Searching for Value in All the Wrong Places, Or How to Put Away Childish Things

More than fetishizing his prizes, the collector fetishizes his own obsessiveness and glorious blindness to the machinations of what non-collectors call “real life”.

A practiced connoisseur and an arch-neurotic, an amasser of distant objects and a scavenger of the objectified pieces of his own scrambled ego, the collector resides in an uncomfortable limbo. He is as much a prisoner as a cultivator of his fascinations. His objects inspire him, limit him, dwarf him, and warp him. His collection becomes a bittersweet house of memories made sweeter with every desirous addition, and bitterer with the inexorable drag of time. Cowering from an ever-expanding cosmos, the collector claims some small power as the master of a cobbled-together microcosmos, that hoard whose dimensions and parameters he can order and reorder, contract or swell, at least as his finances permit.

The expanse of a collector’s assemblage is an erudite rebellion against a pessimistic natural order that favors entropy over learnedness, degeneration over will, apocalyptic bangs over gently accruing spirit.

The expanse of his collection is an erudite rebellion against a pessimistic natural order that favors entropy over learnedness, degeneration over will, apocalyptic bangs over gently accruing spirit. The rebellion, obviously, is futile: though he lords over his gleanings, the collector is neither an ersatz God nor a Noah salvaging precious specimens of culture from a callous universe. If he hoards small things—dried pinecones, pinned butterflies, cancelled coinage, taxidermic owls, igneous mineral deposits, grotesque Pierrot figurines—the collector shrinks into peculiar solipsism and incomprehensibility. Such “eccentric” collections trivialize the collector more than they vitalize him, transforming the collector himself into a specimen in onlookers’ catalogues of madmen. Only in his own eyes, reflected in the glass orbs of his murdered, mounted owls, does he become a vulgar little God. More than fetishizing his prizes, he fetishizes his own obsessiveness and glorious blindness to the machinations of what non-collectors call “real life”.

The affluent collector, who can afford first editions, deceased Impressionists, and monarchical eggs, is marginally less neurotic but clearly more conventional, as his capital expenditures are captive to orthodox laws of supply and demand. The small collector—the owl-hoarder or pinecone fetishist—is ashamed of his tiny manias or makes half-joking excuses for them when visitors stop by. The collector of overpriced, indistinct water lilies, of course, is quite the opposite, always proud to display his auctioned conquests for indifferent servants and envious peers alike. The wealthy collector knowingly shrinks before his collection, assuming his small place within the trajectory of a Monet’s existence. He doesn’t need to pretend to Godhood—his wealth already affords him the more genteel luxury of false modesty.

But all this is too abstract. I’m afraid I’m boring you. So I’ll tell you a story in which I come off rather badly.

I am a collector of small things that generally fall under the category of “mechanically reproduced media”. My obsession of recent years, modern (post-Strauss/Debussy) classical music, occasionally brings me to one of New Jersey’s only worthwhile places, the Princeton Record Exchange, a repository of rare, bargain-priced classical CDs, crammed into narrow shelves or dusty boxes strewn across the floor. Here is a treasure trove of arcane atonality and electroacoustic obscurity for those select few immune to the mass-engineered lure of robotically thumping dance beats.

Here, the otherwise learned collector, succumbing to instant gratification, quickly becomes a glutton at a discount buffet. What dollar-priced rarities might I find buried beneath battered and orphaned CDs of Schubert, Mendelssohn, and Brahms? Perhaps Viachislav Artyomov? Or the mystic mircotonalist Ivan Wyschnegradsky? Or even Boris Frankenstein (yes, that’s right—a contemporary Russian), whom I know only from an odd recording of a short, fascinating work, The Evil of the Planet, a chamber cantata for bass voice, piano, and solo trombone. Everything boils down to that flashing moment of discovery: pausing for the slightest moment, my eyes stumble across a mysterious recording, and I dream that a strange, spectral intonation or discordant allegro might rout my boredom.

When I arrived on one visit, a woman had already stationed herself before one corner of the classical section, her legs straddled three shelves wide, impeding my vision and avaricious reach. She was stuffing nearly every CD she eyed into two overloaded shopping baskets. I stood behind her, clearing my throat and ostentatiously checking my watch, assuming she’d soon take my hint, squeeze her legs together, and allow me rightful passage toward the booty. But for over 30 minutes, she refused to budge, carefully opening each CD case, examining the liner notes, and engaging in trite conversation with an adjacent man who blocked my potential assailment from the flank.

