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The Collector in Nineteenth-Century French Literature

Representation, Identity, Knowledge


Emma Bielecki

The collector was one of the archetypal figures of the nineteenth-century French cultural imagination. During the July Monarchy (1830-48) a new culture of collecting emerged, which continued to develop over the course of the century and which attracted the attention of a wide range of social commentators and writers. From the sketch-writing of the 1830s to the late nineteenth-century decadent fictions of Jean Lorrain, from Balzac’s Cousin Pons to Proust’s Charles Swann, the literature of the period abounds in examples of men (and occasionally women) afflicted with what the Larousse Grand Dictionnaire called in 1869 ‘la collectionnomanie’.
This book examines these representations of the collector. It shows that woven into them are fundamental anxieties generated by the experience of modernity, involving the nature of identity and selfhood, the relentless accumulation of commodities in a capitalist system of production and the (in)ability of language to translate experience accurately.


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Chapter 4(Re)Collecting the Past 119


Chapter 4 (Re)Collecting the Past As we have already seen, the article on the collectionneur in the Grand Dictionnaire identifies collectionnomanie as a specifically nineteenth-century condition: ‘La collection est un des goûts qui sont appelés à caractériser plus spécialement ce siècle; manie charmante du reste […], et qui est essen- tiellement propre aux esprits délicats. “Jamais rustre prit-il assez d’intérêt aux menus débris du passé pour les receuillir à grand’peine, dit M Paul Parfait?”’.1 This observation hinges around an opposition between delicacy and hardiness, the latter quality embodied in the figure of the peasant. The painstaking, pernickety work of the collector ill befits the vigorous and robust country-dweller, but it is, the article suggests, a suitable pursuit for the soft city-dweller. The modernity of collecting is located in the fact that it is an urban phenomenon. The quotation also points towards another idea, however, without explicitly voicing it, which is that the modernity of collecting lay in the specific relationship to the past that such a pur- suit implied. For it is not just anything that is being collected here, it is anything old, the ‘débris du passé’. It is the modern, urban citizen who is concerned with amassing material relics of the past, a concern described as wholly alien to the country-dweller. The article here brushes, with the lightest of touches, past a set of issues which were of central importance to the discourse around collecting in the nineteenth...

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