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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 5The Poverty of Taxonomy 149


Chapter 5 The Poverty of Taxonomy Nineteenth-century collectomania was not confined to the sphere of arti- ficialia; abundant too were collectors of naturalia: from mineralogists and paleontologists to lepidopterists and conchologists, professional and amateur natural historians established collections to classify and catalogue the natural world. Indeed, collecting has long been a vital technology of knowledge in the study of the natural world. In its classical paradigm, natural history was concerned with the elaboration of a general taxonomy of all things animal, vegetable and mineral. Collecting was not merely its method, but to a large extent its meaning as well, and natural historians were engaged above all in a work of inventory and classification.1 Over the course of the nineteenth century, however, this classical natural historical paradigm was dismantled, as comparative anatomy gave birth to modern biology, concerned with physiological functioning, and a preoccupation with taxonomy was displaced by the study of the processes of life.2 Thus the taxonomical epistemology that underpinned natural history collect- ing came to be viewed with increasing scepticism. At the same time, as we shall see, taxonomical knowledge was often regarded as arid or sterile, as an intransitive discourse lacking any instrumental dimension, in which 1 See Michel Foucault, Les Mots et les choses: une archéologie des sciences humaines (Paris: Gallimard, 1966), pp. 137–76. 2 See Foucault, pp. 275–92, and also James A. Secord, ‘The Crisis of Nature’, in Cultures of Natural History, ed. by N. Jardine, J. A. Secord and E. C....

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