Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Marionette

The Secret Life of Puppets reminded me of Edwin Muir’s short novel: ‘The Marionette’ that can be read comfortably in an evening (and was yesterday). Muir was a great poet, a fine perceptive critic but, by his own estimation, a disappointed novelist. Re-reading this, his first, you feel that it was a road of great promise not travelled, diverted into the two later, more realistic, offerings that have their many merits but never cohere as a whole and do not, unlike here, show his poetic , imaginative gifts in their best light.

The central character of ‘The Marionette’ is Hans who is, in the language of the day, feeble-minded. His birth was attended by the death of his mother and his father has retreated from him both because of his disability and for the painful memories his presence and his wife’s absence entails. Hans grows up in his own world, touched only by the sufferance of a succession of nursemaids and the pragmatic, compassionate, if uncomprehending, help of housekeeper, Martha.

Until one day, on his teenage birthday, Martha presents Hans to his father, demanding the father’s acknowledgement.

What follows is the journey of both of them towards a place of reconciled understanding and the medium through which this is obtained is first Hans engagement with his dolls and subsequently with the much more alive reality of the marionettes of Salzburg’s famous puppet theatre.

Whereas the dolls could be seen, in Winnicott’s terms, as ‘transitional objects’ enabling Hans to negotiate a precarious sense of connectedness between his self and the outer world (often perceived by him as threatening), the marionettes open up a wholly new space of ‘imagined reality’ with its own dynamic and logic – another world enfolded in this one, with its own inherent draw towards wholeness – a draw that, however, necessitates suffering and illumination on both Hans and Martin, his father’s, part.

I am tempted to see this as a progression from Freud to Jung! One offers a perilous, ever-negotiated grasp on a reality that is at some deep level disappointing (or heroically stoical, depending on your point of view). The other offers a pattern of integration that is by no means cost free but which fundamentally sees the world as saturated with meaningful order into which we are invited to participate. The first might be a necessary disillusionment – Hans wants to be the master of his dolls and manipulate their world and they disappoint. The marionettes are their own imaginative world and even Hans startling attempt to break into their mystery by crucifixion (of his formerly beloved but fundamentally uncontrollable Gretchen marionette) cannot subdue. The imaginal can only be participated in on its own terms.

It is a beautifully realised fiction that has many of Muir’s signature elements – a paradise lost and regained in a deeper, more conscious appropriation achieved through journeying that is both interior and exterior; of the healing nature of dreams and that it is the imagination that is the faculty of both empathy with others and a faculty that can tease one out of thought with images of eternity. It is a faculty that connects you both with the world and beyond the world.

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