Weird Shit from the New Orleans Public Library

Weird Shit from the New Orleans Public Library

Volume 1: Absurdistan (2008)

When I moved here from New York, I was so excited about making a new home for myself I gave very little thought to what “home” actually meant.  It took exactly one week for me to start missing things: first bagels, then pizza, then more substantive things, like walkable sidewalks and meetings starting on time.

I tried to create a comfortable space in my house that would bring me daily reminders of what I love about New York, like subway maps and photos of my family.  Yet there was always an unsettled quality about this space, and it wasn’t for a while that I realized it was because I had no books.

I had left all of them in New York, thinking that it wasn’t worth the schlep (meaning “haul”; Yiddish aphorisms are another thing I miss about New York)for an indeterminate time of staying in New Orleans.  But their absence weighed on me, so I had to take action.

I went to the Alvar Street branch of the New Orleans Public Library, where I was assisted by an elderly seersucker-clad man with an impressively loud “indoor voice.”  Apparently, the only document they need from potential patrons is proof of residency, which in my case was the envelope from my latest bank statement.  I could also, the desk attendant stage-whispered conspiratorially, have addressed and mailed an envelope to myself.

But I was not out for such tricky business, and armed with my new card I set about exploring the stacks.  I found some curious organizational methodology to the shelves at the Alvar Street branch:  In the nonfiction section was the King James Bible alongside the Frommer’s Guide to the Mid-Atlantic States and an exposé on Mao Tsedung as the mastermind of the Cold War.  This was not exactly the Dewey Decimal System of my youth.

I decided to see what the DVD section had to offer, and boy were there some gems.

Nestled between a documentary on Mardi Gras Indians and a collection of Pedro Almodóvar’s films, and below the greatest hits of Ravi Shankar, was a German film called Absurdistan.  Billed as “Fellini-esque” and “lusty,” the movie called out to my sleazy arthouse impulse.

I checked it out, in addition to some short story anthologies and that documentary on Mardi Gras Indians.

Absurdistan turned out to be a bizarre Russian-language romantic dramedy that parodies the classic Aritstophanes play “Lysistrata.”  That work was of course the one in which the women of Athens persuade the men to end the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex until they call a truce with Sparta.

In Absurdistan, an Eastern European village of the title name is threatened by a broken water pipe that has left the citizens unbathed and unable to tend properly to their industries, which appear mainly to be baking, shoemaking, and bee-keeping.  The only people who can fix the water pipe are the men of the village, who are so lazy they make time only for drinking tea and having sex.  According to the film’s narrators, “the men maintained that their virility was famed all the way to Samarkand…The men busied themselves with proving their reputation” while “the women tried to stop the village from going to the dogs.”

The film’s protagonist is a young woman named Aya, who, despite her lust for her boyfriend, Temelko, convinces the other women of the village to withhold sex from their husbands until the water pipe is repaired.  Eventually (spoiler alert!), of course, it is, as the men simply cannot survive without sex.

The film suggests that women hold the power in the village of Absurdistan, as they do in life, because men are so thoroughly motivated by female sexuality.  However, this power is situated within an overly simplistic gendered paradigm that actually disempowers women in relation to their own sex lives.

Firstly, in Lysistrata, the women clearly suffer from abstinence.  They constantly remind each other why they are imposing celibacy upon themselves, in order to prevent women from defecting from the cause.

The women of Absurdistan show little compunction about their decision to withhold sex, and only a scene depicting an orgiastic performance betrays any untapped physical desire on their part (with the exception of a shot in which the women snuggle with each other as they fall asleep, a behavior not unlike the communal bathing the women did before the ban on sex was enacted).  This performance is later shown to have been a trap for the men of the village, and therefore not trustworthy as a reflection of the women’s experience of celibacy.

Absurdistan’s women are in this way denied sexual agency.  Yes, they choose not to have sex with men.  But their sexual pleasure is deprioritized to almost a non-issue in this film.  Sex is clearly for the benefit of the men.

This dynamic is exemplified within the relationship between Aya and Temelko, who are virgins.  As adolescents, they call upon the spiritual advice of Aya’s grandmother, who forbids them from sexual contact until the stars align appropriately.  They must wait over four years for this event, which ends up coinciding with the sex ban.

Although these two characters are presented as outliers in the film – Aya is the gutsy ringleader of the other women and Temelko is the only man who returns to the village after attending school in the city – their actions are consistent with those of the other characters.  Despite her grandmother’s promise of cosmic (and orgasmic) euphoria for the lovebirds, Aya withholds sex from the agitated Temelko, subjugating her own romantic and physical desires at the expense of the male libido.

In a somewhat convoluted plot twist, Aya becomes troubled when a traveling showgirl tries to seduce Temelko.  Time with the girl in her bedroom is the prize for a carnival shooting game, which Temelko wins.

The girl barely talks at all, and is featured only giggling, posing provocatively, and undressing.  Her value is in her physicality and what bodily pleasures she might provide for the sex-starved men of the village.

Indeed, the reason she is in the village at all is due to the enterprising game-owner, who believes rightly that he will profit from the conditions of the village.  The showgirl’s sexuality is commodified and sold in this way; her body is exchanged for the few coins it costs to play the game.

What is truly disturbing about this character is how little she seems to care.  Sex is assigned a high value in the village, where the men cannot seem to survive without it.  Yet for the showgirl and her traveling companion, it is something given away casually as a carnival prize, like a giant teddy bear.

It is possible that the way sex is treated in this circumstance is not so different than the way it is between the husbands and wives of Absurdistan.  Sex has a transactive quality in both, only with the showgirl it is more explicit.  In the village, the women also use sex as a bartering tool, specifically to get the men to fix the water pipe.

