Cultural Critique 53 (2003) 141-143
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The Secret Life of Puppets, by Victoria Nelson. Harvard University Press, 2001
Victoria Nelson's The Secret Life of Puppets is an ambitious book that compels with its subject matter, which is no less than the fate of spirituality in the notoriously materialist and irreligious West. What do puppets have to do with such weighty matters? A lot, as Nelson sees it. "In the history of puppets and other human simulacra after the decline of religion," she explains, "we can read—in a backward image, like a reflection in a mirror—the underground history of the soul excluded from its religious context in Western culture" (31). The puppet's latter-day incarnations include the robot, the android, the cyborg, and the virtual simulation, and Nelson conjures through these figures an unorthodox narrative about the furtive movements of spirit in the age of mass media and hyperconsumerism.
What holds the book together are the framing chapters on the history of puppets and other human simulacra from late antiquity to the Romantic period (chapters 2 and 3), and then on the postmodern return to a culturally pervasive puppet idolatry that Nelson identifies with a premodern belief in gnosis and magic (chapters 11 and 12). Here her work achieves real coherency: the argument is focused, and the project is imbued with a firm sense of purpose and direction. What pulls the book apart, however, is much of what comes between. In these middle chapters, Nelson attempts to articulate and extend her broader argument about how Christian spirituality has been forced to take refuge in the mass culture entertainments that have supplanted it since the eighteenth century or so. Although she reads [End Page 141] a wide range of pop culture supernatural fare for signs of our repressed spiritual yearnings—in the fictions of Poe, H. P. Lovecraft, and the Polish writer Bruno Schulz; in the work of Jewish-American comic book writers; in the allegories of John Bunyan and Nathaniel Hawthorne; in Will Self's novels; in a raft of Hollywood movies from the last decade; and so on—the effort is not entirely profitable. Applied too liberally, Nelson's thesis turns into a blunt and uncritical instrument. One tires of seeing signs of repressed spirituality, and one wishes, too, that "the profound wisdom of the psychological" that Nelson seeks to integrate with "the wisdom of the transcendental" was a little more profound (17). Part of what disappoints in the chapters on Poe and Lovecraft, for example, is simply the reductiveness of the applied theory and the subsequent lack of freshness in some of Nelson's textual interpretations. These days, inventive uses of psychoanalytic theory should certainly allow us to find something more than a "disturbing lack of fixity in the house of the psyche" (112).
Then there is the question of Nelson's motives. It is one thing to tease out the elements of gnostic belief and displaced metaphysics in Hollywood movies, video games, and genre fiction as a project of cultural analysis. But it is another thing to celebrate these mass entertainment products as harbingers of our spiritual rebirth. Though we may enjoy movies like The Matrix or The Truman Show precisely because they trouble the comfortable sense of the efficacy of our reality, it doesn't mean that in our lives outside of movie watching (or science fiction reading or Internet surfing) we are any less inclined to be the 401(k)-obsessed materialists that we were before—or any less likely to go to church on Sunday morning and pay our respects to the spirit world in the more traditional way. Although Nelson justly criticizes the New Age movement's blind complicity in the commodity culture it seeks to transcend, her celebration of our present moment in history is equally unreflective, as exemplified in this caustic warning: "To fear and oppose these developments [what else but the box office success of the movies she writes about] is to overly identify with one element in the Western dialectic at the expense of the other and thereby miss the exciting...