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Collecting: An Unruly Passion: Psychological Perspectives

Werner Muensterberger
Tapa dura 21 nov 1993 / Tapa dura desde EUR 26,88
[Citado por Changeux, Sobre lo verdadero, pg. 139]

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

Honor 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."

Collecting An Unruly Passion: Psychological Perspectives

By Werner Muensterberger
Illustrated. 295 pages. Princeton University Press. $24.95.
The New York Times / By Christopher Lehmann-Haupt
Published: December 16, 1993

What lies at the root of the human passion for collecting, which Werner
Muensterberger, a psychoanalyst, defines as "the selecting, gathering and
keeping of objects of subjective value"?

In his new book, Collecting: An Unruly Passion: Psychological Perspectives,

Dr. Muensterberger writes pedantically: "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."
In plainer language: people injured by the loss of love in their childhoods
spend the rest of their adult lives insatiably pursuing Toby jugs, matchbooks
or salt-and-pepper shakers. Often at the cost of human relations.
Now, such an explanation seems reasonable enough, at least if you are
among the shrinking number of people who still believe that childhood
events shape adult behavior. So what more can Dr. Muensterberger possibly
have to say in a volume of nearly 300 pages?
Quite a lot, as it turns out. He elaborates at length on the psychology of
collecting, explaining for instance how the "need for authentication and
approval by experts is a reflection of two forces existing within the collector:

the desire for self-assertion through ownership and a sense of guilt over
narcissistic urges and pride."
He details some of the more extreme forms that the urge to collect has
taken, from the man who collected every form of bell because he had been
reared in a Catholic missionary orphanage where "only the sound of the
bells of the little mission church had seemed to provide some source of
comfort," to the Marquess of Bath, whose collection of Churchilliana included
one of Sir Winston's famous cigars, half-smoked, which a bar attendant had
As well as exploring why people collect, Dr. Muensterberger applies what he
finds to the history of humankind. Preliterate cultures, fearing death, often
saw magical significance in the vital parts of others. Some would therefore
collect human heads. In the Middle Ages, this same urge was applied to
sainted beings, which led to the collection of human relics: hair, bones,
skulls, fingernail parings, Christ's prepuce.
The increasing worldliness of the Renaissance aroused a passion for
antiquity and objects of a scientific nature. In the 17th century, wealthy
Dutch burghers amassed art and tulip bulbs. But always, insists the author,
the motive was anxiety and the need for self-assurance.
Most engagingly of all, Dr. Muensterberger draws three psychobiographical
portraits. These are of Sir Thomas Phillipps (1792-1872), who sought to
overcome his illegitimate birth by accumulating one copy of every book in
the world, be it printed or in manuscript; Honore de Balzac, who, the author
believes, never got over his mother's emotional coldness to him, and thus
collected indiscriminately, and Martin G., a collector of Oriental artifacts
whom the author knew.
In the book's most dramatic passage, Martin G., a successful businessman
compensating for his father's death in the Far East during World War II,
tracks down in Hong Kong what may or may not be a brilliant forgery.
Anticlimactically, the author decides that whether it was truly a forgery
"makes no difference with respect to the motivating factors." He concludes
that the story "should only be a reminder that, inevitably, the collected
objects remain just that: objects."
"They may elicit feelings," he adds, "but they have no life."
Maybe so, but this reader still wanted to know if Martin G. had been
Unfortunately, despite all the detail that Dr. Muensterberger brings to his
theory, he doesn't really develop it satisfactorily. No matter how far or wide
he ranges, he always comes back to some increasingly obvious variation of
his initial statement. Thus, after describing an outbreak of Black Death in
the Netherlands and connecting it to the eruption of tulipomania, he
concludes: "It is apparent that the admiration for the object not only gives

reassurance to the owner. It enhances his self-image. It also provides

protection against the insecurities of the past." One begins to get the idea.
Or perhaps it is simply Dr. Muensterberger's way of putting things that
makes the going heavy. He has a habit of clearing his throat with vapid
statements like, "Historical events followed each other in rapid succession."
At another point he writes about the behavior of the Dutch after Spanish
rule ended, "It does not require much insight to recognize in such an
emotional expression a compensatory need," which makes you wonder why
he has been carrying on about it for several pages.
Still, the point of "Collecting" is hardly trivial. The theory it proposes is not
nearly as reductive as some. As the author concludes, citing Otto Fenichel's
Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis: "I am not in agreement with certain
psychoanalytic propositions according to which 'cupidity and collecting
mania have their correlating determinants in the infantile attitude toward
feces.' This, I believe, is too confining a point of view."
And the urge to collect does not come off as an entirely negative thing. It
may be true that a monstrous form of the impulse led to the
dismemberment of St. Elizabeth of Thuringia after her death in 1231 at the
age of 23. But Dr. Muensterberger writes about collecting that if it is kept
within bounds, "it is by no means an unhealthy ego defense." He concludes,
"It is a device to tolerate frustration and a way of converting a sense of
passive irritation, if not anger, into challenge and accomplishment."
This comes as a relief, since by the book's broad-gauged definition of the
impulse it examines, we are none of us entirely exempt from the strange
urge to collect.