Your Soul Is in the Closet, and Other News


On the Shelf

There you are!


  • We all have skeletons in our closets. The problem is, they’re so rarely literal skeletons—if they were, we could call up some anthropologist or archaeologist and get a reliable prognosis on the situation. No, the real problem with our closets is that they lend themselves to extreme and total disarray. A closet is a place for throwing things and forgetting about them until life calls on you to remember them again. As Shannon Mattern writes in a new essay, this makes for a fecund space—though few of us enjoy rummaging through all of the stuff we’ve allowed to accumulate, the closet remains a unique repository, a locus for a certain form of selfhood. And it has ever been so, Mattern writes: “Think of all the corporations and universities and municipal offices, the billions of closets hiding secret inventories. Old media accumulate for all kinds of reasons—nostalgia, ambivalence, data security, paranoia—and all of us, eventually, become the managers of our own distributed personal archives. We never know when we might need to access that data again. Meanwhile, the detritus that Lisa Parks and Charles Acland call ‘residual media’ piles up in garages, thrift stores, and neighborhood electronics repair shops (themselves a ‘residual’ enterprise), until some of it winds up in recycling and salvaging facilities. Those spaces, too, are extensions of our closets. They move off-site and out of sight the abject and often hazardous labor of disposal and destruction … For centuries, closets have enabled the collection, preservation, and suppression of missives and media-machines, files and folios. But they are more than that. Behind the doors, closets are also active, generative spaces where media are made, where imaginaries and anxieties are formulated, where knowledges and subjectivities are born and transformed.”
  • Stephen Greenblatt remembers reading The Merchant of Venice as an undergraduate at Yale—the anti-Semitism troubled him, not least because it mirrored a strain of xenophobia he’d often encountered on campus. Then he went on to become a Shakespeare scholar. He found a way, he writes, to square “problematic” texts with his curiosities and proclivities: “I wouldn’t attempt to hide my otherness and pass for what I was not. I wouldn’t turn away from works that caused me pain as well as pleasure. Instead, insofar as I could, I would pore over the whole vast, messy enterprise of culture as if it were my birthright. I was determined to understand this birthright, including what was toxic in it, as completely as possible … I already had an inkling of what I now more fully grasp. My experience of mingled perplexity, pleasure, and discomfort was only a version—informed by the accidents of a particular religion, family, identity, and era—of an experience shared by every thinking person in the course of a lifetime. What you inherit, what you receive from a world that you did not fashion but that will do its best to fashion you, is at once beautiful and repellent. You somehow have to come to terms with what is ugly as well as what is precious.”

  • Advice for the concrete mixer: do as the Romans do. Nicola Davis explains why ancient Roman concrete remains more powerful than the modern kind: “The Roman recipe—a mix of volcanic ash, lime (calcium oxide), seawater and lumps of volcanic rock—held together piers, breakwaters and harbors. Moreover, in contrast to modern materials, the ancient water-based structures became stronger over time. Scientists say this is the result of seawater reacting with the volcanic material in the cement and creating new minerals that reinforced the concrete … The Romans were aware of the virtues of their concrete, with Pliny the Elder waxing lyrical in his Natural History that it is ‘impregnable to the waves and every day stronger’ … Over time, seawater that seeped through the concrete dissolved the volcanic crystals and glasses, with aluminous tobermorite and phillipsite crystalizing in their place. These minerals, say the authors, helped to reinforce the concrete, preventing cracks from growing, with structures becoming stronger over time as the minerals grew.”
  • William Grimes on the late Denys Johnson-Davies, a translator who helped to bring Arabic literature to the Anglophone world: “[He] made it his life’s mission to bring the writers he loved, and in many cases knew personally, to an international audience … Over the next fifty years, he was a one-man cottage industry, translating more than thirty Arabic novels, short-story collections and anthologies, including the works of the Egyptian writers Tawfik al-Hakim and Mohamed el-Bisatie; the Iraqi writer Abdul Malek Nuri; and the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish … It was an uphill climb. Interest in the literature of the Arab world was virtually nil. Two decades elapsed between the publication of Tales From Egyptian Life and Modern Arabic Short Stories, which Oxford University Press agreed to take on only if Mr. Johnson-Davies found a prominent academic to write the introduction. ‘They are terrible cowards,’ Mr. Johnson-Davies told Gulf News, referring to publishers in general at the time. ‘Arab writing? There ain’t such a thing! For them, it was the Arabian Nights and that was it.’ ”
  • And Jeremy Harding remembers Heathcote Williams, a poet who died this week: “There’s no doubting he was a jubilant presence on the British counter-cultural scene during the 1960s, but once that moment had passed he flipped his flukes and sounded. There was no chat-show banter, not much image-grooming. He became elusive, rather than reclusive; you only got wind of him in his screen appearances, most of them, unlike his Prospero for Derek Jarman’s version of The Tempest, in modest roles. But the writing kept appearing. And his great play AC/DC, performed at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs in 1970 before transferring to the main house, was somehow self-updating: not so much the satire on radical psychiatry—hilarious and scary by turns—as the furious take on junk-information culture … Rough and ready is the best way I can think of to describe the Williams poetics: ‘Yet true or false, paranoid suspicions are a predictable by-product / Of a plutocratic cult, still ring-fenced by force of arms.’ ”