Susan Stewart’s On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (1993) offers one way of considering what both Johanna and Andrew are doing as collectors of love objects. Unlike the souvenir, the collection is authenticated by the past, but is also ahistorical in the sense that it does not create a nostalgic longing for something gone. Instead of objects within the collection working as metonyms for a separated whole, the collection recontextualizes the objects within it into a new whole (151-2). Stewart is careful to point out that collecting must be differentiated from accumulation. Andrew and Johanna are the only two cases in which objects from love relationships remain visible and on display.
Andrew’s carpets would fetch quite a price in the market today as he explained to me he was very careful to purchase the ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ thing. Since separating from his wife he has acquired new carpets from other places that are displayed throughout his home, adding to the collection of Turkish carpets. While at first it may seem that Johanna is only accumulating souvenirs, as the clothing items can be clearly understood to be metonymic pieces from the person, she made it a point to say her “sense of fashion comes from other people” and in this way her “sense of style” is a cohesive collection — the whole a thing unto itself and not just made up of its parts. How are we to think about the objects that Natalie and Charlotte now hide?
Returning to Stewart, she claims “we do not need or desire souvenirs of events that are repeatable […] rather we need and desire souvenirs of events that are reportable, events whose materiality has escaped us, events that thereby exist only through the invention of narrative” (p. 135). This definition of souvenir giving rise to a narrative is an apt description for the hidden love objects. Those hidden objects were representations of experience through narrative, however, now that the narrative of a romantic relationship can no longer exist in the present and will not exist in the future, the object is somehow falsified – an emblem of discontinuity between the past and present.
The objects can no longer remain souvenirs nor can they can be reincorporated into commodity exchange. Charlotte does not sell or throw away her stuffed zebra toy, but puts it on a shelf with other toys that do not hold as much personal value. Natalie can’t very well sell a toy block separated from the rest, but it is now useless to recuperate the narrative of a romantic relationship, so it goes into a bag with other small objects and is placed in a shelf. The materiality of the object ‘disturbs’ and ‘disrupts’ post-relationship because it can no longer be part of making the past the present, or future.
But what is the impetus for hiding the objects from view, instead of collecting and displayed them in the way that Andrew and Johanna? In Alfred Gell’s Art and Agency (1998) he argues for a distributed agency, claiming that signifiers and their signified object are not just linked symbolically but are connected through movement and affect. Social agents are “present, not just in our singular bodies, but in everything in our surroundings which bears witness to our existence, our attributes, our agency” (p. 103). Material objects are both “sources of and targets for social agency” (p. 96). This idea is made clear by Natalie when I asked her if she would remain in contact with Lou:
“Time apart from them is the only thing that turns your reality into a memory and then you can sort of put it away like close the lid on the story – because right now its in a box, because we broke up – like all the stuff, whatever two people created – this third person right in front of your face – but eventually that kind of dissolves and becomes this compartmentalized chapter of your life”.
Natalie describes her material possessions left by Lou as constituting another person – the relationship personified by objects.
Where is the separating line between creating a hidden archive of love objects and simply discarding them as refuse? I claim that throwing away the objects would be an attempt at erasure while holding onto them, even if in seclusion, preserves the origin myth and narrative of the relationship without requiring it continue.
James Elkins, in The Object that Stares Back (1997) conflates memory with vision, “How did I see as an infant, and what did I see? One of the reasons I cannot answer those questions is that memory is necessary for vision” (p.202). He claims that essentially (remembered) vision cannot exist without memory. If we reverse this claim can we not say then that in order to forget one might blind themselves?
Individuals may apprehend love objects as a way to experience themselves in relation to the romantic other – each act of looking sees them in a narrative of union with that other. When the romantic relationship has ended, the mechanism whereby a person experiences themselves as one part of a union shifts to the discontinuity of the individual. In order to deny the this reality, these objects are hidden from view, finding themselves in the back of closets, under beds, in boxes and bags — out of sight so that one day they might be out of mind.