“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.

Mutatis mutandis

Last week we went to hear Paul Berman expound the ideas contained in his new book Terror and Liberalism, and last night we went to see X2: X-Men United, and the two culture products have become hopelessly entangled in my brain.

You see, Berman believes (I summarize his summary, not having read his book yet) that liberals tend to underestimate the nastiness of the enemies of liberalism, because liberals believe as a matter of principle that people should be given the benefit of the doubt and trusted to act rationally, even if they hate you. But from time to time, groups of people fall prey to a kind of political disease, with distinctive symptoms: anxiety that the group is impure and is being weakened from within, fear of overwhelmingly powerful outsiders who want to destroy the group, an idealization of murder and suicide, and a wish for a utopia that will at once revive an edenic past and instantiate a way of life so modern that it has never been seen before on earth. This disease has taken the forms of Nazism, fascism, Soviet communism, and now Islamism and Baathism. It is also more or less the plot of X2.

In the movie, it’s the United States that has this political disease. And Charles Xavier, the mild and paternal leader of the mutants, is, like Berman’s liberals, incapable of responding to the antiliberal danger with prompt and appropriate force. Because Xavier fails, antiliberalism rises up within the mutant community.

The script must have been written after 9/11. Are the mutants a fantasy identification with the international Muslim community? They’re different, they’re a rising power, some of them already live in our country, some (but not all) of them seem to want to wipe us out, and we’ve declared war on them in response — so what does it feel like to be them, anyway?

And yet it’s too simplistic to interpret the mutants as Muslims, because upon reflection, they’re just gay. They spend their childhoods having the occasional funny feeling, but otherwise unsuspecting of their identity, until suddenly, in adolescence . . . A few further pieces of evidence: the ice-breath boy has tried making out with his girlfriend, but whenever he kisses her, it feels like his life force is draining away and he’s about to die. When Mystique is asked why, since she has the power to resemble anyone she pleases, she insists on walking around as a demonic piece of Alessi kitchenware, she hisses flutily that mutants shouldn’t have to pretend, even if pretending is something they’re good at. Ian McKellen tells a sulky young thing “You’re a god among insects, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise,” and it is clear at once from the wooziness in the boy’s eyes that he would be willing to hold hands at the next Academy Awards.