April 28th, 2011 / 12:15 pm

Collectors versus Aesthetes

I’ve been reading, finally, The Orchid Thief, the first third of which, at least, is about a collector and other collectors like him. Of orchids. These collectors have this life- and body- and marriage-overtaking urge to hunt for the most, the weirdest, the most unusual, the most hidden. When a hurricane hits Florida, some orchid lovers there think hardly about the devastation and wonder instead what seeds have blown in from the tropics, what odd variety will bloom next in some remote corner of a swamp, and will they be able to find it first. The main guy in the book, John LaRoche, first collected turtles with the same ardor, dropped those, and started something new until he finally arrived at orchids.

If I had a garden (and I do), it could be filled with the commonest things as long as it were beautiful.

For I’m not a collector and I never will be, not of anything tangible, though on many days I wish I were. Collecting requires zeal for something so great that endless, mostly fruitless tedium can be endured in its pursuit. Collecting requires the acquisition of so much knowledge–it is after all not for the novitiate to know what is rare–so much that thinking of it makes my eyes hurt. There is a kind of ruthlessness, too, that I find whenever I read or hear about great collectors, whether it’s orchid thieves who will kill or be killed rather than surrender their finds, or used-book dealers elbowing and scratching one another when they spot a rare jewel at a book sale. I lack the zeal, the thirst, the ferocity.

I’m missing out. Walter Benjamin, a more famous collector than LaRoche, writes, “How many cities have revealed themselves to me in the marches I undertook in the pursuit of books!” Whereas if you wander aimlessly, with no object in mind, everything remains misted, hidden and dull. The best things don’t happen when you least expect them; the best things happen when you are stalking some other prey.

There’s no prey that taunts me that hasn’t already been shot down. This is why I can’t be a literary scholar. For what would I say? I love all the writers whom so many others already love. I couldn’t endure navigating some lesser, less-known terrain. So, mightn’t I find a new angle? This isn’t possible either: what I love about Austen and Nabokov and Woolf is what others love about them. It’s just that I think my love overpowers theirs.

This is what separates collectors from aesthetes. [Confession: I’m adapting/expanding this whole post, and especially the following two sentences, from something I posted on twitter last night.] Collectors prize what’s rare, and convince themselves that the rare is beautiful. Whereas aesthetes prize what’s beautiful, and convince themselves that their love is rare. I mean this last clause in two senses: they believe their love=the beloved is rare, in that sense of “as any she belied with false compare,” and they also believe the quality of their love=their own feeling for the beloved is rare, as in, more potent than the feeling of their rivals.

Both, of course, are softly deceiving themselves (ourselves) [see photo], and I would hazard that each has reason to envy, miserably, the other. I can’t know for sure, as it’s always near-impossible to find the enviable in one’s own sorry state.

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  1. belz

      Brilliant and true. I wish this were even longer, with more examples.

  2. Amy McDaniel

      thanks, belz! I do have some more thoughts about it… it’s just such different mindsets. i appreciate the best of something, the most beautiful example, whether it’s champagne or Hitchcock, but i don’t care if i’m the one who figured out it’s the best, or if lots of other people own or consume or prize the same thing, as long as that doesn’t compete with my access to it (as in, i can relate to wanting the best little italian spot to be undiscovered by the masses, but only because that means it will be harder to get a table). the collector prizes the first and the only more than the best. the first edition, the dusted-off literary journal that has in it some never-before-printed Melville story, some cut of a film that is the way the auteur really wanted it.

      it’s not that i’m any less competitive or any more democratic than the collector. the aesthete also believes herself to have the highest claim, but not by being the first appreciator, but by being the best–the most sensitive, the most discerning, the most loyal. Whereas collectors, at least a certain breed, aren’t actually very loyal. more interested in the hunt, once they get what they’re after, and they’ve shown it off and gazed at it a little while, they’ll sell it to fund the next hunt.

      i am truly envious of the collector. i am moving away from my home city, atlanta, at the end of the summer, and part of me wants to take on some kind of collector quest before i do, in that kind of benjaminian way. in my case it would be food-related–to be the person who figures out which tiny, divey tacqueria makes the best barbacoa taco, say, or which bartender mixes the best old-fashioned. but i’m not very motivated because i already know where i can get a top-notch example of each. i don’t truly believe there is much better out there, only slightly different, perhaps. softer tortillas, but more grease, that kind of thing. plus i just don’t have the patience, or the zeal with which to compensate for the impatience, for enduring the less-good for that tiny chance that i’ll be the first to encounter the more sublime. but i wish i did.

