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The Compulsion to Collect makes “Novels”!

Books are difficult to write.  Long, uninterrupted projects are daunting to my hyper-mediated constitution.  To push forward I always need to feel that a goal is imminent.  So, I mentally separate my projects into series, or sets (with subsets), not unlike the Topps and Donruss baseball cards I once collected.[1] I write books as a series of passages regularly punctuated with titles and illustrations.  I am driven by a desire to collect these passages.  The tidy nature of this arrangement, like finding a Norman Schwarzkopf single in a pack of 1991 Desert Storm Trading Cards to get one important step closer to completing my first series, has a soothing effect.  Does anybody else work this way?

Kenneth Burke calls this tendency to apply a satisfying narrative arc to the movements in our life, what he would call a “terministic compulsion,” a desire to end or complete something.  Ultimately, though, I get most excited when  the series ruptures, where the collection resists completion.

A finished collection is not so much a disappointment as a negation; the lust of collecting is in the process of acquiring rather than the act of retaining a full set.  Finished collections are usually relegated to places like three-ring binders, bedroom closets at you mom’s house, or series of poly-vinyl storage bags.  Kant believed that the collection of raw material was creative in itself; this is what he calls the “manifold of sensation.”  Just as we accept that composing a narrative is a creative act, we can accept that acquiring objects (often, but not always, physical) to be arranged in a certain manner is an action of creating art.  In overcoming the challenges of collection, we feel a certain satisfaction.  The graphic novelist Seth writes about the disappointment of internet shopping and eBay in his booklet 40 Cartoon Books of Interest, when he bemoans the fact that buying a computer allowed him to find, in an instant, the ten rare books he had tracked for years.  The automation provided by an internet browser and a PayPal account deprived him of the craft that was involved in the creation of his collection, the skill it took to browse classified ads, wait on lines at rummage sales, and pick over bins in Salvation Army thrift store book lots.  The act of collecting is certainly more important than the collection itself.

Walter Benjamin is a paradigmatic example of this idea.  He was a scholar, a philosopher, a storyteller, but, above all else, a collector.  His drive to collect, to collect books, to collect quotations, to collect information, is what led to the printed documents that have created a record of his work.  He did not see himself as a writer or even a scholar in a contemporary academic sense.  He was a collector, and, luckily, the physical manifestations of these collections are his essays and books.  In his essay “Unpacking My Library,” he very directly discusses his personal collection drive.  But his Arcades Project is perhaps one of the greatest examples of collecting as art.  He actually tries to collect the city life of Paris within the pages of a book (or several notebooks) and, as with any sublime collection, it is a project that has never been completed, and, moreover, could never be completed, for that would suggest that an idea so vast as the very life of Paris could ultimately be contained.

Once a collection is complete, it is finished, and, therefore, its impetus is killed.  The comics artist Ivan Brunetti, who is an avid collector of found and manufactured objects, describes collecting as a “process of gradually coming into focus.”  He continues, “When I figure out what it’s about, I stop collecting.”  Once the mystery is dispelled, the narrative is complete, and the creative process is finished.  This applies to both artist and audience.  A closed and reductive narrative offers a very shallow experience to the reader, an experience that completely shackles the reader’s creative capacity.

Benjamin’s contemporary and friend Georges Bataille might suggest that this collection drive is neither creative nor a drive at all.  In his essay “The Notion of Expenditure,” he puts forth his theory of “unconditional expenditure,” in which he posits that the fundamental human drive is toward loss, not acquisition.  Acquisition is an unwanted result of expenditure.  He writes that there is a pleasure in expenditure, but it is mitigated by the capitalist insistence that loss be productive or useful.  I would certainly agree, as I believe would Benjamin and Brunetti, that the expenditure of passion and resources involved in collecting is essential to its pleasure, and this is what I find so compelling about Bataille, in terms of my book writing process.  But also necessary for this pleasure is a concept of production, a carrot.  Inherent in this concept of collecting is the notion of a product, a final collection, whether it is an illusion or not.  And if it is illusory, it is still a useful illusion.

The fractured narrative that The Arcades Project produces shows that value of purpose when expending resources.  Eventually, a story is found, a new idea is acquired.  A work of art is created that can be shared with an audience.  As an artist, this is the ultimate pleasure I derive from my own collection drive, to gather raw materials and assemble them in such a way as to produce new ideas in my readers.

