Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

On the Psychodynamics of Collecting1

Academic journal article International Journal of Psychoanalysis

On the Psychodynamics of Collecting1

Article excerpt

The urge to collect is a ubiquitous phenomenon which has anthropological, sociobiological and individual psychodynamic roots, but occurs far more frequently among men than women. The author examines the reasons for this gender difference and defines systematic collecting to distinguish it from addictive, obsessive and messy collecting, and from related phenomena such as perversion. The mode of collecting and choice of object are important indicators as to the unconscious psychodynamics of a collector and offer opportunity to describe his structural level. Collecting ranges across a broad spectrum, from an ego-syntonic integrated mode, i.e. sublimation, to a neurotic defence against pre-oedipal or oedipal traumas and conflicts. Alongside this drive-theoretical approach, object and Kleinian theory are also applied to the understanding of collecting. Collecting represents a specific form of object relating and way of handling primary loss trauma, which is different from addiction, compulsion, or perversion. Under certain circumstances collecting can also result in a successful Gestalt or way of life. The paper concludes with a case study showing how collecting develops from a pre-oedipal to a more integrated oedipal mode during the course of the analysis, which is reflected in changes in the transference.

Keywords: collecting, ego-syntonic, ego-dystonic, gender differences, sublimation, perversion, addiction, compulsion, messy syndrome, defence mechanisms


It is known that Freud was a passionate collector of Roman, Greek and, albeit less so, Egyptian antiquities, and by 1933 he owned almost 3000 pieces, as Doolittle (1956, p. 57) describes. And yet, despite the real-life example given by the founding father of psychoanalysis, there are few psychoanalytic studies on collecting beyond those of Menninger (1942), Weiner (1966), Gedo (1992) and Muensterberger (1994). Is collecting so natural an act that the phenomenon is not worth being investigated by psychoanalysts? Freud himself refused to open up his own passionate hobby of collecting to systematic and detailed analysis. The few hints he gives on the topic stem predominantly from a time before he had started collecting (Marinelli, 2001, p. 18). In 1895, he states in a letter to Fliess, 'Every collector is a substitute for a Don Juan Tenorio' (Masson, 1985, p. 110).

Collecting therefore is seen as a compulsive substitute mechanism, which is why, in its most consequential form, it can have no endpoint. In 1908, Freud commented, as recorded by Otto Rank, about collecting in another place: 'The core of paranoia is the detachment of the libido from the objects (a reverse course is taken by the collector who directs his surplus libido onto the inanimate object: love of things)' (Nunberg and Federn, 1962, p. 321). As Marinelli (2001, p. 19) speculates, the reason why Freud, in 'Character and anal erotism' (1908, p. 169), only analyses the unfortunate collector of money whom he describes as possessing the three characteristics of the anal character, namely orderliness, parsimony, and obstinacy, while exempting his own collecting from analysis, was perhaps the fleeting happiness which his 'old and filthy gods', as he called his antiques, gave him. In The psychopathology of everyday life, Freud affords us a glimpse into this kind of happiness when he writes,

There is one misreading which I find irritating and laughable and to which I am prone whenever I walk through the streets of a strange town on my holidays. On these occasions I read every shop sign that resembles the word in any way as 'Antiquities'. This betrays the questing spirit of the collector. (1901, p. 110)

What is evoked here is the excitement of sexual adventure in a strange city, displaced on to the objects of collection and sublimated in this way.

Starting with Freud (1908), early drive-theoretical works by Jones (1919), Menninger (1942), Fenichel (1946) and later Storr (1983) put particular emphasis on the link between a child's anal erotism and collecting behaviour. …

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