Let the soul of a man take the whole universe for its body. Let its relation to the whole universe be like that of a collector to his collection.
As I write this, I have on or beneath my desk, to name but a few of the more prominent items, a packet of doughnut stickers; the program for a conference I organized last year; a watch, beloved in college, that ticked itself to death last month; an old tube of ChapStick, its tip gone dry and chalky; two packets of cat-shaped Post-its; a key to a forgotten door; a collection of Robert Hayden’s poetry; a stack of Goya postcards; a commentary on Kant that I have been dreading for years and have yet to crack open; a lone Christmas sock of unknown provenance; and the front cover of my disintegrating copy of Moby-Dick.
The theorist Jean Baudrillard, whose books I do not keep on my desk, accuses stockpilers and squirrelers of imposing their personalities onto their pliant belongings: “No object ever opposes the extension of the process of narcissistic projection to an unlimited number of other objects,” he writes in The System of Objects. By his lights, the collector aims to surround herself with her own image, until at last she sees herself reflected back no matter where she looks. “What you really collect,” Baudrillard concludes, “is always yourself.”11xJean Baudrillard, The System of Objects (New York, NY: Verso, 2006), 90.
It is true that we are each the crowning member of the sets that make up our collections: We alone transform a random assortment into a collection at all. What unifies a hodgepodge of correspondence is only the person who has amassed it—the person to whom the cards and letters are addressed. As Walter Benjamin notes in his famous address, “Unpacking my Library,” “The phenomenon of collecting loses meaning as it loses its personal owner.”22xWalter Benjamin, Illuminations (New York, NY: Schocken Books, 1969), 59–67. The books in Benjamin’s vast collection belonged together because they were his, not because they were books, or because they happened to crowd onto adjacent shelves.
But Benjamin also acknowledges that an owner is not wholly prior to her collection. “Ownership is the most intimate relationship that one can have to objects. Not that they come alive in him; it is he who lives in them,” he writes. In other words, our collections shape us at least as much as we shape them. To see yourself in your belongings is to see a self already altered by them: If I come to reject certain ideas, I do so because of the books I stumble over and am reminded to read; if I covet more doughnut stickers, it is partially because I love the ones I already possess. Besides, it is not true that our collections cannot oppose or defy us. Physical objects are constantly thwarting our aims by proving ill suited to the tasks we try to assign them: The Post-its won’t serve as a doorstop; my old watch no longer even functions as a watch.
But perhaps the crucial truth that Baudrillard overlooks when he dismisses collectors is that we are rarely in complete control of the objects we end up with in the first place. Even the things I did in some sense select myself, like the books on the desk and the chair and the floor, move me in ways I cannot anticipate. Arguments persuade me despite myself; clumsy writing offends me; great prose grips me by the shoulders and shakes me. It is impossible to prepare for the onslaught of beauty or ugliness. In the end, your collection always ends up collecting you.