Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Secret Life of Puppets

Wandering along a street in Edinburgh last October, I found myself wondering why we were so obsessed with vampires whether being slain by Buffy or lingering doe-eyed in the twilight.

The next day I went to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art (and their fabulous Surrealism show) and picked up a copy of Victoria Nelson’s ‘The Secret Life of Puppets’ that now, belatedly read, provides a partial answer.

Nelson’s argument is rich and complex (and does not focus on vampires). It argues, with a rich tapestry of supporting example, that, "In the current Aristotelian age the transcendental has been forced underground, where it has found a distorted outlet outside the recognized boundaries of religious expression". Our "repressed religious impulses," in a secular society, can be found in "fantastic novels and films." Hence, she writes, "we can locate our unacknowledged belief in the immortal soul by looking at the ways that human simulacra—puppets, cyborgs and robots—carry on their role as direct descendents of graven images in contemporary science fiction stories and films".

Along the way to this conclusion, the reader is given a primer in neo-Platonism and the Hermetic tradition, an incisive glancing account of its breakdown in the Renaissance and burial in the Reformation; and, what happens to the ‘repressed tradition’. On the surface the insight it carries is split – the positive awe at creativity in the world passes to the artist (most especially in his Romantic incarnation) and the negative fear passes to the ‘scientist’ whose knowledge is welcomed but its consequences often feared (enter the ‘mad scientist’ whose creations turn on humanity, Frankenstein’s creature being only the most prominent example). Underneath the surface, the ‘daemonic’ – the notion of a reality beyond that which is sensed – because demonised (most especially in the Protestant world) – the supernatural, outside the prescription of churches, in a secularized ‘west’ becomes the Gothic , the ghostly and the horrific.

Like all good arguments, you can think of counter examples – the nineteenth century is home not only to the gothic but also to spiritualism – the contacting of the bereaved, but usually friendly, dead (though Nelson, I expect, would argue that this was a particularly ‘Aristotelian’, empirical approach to the other world, to immortality that flattened and sentimentalised it ).

But, on the whole, Nelson’s is rather gripping, always erudite, account of where these repressed desires go and how mainstream secular culture tries to frame them in ways that make them acceptable but ultimately unreal – it is a ‘projection’, he was ‘mad’ while assaulted by visions, is this real or is she dreaming being three of the most obvious.

The last chapter of the book, "The Door in the Sky," makes her case most explicitly. She argues that contemporary ‘secularized’ societies, both American and European, are moving away from Aristotelian rationalism and back toward Platonism. This "new sensibility does not threaten a regression from rationality to superstition; rather, it allows for expansion beyond the one-sided worldview that scientism has provided us over the last three hundred years". This shift in sensibility, Nelson holds, offers nothing less than "the exciting moment of opening up" "that is ushering us into a new Renaissance—not so much a technological one (our overvaluing of technology, like our exalted notions of materialist progress, is part of the perversion and displacement of the religious impulse) as one of expanded intellectual and artistic possibilities." It is, she concludes, "precisely . . . 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".

Her evidence for this is fascinating – not only does the language of cybernetics, virtual reality and the aspirations of artificial intelligence mimic neo-Platonic tropes – the real world behind the world of the senses, the world of the senses shaped by primary forms that are transcendent to sense, the aspiration for immortality carried by the ‘idols’ that are androids, cyborgs, dematerialised intelligences – but the ‘daemonic’ slowly returns as a bearer of light, not only dark.

That returns me to vampires, not an example that Nelson herself uses, from the unremitting to be feared of Bram Stoker to the more complex bearers of light and shade in Twilight –not only do we perhaps dream of vampires as bearers of a displaced wish for immortality but we want our vampires as redeemed or the glimpsing potential of it at least.

Along the way in Nelson’s book are strewn many pleasures – the critical ability to assess both ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture and why (following Chesterton) both are necessary, even when flawed; the difference between ‘repetition’ as a necessary component of folklore and ‘repetition’ as a failed attempt at confronting necessary truths; and, a beautiful, erudite skewering of Umberto Eco’s ‘Foucault’s Pendulum’ as a defence of Aristotelian empiricism.

The final accolade of any criticism is that it returns you to the works explored (and the world explored by them) with new eyes and Nelson’s book most decidedly achieves this. Most notably it asks you to recognise that the way we deploy certain aspects of popular (and high) culture is what the sociologist of religion Peter Berger would call ‘rumours of transcendence’ – that the desire for transcendence and the hope for immortality is deeply necessary (whatever the truth of their final subject) and they do not go away simply by being disbelieved.

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