Collecting Tschotskes

Posted: December 30, 2011 in Consumerism, Culture, Idle Nonsense

Nearly everyone has an aunt or grandmother whose home is stocked with tschotskes of one sort or another: elephants, bullfrogs, Beanie Babies, spoons, plates, clocks, whatever. (I don’t mean to suggest it’s a female thing; men participate, too, though perhaps more often with tools, guns, and unused sporting equipment.) Such items are usually purely decorative and ornamental and are acquired with surplus funds. Once started, the tschotske collection often grows out of control to take over the room in which they are housed. Examples of elaborate and costly tschotskes might include art collections, wine collections (and cellars), rare books and first editions (and private libraries), and car collections (and garages). And although they might start out utilitarian, excessively large wardrobes and shoe collections (and walk-in closets or converted spare bedrooms) sometimes evolve into tschotske fetishes.

So at the end of the calendar year, having just passed through the year’s biggest by far consumer feeding frenzy (one of several scattered throughout the year), I began to wonder about the normalcy of surplus funds going into collecting stuff of one sort or another, which might fall under the term lifestyle. Appealing lifestyles usually revolved around material opulence even before Robin Leach’s preposterous and spiritually vacuous TV show Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Almost all of us aspire to such trappings as though limits to consumption do not exist in either of two senses: (1) one can only eat so much steak and drink so much wine or (2) the physical and financial wealth of the world can only support so much extraction and exploitation before being emptied out.

On a more mundane level, let’s say with respect to books, what drives a person to collect? At what point does bibliophilia, a love of books, cross over and become an abnormal behavior or psychological disorder, such as hoarding books (bibliomania), eating books (bibliophagy), compulsive stealing of books (bibliokleptomania), or burying books (bibliotaphy)? What causes Aunt Sally to go off the rails and become a ravenous collector of small porcelain figurines? I’m not a clinician of any sort, but my suspicion is that one of the main drivers is sublimation of a universal fear of scarcity. Difficulty meeting one’s physical needs (shelter, food, clothing, etc.) is not something most of us in the West have experienced first hand for several generations now (though demographics are changing), but living memory of the Great Depression is not quite yet gone. Similarly, the danger of not surviving a poor harvest and ensuing winter was very real prior to the 20th century, when more than 90% of American led rural agrarian lives. Social systems have evolved considerably since either of those eras, and with them the means of acquisition (just hop in the car and go to the grocery!). But whereas stockpiling and hoarding basic, essential commodities makes little sense (except when they are proxies for wealth) to most of us, we have accepted as normal and even desirable the analogue: needless collections.

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