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.
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.
By the time we went back to San Diego, I had skipped two grades. I graduated from high school when I was 15 and went off to Berkeley, in the grand early ’60s. When I graduated at 19, I had a Wilson fellowship to be a medievalist, so I went to Toronto. I found Toronto and graduate school very oppressive and I couldn’t bear the heavy-duty scholarship and learning Old French and Old Norse and more Latin and more Old English and so I basically ran away to Hawaii.
You said you “swung from the vines.” A fabulous experience for 10 years. I was very involved in Pacific culture, and I went back to graduate school in Polynesian archaeology and spent a lot of time in New Zealand and Australia and wrote a book about Hawaii. Five people bought it.
Anyway, I finally wound up back on the mainland again. This was the 1980s. At that time, the Penguin “Writers From the Other Europe” series came out, and the stories of Bruno Schulz appeared in this country for the first time. I began reading very deeply in Eastern European fantastic literature—Schulz, the Russians, Kafka. I had a little scholarship from the Goethe Institute to go to Munich to brush up on my nonexistent German skills and while I was there with my newly pumped-up German I started doing some of these intermediate translations of Schulz fragments, just to get more people interested in Schulz back in America.
At the same time, I’d always had a deep love of ghost stories and horror stories. I had actually not read Lovecraft as a kid. I read him later, in the ’80s. As a consequence of doing these little Schulz translations, I got invited to Poland to give lectures at a couple of universities about his impact on America and so on. In the course of writing these lectures, I noticed that Schulz and Lovecraft have the same art-life arcs, from the 1890s to about 1940. I was trying to reconcile my two loves, you know: of popular, supernatural literature and film on the one hand and this very high-art European stuff on the other. I wrote these essays—the one on Schulz and Lovecraft and the one on the “American Fantastic.” Those were my steps in the direction of the book.
My only sadness about the book is that we never can stay very long in Capri’s Blue Grotto or the Ice Age diorama at the American Museum of Natural History or with Goethe and the puppet theater his grandmother gave him because you have so much to tell us and so many people to mention—Lars von Trier, Dan Aykroyd, the Earl of Shaftesbury—and so many linguistic and historical pathways to take us down that I felt I was being dragged by the hand, kicking and screaming. For me, also, each bit opened up an enormous range of historical connections and explanations and literary interpretations and all of this, and I guess what was really going on in my mind was that I was finally making a connection between my medieval and classical training and my modern interests. I was looking as a medievalist at these things and seeing where they came from in our culture and getting very excited about that and feeling that I needed to sort of tease out all these connections and this is like this and this is like this. Alas, the image that comes to mind is that I’ve done the literary equivalent of Moulin Rouge.
The “Can Can Can”! I always tell people to read the book one essay at a time, sort of savor the associations. It’s like a pound of halvah.
I didn’t move back to Berkeley until ’89. By that time, I was past 40. I began to feel all my scholarly juices coming back and I started going to every lecture at Berkeley there was. Literary criticism had changed a lot since 1966 so it was sort of a whole reduction process, and I started teaching a little bit again. So that framework of Berkeley and then Germany and Eastern Europe were sort of my guideposts. Basically, I think of the book as the Ph.D. thesis that I never wrote.
You said earlier that you’re “a poster girl for being on the outside” and you have an editor at Harvard who “does not give a damn even if you didn’t graduate from high school.” That was a slight exaggeration on my part. Lindsay Waters is my editor. I think he’s a very unusual editor because he’s always on the lookout for unconventional projects. And he truly looks everywhere for them, not just at fully tenured faculty from Ivy League schools. [Greil Marcus’s] Lipstick Traces was a Harvard book. It’s that kind of thing.
As Victoria continues talking, I turn my attention to the wooden men in their tuxedos. I realize that I have been so busy listening to her speak about the divinization of the computer and polar romance novels and Lovecraft’s syphilitic father and Papua New Guineans who rioted in the 1970s because they thought the dress mannequins in their first department store were the souls of someone’s ancestors being desecrated that I had never asked her directly: What is the secret life of puppets?
So, what is the secret life of puppets? They are our own secret life that we know so little about, our own human secret life that we displaced in our machines. It is our own magic coming back at us that we don’t recognize and it’s our own souls and . . .
Of course! Just then, the one who looks like Harry James lifts up his little trombone and I hear him do a nice rendition of “You made me love you, I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t . . . ”