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COMMENTARY

A Cabinet full of engaging curiosities

September 21, 2007|Peter Carlson | Washington Post

In the latest issue of Cabinet magazine, there's an article on Sigmund Freud's weird obsession with porcupines. And a piece on the history of the Coke bottle. And a timeline depicting the bizarre history of man's attempts to walk on water. And an analysis of the 19th century French phenomenon of dogs allegedly committing suicide after their owners died -- "poodles hurling themselves from rooftops or dashing under the wheels of carriages."

Cabinet also contains a beautiful color reproduction of a Hieronymus Bosch painting of a pickpocket snatching the purse of a guy who's transfixed by a magician's trick. And a photo of Hitler watching his favorite magician. And a picture of a poster advertising the lovely Koringa, an Indian magician who in the mid-20th century amazed European audiences with her ability to "walk on the heads of hypnotized crocodiles in a specially designed tank whilst wearing a necklace of live serpents."

Also, Cabinet contains a free postcard. And a free bookmark. And a free poster containing everything you ever wanted to know about stripes.

Cabinet is eclectic. Cabinet is eccentric. Cabinet is . . . very hard to describe, so I called the magazine's office in Brooklyn, N.Y., and asked Sina Najafi, the editor in chief, to describe it.

"It's a magazine about culture," he said. "That's the simple way of putting it. But our definition of culture is very expansive and inclusive. We're as interested in what truck drivers hang on the back of their trucks as we are in what museums hang on their walls."

Born in 2000, Cabinet is a quarterly with a circulation of only 12,000. It's a beautiful magazine printed on rich, thick paper and profusely illustrated. It costs $10 an issue, which is a tad steep for a magazine, but that money (and a handful of ads) isn't enough to pay the bills, so Cabinet relies on grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Andy Warhol Foundation and other generous folks. It's money well spent.

Needless to say, Cabinet has nothing to do with cabinets, and people who buy it seeking ideas on remodeling their kitchens will be disappointed. The name refers to the "cabinet of curiosities" -- mini-museums kept by worldly folks in the 17th century to display their collections of interesting stuff. The magazine prides itself on a similar eclecticism.

"We believe that, if presented in a jargon-free way, anything can be interesting," Najafi said. But, he added: "We don't think every reader will be interested in everything we do because we do so many different things."

He's right about that. I wasn't much interested in the essay titled "The Illusionistic Magic of Geometric Figuring," which went way over my head.

But I loved George Prochnik's piece on Freud and his strange fascination with porcupines. It contains a delightful account of Freud's bizarre encounter with a dead porcupine in the Adirondacks during his trip to America in 1909. The article ends with Prochnik visiting the Freud Museum in London to inspect the porcupine statue Freud kept on his desk. When the guards aren't watching, Prochnik lies down on the famous couch used by Freud's patients.

Each issue of Cabinet contains a section of articles devoted to one topic. In this issue, the topic is magic. The special section of the next issue of Cabinet, which will appear in mid-October, will be about mountains. Even if it were about molehills, I'd eagerly shell out my $10, confident that it'll include astonishing things I'll never see anywhere else.

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