70)

      A fundamental affinity exists among the skulls of an ancestor, of a sacrificial victim, and of a saint or martyr who gave their life for their beliefs. All are regarded as carriers of intrinsic power, and they concretize those ideas which represent the substance of mystery and sacrament.

      Texts by churchmen starting around the fourth century a.d. stressed that the remnants of saints and martyrs haddynamis(from the Greekforce), and thus the ownership of relics as a reservoir of divine patronage was introduced (or more correctly reintroduced from pre-Christian religious faith) into the creed of the faithful. A...


    • CHAPTER 6 “One Copy of Every Book!”
      (pp. 73-100)

      In the following three chapters I propose to explore the personal circumstances and life-histories of three particular individual collectors. These should illustrate certain empirical aspects, particularly in their early life events, which may help explain certain underlying factors critical for the course of their endeavors as collectors. The advantage of these three profiles is that we do not have to rely on secondary sources. Rather, the collectors themselves have left (or in the case of Mr. G. have given me) autobiographical data that provide an array of illuminating and relevant subjective perspectives about their lives. They help in the effort...

    • CHAPTER 7 Two Collectors: Balzac and His Cousin Pons
      (pp. 101-134)

      On February 27, 1848, Honoré de Balzac invited the young author Jules Fleury-Husson, who wrote under the pen name of Champfleury, to visit him at his new dreamhouse on the Rue Fortunée in Paris. Champfleury had long been an admirer of the famous author and had in fact even dedicated hisFeu Miette, Fantaisie d’Etéto Balzac. It was a historic moment, for it was the day after the proclamation of the Republic.

      Only twelve days earlier, Balzac had returned from one of his frequent visits to Russia, where he had stayed at the home of the recently widowed Countess...

    • CHAPTER 8 Ventures of Passion: The Vicissitudes of Martin G.
      (pp. 135-162)

      Looking back to the nineteenth-century and earlier, one is bound to find gaps in any inquiry into the trends of collecting and the personal manifestations under certain historical and socioeconomic conditions. Nor do encounters with contemporary collectors contribute many more answers to the tantalizing questions concerning the ultimate incentive: what is it that collectors are seeking? Even the dramatic candor and revelations in primary observation of a collector in action tend to grow hazy and incomplete.

      Still, proximity does permit one to examine a collector’s endeavors and patterns of behavior more closely. Thus we get an intimation of subjective incentives...


    • CHAPTER 9 Renaissance and Reconnaissance
      (pp. 165-182)

      In our search for the roots of the collecting habit, we have focused on individual experience and have seen the need for attachment and clinging to objects as a primary incentive for the accumulation of tangible possessions. For the individual collector this concentration on objects can become a way of life, as I tried to show in the three profiles sketched in the previous chapters.

      But while the fundamental motive is based on the individual’s history and essential events, the type and style of selecting and collecting is effectively guided by the prevailing culture pattern, the mood and values of...

    • CHAPTER 10 The Age of Curiosity
      (pp. 183-203)

      One would be hard put to deal with the predominant leanings of all the humanists at the time of Poggio Bracciolini whose taste and antiquarian interests also aroused a desire to own old sculpture or epigraphic texts or whatever might relate to the humanist world. However, there were a few who seem to have gone beyond antiquities and contemporary works of art. One of them was Sigismondo Tizio, a man with a preference for Etruscan objects, although his attention was also directed toward “natural curiosities.” While others concentrated exclusively on Roman remains, a man like Tizio seems to have been...

    • CHAPTER 11 In Praise of Plenty: Collecting During Holland’s Golden Age
      (pp. 204-224)

      There is no record of exactly how many people in the young Dutch Republic of the seventeenth century collected. Some chronicles seem to indicate that nearly everybody became a prospective collector. The recently won freedom from decades of oppression and insecurity thanks to the ruthless rule of Spanish despots had ushered in a period of zest and feverish animation. Along with the prosperity due to their bold seafaring undertakings and the ever-increasing competitiveness in international mercantile trade provided a successful base for these burghers to express their enthusiasm for life and their forward-looking enjoyment of worldly pursuits. One way of...


    • CHAPTER 12 Ways and Means
      (pp. 227-250)

      The previous two chapters focused on historical periods that witnessed not only essential changes in Western man’s perspective and his awareness of his manifest destiny but also the advance of rationalism and concomitantly the gradually diminishing impact of the preachings and dogmas of Latin Christendom. The schism in the Church was part of the breakdown of medieval culture due to changing social conditions and increasingly heterodox ideas.

      However, probably nothing had a deeper and more lasting impact on medieval man than the collective trauma caused by the outbreak of plague or Black Death, first reported in 1347, when Petrarch was...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)
    • CHAPTER 13 The Promise of Pleasure
      (pp. 251-256)

      The purpose of the present book was to arrive at a better understanding of the phenomenon of collecting. I have not been dealing here with collecting as an isolated manifestation. As in clinical work I wanted rather to arrive at a deeper insight into a variety of characteristic elements of certain processes in the human experience. More specifically, I wanted to examine collectors’ motivations and the dynamics of their undertakings. I was looking for convincing insight into what constitutes the impelling factors of their passion, their commitment, and the nature of their occasionally baffling conduct in response to their wishful...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 257-272)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 273-288)
  11. Index
    (pp. 289-295)