Memo to myself

In the car the other day, Peter used his cellphone to leave a message for himself on his office voicemail. It’s interesting, in a Nicholson Baker-ish way, that there is already a convention for how to leave such messages. After all, they are pretty new. I think I first started leaving them while I was working on my dissertation, so mid to late 1990s; I left them from payphones, if I happened to be downtown when a revision occurred to me. It felt awkward, mostly because I wasn’t sure how to address myself. Now everyone knows: in a monotone, in the imperative mode, with cryptic succinctness.

On the other hand, why so parsimonious? This isn’t a linguistic context that our ancestors faced in the Pleistocene, so natural selection has had no hand in shaping the etiquette. It isn’t clear to me that it really is more economical to speak in such a stilted, artificial way. It saves effort to write in telegraphese, sure, but writing is more cumbersome than talking, and it takes effort to drain a sentence of all tonal nuance. Is it just fear of being overheard and thought dotty that prompts one to drop the social niceties?

“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.