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The Collector in Nineteenth-Century French Literature

Representation, Identity, Knowledge

Series:

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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Conclusion 213

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Conclusion In his essay ‘Eduard Fuchs: Collector and Historian’, Walter Benjamin mused: ‘The figure of the collector, more attractive the longer one observes it, has not been given its due attention so far. […] The type is motivated by dangerous though domesticated passions’.1 Benjamin’s formulation points to the seeming innocuousness of the collector. After all, the collec- tor’s activity is simple: he accumulates objects, and then scrutinizes them. To those immune to the collector’s disease, this activity can be somewhat bemusing; it seems to be almost entirely pointless, a dead end. This bemuse- ment echoes through accounts of collecting produced throughout the nineteenth century, in which the collector is routinely treated as a figure of ridicule. But let us, like Benjamin, follow the collector’s lead, and take the time properly to look at the figure of the collector. Suddenly, it seems less banal, and we can begin to make sense of Benjamin’s reference to ‘dangerous though domesticated passions’. Domesticated and domestic. The popu- larity of collecting was closely linked to the rise of the domestic sphere, as Edmond de Goncourt, the doyen of haute curiosité, suggested. Describing life in the nineteenth century, he wrote: ‘Dans cette vie assise au coin du feu, renfermée, sédentaire, la créature humaine […] a été poussé à vouloir les quatre murs de son home agréables, plaisants, amusants aux yeux’.2 The collection, an af firmation of privacy, provided a refuge for the collector, a space segregated from the dreary workaday world. The domestic interior was...

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