To Have and to Hold: The anxious glory of the collector
When I was a child, I collected rocks, copies of Sports Illustrated and newspaper clippings on what I took to be world-historical events. The Sports Illustrateds, which I had lovingly culled and organized until they represented only the best of the best?early covers of Magic and Jordan, late ones of Ali, no chaff with the wheat?were disposed of by my parents when they made a move about 15 years ago. The world-historical clippings?the Wall falling, apartheid ending, a disturbing headline that read ?India, Pakistan on Brink of Nuclear War??were ruthlessly and painfully narrowed in a great purge I perpetrated before a move of my own seven years ago. The rocks, though, remain, in an old Anderson Dairy milk box in my parents? garage, waiting for ? what, exactly?
The very fact of the rocks? presence in that old box has caused me considerable anxiety over the years, as if my continued possession of them was evidence of a character flaw: Who keeps rocks? Worse yet, who keeps rocks and is struck by a sort of neurological/gastrointestinal lightning bolt at the thought of losing even one of them? To make myself feel better, I hatched a plan?I must have still been in my teens when I came up with this one?to someday order a custom-designed clear Lucite box, which I would fill with my rocks and use as a coffee table. If I had the funds, perhaps I would even commission a rock-filled Lucite sofa.
While these would have made?hell, they may still make?pretty cool furniture, the ideas also got me wondering at the phenomenon of collectors? guilt: the gnawing knowledge of one?s spiritual overinvestment in the material world, of the unwholesome love of useless things. The coffee-table scheme was an effort to transform myself from a purist collector into an artist, or at least a carpenter?s consultant. If I could make the stones play an active role in my life, they would stop being a monument to un-American inactivity, an anchor mooring me to a half-forgotten past.
But, those memories! Before the rocks had wound up in the milk box, they had resided in a small mountain I?d crafted atop the red-brick barbecue island at my childhood home. Each rock in that mountain was a character in an unfolding tale: There was the King Rock, a big, pink pyramidal hunk of granite my grandfather had brought back from Israel. There was the Old Hero, a black-and-white mottled thing I?d found near Lake Tahoe when I was 3 or 4, the first rock in the collection. There was the Young Hero, a smooth, beige, oval stone shot through with two deep-brown shocks of some shiny glasslike substance. (I liked the design so much that I had brown diagonal stripes painted on my beige bedroom wall.) And then there was simply The Rock, too beautiful to have a name, fished out of Lake Mead by my big brother, a swirling kaleidoscope of green and gold and deep red, so valuable that I moved it from the mountain to my bedroom hutch.
How useless could this mountain of memories be? If I were to bury the stones in a desert lot, or scatter them amid the store-bought river-rock of my grown-up home?s faux riverbed, would their odd spiritual gift be forever lost? Could I liberate myself from things without dispensing with all that the things had meant? Could I break with the urge to make a fetish of mere things? Could I rise above the magical thinking that suffuses childhood with its strange and shimmering anxieties? Could I grow up?
The great early-20th century thinker Walter Benjamin wrote that children affirm and renew the fact of their existence through ?childlike modes of acquisition.? They touch things; they name things. They name rocks. For a certain kind of adult collector?the purist collector?the collection is either a continuation of this dewy past or an attempt to reconnect with a lost world in which the value of things was separate from what they can do or earn. The purist collector is one for whom the joy is in the finding, the having, the holding?not the wheeling and dealing. Benjamin famously said that the act of collecting ?liberates things from the drudgery of usefulness.? My coffee-table scheme was an attempt to liberate them from that liberation.
But what if my rocks?what if all pure collections?are not ballast but enchantment? What if collections are a sort of spiritual steppingstone for those of us unready to dispense with materialism? What if collecting is an attempt in a market-based world to ennoble those things we refuse to sell? What if the collector?s obsession?the collector?s art?is precisely the kind of character flaw that gives our communities character?
Those are the questions implicit in the stories that follow?our examination, diagnosis and tribute to Las Vegans who stubbornly, lovingly practice the soulful materialism of the collector.