  3. kb

      All previous criticism is ripe for re-evaluation. I haven’t read any literary criticism that I have found myself nodding in agreement with 100% of the time and those that I do find much agreement with I always wish I could write at least a short addendment to. My problem is that I can only write that sort of thing for a very limited time before I find myself unable to clearly communicate what I want to say and all my thoughts end up becoming parables or narratives and so I turn back to fiction and leave the “academic” work billowing in the wind. Thus the attraction to a Kierkegaard or Nietzsche who simply could not write “straight” philosophy.

      Also, I collect antlers. I have a lot of them. I used to collect books but it was becoming a problem and I forced myself to get rid of the majority of what I had.

  4. STaugustine

      1. Sudden urge to watch “Adaptation” again…

      2. “Collectors prize what’s rare, and convince themselves that the rare is beautiful. Whereas aesthetes prize what’s beautiful, and convince themselves that their love is rare.”

      Pretty damn good.

  5. Hyruledungeon

      Can one be a collector of what is not rare? or is that just Hoarding? I buy as many old editions of books as I can, the beautiful ones get their own shelf, the rest make me feel like my body is expanding, the way post humanists feel about computers.

  6. linz

      “The best things don’t happen when you least expect them; the best things happen when you are stalking some other prey.” Love this. Reminds me of John Lennon’s “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

      As for “There’s no prey that taunts me that hasn’t already been shot down” – but what about Barthes’ argument that a text can never be exhausted? To argue that it’s the job of literary scholars to produce authoritative readings is reminiscent of the notion that priests are gatekeepers to the holy. And consumerist, to boot: consume one text, then move on to the next.

  7. Amy McDaniel

      i agree with that and what kb says below; i said scholar because i do write criticism but not within the academy. i probably should have said literary academic. and maybe my notion of what is acceptable within the academy is outdated.

      but really, i wasn’t talking about authority, i was talking about novelty. i don’t have anything new to say about woolf, which has nothing to do with the text being exhausted and everything to do with me. but i truly believe that i love woolf in a way nobody else does, and that will come out in my writing, but not in a way that would make any sense in a peer-reviewed academic journal.

  8. kb

      I coined a Palinism. Addendment.

  9. M. Kitchell

      i am ultimately both a collector & an aesthete, though i hunt my prey (mostly) online & i think i disagree with the characterization of both at the end of this post

  10. kb

      If someone’s going to reduce anything or anyone to one of two categories there’s always going to be megaproblems. Such investigations always begin with an initial split, though. This whole concept could be expanded into a much more nuanced and lengthy work. Like how Vollmann took violence, “The” split in a lotta ways (think Cain/Abel), and churned out a pulsating metropolis of thought on it…

  11. kb

      Someone should write a novel in the form of a post on a site similar to this, which would be the first maybe 15 pages, then the next 250 pages are the comments section. Perhaps some sort of idealized comments section, anyway. Maybe something like that has been done, if so nevermind. Or is that too Lauren Myracle?

  12. deadgod

      both has

      ‘both have’ or ‘either has’; with “the other”, I prefer the balance of ‘either’ to the inclusion-then-parceling of ‘both’

      is red-pencil reading ‘collecting’ or ‘aestheticizing’

      or the least admirable aspects of each, ha ha ha

  13. deadgod

      there are academic scholars who teach, research, and write out of love more than – eh, even more than – from a drive to accumulate and express “authority”; in my view, their examples should be paradigmatized (or counterparadigmatized in contrast to those exemplary of mere (scholastic) “authority”)

      “novelty” is surely an overly motivating desideratum of scholarship

      but many academic scholars are conscious of the shakespeare-for-each-generation fact

      – the fact that, though everything might seem to have been said about shakespeare, each perspective hasn’t been spoken in the terms of this generation, responding to its most recent ancestor and in conversation with whichever of the generations/voices layered between ‘shakespeare’ and ‘now’ that call for attention ‘now’

      you know kenner and perloff – why shouldn’t woolf be refracted likewise now

      “peer-reviewed academic journal” – man, I hope there’s a lot more to the Academy than those

  14. Amy McDaniel

      again, i agree: all those things should happen. woolf should be written about, refracted, responded to, and so too should shakespeare. just not by me, at least not on academic terms. i see that as part of my work as a teacher but not as a writer.

