I'm not a collector. Except for books. And with books it's not really that I collect. I mean, if I'm completely honest I do have a few shelves of books bought because I love them as physical objects, and because I like having them in my room: a gorgeous 18th-century edition of Cicero I bought a couple of years ago, for instance. Or my Scott, pictured above: which amounts to about four-fifths of the first collected edition of the Waverley novels, the 48-vol ‘Magnum Opus’ issue, published between 1829 and 1833 by Robert Cadell (my set looks more complete than it actually is because a couple of its volumes are duplicates). I bought a box of these from a junk-store being run out of a deconsecrated church in Devon, way back in the last century, and for piddling money; and I have been adding to them ever since, if and when I chance upon odd vols. But here's the thing: I read these books. They were already pretty tatty when I bought them (as you can see from the photo) which dilapidation doesn't bother me in the least. So long as the books hold together well-enough for me to be able to read them, I'm happy. Almost all the rest of my books are more-or-less crappy paperbacks, because what I'm interested in is: reading copies.
Now: this isn't a perfect disinterestedness on my part, because I'll confess I do derive some kind of frisson from knowing that I'm reading a first edition (reading Waverley in the compact first-edition Magnum Opus edition is different in substantive ways from reading a penguin paperback). So something of the aura of faux-authenticity clings about my sensibility, as I presume it does with ‘proper’ collectors. But I assume that ‘proper’ collectors make much more of a fetish of condition, immaculacy, of buying things and displaying them in an inviolate, pristine state which human interaction must not be allowed to sully.
I'm not a collector in that sense. Toy Story 2 has wise things to say on this matter, in my opinion.
Anyway: recently I was chasing something down an intellectual rabbit hole to do with Mario Praz, the Italian scholar known (I suppose, still? or has he dropped into obscurity nowadays?) for The Romantic Agony. Doing so, I came across his autobiography, The House of Life (1964). It's a strange sort of memoir really, not an account of the professor's life so much as a list of his many collected objets-d'art: Napoleonic furniture, small gilded sphinxes, Aubusson carpets, majolica figurines, waxes, ormolu caryatids, portrait busts and statuettes. His house in Rome was more like a museum than a domicile, and Praz dedicated his life to Collecting, capital-C. Reflecting on his own impulse, he concedes that there's something deadly about it.
Some subtle spirit may perhaps remark that, just as waxes had a funebrial origin (for centuries wax figures formed parts of the funeral ritual of the great) so also had busts, for the lexicons will tell you that Latin bustum means ‘Crematorium, place in which corpses were burnt (from combustus, comburere, to burn)’ whence ‘tomb, sepulchre’ and then ‘effigy in the form of a bust of the defunct in the tomb.’ All this, added to the reputation that Empire furniture has for being funereal, no doubt provides a precise and unarguable description of my taste.A collection turns the flat or house in which it sits into a tomb, to some degree, and understanding that this is so unlocks the truth of the collector's urge as such: a desire not so much to surround oneself with beauty as to attempt to fix and embalm flux, to turn one's back on the growth and the change that, at the eventual cost of life itself, is life itself. Praz has the self-insight to own this fact:
I see myself as having myself become an object and an image, a museum piece among museum pieces, already detached and remote, and that, like Adam in the graffito on the marble floor of the church of San Domenico at Siena, I have looked at myself in a convex mirror, and have seen myself as no bigger than a handful of dust. [Praz, The House of Life (translated by Angus Davidson; Acadine Press, 1964)]Kathleen Raine, writing on Praz's book for The Sewanee Review, insists, with rather de haut en bas grandeur, that it manifests ‘the mistaking of introspection for wisdom’, adding: ‘Praz is caught in his own introspections like an image thrown from mirror to mirror, seen here in miniature, there against some gilded background, but never able, in the false perspectives of that Piranesi prison, to escape into any reality’. There's something here that fascinates me, if I'm honest; which may explain my own fascination for books over other kind of collectible objects, as well as a persistent fantasy, which I can date to my early adolescence (and which is present in much literature of course, from Lewis Carroll on), of being able to step inside an artwork or a mirror and explore the landscape beyond the pane.
There are passages in The House of Life whose tragic intensity is quite extraordinary. One such is a description of a painting of a palace interior at Naples when occupied by Murat; an Empire interior within an Empire interior, a room within a room, which for the owner of the picture has become, as it seems, of a reality equivalent not only in degree but in kind to the room in which he physically stands. Yet we do not feel that the picture gives entry (like those Chinese landscapes about which Lafcadio Hearn tells legends of sages rowing away in little boats until they vanish into the Great Emptiness) into the Artifice of Eternity; but, on the contrary, into the Ruins of Time. Is this because only works of ‘unageing intellect’ can give release from mortality? Of these there are perhaps too few in Professor Praz's collection. But perhaps we must conclude more generally that the enjoyment of the collector is at the farthest possible remove from the joy in creation of works of art. Such works are the expression of some impulse of life, some mode of spiritual or metaphysical knowledge; a living mind in a living society informs them. The traditional heritage of a culture imprints even the tables and chairs and amphorae which the manual craftsmen make. But the collector procures objects out of context; and the more so the more he values them as ‘curios.’ Thus the collector implicitly disowns responsibility for the ideas embodied in the objects he ‘collects’; for ‘collecting’ is an obsession, not at all the same thing as a scholar's interest in some period of the past and its product. Thus, Professor Praz can be a connoisseur of effigies in ‘the religious style’ without religion; the bust of St. Francis de Sales is squeezed among wax effigies, opera-singers, and ormolu angels. All the gods and goddesses of antiquity are here de-sacralized. Thus whatever is collected is at the same time killed (as in those cases of butterflies and humming birds found in Victorian drawing-rooms), because its life has been severed from its roots.Raine is probably leaning a little too hard on the mystic-vitalism pedal here, but she's on to something, surely. Art should be a door through which we are invited to step, not the stone rolled across the mouth of the tomb.
It makes me wonder, just a little, about on which side my passion for physical books falls. For comparison: I used to own thousand of CDs, stacked up on many shelves, but I've got rid of almost all of them now. I still listen to music, but I have, it seems, no need to own the physical objects. Digital music players are fine, and I'm happy having my music as immaterial files. You might think I'd have gone the same way with books: ebooks are very popular nowadays, after all, and manifest various advantages over physical books, not least in space-saving. But though I do sometimes read ebooks (usually because I'm reviewing something and have only been supplied with the file) I just can't talk myself into preferring them. I still love reading actual books. So perhaps there's something of the funereal instinct lodged in my soul too: like Adam in the graffito at Siena, looking at myself in a convex mirror and seeing myself as no bigger than a handful of dust. Dust to dust. Adam to Adam.