The Secret Life of Puppets

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Overview

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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Editorial Reviews

San Francisco Chronicle

From Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, A. I., and X-Files, to the genre grotesqueries of Child's Play and The Puppet Master, so much of our popular storytelling concerns forces and phenomena our culture firmly insists aren't real and cannot exist...In a dizzying and fascinating alternate history scored with subterranean connections, Nelson presents alchemists, Platonists, Gnostics and magi in their own terms and contexts...In this rich work of erudite charms, Nelson convincingly argues that the cultural pendulum is swinging back to the platonic side. But because our rigid scientific materialism doesn't allow us to take any of this seriously, we are left with mostly unconscious expressions that overemphasize the sensational and horrific dark side, with a little sentimental New Age nod to the latent good.
— William S. Kowinski

The Age

In the opening chapter, Victoria Nelson issues a caveat that deliberately echoes the warnings that preface tales of horror. Do not expect to emerge unchanged. To read this book is akin to entering an ancient grotto, the ante-chamber of the otherworld. Since the Enlightenment, says Nelson,, Western culture has dismissed the supernatural as mere superstition and displaced these religious impulses into popular entertainments such as fantasy and science fiction. The emergence of new grottos such as cyberspace are signs that we are entering a new era of sensibility, in which the Platonic and Aristotelian world view can coexist. As a diagnosis of the role of the supernatural in modern secular society, this is a work of extraordinary originality, erudition and flair. Read it and be transformed.
— Fiona Capp

Christian Science Monitor

Freud theorized that modern civilization (the one in which he lived, anyway) repressed our sexual instincts. In her provocative new book, The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson contends that modern civilization has repressed our spiritual instincts. And these, she argues, like all repressed instincts, have come back to surprise us in strange new forms.
— Merle Rubin

Financial Times

Translating ancient thought systems into contemporary terms, finding equivalents of the old in the new, Nelson skillfully manages to thrust the sphere of academic research headlong into popular culture, making this both accessible and erudite...In a dizzying journey that opens with a Renaissance grotto and concludes with The Truman Show and virtual reality, we are taken on a rollercoaster ride through the underside of western mysticism. As Nelson herself warns the reader, when crawling out from the "hole of this book", whatever emerges "will not be the same as what went in."
— Aura Satz

Washington Times

This is no ordinary work of intellectual history...This is New Age prophecy at its most verbally sexy and literarily savvy. It is fun, enticing, and chockfull of brilliance.
— Laura Bass

Journal of Contemporary Religion

Some books are fated and fêted for cult status. They have a particular feel and fervency about them. The Secret Life of Puppets by Victoria Nelson, a writer on writing...seems like one of those uncanny, unclassifiable books that break the mould and promise to have a market appeal across disciplines and hobbies, among sober seekers after enlightenment as well as cranks...Nelson's breathtaking jaunt through the underground of Western culture is certainly illuminating and sometimes intoxicating...Expertly researched, forcefully written, magnificently produced, The Secret Life of Puppets is a haunting, highly charged book that leaves a strong after-image of worlds within worlds.
— William Keenan

Times Literary Supplement

The Secret Life of Puppets explores the hauntings, possessions, and other uncanny phenomena proliferating in literature and entertainment (and by no means only on the margins); she argues strongly, through vivid and original readings of H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe and many artifacts in a variety of media, for a new approach to the uses of fantasy and to the relationship between material and immaterial phenomena.
— Marina Warner

New York Times Magazine

In a remarkable scholarly book, The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson argues that our sense of the supernatural and yearning for immortality has been displaced from religion to such expressions of popular culture as superheroes, robots and cyborgs.
— Francisco Goldman

