To a book collector, you see, the true freedom of all books is somewhere on his shelves. (Walter Benjamin, “Unpacking My Library”)
For Susan Stewart (later for John Elsner and Roger Cardinal), Noah is the archetypal collector. Yet Noah’s arcane collection, as Stewart notes in On Longing, does not look back. “Once the object is completely severed from its origin, it is possible to generate a new series, to start again within a context that is framed by the subjectivity of the collector.” Its world is not one “of nostalgia but of anticipation.” In their introduction to Cultures of Collecting Elsner and Cardinal describe this as “saving in its strongest sense, not just casual keeping but conscious rescuing from extinction—collection as salvation.” The archetypal collector becomes a saviour, and for the saviour, as Walter Benjamin believes, that moment of rescuing a book becomes important not just for the inanimate future of that lonely and abandoned volume. An act such as this forms for Benjamin “one of the finest memories of a collector.” The rescue comes in the guise of freedom—freedom that is realized ultimately on the collector’s bookshelf. This notion in Benjamin is not associated merely with the salvation of the object or the collector’s jealousy, but with the dream of a better world where even if “human beings are no better provided with what they need than in the everyday world…things are freed from the drudgery of being useful.” The revolutionary implications of this (in Benjamin) explored by Hannah Arendt in her introduction to Illuminations and in a different context by Giorgio Agamben (The Church and the Kingdom) may be put aside for now.
This orphaned state of the collected object has bothered writers over the years. Clearly (and understandably) not everyone agrees with Benjamin’s optimistic view of the de-contextualized collectible, finding itself uprooted from its own logical position within the universe and placed within the logical/narrative designs of collectors who define its purpose within a series that is strictly their own. Whether or not the last known position of that particular object within its now-broken context was logical need not be questioned. The logic of the collector, which reflects nothing but their subjectivity, is somehow considered less “authentic” than the logic of its previous state of belonging, no matter how arbitrary that may have been.
Although I do not personally consider myself a collector, I admit that I am familiar to this feeling of saving an object from “oblivion.” On occasion this feeling has gripped me even when I am not otherwise keen on acquiring a particular object for an existing collection. It happens with books at the Golpark second-hand book stores, or with LP records (now too expensive for casual purchase) lining the vertical shelves of Free School Street. A fallen collector—or a base individual with a collector’s tendencies, such as myself—may well ask more practical questions. Such concerns are not directed to deflate the beauty of the moment of collection, because they coexist and have nothing to do with each other. One is about the possibilities opened up by the object’s “rescue” in Benjamin’s sense; the other concerns are to do with mundane matters of preservation of the collected object, as historical artifact. The one major consideration that I tend to ignore in the euphoria of that self-gratuitous moment is, “Who saves the saviour?” This may only be important to the collector who is corrupted by the historian’s anxiety, but if the material is indeed to be saved against the obliterating tendencies of time, the archetypal collector’s ark may well require an archive. Now in the archive, it may be inserted into a different logical series. Again, even if it is as random as the original context from which it was plucked, it is at least institutional and falls into traditions of archiving that are in vogue across many countries; not the individual collector’s arbitrariness. The liberty from “the drudgery of being useful,” that it briefly enjoyed on the collector’s shelf, is destroyed with its reinsertion into the currency of use where it stands in for the past as representative, as witness. Its potential as useful object is realized fully when it finds place in the index-card of the researcher or as footnote in a published volume.
This is the position I come from with respect to the collection I intend to discuss in the next few pages. It is a small collection of postcards of Calcutta that I have gathered over the past two years. (To be honest I had no intention of talking about it before it actually develops into a sizeable collection. But prompted to think of writings on cities and especially of travelling by the proposal for the present volume, it would have been a shame to let the opportunity pass.) These were recently exhibited as part of an ‘Accessing the Archive’ programme by the India Foundation for the Arts and the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences (Calcutta), held in Kolkata (10-18 June 2016) in the old house of historian Sir Jadunath Sarkar. Since the family moved out, the CSSSC has been in possession of what is now known as the Jadunath Bhavan Museum and Resource Centre. The following observations are based on my experience while preparing curatorial notes for the collection of postcards.
A few weeks before the exhibition, I sat down with my modest collection of about sixty postcards to try and figure out a way of displaying them. Broadly speaking the collection could be divided between the posted and un-posted cards. The posted cards are easier to date because they usually carry the trace of a postal stamp, or in the case of a more systematic sender, might even contain a hand-written date of composition. Most of these cards date from the first few decades of the twentieth century. Then there is a gap in the 1940s and ’50s, and again a few badly printed ones (usually in half-tone) emerge from the 1960s. It is obvious even from the most trivial of collections why the period between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century is regarded as the golden age of the medium. G.S. Farid in his book, Picture Postcards from Calcutta, and other collectors I have met over the last few months have largely focused on the postcards as visual documents or studied their print history. But the one thing I felt missing from these approaches was a close look into their social circulation and use.
