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.