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Publications Book Reviews
Victoria Nelson, The Secret Life of Puppets

Victoria Nelson, The Secret Life of Puppets. (Cambridge, Massachusetts, & London: Harvard University Press, 2001). Pp. 350. ISBN 0-674-01244-5.

Victoria Nelson's highly informative book is an indispensable guide to students and scholars alike. Marrying science fiction and philosophy with literary criticism, Nelson offers the reader a well-documented trip through a wide range of demiurge myths with regard to human simulacra - such as puppets, robots and cyborgs - and an array of interpretations regarding the grotto motif, which reveals the on-going popularity and re-appropriation of Plato's philosophical writings.

In the opening chapter, Nelson starts with the discovery of Nero's Domus Aurea in 1480. This event led to the emergence of the alla grottesca mode which spread throughout Europe in the fifteenth century and consequently led to the re-appreciation of Plato's ideas concerning the cave allegory, as stated in The Republic. In the historical review provided, Nelson examines how the notion of "the physical world as a double-reflecting mirror" (6) is deeply embedded in both our religious and scientific beliefs as they have been formulated since the sixteenth century. Nelson resorts to an array of literary examples coming from E. M. Forster's, Kafka's and Graham Greene's works in an attempt to examine the grotto motif signifying "a halfway point between the upper world and a grander more mysterious region below" (14). In this densely written chapter, Nelson is constantly moving from contemporary references to science fiction, from horror writing to premodern thinkers and theoreticians. Her aim is to offer readers an overview of the religious and secular significance of the grotesque which, through the arts, has been employed as the gateway to higher but metaphorical levels of knowledge.

In the second chapter, Nelson describes the fundamental and dominant beliefs regarding Egyptian, Greek and Roman cults in relation to the veneration of the human body and its emblematic appeal as a gateway between the world of matter and spirit. Basing her analysis on the discussion of Heinrich von Kleist's "On the Marionette Theatre", Nelson effectively comments on the materialization of the spiritual and the enactment of human simulacra "as physical embodiments of the divine" (32).

This argument is further explored in the following chapter, where Nelson focuses mostly on the reinvention of the puppet tradition in Europe in the sixteenth century and the fascination of the public with the machine and the mechanical. With the supernatural already cast aside, the machine offers artists new food for thought, as shown in the stories and writings by E. T. A Hoffmann, Giacomo Leopardi, Rainer Maria Rilke and Bruno Schulz. Nelson presents the readers with a variety of perspectives concerning the conceptualization of the puppet as an automaton, a mummy or a doll. In this chapter, Nelson effectively presents the movement from theurgic magic to the secularization of the transcendent.

The next chapter, entitled "The Strange History of the American Fantastic", explores "a complex series of migrations" (75) between Europe and America as far as certain religious and artistic trends are concerned. In particular, attention is paid to the influence that the Jewish folklore exercised on the American literary tradition, as revealed in the writings of Schulz and Cynthia Ozick. Nelson also focuses on America's secular and richly supernatural character which has gradually led to the emergence of the genres of fantasy, horror and science fiction as they have been formulated throughout the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this chapter, Nelson is mostly interested in sketching a map of the high and popular literary trends that developed in America which are characterized by realistic as well as cultic elements.

After that, she mainly concentrates on H. P. Lovecraft's works and his depictions of deformed bodies. His fiction is examined alongside Schulz's stories and Schreber's philosophical treatises with emphasis placed on the creation of a realm that moves beyond transfixed space and time. The three of them deal with the distortion of both bodies and written or oral language, for the exploration of a transcendental realm which in their writings takes the form of auditory hallucinations and illusions. This is a far more theoretical chapter exposing readers to Lovercraft's narratives of biological degeneration and "regression into the separate reality of psychosis and/or physical disfigurement" (118). The demiurgic myths analysed here are given a biological twist which reveals that the deepest level of the psyche […] is the point at which we enter a completely different reality operating outside the conventional laws of the known world" (114).

From the topography of the psyche, Nelson sets out to explore in an erudite fashion a variety of cosmological, mystic and topographical symbols, such as the rotondum or the poles, as well as the topographies described in Coleridge's, Poe's, Melville's, Lem's and Pynchon's works. This really interesting chapter is certain to intrigue the reader who wants to find out more about the connections that exist between the "physical contours of the planet" (139) and human psychology as well as the mystic significance that a journey to the poles/soul has. The chapter concludes with Leonora Carrington and Anna Kavan whose works invert the polar narrative formula by presenting the destruction of life as a dynamic process.

From the revival of Neoplatonism and the emergence of mystical geography, Nelson's analysis turns to the ontological ambiguity characterizing a number of twentieth century narratives. This is due to the simultaneous existence of a natural and supernatural version of reality which may be the outcome of the narrator's own delusion or reality's own double structure. Providing an analysis of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw alongside Todorov's theory of the fantastic, which is only presented briefly here, Nelson poses the question: "Does reality run on a single track?" (173). She elaborates further on the question by focusing on Philip K. Dick's obsession with "chronicling the existence of another reality" (173), as his interest in the convergence of religiosity and philosophy reveals. Nelson elaborately explores the twenty-century need to reach beyond the obvious and the ordinary by resorting to a number of other literary examples. She actually refers to the emergence of a number of literary-spawned religious or fantasy cults whose existence manifests the readers' need to move beyond their own reality in order to comprehend and assimilate the "reality" that the authors construct.

In the subsequent chapter, Nelson comments on the function of memory and allegory by bringing together a number of associations coming from literature - as shown in the case of Proust, Joyce and Nabokov - Freudian psychology and Neoplatonic philosophy. In her interesting discussion, "allegory functions as a simulacrum, equivalent to the puppet-idol, capable of drawing down energies from the World of Forms" (202); while memory helps the speaker internalize real places and objects. In other words, puppets seem to be embodying a secret life of their own which is linked to human memory itself.

The New Expressionism Film of the 1990s is to be discussed next. After exposing its defining features, Nelson elaborates on Will Self's fiction as well as on Lars Von Trier's film The Ringing Bells. Again, emphasis is placed on the demiurgic intensity of the characters' emotions and the tiered structure of reality itself. However, the present analysis would have been more effective if the work of some other directors had also been evaluated.

Then, Nelson goes back in time, which may be confusing for the readers at times, so as to draw a comparison between late antiquity and late twentieth century. She particularly refers to Greek romances and Umberto Eco's narratives in an attempt to show that the late twentieth-century narratives lack any demiurgic energy and transformative value. All the traditions brought forward nowadays are reduced to games since their philosophical substance is diminished. This is a well-articulated argument but its relevance to the history of the puppets should have been strengthened further. It is only in the next chapter that Nelson clearly returns to the history of the puppet and its twentieth-century upgrade in a far more challenging way. Nelson points out a variety of cases from literature and the film industry, ranging from killer puppets and rebel robots to androids, so as to highlight the autonomy that characterizes the twentieth-century human simulacra.

The book concludes with a critique on cyberspace or virtual reality, which, although is endowed with demiurgic powers, is a technologically-fabricated realm. Its immense popularity has led to the stimulation of the previously "dormant Platonic sensibility" (278), while the displaced conflict between religious superstition and scientific rationality is equally dominant nowadays.

Nelson in this book succeeds in collating a variety of numerous examples from literature and mass entertainment in an effective manner which almost ascribes to it an encyclopedic value. Although some writers or film directors receive more attention than others, the analysis provided will be useful to all those who are working in a variety of disciplines, combining literature, philosophy and popular culture.

Tatiani Rapatzikou
Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

 

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