Chronology is the obvious organizing principle for displaying the postcards, but rather dull. You could go with the opposite extreme and ignore context altogether to form a kind of narrative based on just the text of the postcards or the images, or both. Orhan Pamuk’s initial plan for The Museum of Innocence was something along these lines. He says in The Innocence of Objects:
From the mid-1990s, even while I was writing My Name is Red, I had already started collecting from antique shops in Istanbul the objects that the Keskin family would use—and I enjoyed imagining how well my steadily growing collection of objects would look one day in a museum. This must be how I first thought that I might be able to put together a novel in the form of a museum catalogue with long and richly detailed notes.
Pamuk abandoned this plan for the most part, but it is easy to see that it would work only if the narrative that binds them together is compelling. Besides, the collection would need to be much larger if the narrative is to sit comfortably with its objects. Mine was hardly a steadily growing collection. Let us not even get into my fiction writing skills.
A few of the posted photographs had their own stories to tell. Two of the cards are addressed to the same person. Gwen’s family had stayed on in Calcutta after she moved to Broadstairs, Kent. ‘Do you remember going to see this place with Mr Pope?’ her father asks. It is hot in Calcutta—April 1920, but a storm is expected. The family dog, Tiger lays around and pants. “Nunky[?] came round last night in a regular “Weary Willie” attire ragged but cool.” Over a year later her mother writes to her. She is ailing now but hopefully on the path to recovery. She thinks she will have to go to school again to learn to write. She loved the letter Gwen had written a few days previously. The handwriting is shaky—her infirmity is obvious. Either Gwen’s father or some other helpful soul has written down Gwen’s address in smooth cursive so that the postman does not deliver it to the wrong person. Even so, there is a correction in the address. Gwen is not living on Marsham Street anymore, but at Bartrum Gables.
The laconic but opinionated E.J. Nevill sent two postcards on the same day. Is it possible that he never sent another before or since? Unlikely. One of the two is a hand-tinted photograph of the Gothic building of Calcutta High Court, at the time not forty years old. He reluctantly approves: ‘Rather a nice building. After the style of the Law Courts and Home’. That same day he sends another one—this time a photograph of the Jain Temple in Belgachia. ‘I have not been here yet So I cannot criticize it’. Perhaps he was having a particularly rough time in Calcutta. We shall return to these in due course.
As a collector I have no memory to speak of that I associate with the moment of acquiring the postcards (for reasons most banal) as Benjamin did with his books: “Memories of the cities in which I found so many things: Riga, Naples, Munich, Danzig, Moscow, Florence, Basel, Paris…” He remembers Rosenthal’s sumptuous rooms in Munich, the musty book cellar in North Berlin, and a student’s den in Munich. The difference is not in the collected object, nor perhaps in the temporal proximity of my collection. This lack of distinct association is not uncommon, it seems. Naomi Schor in her essay “Collecting Paris” differs from Benjamin as she too cannot remember how she went about collecting each postcard. “When I open my album or my storage boxes,” she writes, “time is not recaptured…The answer is seemingly simple: postcards are organized in series, and their very seriality negates their individual mnemonic properties.” She alludes to Susan Stewart’s distinction between the collection and the souvenir. The souvenir, according to Stewart “speaks to a context of origin through a language of longing…it is an object arising out of the necessarily insatiable demands of nostalgia.” Schor notes the difference between Benjamin’s collectibles (books) and the examples Stewart has in mind when she refers to souvenirs (“antiques, exotic objects, replicas of the Eiffel Tower”), but even if this strict distinction were to be accepted, we need to recognize that the souvenir and the collector’s object often coexist in the postcard.
For the fallen collector who attempts to archive postcards from the near or distant past, the categories are much clearer. On the other hand, for late nineteenth and early twentieth century collectors, such distinctions would be confusing. The postcard was a curiously self-conscious medium. As early as 1900, Tuck postcards conducted the first known Postcard Prize Collection and gave away a prize worth £1000. The following (poem?) is from a postcard in my collection featuring the Jain Temple
Carefully in yr
Book & ask
& Henty to
keep in yr
books so they
won’t be lost.
By assuming what Naomi Schor describes as the “position of the voyeur, or better yet the eavesdropper on everyday life” we can uncover in these postcards a number of messages—intended and unintended. It is not within the scope of this essay to arrive at conclusions at general practices based on large data sets, but it may be reasonable to an attempt to locate certain common practices in the texts at hand.
