The Pathology of Collecting

Laurence, The Bird Who Never Flew the Nest (15.33)

Like Bruyère’s Diognetes (1688), Laurence, 38,  of Plymouth does not collect to educate himself or others but rather to fill  his walls, cabinets, shelves, floors and furniture with objects that drive out the emptiness of his home.

“… I feel I am with people when I have items in the house, if this house is empty I feel like a part of my life is missing really”

Laurence 25.21

The focus of Laurence’s obsession is bird imagery of all kinds and in all forms, from hatpins to ornamental eagles. Such is the scope of his collection that his house has itself become, as Baudrillard (1994) describes,  divested of its function, abstracted as mere container for Laurence’s ever growing collection, causing him to rely on his parents to feed him and store his clothes.

Although Laurence spends hours each day arranging and caring for his collection and can offer estimates of its scope it does not appear to be catalogued or curated in any sense other than some items being designated as ‘show pieces’ and there being an assembly of similar items arranged together; for example,  bird themed kitchenalia is kept in the now defunct kitchen and similarly the locus for plates is the dining room, although they have also spread to the rest of the house. The absence of a catalogue and a diverse collecting remit may well be a good thing for Laurence as it saves him from the anxiety Bruyère (1688) describes as being associated with the collector’s frustration at being unable to complete a ‘set’.  One suspects that as Baudrillard (1994) observes, Laurence did not initiate his collection with an intention to complete it and even that if Laurence were to complete his collection, at that point the symbolism of the collection might close in on itself and madness would be unleashed in the collector.  Alternatively, as Laurences’s brother remarks, “He might just start collecting something else.”

Laurence’s apparent association of birds with his childhood, when he and his father kept an aviary with hundreds of birds in the garden, and his regression to a state of child-like dependency on his parents despite a nominal adult independence are interesting in light of Baudrillard’s conviction that:

“We are incapable of living in the dimension of absolute singularity, in uninterrupted consciousness of that irreversibility of time signalled in the moment of our birth.  It is that irreversibility, this relentless passage from birth to death, that objects help us resolve.”

Baudrillard (1994) pp 16.

For Laurence, at least, the collecting of birds seems to temporarily assuage the loneliness of the present and allow him a temporary escape from the tyranny of linear time.  Our reactions to Laurence’s collection serve to highlight its active, open ‘writerly qualities ‘ (Barthes, 1975) in giving us pause to interrogate our own  consumption of cultural objects/text. Which is a pretty impressive accomplishment for one man and a bunch of bird ornaments.


Barthes, Roland. 1975. S/Z: An Essay. Edition. Hill and Wang.

Baudrillard, J. 1994 ‘The System of Collecting’. Cardinal, Roger 1994. Cultures of Collecting (Critical Views). pp 6 – 24. Reaktion Books.

de la Bruyère, Jean. 1688 . Les Caractères de Théophraste traduits du grec, ou les mœurs de ce siècle