“My soul is like a house,” writes Saint Augustine in Confessions, addressing God.* “It contains much that you will not be pleased to see: this I know and do not hide.”

I’m not ready to claim that I have a “soul.” But my “house,” or really any place I inhabit for more than a week, is much like an Augustinian “soul,” which is to say it contains much clutter that no one is pleased to see.

Asks Augustine:“But who is to rid it of these things?”

In Confessions, God comes through for the 4th-century theologian by absolving him of “these things,” which are his sins. Unfortunately, though, deities aren’t known to offer literal housecleaning services. Due largely to this inconvenient fact, I have been made many times a liar by promising to clean out a particularly thing-filled space — my childhood bedroom — and then neglecting to do so. My father begs, to no avail. And so an cluster of sad objects — worn out shoes, a few old dresses, some adolescent trinkets, and heaps of papers and notebooks and books — still recalls my past presence.

How does one rid a room of these things? Laziness is my primary obstacle to neatness. Practicality also matters: my current apartment, six states south, is too small to take on additional volume. And my sense of nostalgia is too overdeveloped to permit the throwing/giving away of items like high school diaries, an awful prom gown, and a candle shaped like Merlin (Really, Steph. It’s time).

Why is it so difficult for slobs like me to keep belongings consolidated and in order when other people can keep their spaces (and “souls” — or let’s switch to “minds”) neat with ease?

Part of the reason extends beyond laziness and logistics to perverse preference. I enjoy messiness in a way best explained via example.

Early in college, I obtained a dun-colored two-drawer metal filing cabinet and started filling it with notebooks and papers and printouts. For a long time it was very orderly, with folders marked for classes and semesters and outside writing. Then it reached capacity. Did I toss out the earliest papers to make room for the new? No. Did I buy a new filing cabinet? Of course not. Instead, with no room for new folders, I started shoving in papers more or less at random, effectively destroying my date-based system and overwhelming the cabinet’s weight limit to the point where attempting to tug a drawer out sends the damn thing groaning off its track. I did tug, recently, on a hunt for the printout of an amusing work email received a couple years back. The document was not to be found. While searching, though, I come across a hideous old novel draft circa 2008. Skimming the abandoned piece was appropriately depressing, but it reminded me of details from 2008 life that would soon prove useful for a current project.

Oh right, the point: messiness has benefits. Were my papers better organized, I would never have been tempted to meander into 2008 while seeking an email from 2010. A jumble of disordered dates reflects the way (my) memory works much better than does a neatly sequenced progression, past to present. Stuff — events — dates — pile up in our individual histories, but to try organizing them in temporal order, to turn time into space via filing, or into a “Timeline” as Facebook has odiously done, is to fall back on a convenient fiction. Better, or at least more interesting, to wade into a bit of chaos.

Bookshelves can showcase the benefit of spacio-temporal messiness perfectly. My own volumes — at least, the lucky ones that fit on the shelves — are not arranged by publication date, era, or author’s nationality. They are not organized by accidents of time and space. Instead they are organized by accidents of language, which is to say, you know, alphabetically, by author’s last name. While hardly original, the system provides endless delights for the casual peruser, who might notice that St. Augustine is couched, on my shelf, between Sherwood Anderson and Jane Austen. America, Algeria, England. 20th, 4th, 19th.

For Augustine, memory is “a spacious palace, a storehouse for countless images of all kinds, a“vast cloisters,” a “great treasure house,” an “immeasurable sanctuary,” a“wonderful system of compartments.” It’s an enclosed space. Unlike the soul or mind, though, it doesn’t need cleaning-out so much as figuring-out. Memory’s compartments must be examined, but their contents don’t need to be rearranged in a rigid temporal order that doesn’t reflect the order of our thinking — or indeed of our language. Consider a sentence from Anderson’s short story “Adventure”:

“Her imagination, like a child awakened from a long sleep, played about the room.”

We begin with the word “imagination,” which joined the English language via old French in the 14th century, and move forward in the sentence but back a millennium in time to the Old English and Germanic words “child,” “sleep,” “played,” and“room.” Even our sentences refuse to be neat, to arrange themselves in chronological order.

Language is one thing; bookshelves are one thing. In them you can see that time is not a line but a text, a woven thing, whose threads spread out in all directions. In them you can glimpse the necessity of mess. But what about that bedroom in Massachusetts, strewn with aging objects apt to strike my imagination, yet irksome to others? My father would tell me to throw everything out. He would be right.

*All translations from the Penguin Classics edition, trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin


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