  15. Amy McDaniel

      fixed, but with a 3rd option. either is the wrong sense, in that i’m not trying to imply any kind of alternative, but as you point out, both doesn’t fit with other. so, each.


      you’re a definite aesthete, deadgod. you seek to perfect, and beautify. it’s quite nice. the aesthete sifts, then polishes; the collector hunts, then seizes.

      there are no trophies won through editing, and the game is to expel or at best alter, not to acquire.

  16. NLY

      I think the game in either case will always be to acquire, really. You’re talking about an experiential possession which is total, if not physical, the emotional dimension being very physical indeed. The trophy is experience, the alteration one’s own contribution to one’s own experience of surrounding reality. Ultimately I see no broad difference between either. The beginning, middle, and end are generically identical, but the methodology and tone of follow-through are fiercely at odds.

  17. Anonymous
  18. deadgod

      an “aesthete” lets (even if only fictively) form stand over against contingency and immanence

      a “collector” prioritizes contingency/immanence of rarity or price or some such subjectivity external to that collector’s direct relation to an object

      I think most “collectors” are also at least a bit aesthetic in their relation to the objects they collect

      and most “aesthetes” have mundane interests in objects (and public appreciation of objects) as well as and even contrary to a participatory formal gaze

      but I think the distinction between ‘acquiring’ a transformed faculty of perception and ‘acquiring’ an exchangeable item is worth preserving

  19. belz

      Amy, I love the directions of thought this short piece has stimulated. When I was in Atlanta I went to Finster’s place and bought a bunch of stuff…this was in 1991 or so, when each piece of painted garbage at Finster’s place was between $20 and $40, and he was seen wandering around them like a homeless man. I bought the pieces as a collector and have never really appreciated them as aesthetic pieces. They’re historical/cultural pieces, but not beautiful. On the other hand, I do think that i engage some things aesthetically. I must, right? Am i that callous? I won’t sell my copy of Ashbery’s chapbook “Three Madrigals.” I’ll never sell it. It’s not about money or even a hoarder’s instinct. That little book helps me know who I am, in a sense.

  20. Anonymous
  21. NLY

      In my experience an aesthete is not someone who seeks self-transforming experience. If that were true there would be little value in comparing the two, as the ‘collector’ would be inherently inferior: manifesting as a single trait, to the fully formed aesthetic personality’s counter. An aesthete is someone who pursues and acquires experience, often for its own sake, without the necessity of any actual transformation of value or being occurring. If you are someone who seeks to transform experience, or who seeks experience in order to transform, you are not so because you sought experience; this quality is independent of your approach to physical reality, as dichotomized in experiential and objective hoarding. Transformative power is a quality of realized selfhood, and ‘aesthete’ in the context of this discussion does not seem to me a description of a fully realized personality, merely a potential trait of any sort of personality, in any age or state of maturation.

      While I have no problem with the Ruskinian/Bloomian approach to the phrase ‘aesthete’, as someone who is actively and evolvingly engaging their internal reality through an external reality, and vice versa, I don’t think it really applies here, thus rendering to me any need to sustain distinction between the two modes of acquisition fundamentally moot. They can both reduce to baseless hoarding, and they can both be involved in dynamic personal energy; what’s more, though like most ‘two types of people in this world’ scenarios these two are necessarily defined in their extremes, most people probably having varying ratios of Magpie to Wilde in them, rather than one in purity.

  22. deadgod

      I think ‘acquiring experience for its own sake without any transformation of value or being occurring’ is self-contradictory, except in the case that “experience” is ‘luxuriated in narcotically’.

      “[E]xperience for its own sake” – and not as an instrument – is transformative, if it’s the “experience” of ‘knowing form in a particular instance’. (Does ‘knowing form in a particular instance’ sound tautological? When most people look at most paintings – when I look at most paintings, formal unity and coherence are only sensible to me in textbook ways. The illumination of form through the doors of perception – the aesthetic experience – is, in my view, neither a given of consciousness nor common.)

      Of course, many people look at paintings, or go to concerts, or read classics, in order “to collect” those experiences, like a tourist “collects” destinations. That, to me, is not the ‘acquisition of experience for its own sake’, and these ‘acquisitions’ of experiences surely are not transformative of perception, value, or being.

