Pain and Suffering

by Craig Stark

#1, March 1, 2004

The Dark Side of Collecting

When I was a freshman in college, I was jolted awake in the middle of the night by the blast of a trumpet, and a badly played trumpet at that. When I opened my eyes, there was a face right in my face, wild-eyed and contorted, screaming at me to get my ass downstairs. Downstairs was three flights down. In an inky dark basement.

The dormitory I slept in, a large room of bunk beds, was bitterly cold that night. There was a storm. My bed was immediately next to a fire escape that conformed to the local fire code - that is, it was left open to the wide, wide world every night of the year. When I sat up in bed, I put my bare feet directly into a snowdrift that had formed in the shape of a long swoosh on the hardwood floor between my bed and the open window. I may not have been composed, but if nothing else, this kind of thing gets you going at three in the morning.

Once downstairs, I was lined up forcibly against a wall with 7 other freshmen, still in absolute darkness, then given a lit match and ordered to recite the Greek alphabet forwards and backwards before dropping the match. Fortunately, I'd been practicing. Several others weren't as fortunate. When everybody was done, several achingly bright spotlights burst into our faces, so blinding that I couldn't see who was in the room in front of us.

Several equally entertaining events followed fast on the heels of the opening match ceremony, one of which included taking bites from a happy apple (a large Bermuda onion with the outer paper skin intact) every time a question about some obscure point of fraternity code was answered incorrectly. Needless to say, it was a memorable evening. From what I've heard from others and read, this sort of thing - a late-night lineup with borderline abusive festivities - wasn't atypical for many other fraternities, circa 1970's.

Say what you will about fraternities and sororities, in particular the questionable, often secretive, and probably still widespread practice of hazing, but there's no doubt that most of us who have lived in this kind of environment have memories, good and bad, that reach a level of intensity that few others do. Over thirty years later, many of my fraternity memories have a clarity that outshines things that happened yesterday.

If you're a regular BookThinker reader (and bookseller), you can probably guess where I'm going with this. Intense memories point to one thing - collectors.

Ok, fine, but why are unpleasant memories a driving force? It's easy to understand why an adult might seek out, pay a large sum for, a favorite childhood toy later in life because the experience of playing with it many years past was both intense and great fun, but what about not-so-fun, equally intense experiences? Why would standing in a dark basement holding a match and reciting the Greek alphabet later feed a desire to relive the experience through collecting memorabilia associated with it?

The principle that drives this is at work in many other topical areas. POW's, the KKK, slavery, etc. I could assemble a long list of similar, horrific topics that attract keen collector interest, and I guarantee you that, in many cases, books and related memorabilia addressing these topics have been, are, and will continue to be highly sought after, intensely collectible. To understand this principle and why it works the way it does, let's take a short ride with the Cossacks.

Cossacks, those hard-nosed warriors who ran roughshod on the windswept steppes of 19th-century Russia, are often portrayed as cruel, vodka-swilling horsemen, and a classic example of their cruelty pertains to a method they used to break horses. A rider, given a misbehaving horse, would simply mount it and strike it between the ears with a bottle of strong vodka. Hard. The horse, brought to its knees, its eyes flooded with alcohol (which it would mistakenly believe to be its own blood), would from that moment forward be absolutely obedient, consistently submissive for the rest of its life. The trick was to use a force sufficient to traumatize the horse into submission. Too little force, and the medicine wouldn't take. Too much, and debilitating injury would result.

As extreme as this example is (a far cry from horse whispering), the principle it illustrates is precisely the same as the principle used for obtaining obedience from pledges in a fraternity. Trauma, that is, produces obedience. Fraternity trauma isn't always physical, or even obvious, but it's still a significant force and inevitably, since we're now looking at human beings and not horses, possesses a psychological component.

A good example of this is the fraternity paddle exchange. Approximately 2 feet long and 3 1/2 inches wide and narrowing into a handle, a fraternity paddle is constructed of solid hardwood, is usually branded with Greek letters representing the fraternity, and may also contain the fraternity crest and/or a dedication. (Many non-standard paddles also exist, some ingeniously designed to intensify pain, and are vigorously marketed for questionable use.)

Paddles are exchanged in several senses. Pledges (non-members in the process of becoming members) and actives (members, in this case serving as Pledge Fathers) present paddles as gifts to each other sometime during the pledging process. They may also exchange them in another sense, which might take the form of the pledge dropping his pants, grabbing his ankles, and being whacked with significant, stinging/numbing force in the hindquarters for committing some earthshaking offense, such as forgetting to address an active member as Sir during a late night lineup.

This sort of trauma has particular, poignant meaning for me. I was the recipient of such an exchange late one night for precisely this oversight. The memory of this is still fresh, and for years after the incident, I inevitably associated it with the use of the word Sir, specifically as an expression of submission to authority.

What may seem odd, even inexplicable, is that a year or so later, after I'd become an active member, I had one or two beers too many at a party one night and somehow became involved in a multiple paddle exchange (fully clothed, this time, thank God) with somebody who was a member of my pledge class and was not only present at the original incident but also suffered the same fate. This exchange was perfectly voluntary and involved each of us alternately whacking the other, then inquiring in dry, formal tones, "Did that hurt, Sir?" "Why, no, Sir, it did not." "Well, then, Sir, how about this?" Whack. And so on, each of us laughing so hard we could hardly stand up.

I'm ashamed to admit that this was one of my fondest fraternity memories for years, also relieved that I've finally put it in perspective and, with considerable if late-arriving remorse, understand the psychological forces driving the behavior. Obviously, I viewed the event as magnificent fun at the time because it was the expression of a deep bond that had formed with another member of the fraternity. As pledges, we had shared the same unpleasant experience under trying and intense conditions, had survived it, and were now re-expressing it partly as a means of affirming that bond.

But only partly because there was something else at work here too, and this is the key, I think, to understanding the dark side of collecting:

There's a tendency to become, in a sense, what you resent, dislike, hate or otherwise harbor negative feelings about.

Resent something - hate it - and you will relive the resentment the very next time a similar set of circumstances presents itself, triggers the memory. Reliving the resentment will reinforce the memory, feed it with new force, and keep it very much alive. Sometimes this resentment grows (along with a nagging guilt for harboring it) to such an extent that the only relief seemingly available is to alter your perception of the event which originally created the memory, or worse, to begin to love the original offender/offense by giving it your allegiance, taking on its character. To one degree or another, this is an almost universal phenomenon in relationships between parents and children, and to the extent that children hold fast to resentment for various injustices, etc., exacted on them by their parents, they ultimately become their parents, via this same mechanism, no matter how much they try to resist it. Resistance, in fact, accelerates the process.

Of course, material objects which can be associated with this also become objective representations of this love. And sought after because of it. This is one reason why fraternity paddles are collectible, and put a paddle with holes drilled in it (to maximize velocity at impact) under the nose of a collector, supply some provenance that calls to mind a dark deed performed many years before, and watch prices go through the roof. Books - the things we're vitally interested in here - are similarly sought after, even if it's a pledge manual once used for memorizing the Greek alphabet.

For some, profiting from this sort of thing raises ethical questions, and I think it should. I'm going to look at this in depth in a future article, using the movie Citizen Kane as an illustration of motives gone mad, but for now I think it's reasonable to say that, for the most part, we simply can't divine the specific motives of collectors with any degree of certainty. There may be a perfectly innocent reason why somebody is willing to pay through the nose for a vintage fraternity paddle, and there may not. Attempting to puzzle it out will most likely be as difficult as answering 20th century cinema's most enigmatic question - "What is Rosebud?"

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Contact the editor, Craig Stark

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