Harold Bloom
Nelson has written an eloquent, exciting, memorable, important book. It is alive and disturbingly truthful.
Neil Gaiman
A wonderful, unlikely, necessary book which links high and low and pop culture, the sacred and the profane, into a magnificent webwork of pattern and gnosis--it is erudite, irreverent, and profound. Just read it.
Thomas Moore
The Secret Life of Puppets is one of the most important and inspiring books I've read in many years. Ranging widely in the imagination of Western culture, it shows wisely how the human soul went into eclipse, where it remained hidden, and how it might return. The language is fresh, the ideas original. Each page has at least one summary sentence, beautifully compact, that offers a way out of the scientism and displaced notions of transcendence that have chased the life out of modern experience. Drawing on a largely neglected tradition of Neoplatonic and magical thought, it opens up key themes of religion and literature that lie hidden in popular culture and high art.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner
Much more than intellectual history and literary criticism, Victoria Nelson's The Secret Life of Puppets is a provocative, important and exciting thesis about why organized Western religion is no longer the residence of religion. In a convincing series of essays, Nelson demonstrates how the sacred and our yearning for the transcendent has now reappeared in art, film and all manner of simulacra--yes, and even in puppets. This is required reading for any serious student or teacher of religion.
Terry Castle
This is a book of powerful psychic allure: it consistently engages and challenges; one is pushed into new intellectual spheres by its very oddity and force. It is also spectacularly well-written on a sentence-by-sentence level. Nelson is a prose stylist of sometimes lyric and touching penetration.
San Francisco Chronicle - William S. Kowinski
From Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, A. I., and X-Files, to the genre grotesqueries of Child's Play and The Puppet Master, so much of our popular storytelling concerns forces and phenomena our culture firmly insists aren't real and cannot exist...In a dizzying and fascinating alternate history scored with subterranean connections, Nelson presents alchemists, Platonists, Gnostics and magi in their own terms and contexts...In this rich work of erudite charms, Nelson convincingly argues that the cultural pendulum is swinging back to the platonic side. But because our rigid scientific materialism doesn't allow us to take any of this seriously, we are left with mostly unconscious expressions that overemphasize the sensational and horrific dark side, with a little sentimental New Age nod to the latent good.
The Age - Fiona Capp
In the opening chapter, Victoria Nelson issues a caveat that deliberately echoes the warnings that preface tales of horror. Do not expect to emerge unchanged. To read this book is akin to entering an ancient grotto, the ante-chamber of the otherworld. Since the Enlightenment, says Nelson,, Western culture has dismissed the supernatural as mere superstition and displaced these religious impulses into popular entertainments such as fantasy and science fiction. The emergence of new grottos such as cyberspace are signs that we are entering a new era of sensibility, in which the Platonic and Aristotelian world view can coexist. As a diagnosis of the role of the supernatural in modern secular society, this is a work of extraordinary originality, erudition and flair. Read it and be transformed.
Christian Science Monitor - Merle Rubin
Freud theorized that modern civilization (the one in which he lived, anyway) repressed our sexual instincts. In her provocative new book, The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson contends that modern civilization has repressed our spiritual instincts. And these, she argues, like all repressed instincts, have come back to surprise us in strange new forms.
Financial Times - Aura Satz
Translating ancient thought systems into contemporary terms, finding equivalents of the old in the new, Nelson skillfully manages to thrust the sphere of academic research headlong into popular culture, making this both accessible and erudite...In a dizzying journey that opens with a Renaissance grotto and concludes with The Truman Show and virtual reality, we are taken on a rollercoaster ride through the underside of western mysticism. As Nelson herself warns the reader, when crawling out from the "hole of this book", whatever emerges "will not be the same as what went in."
Washington Times - Laura Bass
This is no ordinary work of intellectual history...This is New Age prophecy at its most verbally sexy and literarily savvy. It is fun, enticing, and chockfull of brilliance.
Journal of Contemporary Religion - William Keenan
Some books are fated and fêted for cult status. They have a particular feel and fervency about them. The Secret Life of Puppets by Victoria Nelson, a writer on writing...seems like one of those uncanny, unclassifiable books that break the mould and promise to have a market appeal across disciplines and hobbies, among sober seekers after enlightenment as well as cranks...Nelson's breathtaking jaunt through the underground of Western culture is certainly illuminating and sometimes intoxicating...Expertly researched, forcefully written, magnificently produced, The Secret Life of Puppets is a haunting, highly charged book that leaves a strong after-image of worlds within worlds.
Times Literary Supplement - Marina Warner
The Secret Life of Puppets explores the hauntings, possessions, and other uncanny phenomena proliferating in literature and entertainment (and by no means only on the margins); she argues strongly, through vivid and original readings of H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe and many artifacts in a variety of media, for a new approach to the uses of fantasy and to the relationship between material and immaterial phenomena.
New York Times Magazine - Francisco Goldman
In a remarkable scholarly book, The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson argues that our sense of the supernatural and yearning for immortality has been displaced from religion to such expressions of popular culture as superheroes, robots and cyborgs.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Nelson's study of the divergence of religion and science and the evolution of puppets and images in popular culture (among many other things) lives up to its stated intention: to examine the "premodern assumptions" that still underpin the supposedly rational and scientific ways we view reality. To this end, Nelson (My Time in Hawaii) amasses a large, but by no means unwieldy, arsenal of historical nuggets and literary references. She begins by tracing the ancient notion of the underworld (this world of immorality was associated with the form of fantastic art called "grotesque," which originated from the word "grotto," or cave). Nelson then plots an illuminating journey through a carnival funhouse. In the chapter titled "The Strange History of the American Fantastic," she describes how the golems of Judaic legend evolved into Frankenstein and the androids of modern science-fiction cinema, and how the search for Gnostic truth was lost in the Enlightenment, leaving modern society mostly unprepared to understand anything spiritual. It's possible that Nelson spends too much time on Bruno Schulz and Kafka, but she more than makes up for it with a brilliant psychological analysis of H.P. Lovecraft and a discussion of genre fiction's critical importance. Only toward the book's end does Nelson deal with actual puppets, but it's an impressive chapter nonetheless, drawing a straight line from the stories of Pinocchio to Robocop. Unlike many similar, wide-ranging culture studies, Nelson's book arrives with no agenda, blaming no one; instead, she offers a learned, exciting ride through a phantasmagoric landscape filled with dark mysteries. (Jan. 29) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674012448
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 8/28/2003
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 675,895
  • Product dimensions: 5.58 (w) x 9.16 (h) x 0.98 (d)

Meet the Author

Victoria Nelson teaches in the Goddard College graduate program in creative writing.
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Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Grotto, An Opening
  • Early Adventures of the Earthly Gods
  • The Puppet Tractates
  • The Strange History of the American Fantastic
  • H.P. Lovecraft and the Great Heresies
  • Symmes Hole, or the South Polar Grotto
  • Is This Real or Am I Crazy?
  • Two Old Birds and Their New Feathers
  • The New Expressionists
  • The Hermeticon of Umbertus E.
  • The Great Twentieth-Century Puppet Upgrade
  • The Door in the Sky
  • Notes
  • Acknowledgments
  • Index

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