Schor very cleverly pits two formulations against each other: firstly, that collecting postcards was a feminine activity, often met with moral condemnation in comparison to more recognized pastimes, such as stamp-collecting; and secondly, Jean Baudrillard’s theorization of the practice of collection as a predominantly male activity—an analysis that frequently resorts to gendered metaphors. Baudrillard in “The System of Collecting” finds in the collection “a strong whiff of the harem…in its being at once a series bound by intimacy…and an intimacy bounded by seriality,” and describes the collector as “pre-eminently the sultan of a secret seraglio.” Benjamin too, as we have noted, likens the act of rescuing to “the way the prince bought a beautiful girl in The Arabian Nights.” The last quoted postcard in particular makes a reference to Deirdre’s mother who is keen on preserving the postcards: the medium of communication as collectible. But let us push further.
The postcard Gwen Ellis’s father writes to her in April 1920 is somewhat exceptional. The souvenir is commonly understood to be an object that announces to a traveller’s relative or acquaintance the fact of the traveller’s presence in or near the place to which the souvenir refers (or of which the souvenir is a replica in miniature). It is witness to or proof of the traveller’s first hand experience of that place—an attempt to convey that the absent friend was remembered “in the moment.” It is as though the friend or relative, by virtue of sharing space in the traveller’s thoughts with the latter’s experience of visiting a place, has established some inadvertent connection with that particular site. When Gwen’s father asks, “Do you remember going to see this place with Mr Pope?” he refers overtly to an experience that the two had shared together. It is a souvenir—but one that is purchased and posted not because the site is unknown to the recipient but because it was once shared by the sender and the now-absent recipient. In the case of postcards it is also amply possible that the sender is not at the place depicted in the card either—because (like most souvenirs) postcards may easily be available at places other than at the specific tourist sites.
E.J. Nevill’s references to the High Court and the Jain Temple tell yet another story.
It would appear that he has visited the High Court as it is difficult to guess from the distorted hues of the postcard what exactly the building looks like. Nevill probably has in mind the Gothic architecture of the Royal Courts of Justice designed by George Edmund Street. He was closer to the truth than he perhaps realized because Street was a pupil of Sir George Gilbert Scott (on whose designs Walter Granville had based his plan for the Calcutta High Court). Nevill describes to the absent friend, but his description follows that age-old practice of describing the foreign and unfamiliar in terms of shared familiarities. In the case of the Jain Temple, which Nevill is yet to visit, the sender and target recipient are in the same boat, except that Nevill has a chance to go one up by actually visiting the site during his stay here.
In discussing the collectible object, the aspect of utility is important to Benjamin, as we have seen, and to Baudrillard. He writes that so long as a refrigerator remains functional, its use directs us back to the world. It becomes a collector’s objet only “once it is divested of its function and made relative to a subject” [italics in the original], and can refer back to the subject who “seeks to assert himself as an autonomous totality outside the world.” (Just to test out the proposition: does the collector, say, of a camera, feel this way? Or is the utility of the specific, distinctive camera not in its image-recording capacity but in its unique manner of capturing—thereby diluting its absolute utility of the generic object, camera, to something that can be measured only with respect to its difference from the others in the series?)
The postcard by this definition would be a prime candidate for the practice of collection. The utility of the postcard is severely defined by the limited space for writing. Between 1902 and 1904, Schor observes, a dramatic change is brought in by the division of the writing side of the postcard, and the reversal of the recto and the verso. She notes in the promotion of the illustrated side of the postcard, a rise of the “culture of the image.” If we take the communication of the textual/verbal message as the postcard’s primary utility, and allow the image its own utility value if it serves as trigger for either shared or unshared experience, they lapse shortly after reaching the recipient. Thereafter, the object and perhaps specifically the image assumes potential as the recipient’s object for collection. As in the postcard to Deirdre, there is little else to communicate except for warnings regarding the safe-keep of the postcards exchanged. This is partially out of a respect for personal memories, but undoubtedly also for the sake of the images. The growing importance of the postcard as a self-sufficient and self-aware collector’s item is borne out best in the later issues of Tuck postcard’s “Wide Wide World” Oilettes (originally introduced in 1905) which improved on their predecessors by including notes about the places they describe. My guess is that the annotated editions of the postcards are released after 1911.This is based on a reissued “Old Court House Street” postcard from the latter-day series which says: “Calcutta is no longer the capital of India, but his Majesty the Emperor of India has declared that ‘it must always be the premier city.'” We can only guess the year of publication.
Thus, apart from the visual re-membering of a city using postcards as visual records much like photographs, there are a number of stories that may be extrapolated from these everyday objects. They cannot be studied in isolation either, because many of the features and apparently personal quirks fall into context and make sense only when considered in the light of social habits. Besides eavesdropping on conversations of travellers and distant friends or deducing collector’s habits from there, we may also profitably look for publication practices: how did the firms hire photographers? Who were these photographers? How were they distributed and who collected them? These are just a few of the questions that can be explored to shed light on some lesser-known aspects of traveller practices in a city.
This work was published in the Coldnoon Cities (Mapping the Metropolis) Vol I., as part of the Coldnoon journal.