MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Collecting, Hoarding, and the Canon

CD collection of someone I know

CD collection of someone I know

David Wallis explores the psychology and cultural implications of hoarding in a recent essay for Nautilus. He points out that for the first time, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) has listed hoarding as a clearly defined disorder. (And the topic fueled six whole seasons of A&E’s series about the havoc wrought by compulsive hoarding.) Wallis cites figures from the American Psychiatric Association claiming that “2 to 5 percent of the United States population suffers from” this disorder.

This point especially caught my attention: “Those with hoarding disorders, then, have an amplified sense of something that all of us cherish: Our deepest feelings for our families and close friends, and our artistic sensibilities.”

But apparently hoarders suffer from a weakening of capacity alongside this tendency to amplify positive qualities. This weakness involves problems with wiring in the part of the brain responsible for “motivation, executive control, and response to conflict.” Those suffering from a hoarding complex often “avoid the anxiety of throwing something away” simply by deferring the decision indefinitely. Wallis consulted with Monika Eckfield, a professor of physiological nursing at California State University, San Francisco:

“This is common to all of us,” Eckfield says. Like the neuroscientists, she believes hoarding becomes abnormal as a result of “mis-wiring” in the brain’s executive functions. Chronic hoarders “have a much harder time following through,” she says. “They get distracted. They get disorganized. They end up adding to the pile, and the idea of sorting through those piles is very overwhelming.”

Wallis concludes:

Modern science has clearly revealed why hoarding deserves the designation of “disorder”: It is reflected in physical differences in how the brain is wired. At the same time, it is something that reflects to us some of the qualities and decisions with which we all struggle: Consumerism, attachment, decision-making, time management — and, at some level, survival. I’m left wondering if it is any coincidence that it was in 2013, when society demands so much from us in each of these capacities, that hoarding has taken on full-fledged disorder status in the DSM-V handbook.

Admittedly this may seem like an odd leap to make, but it occurred to me that the phenomenon of “holding on” — of wanting to preserve a sense of the musical past — started becoming a serious factor in Western music during another period of intense social and political change: after the French Revolution and during the upheavals of the early 19th century. Within a few decades, a dramatically new paradigm had become the prevailing attitude.

Mendelssohn’s famous performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion is just one example of this shift toward the concept of timeless masterpieces that should be handed down to the future. The old habit of allowing music to recede into oblivion with past generations — a consumable object that quickly went out of fashion — gave way to the permanent “canon” and an entirely new model of music history that continues to influence the way we think about composers today and even how composers think of themselves.

The dawn of recording enabled an exponential expansion of this tendency. Even more, it allowed for endless sifting through the past to make the claim for composers who had fallen through the cracks but who deserve rediscovery. If the “anxiety of influence” demands a kind of creative mutilation of the looming giants of the past, could it be that the canon — not so much who belongs to it but the rationale behind it — provokes an anxiety not unlike that found with hoarding?

Filed under: aesthetics, psychology

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