Infuriated, I knew I could comb through the stacks ten times faster than she—I knew how to identify worthwhile (i.e., obscure) composers simply by glancing at the color and font style of the CD spine, by which I could recognize music publishers that strayed from the usual Austro-Germanic chestnuts. Most infuriating, though, was her self-satisfied ignorance: fumbling through shelves and boxes, she was a blind gleaner, bereft of esoteric knowledge. “I never heard of this one,” she said to the man next to her, almost equally stubborn in his monopolization, “but I can always return it!” I was enraged. I couldn’t fathom how many ethical laws she was violating, yet I had no recourse, nor she any punishment.

I stood stonily irked behind her, occasionally craning my neck over her shoulder or peeking under her armpits, trying to glimpse the potential rarities her figure occluded. I fantasized about lopping off her arms and legs, just so I could see what they hid. Eventually the man astride the monopolist departed, and I assumed his sacred position. The monopolist was not entirely oblivious, it turned out. “Sorry you had to wait back there,” she said, “But, you know, first come, first serve.” I grunted neutrally, attempting to endure her immorality. Who was she, an aesthetic ignoramus, to dictate social policy, let alone my place within a scavenging economy?

I found a few decent leftovers and proceeded dispiritedly to the checkout counter, where the man whose spot I’d taken stood examining what appeared to be virgin stacks of CDs, just laid out by the staff. “May I look at this one?” I asked, presumptuously inserting my fingers into one stack. The CD was only a dollar and featured the probably dolorous concerti of some unheard-of Lithuanian composer. When I handed it to the cashier as part of my purchase, the man violently objected: “Hey, that’s mine!” Had I not realized the stack before him represented his own unpurchased property? In my defense, stacks of CDs abound, and it was hard to tell what was fair game. But acquisitiveness clouded my awareness; I’d overstepped obvious rules of social decorum and unwittingly became a petty larcenist, a sneak-thief.

He was as incensed at my obliviousness as I’d been outraged at the woman’s spatial domination. I apologized profusely, but to no avail. He proceeded to scold me: “Do you see these CDs here in front of me? These are mine!” he barked, drawing an invisible square around his cache. He then laughed a laugh either incredulous or supercilious, in either case expressing his astonishment at my inept thievery. I remained rattled for the rest of the day, and that night I woke abruptly from three nightmares, each time seeing his barking face flash for an instant in the darkness of my bedroom. A tiny social slip, and I became less than human.

Though this anecdote is surely trivial, we’re marked more deeply by our trivialities than by our greatest strivings, which tend toward public-domain ideals of grandiose conquest. To identify oneself according to accumulations of objects is self-defeating rather than self-indulgent; Walter Benjamin was correct to see how collectors project iconic fantasies into their objects, but wrong, I think, to assume that those objects signify even a fractured image of their owner. The pinecone aficionado, certainly, isn’t well represented by his woodland icons, for even a stout outdoorsman is greater than inert, ossified conifers.

On the other hand, collectors can become something less than the sum total of their objects. Such are dilettante-collectors swamped in art, music, and unfathomable aesthetics, straining to keep their heads afloat above millennia of intellectual history. Superficially, yes, my composers reflect my taste and judgment, but what are taste and judgment weighed against the slightness of a lifespan, the few years one has to prejudicially pick and choose experiences, stumble into delights, rationalize misfortune, and repress calamity? If we were all immortal, there would be no such thing as “taste”.

Driven by our immanent mortality, we sweep across the vastness of culture as long as our lives or nerves will allow, consuming and tasting objects with mock-efficiency. In the 15th century, the word “consume” (from Old French, by way of Latin) became sanctified with a neologism, “consummate”—the act of using and then excreting became no longer a merely natural or acquisitive function but something whole, holy, and perfected. Though no expert in French, I’ve always thought there was a hint of irony in calling the thinnest, most transparent of soups consommé. What is “consummate” in the rudimentary broth is surely not a taste or texture but the ease with which it passes through us, the ease with which it undoes its own consumption.

But material ephemera are not immaculately jettisoned broths. The collector’s objects always must be cleaned and polished, preserved in a state of suspended animation, lest years of dust and rot condemn them, sooner or later, to ignominiousness or the municipal trash bin. Over the years, the object-encased collector, whether patrician aesthete or declassed eccentric, becomes a recollector; musing over his possessions, he measures his life through the history of his acquisitions, whose own histories remain muddied palimpsests, diaries written second-hand. Sitting agelessly, the artifacts antiquate the mortal self, which sees only what is extant, not what might have been.

Fearing that he becomes an anachronism even within the framework of his own life, and yet not willing to destroy or deny the meaning of his life’s antiquating work, the collector considers parting with objects he’s outgrown. Not coldly destroying them, mind you, but respectfully parting with them, which is enough to evade the abyss of nostalgia. I thus approach my collection of videotapes (“collection” is a generous word for things so slipshod), which sit neglected in piles, some un-ironically stacked atop the mantle of my unused fireplace. In a humorously Kantian way, they retain their purposiveness but have long since surrendered any purpose—they aim toward utility, but who could possibly want to use them?

