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The Secret Life of Puppets

af Victoria Nelson

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1211175,461 (4.23)8
In one of those rare books that allows us to see the world not as we've never seen it before, but as we see it daily without knowing, Victoria Nelson illuminates the deep but hidden attraction the supernatural still holds for a secular mainstream culture that forced the transcendental underground and firmly displaced wonder and awe with the forces of reason, materialism, and science. In a backward look at an era now drawing to a close, The Secret Life of Puppets describes a curious reversal in the roles of art and religion: where art and literature once took their content from religion, we came increasingly to seek religion, covertly, through art and entertainment. In a tour of Western culture that is at once exhilarating and alarming, Nelson shows us the distorted forms in which the spiritual resurfaced in high art but also, strikingly, in the mass culture of puppets, horror-fantasy literature, and cyborgs: from the works of Kleist, Poe, Musil, and Lovecraft to Philip K. Dick and virtual reality simulations. At the end of the millennium, discarding a convention of the demonized grotesque that endured three hundred years, a Demiurgic consciousness shaped in Late Antiquity is emerging anew to re-divinize the human as artists like Lars von Trier and Will Self reinvent Expressionism in forms familiar to our pre-Reformation ancestors. Here as never before, we see how pervasively but unwittingly, consuming art forms of the fantastic, we allow ourselves to believe.… (mere)
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Oh, blessed puppets, receive My prayer, and teach Me to make Myself in thy image. -- Thomas Ligotti, "Mad Night of Atonement"

It feels wrong to me somehow that a book published in the year 2000 with the name "The Secret Life of Puppets" which deals with simulacra and demiurges, fantasy in European high art and American pulp fiction, and Bruno Schulz and H.P. Lovecraft doesn't once mention Ligotti, but perhaps it's just me.

Anyway, I found the book fascinating and thought-provoking, even though I found myself mostly skeptical of the author's conclusions. The argument here is that after the Enlightenment, Platonic thinking has been largely relegated to the background, a consequence of which is that Aristotelian, empirical philosophies have pretty much dominated ever since. However, Platonism and transcendental philosophies provide people with a sense of connection to the greater cosmos, which has been lost in our embrace of rational materialism. Platonic and neo-Platonic thought has found an outlet in culture, both high and low, and the recent conflation of neo-Platonism with technology (as exemplified in movies like "The Matrix") shows that we may be on the verge of a great return of Platonism or new religious reawakening.

As I said, it's an intriguing thesis, and I must admit I find myself mostly in agreement, at least with the way pop culture and art have adopted some of the roles/functions that used to be exclusive domains of religion. But I'm skeptical about the notion of the reawakening. The Matrix and its sequels have come and gone, and we've lost a large part of our obsession with virtual worlds. I'm almost tempted to bring out the old cliché of "9/11 changed everything," which like all clichés does have some element of truth. Anxiety and mystification of technology have been replaced by more conventional anxieties of violence by cultural outsiders. Of course, Nelson had no way of knowing that the western world would receive such a large shock, but at least for the moment the nature of cultural anxieties has shifted.

Another (lesser) criticism is the Lovecraft chapter, which I found interesting but pretty flawed. Nelson appears to be wanting to engage in a psychiatric reading of Lovecraft, which I could understand, but she relies too heavily on some broad generalizations. The impression I get is that Nelson is just trying to hard to find evidence of schizophrenia or syphilis trauma and is cherry-picking from Lovecraft's fiction to do so.

Those complaints aside, the book presents an intriguing look at philosophies of gnosticism and hermeticism, and their expression in popular culture and high art, as well as the way those have developed over the years. Nelson's approach has a certain playful eclecticism, which is fun to read even when it's not entirely convincing. ( )
3 stem CarlosMcRey | Nov 16, 2008 |
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In one of those rare books that allows us to see the world not as we've never seen it before, but as we see it daily without knowing, Victoria Nelson illuminates the deep but hidden attraction the supernatural still holds for a secular mainstream culture that forced the transcendental underground and firmly displaced wonder and awe with the forces of reason, materialism, and science. In a backward look at an era now drawing to a close, The Secret Life of Puppets describes a curious reversal in the roles of art and religion: where art and literature once took their content from religion, we came increasingly to seek religion, covertly, through art and entertainment. In a tour of Western culture that is at once exhilarating and alarming, Nelson shows us the distorted forms in which the spiritual resurfaced in high art but also, strikingly, in the mass culture of puppets, horror-fantasy literature, and cyborgs: from the works of Kleist, Poe, Musil, and Lovecraft to Philip K. Dick and virtual reality simulations. At the end of the millennium, discarding a convention of the demonized grotesque that endured three hundred years, a Demiurgic consciousness shaped in Late Antiquity is emerging anew to re-divinize the human as artists like Lars von Trier and Will Self reinvent Expressionism in forms familiar to our pre-Reformation ancestors. Here as never before, we see how pervasively but unwittingly, consuming art forms of the fantastic, we allow ourselves to believe.

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