The Hole Truth

••• Vine-Swinging Scholar Meets Lovecraft, Ponders Puppets

 We descend to the darkened basement, below all else. I feel a damp draft, a small, cold wind. As we reach the bottom, there are six two-foot-tall 1930s bandleaders staring at us, standing in their display cases with smiles on their wooden faces—they belong to the grandfather of master puppeteer Basil Twist—and Victoria Nelson and I are in the Dorothy B. Williams Theatre, named after Twist's grandmother in the depths of the HERE performance space in downtown Manhattan. As I look at the little men in their cutaway tuxedos, I have this feeling they want to express themselves. One even looks like he is going to tap his toe or something. But nothing happens right off. Nelson and I proceed to talk about her book, The Secret Life of Puppets (Harvard), and the beginning of it all.

You begin the book in the mouth of an ogre—standing in the ruins of Count Vicino Orsini's 16th-century gardens, the Sacro Bosco, or sacred wood. There, on the overgrown hillside, past the statues of the "sleeping Psyche, the elephant crushing the Roman soldier in its trunk . . . looms the enormous stone face of the grotto of Orco . . . " The book starts there because for the last 300-plus years, the supernatural in Western culture has been found in the grotesque. To understand how the supernatural is represented in modern secular culture, we have to go back to the grotto and the origin of the motif.

The dark half: Victoria Nelson downloads the cosmos.
photo: Sylvia Plachy
The dark half: Victoria Nelson downloads the cosmos.

This whole first chapter is a bit chilling, for you warn us that we're going to be different once we finish the book. "To go higher, you must first go lower. . . . What comes out of the hole, the hole of this book that you must crawl into, will not be the same as what went in." You said you began the book, or it began itself, about 15 years ago. In the 12 chapters, you take us on a wildly circuitous tour through the history of human simulacra in Western culture and the dark and shadowy worlds of H.P. Lovecraft, Bruno Schulz, Kafka, Kleist, Poe, Philip K. Dick, Thomas Burnet and his Polar Hole, as—let me take a breath—you examine the role reversal of art and religion over the last three centuries and how the spiritual—you prefer the words "transcendental impulses"—has been repressed, displaced since the Protestant Reformation only to resurface in odd ways, in magic and urban folklore and in the mass culture of horror fantasy literature and film and . . . The question I was asking myself was, why is it that the only way the supernatural is represented in popular culture is in an overwhelmingly demonic fashion? Why is it horror? Why isn't it something else? This isn't really answered until almost the end of the book because it is a very complicated historical question and has very historical roots. Those roots lie in the Reformation and scientific revolution and the banishment of the supernatural from any kind of intrusion into the daily world when miracles were disallowed by Protestantism over the course of the 17th century.

What is not of this world, is of the devil. In the book, there is that one little anecdote I cite about men walking down the country road in England and one of them thought he saw a ghost. By that time there was considerable debate whether there really were such things, and to be on the safe side, they decided it was the devil. That particular mind-set really set the Gothic and horror and all the allowable representations of the supernatural thereafter in our predominately Protestant secularized culture.

Among the many worldviews and cultural shifts you examine, you write that "Western culture is on the verge of adjusting its dominant Aristotelian mode of scientific materialism to allow for the partial reemergence of Platonic idealism," and that a "Zeitgeist rollover is coming," and . . . My readers at Harvard said, Don't say "Zeitgeist rollover." They also said, Don't say "downloading the cosmos."

But you did. Now, most fascinating of all is the journey of your life and education that came before the book, as you are reading King Arthur and twirling a rusty old globe while being homeschooled in the cabin of an old schooner off the Gulf Coast of Florida in the early '50s. My father was a sort of engineer/inventor who ended up in California. When his business collapsed after the war, we went south in a trailer. My father always wanted to have a boat even though he was born in the Ozarks. In Miami, he bought this hulk of a 1905 schooner for $2000—it was quite a beautiful, elegant boat. It had carved mahogany staterooms, but it was in poor condition. He rebuilt it—I remember him sewing these canvas sails at night. We took it up to the Panhandle and anchored in a tiny town, Valparaiso, which was then all segregated—the schools—so my mother sent off for materials from this home correspondence school called the Calvert School in Maryland and it was a wonderful school and my brother and I read Greek myths and Huckleberry Finn and every month we sent papers to someone at the school. It's so your mom couldn't give you an A.

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