Hoard, The Urge To

The Book of Human Emotions: From Ambiguphobia to Umpty - 154 Words from Around the World for How We Feel - Tiffany Watt Smith 2016

Hoard, The Urge To

One yellow sock, a lipstick-stained scarf, a handful of rose petals pressed in a bundle of letters. These are just some of the relics collected by the playwright, poet and Sapphic seductress-extraordinaire Mercedes de Acosta, mementos of her love affairs with some of Hollywood’s leading ladies of the 1920s and ’30s, among them Isadora Duncan, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo.

The ephemera we carefully store away for our future selves to inspect, sniff and trace with our fingertips are the repositories of our inner lives. “For it is invariably oneself that one collects,” wrote the philosopher Jean Baudrillard. In the detritus of her often secretive love affairs, de Acosta amassed evidence of belonging, of loving and, more importantly, of having been loved herself.

If human relationships can be difficult and demanding, objects can be intensely reassuring. From old vinyl to pairs of shoes, gathering treasures around us can bolster our sense of self in an unpredictable world, giving a feeling of permanence, even achievement, and communicating who we want to be to the world. Jealousy and possessiveness can be part of the picture too, as when we covet a brand of sunglasses for status, or delight in hoarding trinkets so our rivals can’t have them. As we grow up, collections may be monuments to our connoisseurship and give us important-sounding names—a deltiologist collects postcards, a numismatist specializes in coins, a collector of teddy bears is an arctophilist (see also: CURIOSITY). Such collections might testify to a need for order and control, but there is also something deliciously perverse about taking pleasure in a task that can never be completed.

Might the urge to hoard be outside of our control? Psychotherapists often link the desire to hold on to wealth at all costs to past experiences of deprivation and traumatic loss. Before he goes to bed each night, the famously parsimonious Ebenezer Scrooge of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol inspects his takings. As the psychoanalyst Stephen Grosz has suggested, this meagre obsession with profit and loss can be read as a kind of grief gone wrong, a compensation for the tragic early death of his mother and subsequent emotional neglect by his father. It is an attempt, through the acquisition of money, to retrieve the irretrievable.

At its most extreme, the urge to hoard can have catastrophic consequences. Towering columns of old newspapers and rooms piled dangerously high with unusable vacuum cleaners can present real hazards for those trying to live there. But though they may be risky, these collections are not without meaning. For some it’s a way of barricading against a hostile world, for others, a way of fending off loneliness by filling the vertiginously empty space (see: PEUR DES ESPACES). Most of all, those objects that might seem like “old trash” to an outsider can have real emotional resonance for the collector. Even the misanthropic Muppet Oscar the Grouch knew this. He lists the useless items in the trash can he calls home: a broken clock, an abandoned umbrella, a rusted trombone. But though he hates everyone, and won’t even risk talking to the other Muppets in case another Grouch sees him, Oscar’s carefully amassed trash offers the warmth of emotional connection in a hostile world. Among his precious collection is a sneaker, worn through, that his mother gave him on the day he was born: he loves it, because it is trash.