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Things to See

November 12, 2009

Check out this WSJ article on compulsive hoarders.

It mentions a novel on the Collyer Brothers, the 20th-century brothers whose house in Harlem was a cautionary tale for those who can’t throw anything out. Homer and Langley Collyer are why I don’t joke so much about my slovenly habits in the home (or don’t joke as much as I otherwise might) because, in fact, being crushed under the weight of one’s own filth is a genuine risk. That, and the fact that while I often like to claim that my domestic ineptitude is a feminist statement, beyond a certain point, I’m not proud. It’s a staggeringly sad story, the two brothers whose connection to the world was so weak, but whose bond with each other was so strong. One brother fed the other brother a hundred oranges a day to try to cure his blindness. I wonder, though, did any fruitseller or greengrocer find it strange that a customer was quite so fond of citrus fruit?

When I was a teenager, I did work experience in a state department of elderly affairs, and I remember being given files to read about self-neglect. It was the first time I’d encountered the idea of old people living alone among piles of newspapers that could potentially crush them. Stacks of papers, through which there was only a path to a small open space that they still used as a contracted living area. It seemed ironic to me that it would be newspapers because here’s this thing that is supposed to bring the world to us, and the buying of which is often a social activity, but for these people, the newspaper was the object through which one could read loneliness and neglect, and who perhaps attempt to compensate for this by hanging onto the paper forever. I always had a little bit of an issue with this being called ‘self-neglect’, since it seemed obvious to me that they’d been badly neglected by others, too. It was a pretty rough thing to learn, that once people stop coming over, you might stop being concerned that there’s someplace for guests to sit down.

This piece from 2003goes into the human impulse to hoard, and extends it back into Ancient Egypt. I’m not sure that I would connect the conditions in the contemporary world that lead to the psychological need to hoard and a religious belief that you could take it with you, but certainly our relationship with stuff has always been more complex than prioritising things with immediate or long-term practical use. I’ve often wondered if archaeology wasn’t a good way to channel my borderline hoarding tendencies. When you’re trawling through stuff, it feels good to save everything. Or at least, for me, there was nothing quite like sitting next to a finds tray and bagging and labelling every busted little object that came out of the ground, then sending it for safekeeping. I’m probably not alone. Archaeological justification for keeping just about everything, or at least considering the keeping of just about everything, is a pretty good way to enable a hoarder.

I remember being at a conference where someone gave a paper that used Freudian analyses on archaeologists, to determine just what sort of particular brainwrong each specialty in the field had. It was done as a half-joke (prehistorian pretty much meant you wanted to touch your own poop), but there was a serious side to it too, in that being the people who put ourselves in charge of the stuff did not make us analysis-proof.

Just don’t make me throw anything out. How will future archaeologists know I had trouble throwing stuff out if you make me throw stuff out? It’s for posterity.

Collyer5

The Collyer Brothers' House in Harlem: 14 Pianos, 25,000 books, the chassis of a Model T

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