Unconscious desires appear in collections

March 30, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

OVER THE YEARS I have known any number of people who have reminded me of Laura in Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," currently at Baltimore's Center stage.

Williams' play takes its title from the sparkling collection of miniature glass animals that is Laura's most precious possession. In Laura's mind, the tiny crystal beasts represent all that is lacking in her dreary life -- beauty, vitality, freedom to explore the possibilities of love.

In a deeper sense, the collection is also a metaphor for Laura's own mental and physical fragility, as well as that of her family.

The play put me in mind of the strange combination of memory and desire, noble striving and neurotic obsession that are at the root of the collector's passion.

People who collect works of art, for example, may say that they do so because they admire a particular artist or because the objects make them feel good.

Yet psychologists suggest that, unconsciously, the acquisitions also satisfy more basic needs -- a craving for approval, a need to repair some childhood loss or trauma, an outlet for competitive impulses or a lust for power and control.

William Walters and his son, Henry, for example, between them amassed a collection of more than 22,000 objects over a 70-year period of nearly continuous buying.

Both father and son found great satisfaction in their collecting activities. Yet despite this there also is evidence that both were deeply unhappy men.

The Walters Art Gallery is an enduring monument to their love of beautiful things. But we can only speculate about the psychological demons that drove their magnificent obsession. Perhaps the new biography of the Walterses now being prepared by Walters curator William Johnston will at last begin to illuminate this long-neglected subject.

The urgency of the Walters' passion for art was shared by all the great collectors of the era, from J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller to Baltimore's celebrated Cone sisters. In every case, the impulse to collect art seemed to originate in powerful unconscious drives as well as in conscious desires.

Nor is the pattern limited to the traditional fine arts. For a recentstory about antique timepieces, for example, I had occasion to observe a similar impulse among passionate watch collectors.

It was not only that many of them regarded their watches as miniature works of art. Certainly many old watches are both useful and beautiful to look at, triumphs of science and art. But I couldn't help but notice that serious watch collectors also were overwhelmingly middle-aged men, and that the qualities they prized most in a fine watch -- the physical perfection of its mechanism and its relative immunity to the passage of time -- seemed obviously tied to their own intimations of mortality.

A psychiatrist I quoted in the story said that, to the unconscious mind, watches symbolized the cruel limitations on human life imposed by the passage of time, and that owning an old watch was a way of controlling our fear of death. To buy an antique watch, he suggested, was to purchase a little piece of immortality.

I think all collections are, at some level, defenses against mortality. There is hardly anything that someone, somewhere, doesn't collect -- musical manuscripts, beer cans, old radios, cameras, Mason jars, dolls, spools of thread. Surely the reason for this incredible diversity is basically that we all have to die.

Collectors have in common the passion they bring to their activities, and that impulse has always seemed to me to be rooted in the part of us that wants to live forever.

Of course, there are some people who are just pack rats, who accumulate stuff without even being collectors in any conscious sense.

For instance, I once knew a wire-service reporter who never seemed able to clear out the stacks of newspapers that filled his apartment. Over the years the piles of papers literally took over his home, until every available inch of floor space was completely covered.

Things didn't improve until he landed a job at the New York Times. Gradually the clutter began to recede, until one day it was gone altogether.

Only later did I realize that, for a wire reporter, the stacks of musty journals accumulated over the years probably represented a powerful unconscious urge to make a newspaper his journalistic home.

On reflection, though, maybe he wasn't a pack rat after all. Like Laura's glass menagerie, perhaps those papers symbolized his unfulfilled desires. And when they were fulfilled, the collecting obsession disappeared.

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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