      As I understand the distinction in Amy’s blogicle (and between the connotations I would spontaneously get from the terms), “collector” is inferior to “aesthete”. It’s not a matter of the “aesthete” seeking an anticipatable transformation – the transformation that I think we’re talking about can’t be sought directly. Rather, the “aesthete” surrenders where the “collector” controls. – they each “acquire experience” similarly only in the here-trivial sense of ‘being conscious that something happened’.

      I agree that “aesthete” and “collector” are idealized poles on a spectrum that indicates real instances of a mixture of the two (as I already tried to point out). But I think that “hoarding”, which is the excess of “collecting”, is not another excess, but rather results from the defect, of “aesthetic” apprehension.

  23. NLY

      Hoarding is an excess of acquisition, really, not ‘collecting’. People hoard memories, they hoard experiences, and they certainly attempt to control the way the experience things all the time. It sounds to me like you’ve made up your mind to privilege the ‘aesthete’ half of this equation in your formulation of it. It also sounds to me like you’re just describing the most fully realized version of aesthetic experience–that of ‘surrender’ and an implicit personal humility to experience–and then pitting it against a word you do not favor with associations as favorably, ‘collecting’. Maybe for you all that word means is spending thousands of dollars on comic books, or infantile hobbies, or wasting your life and fortune on things which may or may not mean anything to you beyond your own personal obsession with them.

      I think it’s easily found that there’s an inverse to each of these connotative formulations, here, even if I don’t know the precise nature of your connotative array. There is unhealthy, mindless, or obsessive acquisition of physical objects, and there is unhealthy, mindless, or obsessive acquisition of sensations and impressions. There is also the pursuit of physical objects which enhance your relationship with physical reality, which stimulate your innerworkings, and things with which you have relationships because they have significance to you–there is also pursuing things to bring into your sphere because you profit by their presence. I don’t think we’re just talking about stamp collectors–there are levels and degrees and shapes and types of ‘collector’, and it also seems to me to describe the part of us which imbues objects with our experiences and faculties. The aesthetic impulse is to have experiences, sensations, impressions in order to undergo them and then to cache them in ourselves, rather. When this goes wrong you can have the burning control freak develop an obsessive need to induce experience, or to endlessly rake over the store heap of experience with a miserly, nostalgic need. Both of them can be unhealthy, mundane, or progressive, and neither seems to me more than a personality trait, not actual ‘types’ of personalities.

      In any case, if what I’m describing isn’t what Amy had in mind, she can step in and let me know, though at this point I still remain unsure what the object would be of comparing them, otherwise, unless it was just to feel good about being an aesthete.

  24. deadgod

      Hoarding is an excess of having, not getting. The “collector” acquires – that is, gets – a thing and then continues to get new things anew; but if that “collector” is driven to continue emphatically to have what she or he has already gotten, she or he is ‘hoarding’.

      Perhaps we can agree that ‘to get’ the same thing continuously is ‘to have’, but, by itself, I don’t think that that continuity is genuinely an excess. It’s the possession in – maybe after and severed from? – collecting which, when excessive, is ‘hoarding’. Perhaps a hoarder is no longer a “collector”, and might once have been an “aesthete”, but, as I understand the terms, to get to ‘hoarding’ one must have . . . gathered those particular things: ‘collected them.

      It should sound to you like I’m teasing out what to understand in these words highlighted in the blogicle and on this thread:

      Collectors prize what’s rare, and convince themselves that the rare is beautiful. Whereas aesthetes prize what’s beautiful, and convince themselves that their love is rare.

      It should also sound to you like I’m describing, not “the most fully realized version” of either aestheticizing or collecting, but rather “idealized poles on a spectrum[, a location on which] indicates real instances of a mixture of the two”, because that’s what I said. That is, actual people are some combination or mixture of the two (and many other orientations, dispositions, interests, facets, priorities, and so on), which I’ve now gladly said for a third time in a third way.

      In my view, “collecting” and “aestheticizing” are “types” of people, concretized when one or the other is dominant in the practice of some particular person.

  25. NLY

      For whatever reason we appear to be talking past each other (it seems to me that your glad repetition of three times was done at the expense of a point I was making in attempt to clarify a point you already made, and no doubt I’ve read you wrong in this somewhere) so I’ll just call it a night a say thanks for the talk.

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