BOOK REVIEW / Sticks and sickbags: obscure objects of desire: The Cultures of Collecting - Edited by John Elsner & Roger Cardinal: Reaktion Books, 25 pounds

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When my brother was four, he developed a passion for sticks. Sometimes he could be seen coming home from a Sunday afternoon walk dragging an unusually magnificent specimen behind him. The sticks lived under his bed. When we eventually moved house he was distressed that his bulky collection had somehow managed to 'get lost' in the process.

The Cultures of Collecting is an eclectic compilation of essays on aspects of the acquisitive instinct. Describing itself as a 'magpie's nest', it explores the attitudes and behaviour of all sorts of collectors, from Renaissance princes with their cabinets of curiosities to present-day hoarders of airline sickbags and Elvis memorabilia. It also includes some theoretical material which attempts to uncover the roots of the passion.

The theorists tend to agree that the impulse to collect begins in childhood. It represents a desire to exert control over the outside world or an urge to defer the painful recognition of the separation of self from other. Small children gather 'gravel, sticks, the odd pieces that grown-ups call junk' because they represent an extension of the self. At an unconscious level, this narcissism remains intact in adult collectors. The cultural critic Jean Baudrillard, who contributes the opening essay, sees collecting as a neurotic activity signalling anal regression and an infantile retreat from the anxieties of real relationships. Those who collect, he concludes, 'can never entirely shake off an air of impoverishment and depleted humanity'.

Baudrillard's analysis may seem uncharitable, but another essay on Captain Cook's voyages reveals his ambivalence to be nothing new. Eighteenth-century attitudes were equally distrustful, though collectors have rarely been willing to recognise their own deviance. The architect Sir John Soane was blissfully unembarrassed by the blatant egoism of his collecting mania: he arranged his display of model buildings in a way that implied an evolutionary progress beginning with the Greeks and ending in his own greatest works.

The title of the book refers to the 'cultures' of collecting in the plural. While many of the essays deal with the psychology of the individual collector, most give equal weight to the social and ideological perspective. A Renaissance Kunstkammer could symbolise the power and prestige of its owner. But it was also the embodiment of a philosophy: it functioned as an earthly microcosm which pointed ultimately to God. Rudolf II's famous collection in Prague may have looked to many historians like an idiosyncratic mishmash of artworks, natural specimens and scientific instruments, but it appears to have been designed with a view to harnessing the universe's occult powers.

Occult powers, of a less mystical if no less mysterious nature, are also revealed in the collection of antiquities that crowded Sigmund Freud's consulting room. Freud saw the ancient objects as a metaphor for the archaeology of the unconscious mind. And he analysed his collecting impulse as a displaced response to his relationship with his dead father, whom he saw as a Don Juan-like collector of women.

This volume pulls together a bricolage of informative and thought-

provoking stuff, though its fluency is sometimes choked by an academic tendency to dress up the obvious in mystifying jargon. The writer who needs to remind himself that 'books are not just intertextual signifiers', can seem irrelevant to the ordinary reader, for whom books have never been anything of the sort. On the whole, though, the wealth of material makes up for any stylistic infelicities.