Collecting Is Forgetting

Dan Albertson

[August 2019.]

[A dispatch that looks beyond music yet may still be permissible here – read it with the gentle humour that is its birthright. Thanks are due even more than usual to Romeo Talento, a benign purveyor of solace; Fang Ge, for reasons not easy to enumerate; and Sun Xingyu, whose simplicity charms.]


It is the tragedy of other people that they are merely showcases for the very perishable collections of one’s own mind. For this very reason one bases upon them projects which have all the fervour of thought; but thought languishes and memory decays…

– Marcel Proust, The Fugitive (trans. C. K. Scott Moncrieff, rev. Terence Kilmartin & D. J. Enright)


Humans are nil if not predictable. Creatures of habit we be, and within these defects is strung a web that is often impossible to untangle, one that manifests itself in each person in distinct if interchangeable ways. I incline towards calling it a neurosis.

Is the zeal of a music collector, if one traces it to its roots, fundamentally any different in nature from the man who assembles his birds, books, coins, stamps, trains, or watches? Knowing well how all-consuming any one of them may be, special pity must be extended to anyone unfortunate enough to have multiple. Man is born to assemble, objects or people or people as objects. Stockpiling as though the apocalypse were nigh and time infinite, we go on with our arrogance and our foolishness. All this collecting leads to an amnesia of what we have and where our compulsions guide us. Even those among us, and here I would count myself, who view nostalgia with a skeptical glance, must mark ourselves as guilty as soon as we admit to having collections: To return to this book or that film, a current self revisits a former self, in the hope of affirming a positive or negative disposition.

This topic received reinforcements recently, from various sides. Thinking back to all that I have collected is inevitable when in the process of uprooting, as I have now done for the second time in a decade. Having never been reunited with all that went away when I moved the first time, I beheld it briefly when adding to it what I had gathered in the meantime and from which I parted en route to my current transitory status.

This reunion was as brief as it was unsentimental, lacking time to give anything more than a cursory glance. Thousands and thousands of books, cassettes, CDs, DVDs, letters, LPs, scores, and VHS tapes sit obediently in their cell of silence, perhaps never to be seen or touched again – and I leave unanswered the question of whether or not most of them can still be played back, in whatever medium their moment has embodied them. So much capital is tied up in objects whose inanimation fills me with sadness rather than the enlightenment or amusement sought when acquiring. They also represent countless composers who shared what they had, many of whom are now dead, and what they shared was surely meant for grander settings that I can never recapture. Apart from my mind, where their presence lingers, sometimes stirred toward the front by this thought or that, and these physical objects, now languishing, and an encyclopaedia entry or two, which a curious soul may peruse from time to time, they are otherwise as invisible as air.

Even granted an endless life, without obligations, time would never be present in sufficient quantities to make their mysteries and delights accessible to me. Each one has a story, and only I know it, and my demise would mean nothing to these objects, which would then fill the earth with their insignificance. Man deludes himself into thinking that he is important, but his libraries are even less important than he may be. Poor Prospero, poor everyman.

The reality of life on the go is another factor. Not having a five-year plan, much less a one-year plan, means that my library needs to reside in separate quarters, many time zones away; moving it constantly is beyond impractical. On the proverbial day when I am settled, my library could join me, but is this hope not an ignis fatuus? We are separated, but certainly not divorced. Our beds need to be made and unmade, all the same, lest our desire become less than mutual, and a call once in a while would be a welcomed token. Death will part us, for sure, and then I will have no use for whatever their magic may be, and they, lacking someone to revivify them, will perish from neglect. Will a reunion before the scythe happen? Will this Faustian avarice in fact provoke the scythe?

Worth mentioning here is that one often becomes so transfixed by the prospect of finding the one that one forgets the maxim that sometimes good is good enough. My own obsessions include Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony and Sibelius’ Seventh Symphony: In my boxes there are many good ones, a few very good ones, but none that would make me give up some of the others, none that captures the entire essence. One day I may yearn for Horenstein, and the next for Segerstam. Still I acquire new ones, equally unsatisfactory. And therein lies the point, for sure, that these objects fixed in objective time and space are not fixed in our subjective time and space, so that what we value one year may be relegated to a distant corner of the lived experience the next. As it is with music, so it is with love and lust; one entity can never satisfy the totality of desire, and making peace with this human greed for experience and knowledge is a necessary step forward. It stands resolutely oppositional to the other kind of human greed, that of the material variety, however overlapping their tentacles are.

An aggravating facet in play is the law of paradoxes and how it implants simultaneous and contradictory feelings in one’s heart. There is so much more to hear, to see, to do, while each day means 24 hours less of our existence. Keep on collecting, banking objects for a rainy day? Or give into the doom and gloom, and start exploring – maybe even enjoying – what one already has? Could one manage both simultaneously?

Buffeting me on another side is Marcel Proust, whose questing for lost time has been the anchor of every day’s reading, at a time when so much in my life has been uncertain. I could not have known in January, when I figured that it would take me almost a year to read the complete cycle, how much of my own life would change; having Proust accompany me, figuratively and literally (his was the only book that I took with me, and considering its heft of six thick volumes, it represents an obstacle), during momentous times is not a coincidence. I will finish it early, indeed in September. Proust died before he could properly end his work, or at least make his intentions more clearly known to his admirers, and we will all leave this orb with some, or maybe lots, of unfulfilled miscellany that someone, whether caring or uncaring, will discard like a broom, sweeping such inconvenient left-behinds into the next breeze. But oblivion need not be a far-off prospect. At least this one I can finish.

[images are from and]