Kermit on the Couch ; Puppets Represent Repressed Spiritual Instincts in a Materialist Age

Article excerpt

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.

Suffice it to say, Nelson is not interested here in what might be called normative religions, but in the peculiar syncretic amalgams of magic, superstition, fantasy, cybernetic games, and urban folklore, which, she believes, reflect the way that many people now think.

"Whereas religion up to the Renaissance provided the content for most high visual art and literature," she declares, "art and entertainment in our secular era have provided both the content for new religions and the moral framework for those who practice no religion at all."

Once upon a time, Nelson contends, there were two ways of looking at the world: Aristotelian and Platonic. Aristotelians inclined towards rationalism, materialism, and sensory observation, a viewpoint that gradually came to predominate, thanks to Francis Bacon, the scientific method, the Protestant Reformation, and the Enlightenment.

Platonists, in contrast, (including both Greco-Roman pagans and many Christians) saw the sensory world as a kind of microcosm or corresponding copy of a supernatural realm. This way of thinking can be found in the worship of icons, the practices of alchemy, astrology, and divination, and in gnostic, cabalistic, and Neoplatonic lore. Nelson also finds it in the phenomenon of puppets: wooden replicas of human beings that seem to have a life of their own.

When the rationalist-materialist worldview became the dominant one, the Gnostic-spiritualist mode went underground, so to speak, popping up in grotesque and demonic forms, like witches, ghosts, golems, and monsters, not to mention puppets. Thus, something of the Gnostic worldview was permitted to live on in the realm of the arts and literature.

"Whereas literary critics aestheticized the transcendental," declares Nelson, "psychologists subjectivized (and often pathologized) it." And indeed, as Nelson would have us see it, the ancient gods and oracles also live on in the visions and voices experienced by psychotics: rather a diminished form of existence.

Thus, she argues, the popularity of the supposedly "marginal" genres of horror and science fiction and the world of pulp comics, with their grotesque monsters and superhuman heroes, all testify to the vigorous survival of the Gnostic mode of perception. …