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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Crossing the Bosphorous: When Does Collecting Become Obsessive?

If Turkish Nobelist Orhan Pamuk’s recent novel, The Museum of Innocence, were a quiz show, it might be called, What’s My Obsession? Set in Istanbul and running into the first years of the millenium,  the 530-page volume explores several untidy fixations, each which holds viscous fingers with its successor. The central character, Kemal Basmaci, (the author's demographic doppelganger) embraces a multi-decade obsession over a beautiful young woman.  That begets a second obsession--his compulsive collecting from their trysts and subsequent meetings of artifacts like earrings, barrettes, lipstick dispensers, and lipstick tinted cigarette butts. (Such keepsakes allow him to recapture the relationship in its brief bloom.)

When all prospects for the union dissolve, Kemal turns to more systematic, more febrile collecting with the aim of building a museum in homage to the relationship. Finally--call it performance art, call it life emulating art--Pamuk in real life has avidly taken up research and collecting to build his own museum on behalf of his book. A ticket in every copy will get you into the museum when it opens next year in  Istanbul's Cukurcuma neighborhood.

'Tis a Pity He’s a Hoarder. When does collecting become obsessive? Much of the bad rap focuses on hoarding. The rapaciousness of hoarders bursts through the levees of personal order, spawning hyper-cluttered living spaces and mental and emotional dysfunction. If you suspect a hoarder in your midst or under your hat, you'll find a handy visual diagnostic on dished out by Smith College Professor Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee--the authors of Stuff, a field guide to the hoarding lifestyle. (the diagnostic--Clutter Image Rating Photos--is half-way down the Amazon page.)  And if a case for intervention overflows, seek out a behavioral specialist or your nearest chapter of the twelve-step confederation, Clutterers Anonymous.

A Hoarder's Cornucopia
 Next Stop, Obsessionville. But is our fixation on hoarding a red herring?  Do you really need as a collector to be a card-carrying hoarder to touch down in Obsessionville? For his museum, which ultimately housed thousands of objects (including 4,213 cigarette butts and a quince grinder), Kemal did research at 5,723 specialty museums on five continents. Pamuk himself has visited several hundred specialty museums, many of them in research for his book and his own museum, which will house 83 substantial wooden crates--one for each chapter of the book--filled with buttons, barrettes, cigarette lighters, clocks, china dogs, bird cages, a trycycle, the quince grinder, those cigarette butts, and much, much more.

Orhan Knows Collecting

Kemal and Pamuk’s collecting impulses must be rooted in our species’ adaptive biology. In hunting and gathering societies, “gathering” typically involves encyclopedic knowledge of one’s environment—knowing what is safe to eat and otherwise consume and what might send you for deliverance to your witchdoctor-proctologist. At the same time, classifying and collecting offer parallel aesthetic and cerebral pleasures. As Levi-Strauss may or may not have said, Ordering our world into categories is good to think.

Rx: Sample and Satisfice. In their research, both of our collectors might have settled for a representative sample of artifacts. Or they might have satisficed by settling on acceptable, functional collecting outcomes. But both desired more. Both pushed beyond the centripetal pull of satisficing, where the air gets thin and the seductions of completism hold greater sway. Organized collecting, not hoarding, was and is their game, but haven't they themselves been gamed by their collecting compulsions, those relentless hoarders of Kemal and Orhan's scarce time and energies?

Take it from Pamuk himself. In an October 2009 New York Times article, Negar Azimi, visitng with Pamuk at his future museum, revealed an ambivalent Nobelist:

Today, he announced, he was depressed:
I am a writer. I have books to write. What am I doing building this museum?

Orhan Knows Museums

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