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  • Collecting: An Unruly Passion: Psychological Perspectives
  • Kevin Melchionne
Collecting: An Unruly Passion: Psychological Perspectives, by Werner Muensterberger; 295 pp. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1994, $29.95 cloth, $13.00 paper.

Due to the growth of museum studies, collecting practices are receiving more attention these days. Muensterberger’s book is one of the more ambitious of recent studies in this area. He applies classical psychoanalytic concepts to collecting. Cultural theorists often say that collecting is dominated by neurotic, fetishistic, compulsive, or obsessional desires. Muensterberger is firmly in this camp, and his performance confirms rather than dispels the misgivings that nonpsychoanalytic students of culture have often expressed about the psychoanalytic approach.

The first two parts of the book are an exposition of the psychoanalytic view. The third treats several “case studies” of lunatic barons and desperate social climbers whose unbridled accumulation drove their families to ruin. The tales make for good reading. The final part of the book aims at a cultural history of [End Page 524] collecting. This section strays farthest from Muensterberger’s theoretical turf and suffers from a certain confusion of purpose. Much of it reads like a selection of case studies taken from the past rather than a history of collecting. In all, Muensterberger’s cultural history of collecting does not compare favorably with the extensive work in art history on the origins of the museum. I will limit my discussion to his psychoanalytic account of collecting.

Muensterberger’s psychoanalysis is starkly classical: collecting is essentially a compensation for prior disappointment and an illusory comfort in the face of an uncertain future. Collecting serves this role particularly well, it seems, because its repetitive structure allows the individual to repeat the tension-reducing act of acquisition when the satisfaction induced by the previous act fades. The meaning of the process of collecting resides in the “momentary undoing of frustrating neediness but is felt as an experience of omnipotence. Like hunger, which must be sated, the obtainment of one more object does not bring an end to the longing. Instead, it is the recurrence of the experience that explains the collector’s mental attitude. The compelling concern to go in search, to discover, to add to one’s store, or holding, or harem, is not generated by conscious planning. Rather, every new addition, whether found, given, bought, discovered, or even stolen, bears the stamp of promise and magical compensation” (p. 13). In a similar vein, Muensterberger locates the origins of the urge to collect in the child’s reliance upon objects as “symbolic substitutes” for the parent. The acquisitive bent of the collector is derivative of the “grasping and clinging” of the infant (p. 18–19).

If this sounds like your generic caricature of psychoanalysis, then you have the picture. Muensterberger makes an effort to distinguish his own perspective from a facile reductionism, whereby collecting is no more than the sign of a pathological state of mind. But this is exactly what he is doing. According to the author, collectibles are simply “narcissistic supplies” (p. 234). Speaking of the noted Italian collector, Mario Praz, Muensterberger writes: “the inanimate objects’ function is essentially compensatory . . . they are being used not only as an attempt to disguise old wounds but at the same time to serve as reminders of past injuries and humiliations” (p. 43).

The idea that cultural practices like collecting serve in some way to compensate for the frailty of the human spirit is deeply attractive. If only through repetition, Muensterberger’s insistence upon the essentially compensatory nature of collecting (and for that matter, all culture) begins to make one wonder if the compensatory view of culture has not, through an excess of intellectual scruple, received too little recognition. Unfortunately, he pursues standard Freudian explanations with a relentlessness that sinks to self-caricature. In this respect, the book is a missed opportunity. It is plausible to suggest that collecting temporarily eases all sorts of psychological and existential tensions in adults though I doubt that it does this better than eating, sex, or yoga. [End Page 525]

But it is not just his brand of psychoanalysis that is simplistic. Muensterberger defines collecting as the “selecting, gathering, and keeping of...

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