“Memoirs of a Geisha,” one-upped

From a column titled “Things We Would Say More Of, If We Had Room,” in the 16 November 1850 issue of the magazine Home Journal, edited by the notoriously heterosexual, pre-Wildean dandy Nathaniel Parker Willis:

The wife of the Pasha of Belgrade, the account of whose murder of her eunuch we translated lately from a French paper, has been sentenced to five years imprisonment. The reader will remember that she was formerly Mrs. Millingen, wife of the physician who attended Byron in his last illness.

Some notes on the genre

Like every other blogger in America, I read the article in the New York Times this morning about the mishaps of confessional blogging. That isn’t a weakness of mine, mostly because I have forbidden it to myself. But it caused me to realize that I have forbidden myself so many vices, that blogging seems an awfully constrained genre.

Most of my self-imposed taboos stem from the fact that I’m not being paid to write this blog. Without pay, it seems imprudent to devote time and energy to research, and without research, one does not dare to make too many statements of fact. Occasionally a genuine piece of news does fall into one’s lap, without effort, but if one is a professional writer, one must then try one’s best to take it to market. (And here perhaps is the greatest peril of blogging for a professional writer, that you don’t always know which interest is going to bloom into a full-fledged article or worm its way into your next book, and so an item may seem safely ephemeral and amateur, and yet later you might regret having committed yourself to an assertion about it.)

Thus one is left with opinions, preferably about things outside one’s area of expertise. But if one isn’t being paid, it seems prodigal to make enemies unnecessarily. And so one is confined to positive opinions of contemporaries, and free opinions of the dead. Before I had tried it, I wouldn’t have imagined that the lack of an editor would be so limiting.

Did David Lynch Watch the Czech New Wave?

Just came home from Václav Vorlíček’s Kdo chce zabít Jessii? (1966), or “Who’s Trying to Kill Jessie?” (not “Who Killed Jessie?” as it’s mistranslated in some of the program notes). It’s bouncy and lightly absurdist, like Zazie dans le métro, and has an allegorical condemnation of totalitarian socialism so flagrant that it’s hard to imagine how it got past even the wilting censors of late 1960s Czechoslovakia: a lady scientist has devised a serum that will improve workers’ productivity by removing unruly elements from their dreams. The unintended side-effect, however, is that these unruly elements then materialize in the waking world, where they are provokingly curvaceous, steal the milk bottles of infants, and bite the plumbing.

But before she injects her husband, who to her dismay does not dream of her, the lady scientist first injects a cow. The cow’s dreams are visible on a large cathode ray tube (prefigurations of Minority Report). Before: the cow in a nightmare is stung by gadflies and dances herky-jerkily across a pasture. After: the same cow is rocked in a hammock, munching on flowers, while a string ensemble plays Handel. Among the scientists invited to witness the experiment is a supposed Brazilian, but in fact, when the Brazilian speaks, his voice is recorded Czech, played backward. It’s just one of the movie’s silly, throwaway jokes, but it felt a little uncanny, because the “Brazilian’s” gibberish is translated by one of his colleagues as a question about the integrity of dreams, and the whole sequence—a dream, recorded speech played backward, speculation about the fragile border between reality and dreams—reminded me of the “Red Room” scene in the first season of Twin Peaks. It would be a rather esoteric source, but I wonder if Lynch ever saw it.

In Babylon

More photos from my friend in Iraq, T. R. Klysa, USMC, who has also provided the information in the captions. He’s now stationed in Al Hillah, better known as Babylon, where he is advising the local government on schools and food distribution.

Khawawla Bint El Azawer School for Girls and Western School for Boys, Al Hillah (Babylon), Iraq. April 27, 2003. “Boys and girls go to the school separately in shifts, as is common for schools in Iraq. Elementary school, grades 1-6, student population of about 600. About 25 rooms. 50 windows, 37 broken according to my count. ‘Western school’ because it was originally built by the British in 1921.”

Left: Portrait of Khawawla Bint El Azawer, at the Khawawla Bint El Azawer School for Girls. “An Iraqi hero, a horsewoman—sort of a Joan of Arc type—according to legend stood up to Roman invaders.” Right: Greek Theater, Babylon ruins complex. April 24, 2003. Update: There was an article about this theater in the New York Times by Alan Riding on May 2, 2003.


En route to the subway this morning, I passed a storefront under renovation, where a crew was installing one of those metal security grilles that scroll up like a window blind. About a dozen stuffed animal toys were attached to the radiator of their truck: a few Warner Brothers characters, but for the most part anonymous and sweet-looking. I’ve always been curious about these stuffed animals on trucks. A friend once told me that they were called “mungo,” but I’ve never spoken to anyone who could confirm that. They look playful, but what kind of play? Are they meant as mascots? Trophies? Victims? Pets?

An attractive Latina with dyed-blonde hair in a brown-and-white-print summery dress crossed the street, and one of the men wolf-whistled at her. His co-workers joined in, but she paid no attention. The man who started the whistle seemed to be at loose ends with the lack of response, and he turned to the stuffed animals and fiddled with them. They must have been attached to the radiator only loosely, because he swiveled several of them, straightening them so that they stood upright and face forward.