High on the list of forgotten professions is the ragpicking trade. But looking back to the 19th-century we see that he or she was a figure of import, a kind of urban seer whose daily toil paid off in inestimable wisdom. In The Ragpicker’s Wine, Baudelaire describes the nobility of this silent ghostlike presence:
One sees a ragpicker knocking against the walls,
Paying no heed to the spies of the cops, his thralls,
But stumbling like a poet lost in dreams;
He pours his heart out in stupendous schemes.
He takes great oaths and dictates sublime laws,
Casts down the wicked, aids the victims’ cause;
Beneath the sky, like a vast canopy,
He is drunken of his splendid qualities.
Ay, but it’s a hard life of suffering and exhaustion:
Yes, these people, plagued by household cares,
Bruised by hard work, tormented by their years,
Each bent double by the junk he carries,
The jumbled vomit of enormous Paris,
And the only real solace lies in drink:
To lull these wretches’ sloth and drown the hate
Of all who mutely die, compassionate,
God has created sleep’s oblivion;
Man added Wine, divine child of the Sun.
The 21st century thinks differently about the collection of cast-offs. But it’s no doubt true that today’s ragpicker sees hidden meaning in almost every piece of stuff that appears. How frustrating that every piece “means” something rather than just does what it is sold to do. But I doubt one could say that the contemporary thing collector is suffering from emotional and perceptual overload. And to describe the search as heroic seems a bit hysterical. Nonetheless, I’ve never met a collector who formed shallow attachments to the finds. An average mall consumer of merchandise doesn’t buy for the backstory. There’s no poetry to be found there. It’s all front-story. The meaning of merchandise is always imposed on the buyer. An idly-purchased product says what society says it’s supposed to say.