I even sometimes anthropomorphize the poor plastic things, imagining their two tape spools as wide, needy eyes searching for some nostalgist to play and reanimate them, allowing them to relive old glories. But now part of a perverse videographic mausoleum, they sit wanting and unwanted. Like the flesh itself, they were badly made and foredoomed to obsolesce; little more than slanted piles of polyethylene mummies, the tapes become more like the empty-headed skulls of Czechoslovakia’s Sedlec Ossuary, where the load-bearing bones of medieval believers prop up unwanted ghosts of a dead religion.

I’ve tried to find new homes for my mummies through the agora of EBay, though like-minded archaists and scavengers—who needn’t abide by rational calculi of supply and demand—seem few and far between. Predictably, the tapes that yield some lucre are medium-rare horrors that retain the die-hard cult allure of the ’70s and ’80s. Such is Cannibal Mercenary (aka The Mercenary), an unapologetic Thai amalgam of Apocalypse Now and Cannibal Holocaust, punctuated by eye-gouging, gushing impalements, and assorted jungle perversions, including some rather unexpected golden showers. On EBay’s open market, such a spectacle, complete with intact box and VHS degeneration, brought in an unexpected $84. The obscure ’70s Chinese horror The Witch With the Flying Head, meanwhile, commanded a final bid of about $140, certainly a reasonable price to witness the titular fiend’s disembodied, airborne dome, replete with a dangling spinal column and dripping central nervous system, terrorize an assortment of righteous costumed heroes.

Even in a marketplace of rampant fetishism and masochistic nostalgia, many tapes remain resolutely unsellable. Sentimentality is an irrational commodity, and no reductive hedonistic calculus can account for nostalgia’s fluctuating, non-utilitarian returns. My lonely VHS of Great Cantors in Cinema, its black-and-white cover portraying interwar Hebrews embroiled in heated cantillation, proved rather less titillating to international buyers than I’d hoped. Still, I hold out hope that somewhere one human being longs for Yako, a shameless 1985 Mexican imitation of First Blood, or Raphael Nussbaum’s The Erotic Adventures of Superknight (1976), whose colorful box depicting a mounted Don Quixote superimposed over seminude tarts failed to attract even one curious bidder.

I foolishly assumed my rare VHS tape of Money Game (1993), an admittedly tame Hong Kong exploitation, would bring me some riches, or at least enough for an unaccompanied meal, with medium-priced cocktails and maybe an espresso. I got about $15. Perhaps my hopes were too ambitious for a dull film that would have difficulty qualifying as kitsch. I’d pinned these hopes on the box’s cover image, which resides in that rarefied space between camp and transcendence. In the very background, a man ravages a topless woman, her breasts tastefully concealed, their bodies entwined in illicit congress. Superimposed over the ravaging, a man—perhaps the same rapist—brandishes a necktie, or some kind of red rope, tightening it in his fists and preparing to strangle whomever he sees beyond the framed image.

And yet superimposed over the entire affair are two entirely unconnected men miming a scene of comic awe and shock, one of them smacking his bald, bespectacled head with an open palm, as if disbelieving the very banalities he improbably foregrounds. Yet the image isn’t simply a masterstroke of bemusement. What at first appear as stupefyingly superimposed incongruities are in fact the self-referential criticisms—even admonitions—most films should brandish on their packaging. Please, do warn us.

If a dialectically layered image can happily undermine itself, a blank-faced, under-exploitative image can do much the same. Consider an old Israeli VHS cover for From Russia With Love, whose designer chose to highlight not, say, images of James Bond clasped to Daniela Bianchi’s bosom or locked in close-quarters melee with Robert Shaw’s villain, but a decidedly unsensational scene of Bond answering a rotary telephone, the receiver’s lower end frozen before his face, his eyes blankly staring at something troubling beyond the frame. The image’s still stoicism is surely deceptive: doubtless James Bond, brow arched and mind racing, answers the phone more heatedly than you or I, and his shoulder holster, prominently pictured, clearly portends of extra-telephonic dangers.

Nevertheless, by effectively demoting Bond to phone operator, the Israeli video box designer reveals in Bond a token of heretofore hidden humanity, and by this mundane action his future heroisms become more believably grounded in reality. (We can’t witness him on the toilet, however—then he becomes too believable.) There’s certainly an inverse interpretation: Bond is so thrilling in his consummate composure that he titillates even when bureaucratically answering the phone. As such, his iconic act of phone-answering is quite enough for the cover art, for we’d be overwhelmed too quickly if his greater exploits were highlighted from the get-go. In either case, Bond is dehumanized and emasculated in equal measure, robbed of the dynamism we expect of our appointed saviors.