However, this interpretation does not really complicate the question of female power.  The women are still giving up something in exchange for getting something else.  In fact, the only arena in which female power is unquestionable has to do with Aya’s grandmother.  Her directive for Aya and Temelko to wait until having sex is obeyed.  This is truly an example of power:  How many teenage boys do you know who would agree to wait four years until the “stars are in order” to lose their virginity?

Also, the premise that the women are unable to fix the water pipe themselves is itself problematic.  They are able to do everything else that village governance requires, yet the men are mysteriously more competent in this regard.  Additionally, girls do not appear to attend school in the distant city; this privilege is extended exclusively to the boys of the village.

So at the end of the day, the library gave me a lot to think about, and I can’t wait to share the other weird shit I find there.  For now, I am scheming how to get my family to ship me some good New York bagels.  Because it’s really not home without books or bagels.


You can read more from Arielle on her blog, Shtetl Chic.

5 thoughts on “Weird Shit from the New Orleans Public Library

  1. Your interpretation of the movie is very intelligent and interesting. So please, understand that while I may seem to be veering somewhat from the content of your commentary, my response may eventually be clearer as you read on. Also, your expressed impressions of New Orleans, of the DVD, and emotional longing for New York are addressed in an interwoven sort of way, if one listens quietly to the subtext.

    Here are my bits and twigs of ponderings and questions. What brought you to New Orleans? In acclimating to our curvaceous layout of sidewalks and streets culture, do you believe you will develop an attraction to New Orleans, though the home of your heart may be New York? Specifically, a fondness for the wavy, sometimes broken, geography of our terra infirma? In describing the themes in Absurdistan, might New York represent the intellectual and sexual power of women walking without concern for obstacles? I have often wondered if New Orleanians practice of strolling along, and driving on, our curviness influences our psyches into non-linear configurations, expressed in the different way we approach tasks, and life in general here. I feel ever more committed to this idea since Katrina.

    It is true that consternation is part of our weave, though the weave is not the cloth itself, and especially, the map is not the territory, not anymore anyway.
    We definitely have broken pipes and other infrastructure maladies. I can tell you the guys working on fixing them do so in a 40 to 20 minute ratio of work to cigarette breaks. Just wondering if from the POV of a newly transplanted New York woman, your view what might seem disproportionate in our native infrastructure/love/home/sexual rituals…have you observed a relative increased pattern of gender specific roles in our men? Women seeming to get the short end of the stick when all is said and done? Do your observations detect the New Orleans woman’s light bulb as relatively dim on the sexual power/pleasure continuum? Can her sexuality or intellect be litmus-ed by her degree of love and appreciation of Mr. Dewey, or of the seersucker clad mentsh at the library?

    Is her balance and ability to equilibrium, not to mention her tush, enhanced or undermined by sidewalks requiring second nature awareness in her mind/brain configured from childhood to intuit when incoming infrastructure does not fall on her side? Is she as in love with hot freshly baked French bread as one can be with New York bagels, or might she be emotionally and sexually undernourished merely for the fact of her choice of bread/home/geography?

    That in Absurdistat the men have an unrelenting hold on the power of water pipes to a degree they are too preoccupied to straighten them is a theme we revisit often, no matter the city. (Please, this is no affront to men; Freud blames it on the women who raised them anyway…) In this context, I don’t necessarily see women as depriving themselves of sexual pleasure so much as they are avoiding sex without love, which they address by mothering one another through cuddling. Lazy men preoccupied with water pipes do not a honeymoon make. In the end, New Orleans can’t feel like home if you have your mind on a book. Do you like New Orleans/ Southern writers?

    In any event, you can’t make it be your home externally. Missing New York, bagels, efficiency, the way New Yorkers do their thing is part of your infrastructure, your library of the way it’s supposed to me. New Orleans is built, literally, not on the ground it’s supposed to be built upon. And yet, there are those of us who cannot be hurricaned, or BP’d, politicked, or sweated out. I don’t know if putting away the rule book would make a difference, though I’m almost sure having a drink with a friend outside at the Columns watching the streetcars go by would make an impression. Ambivalence is a door that slams to the conscious sentient; a love potion that keeps passion burning no matter what here. I hope your travels carry and ground you to the smells of sweet olive, the blush of listening to a true Southern gentleman accent, the subtleties and nuances one will not find in that trusting, friendly library more invested in people than systems.

    True, the best of both worlds would be nice, and still, as you know, there’s no place like home, no matter what. New Orleans is senuous and sexy, though one must look at her, give in to her idiosycracies, and fall for her, though not on the sidewalks. Mozel Tov

  2. PS: When you impulsively shout out, “Who ‘Dat,” you’ll know you are settling in. Now, how Absurdistat? ; )

  3. I grew up walking to that library and checking out books as a child. My mom said she never had to worry about me cause I’d always entertain myself with a book and we could read as many as possible just by walking down the street and borrowing them, for free. It is wonderful to hear the Alvar Street library continues to provide entertainment to this day 🙂

  4. I’m the one Jew who doesn’t like bagels. My mother used to freeze them while we were still eating (don’t ask) and the next day they would have freezer burn! But I would do a lot for some Yiddishkeit. New Orleans is a big city to me now!

    When I was very young in Queens we had a book mobile. They let us take out five books a weeks and I did. My mother insisted that they give me an adult card. Then we moved to Long Island where the library was in a hut. Now it’s a model for the world or so they say!!!

    Thanks so much for the spider advice. i was scared to death but the swelling was never really big!

  5. Hi Pia, I’m the one who gave you the spider advice. 🙂 We’re a group blog so just wanted to let ya know. Thanks for stopping by and commenting and keep an eye out for those spiders.

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