- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 14, 2002

THE SECRET LIFE OF PUPPETS
By Victoria Nelson
Harvard University Press, $29.95, 350 pages, illlus.
REVIEWED BY LAURA BASS


In our image saturated age, simulacra and simulations are more often than not thought to numb emotion, flatten experience, deaden humanity. Thus writes Thomas de Zengotita in the latest issue of Harper's: "Conditioned … to move from representation to representation, we got past the thing itself, or rather the thing itself was transformed into a sea of signs and upon it we were borne away from every shore, moving on, moving on."
In this original, eclectic history of simulacra, Victoria Nelson offers an alternative view of the virtual realities that preoccupy most cultural critics: Rather than inferior substitutes that strip their referents of depth and authenticity, artificial humans and hyperspaces are openings onto the Platonic Real.
The author conceives her book as one such opening. The central thesis of "The Secret Life of Puppets" is that while secular mainstream culture has for the past few centuries tried very hard to push forces variously considered supernatural, magical, or fantastic underground, they keep returning.
Tracing whence in the West's cultural past understandings of these forces come and tracking the varied incarnations they have taken from ancient times to this new millennium are her central tasks. Overturning the "homocentric" insistence that ghosts and otherworldly visions are merely products of the human imagination is her ultimate goal. If her readers follow her closely enough in her subterranean journey, whatemerges "will not be the same as what went in."
In other words, this is no ordinary work of intellectual history. It is a "series of provocative sketches" rather than a "finished mural" organized under imaginative chapter headings like "Early Adventures of the Earthly Gods" and "The Strange History of the American Fantastic." It weaves personal reflection with esoteric musings e.g., "The day in question was Feb. 22, 1991, and I am not discounting the possibility that there might have been some numerological or cabbalistic significance in the doubling of numbers."
It is at once highbrow and New Agey, the tone ever shifting from the snappily colloquial (when the author can't think of a more serious transition between time periods she'll simply "fast forward") to the philosophically arcane (John Searle casts "himself in the role of Samuel Johnson to cybertheory's myriad Bishop Berkeleys").
The puppets in the title refer metonymically to all those incarnations, to all human simulacra from pre-Christian idols to postmodern androids that somehow mysteriously, magically, uncannily, supernaturally, or horrifically acquire a life and a soul of their own. That life is "secret" in the sense that rationalist culture since the Protestant Reformation has sought to deny, explain away, or subjectivize its power.
Once upon a time, though, as the author tells the story, in the Mediterranean world where Western Civilization was born there developed an array of cults and philosophical and religious movements first Platonism and later Gnosticism, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism that shared a fundamental belief in "a many-leveled living cosmos, a belief that recognized no division between organic and inorganic and little between the sensible and the invisible." It was that belief that gave rise to the West's first "puppets": god statues, mummies, even moveable, walking, talking idols.
While Christianity in the early Middle Ages did its best to smash the idols of its pagan forebears, the idolatrous impulse in Western religious practice never disappeared. It found its way into the Catholic worship of relics and saints; reemerged under alchemical crucibles; surfaced even in the mystical sect of cabbalistic Judaism, that most iconoclastic of faiths. During the Renaissance, images meant to connect the human to the divine took an inward-turn in the visualization techniques advocated by Neoplatonist philosophers like Marsilio Ficino, and, more radically, the self-divinizing mysticism of the Italian heretic Giordano Bruno.
The Protestant Reformation banished religious images and the transcendental powers associated with them altogether, and, along with the scientific revolution and the development of philosophical rationalism (e.g., Rene Descartes), exiled puppets from the realm of belief to that of imagination, from religion to art. Animistic notions no longer acceptable by scientific materialism fueled the German Romantics, like Heinrich von Kleist, whose essay "On the Marionette Theater" revived the idea that "all matter has its own soul life."
Ancient demiurgic traditions got transferred to a literature of mad scientists and artists including Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein" and E.T. Hoffman's tales about mechanical automata overtaken by the inanimate beings to which they had given life. Platonic understandings of a magnetic correspondence between the soul, the globe, and an infinite universe found their way into Romantic "travelogues of the spiritual journey" such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and the obscure 1820 novel "Symzonia: A Voyage of Discovery."
In the 20th century, simulacra and the supernatural took divergent paths in Europe and the United States, following the route of "high culture" in the former, popular or "low culture" in the latter. While the author ponders the Neoplatonic worldview behind European Expressionsism and Surrealism and the Cabbalistic underpinnings of the Polish-Jewish Bruno Schulz's fiction, it is largely the American "sub-Zeitgeist" that grabs her attention. As she explains, a secular state and a tradition of pragmatism meant that the supernatural, even apocalyptic tendencies of popular religion in this country would find no welcome in "high" art and literature, except when packaged as ethnic.
Thus, the author argues, if the publishing industry eventually permitted Latin American writers like Gabriel Garca Marquez their magical realism and welcomed ghosts in Toni Morrison's fiction, for most of the 20th century "mainstream" culture (for the author, "mainstream" means white, including Jewish) banished spirits. It sent them to the horror-fantasy stories of "outcasts" like H. P. Lovecraft, the comic book worlds inhabited by superheroes, the visionary sci-fi of Philip K. Dick.
At the close of the millennium, popular entertainment at last resurrected the "puppets" of Late Antiquity, that is, the human simulacra that express and, for the author, promise to fulfill "our secret divinizing needs." She describes with an almost beatific optimism a major shift in sensibility, an "expansion beyond … the one-sided worldview that scientism has provided us for the last three hundred years."
She observes a 1990s trend to "upgrade" the artificial human from the demonic, Frankenstein-type to, for example, the "good" Terminator incarnated by Arnold Schwarzenegger in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" (1991), and this upgrade, she promises, "lays the psychological groundwork … for a new imaginary species in which the ultimate merging of the human and the mechanical will forge an imaginative link with the benign, not the malign, transcendent."
Similarly, with Neoplatonic theory to back her up, she sees the simulated worlds of "The Truman Show" and interactive games such as "Sim City" as openings to new and higher realities. Having crisscrossed throughout her book all kinds of boundaries global, temporal, cultural she concludes: "For it is precisely the moment when we become completely conscious of the boundaries of the worldview we have comfortably inhabited for several centuries that is also, inevitably, the moment we abandon it: we see the door in the sky, and we walk through it."
This is New Age prophecy at its most verbally sexy and literarily savvy. It is fun, enticing, and chockfull of brilliance. In the end, though, too much verve and a tendency toward glibness leave the arguments suspended in space. While ingenious, the unearthing of connections between phenomena as diverse and scattered as Late Antique theurgy, medieval golem, and postmodern cyber games whatever, one senses, has caught the author's fancy means that they are pulled from the material grounds of history, and that the light cast on her puppets is ultimately too diffuse to illuminate their specific cultural contours.
Then, again, that is just what Victoria Nelson seeks: to transport her implied reader (well educated and white, her frequent invocation of "we" suggests) to a weightless, colorless Beyond.

Laura Bass teaches Spanish literature at Tulane University.


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