I’m admittedly unfair to Telephonic Bond by expecting dynamism of him—as a static image, he can only imply dynamism, not enact it. Yet even a still image inspired by the drama of communications technology can offer a full serving of drama. If we believe the advertising for Public Stenographer (1934), the very thought of advanced communication technology, of novelly touching others, instigates terrific scenes of salacity. Consider this poster image: the titular heroine (Lola Lane), now in her boudoir and already marked as a loose woman, clutches at the neck of her nightgown, her eyes atwitter, while a straw-hatted stalker (William Collier, Jr.) leers at her through an open bedroom door. The Depression-era woman, forced from domesticity and into a debauched workforce, discovers not economic independence but a public sphere of oily voyeurism and assailed chastity.

The title, furthermore, doesn’t limit itself with a definite article—“Public Stenographer” denotes not merely a particularized heroine but a veritably new type of womanhood that threatens (with stenography, apparently) to inaugurate an era of gendered chaos. An alternate poster less subtly depicts the calamities of female enfranchisement: the stenographer now sits on the lap of a male coworker, his face elated and hers expressionless, as her boss observes in horror. Meanwhile, her stenography noticeably languishes on a desk in the background, a victim of sexual politics. The triangulation of stunned patriarch, wily swain, and pseudo-emancipated maiden summons a lusty dynamism of which Telephonic Bond can only dream.

Have I digressed from our original topic? Perhaps not, if the deceptive, frozen image and what it advertises, promises, and conceals is the root of all clinging nostalgia, a sensation predicated on unsuppressed if foggy snapshots. If time always blurs our images of the past and calls into question the past’s verity, how refreshing it is to encounter an advertising image—like that of Money Game—skeptical of its own imageries, its own presumed fonts of nostalgia.

Consider the skepticism suggested by the Japanese VHS design for a film apparently called Cami (I’ve not seen it, nor can I identify it by another title). Over a white background, five diapered babies with inharmoniously adult features, as if afflicted by progeria, frolic around a bright red station wagon. Two of the babies—vaguely male in their premature musculature—waltz atop the car, the third accompanies them on a violin, and the fourth dances (perhaps belly-dances?) slightly more erotically to the side. In the foreground, the fifth monster-child stares directly at us with an uncomprehending visage, much like the superimposed, flummoxed pair in the Money Game cover art.

The image at first seems like a commentary on suburban alienation: the station wagon lifestyle clearly infantilizes parents, now re-embodied as stunted, shrunken hybrids that might waltz as adults but remain enslaved to (or within) babyish ideals and family-centered transportation. But the foregrounded monster’s self-uncomprehending yet somehow accusatory stare registers on another level. Confounded by the cover image, we still haven’t a clue as to what the film possibly could concern. Should we neglect our curiosity, or must we adults, like infants, irresistibly give in to our desires to discover, know, and therefore possess? The image’s frank imbecility says, “No… it is better not to know. Grow up. You needn’t acquire everything.” For once, we must resist seeking out the unknown. Let it, with finger outstretched, seek and question us.

Infants cannot resist grasping. The ineluctable instinct to cling and hold is built into their means of socialization, of testing and experiencing the materiality of their environments. But as adults we fail to abjure this instinct. Long after we are socialized, after our desires are responsibly repressed into reality, we still grasp, turning instinct into acquisitiveness, desire into economics, and knowledge into enslavement.

Consider one final example of cautionary video cover art. By dint of its title alone, a straight-to-video obscurity tellingly entitled Things presents materiality as a horror both dire and pathetic. On the cover, we see a skinny, milquetoast villain with pencil mustache in whitewashed jeans wielding a phallic power drill while an ossified, victimized corpse, apparently painted into the image, screams in silent terror. For some reason, a gigantic insect, also matted in, bares its maws in the lower corner. The evil milquetoast looks not as his victim but at us, and this time there is no self-mocking incomprehension. Despite the box’s printed caveat of “Horror and Brutal Violence in Full Color”, the would-be killer is all too aware of his frailty and bathetic inability to produce horror, in full color or otherwise. Though he’s instantly rendered as camp, he stares at us nonetheless, as if amazed by his own humiliation.

Yet our superiority over the image becomes an alibi for our own insecurity. We laugh at the image’s poverty and badly imagined notion of terror, but we are never superior to our need for mockery and bullying. “I certainly know horror,” we say, “and it’s not a milquetoast with a mediocre ego and an overcompensatory power drill.” But do we not also compensate? Do we not cling to our psychic need to mock, much as infants needfully grasp for things? Needing convenient perspective for our own shortcomings, we remain enslaved by the desire to remain superior without ever evolving—the desire, in a word, to own.