Theses Doctoral

Collecting as Self-Exploration in Late 19th-Century French Literature

Ellicson, Kirsten B.

Collecting, as it was practiced in the 1880s, meant cultivating a comforting and busy, but also disorienting and disconcerting domestic, and mental, interior. This study examines how this meaning was developed in French literature at the end of the 19th century. I consider how collecting investigates the self, exercises the powers of the mind, inquires into the individual's relationship to society and to texts. The study takes, as its point of departure, comments about the cultural significance of collecting, as a widespread taste for domestic interiors filled with objects, made by Paul Bourget and Edmond de Goncourt, two writers of the 1880s.

I then focus on fictional texts from the 1880s by J.-K. Huysmans and Pierre Loti, who, more than any other writers at the end of the 19th century, depict collecting as an earnest activity of self-exploration. The specific collections involved are Huysmans' protagonist's whimsically decorated house outside of Paris, Loti's protagonist's collection of Japanese objects in Japan, Loti's protagonist's floating museum on board his ship, and the author Loti's home museum in Rochefort. Through close readings of my two texts--paying attention to repeated words, descriptions, imagery, figurative language, ironies, contradictions, juxtapositions, ambiguities, tone and intertextual references, textual form and structure--I analyze how collecting is a process of defining the self, an apprentissage.

The arc of my study draws its inspiration from the theme of collecting itself. From the self and mind of the collector, I proceed to examine how he organizes space, to how he interacts with other people, to how he approaches literature. Huysmans and Loti prefigure the modernist turn toward the superfluousness of objects, insofar as the collector's elaborate reflection on his objects dominates the two texts discussed in this study, A Rebours (1884) and Madame Chrysanthème (1887). As the collector comes to be at home with objects, objects become, increasingly, catalysts for inner mental exploration. Yet the collected objects of des Esseintes and Loti are still, often, special and rare; these characters are not yet exulting in the trivial, universally available object, as later modernists will do. In Huysmans and Loti, there is still great faith in material objects and the artful arrangement of them to satisfy desires, to be the answer to the quest, to fill the lack, to lead one inward, to solve problems. Already, by the end of the 1880s, the window of earnest self-exploration through collecting, as exemplified by Huysmans and Loti, will close. In Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which became well-known and widely read in France at the time of its publication, collecting in Wilde's text becomes implicated in hiding the truth of oneself. In Huysmans' and Loti's depictions of collecting art, art objects and other elements, there is, in contrast, a sense of profitable, fruitful exploration of self, rather than a fear of self-exploration. The collecting they portray is a way of coming to be at home in one's own mind--seeking not originality but simply the articulation of one's own perspective.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
French and Romance Philology
Thesis Advisors
Compagnon, Antoine Marcel
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 2, 2012