[1] The size and layout of the plates that begin each section of my novel The Complete Collection.  While not consciously created as such, it certainly mimics the physicality (portrait and subtitle printed on a neat rectangle) of the trading cards, the Garbage Pail Kids and wooden-bordered 1987 Topps Baseball series, that once consumed me.

14 thoughts on “The Compulsion to Collect makes “Novels”!

  1. wow, john, this sounds so smart i have to print it out to read/understand it… i’ll have something semi-comprehensible to say about it tomorrow.

    but on collections: i’ve just had a collection accepted called UNFINISHED (oh how it fits with this post!), where i asked a bunch of writers i love to send me their abandoned, unfinished, unfinishable stories and i would finish them. i hadn’t written a short story since grad school & there was real indulgence in playing not only with the form but also with someone else’s voice. that being said, it’s only novel writing for me, from here on out. short stories are too clean. i like novels: they’re messy (the pleasure in the novel comes from those forgotten strands) & they know when they’re done!

    1. That’s an amazing undertaking, Lily. Looking forward to reading it. This is the kind of compelling mess I’m talking about exactly. The stories are neither complete for you or the original writer – that’s what allows you to gnaw for a while, and for us to gnaw for a good long time on the work you give us.

  2. Hey John,

    This post is fascinating on several levels, first, because of the light it sheds on how you conceive and assemble your longer fictions, that is, how you use sets and then subsets as a structuring device (or maybe scaffolding? or is it a tree from which different limbs, then branches, then twigs, then leaves grow?), and second, because of its exploration of the collecting impulse and how it may be mitigated less by the desire to acquire and more by expenditure of energy, how it, at its most fulfilling, privileges process over product. What’s interesting to me is that you paradoxically derive satisfaction from unsatisfied desire, or perhaps what brings the most joy is unsatisfaction, or that satisfaction, as a byproduct, is not only secondary but to be avoided, that what drives you to collect is not the imagined frisson felt from “completion”, but the rush felt from uncertainty, from the assembly of something felt or known to be incomplete.

    The example of graphic novelist Seth’s disappointment felt after easily finding the “ten rare books he had tracked for years” through “internet shopping and eBay” brings to mind Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas regarding “flow” and the “psychology of ultimate experience.” Seth’s joy came from the process involved, that is, the skills, strategies, stamina, determination, etc., needed in order to fulfill his goal. This single-minded absorption, this channeling of emotions, this alignment of thought processes and desire is what brings satisfaction. What Seth discovered is that cutting out this work, these actions, left him feeling flat because it wasn’t the goal, the finishing line, the once-lost-but-now-found book that energized him, but the sense of mystery, the desire to figure something out, the thrill of exploration, discovering rather than discovery.

    Do you know the book Collecting: An Unruly Passion by Werner Muensterberger? While its psychoanalytic perspective certainly dates it, it does contain many insights into the impulse to collect. I had thought about it when I read Matt Bell’s The Collectors (a harrowing evocation itself of collecting mania). The best parts of Muensterberger’s book are the portraits of infamous collectors including, most relevantly here, maybe, Sir Thomas Phillipps whose goal was to own “one copy of every book in the world!!!”

    He also refers to Walter Benjamin from time to time. Here he quotes from Benjamin’s Schriften:
    “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.”

    Later, he writes that Benjamin “described every acquisition and addition to a collection as an experience of renewal, ‘from touching things to giving them names.’”

    But I think this may be getting away from your post which is I think about using the collecting impulse as a way of making fiction.

    1. > John, I really would like to dig deeper into the literature of
      > collection – fiction and poetry, like Matt’s book. Haven’t read
      > Muensterberger, but will find it. Are you famaliar with Aby
      > Warburg’s Mnemosyne?

      1. I didn’t know Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne. I like his idea of researching “visual clusters.” It made me think of “literary clusters,” stylistic, rhetorical, and syntactic affinities beyond surface attributes that demonstrate through lines across history.

  3. What do you think this says about those of us who simply don’t have the impulse to collect? I tend to get rid of as much as I attain–a practice that’s left me with no more at age 34 than I possessed at age 24 (perhaps less). I certainly understand working in serials, however–though I always thought of the tendency as born of anxiety about endings, rather than attraction to them.

    After writing Forecast, I flailed around a bit until deciding that what I thought I’d finished wasn’t done, but only by 1/3. So I wrote two more books along similar thematic lines and called it a trilogy. Likewise, when composing poems or shorter works, I find myself unsatisfied by the thought of writing a single poem. Rather, I must be “working on a series.” It’s this extensibility I seem to be after, not wanting the song to really end.

    1. Shya, that creative experience feels very similar to my own. Like you too, my material instinct is increasingly to purge and shed stuff. As a kid it was anything but. Maybe this ideological collecting instinct is compensatory one. Kind of filling a hole.

      1. So perhaps it is indeed a Bataille-like gift-impulse. A gift-economy of our will-to-power. Can’t gain it through the art itself? Than do it in the next best way: by intentionally sacrificing the material wealth you’re already abdicating implicitly through your chosen avocation. It’s like a kid holding his bladder to express the control he’s lacking in his dysfunctional family life.

  4. This is a great post John. I can only respond on a memory level. For me it was a set of 1983 Fleer baseball cards. The year after the Brewers only WS appearance. Also, you remember topps baseball stickers? I was all over that too. There was the correlation of the player to the record, like I had to have the sticker of the AL stolen base leader (Rickey of course) and paste him into the box for title of stolen base leader to be legit.

    1. Oh, yeah, Greg, I had those stickers. AND I put them into the book. Some kids wouldn’t peel them; they said it “ruined their value.” I was into the ’88 Fleer set – red white and blue borders. Included the once-coveted Gregg Jeffries rookie card. That career didn’t go so well.

  5. Interesting post, John. Because of my dissertation, I’ve been thinking about these issues in Derridean terms– that the archival impulse, the fever to collect is bound with the “archiviolithic,” the fever to destroy: “right on that which permits and conditions archivization, we will never find anything other than that which exposes to destruction, and in truth menaces with destruction, introducing, a priori, forgetfulness and the archiviolithic into the heart of the monument…The archive always works, and a priori, against itself.”

    By the way, there will be conference on collecting next month at Rutgers:


    1. I can feel that destruction, Michael, in my own collection urges. Maybe it’s an idea of possession – we want “the whole thing” because we can then control of it, and, as such, dispense of it.

      That conference looks interesting; I think I’ll try to make it out to NJ.

  6. John (and all),

    I stumbled on Big Other through a link Kristen provided. I’m so glad I did. This post, in particular, struck a chord. These are wonderful musings. You’ve managed to put into beautiful context–better than I have been able to–some of my own thoughts.

    I often put memories and even physical objects into my poems in order to salvage them in some kind of psychic museum (despite knowing that time will erase even these; I try to fool myself into thinking I can somehow save them). I wanted to be an archaeologist before I decided to become a poet, and I think there is a connection between these fields. An archaeologist uncovers artifacts, which find their way into a museum collection. A writer too, excavates, draws out artifacts, linguistically, and puts them on display. I think writing, and putting into one’s writing certain people, places, and objects is an act against personal dissolution. It IS collecting (one of the reasons I think the title of your own book, The Complete Collection of People, Places, and Things, is so brilliant). Margaret Atwood has an essay called “Negotiating with the Dead,” in which she claims all writers are motivated by a concern with death–that writers are conversing with the dead and, simultaneously, writing against death. I think all these ideas are intertwined.

    There is a quote by poet Marianne Boruch that seems apropos: “A poem is a box, a thing, to put other things in. For safe keeping.” (The American Poetry Review, 2006) One could easily replace poem with story, novel, painting, I think.

    For me, it is simultaneously satisfying and painful (such a strange paradox) to know that, like Benjamin with his Arcades project, we can never fully recreate a life, our world.

    I also collected Topps and Donruss baseball cards in the 80s. I never even watched baseball. I just liked collecting. I didn’t even know who most of the players were. I liked sorting and organizing them and trading with my brother. I remember a Don Mattingly card he was particularly desperate to take off my hands.

    1. As you know, Heather, I completely get with your sentiment. We all need a potato room under house to put our stuff in. Sometimes, though, we leave it down there so long we can only guess what it has become.

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