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
"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
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
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
"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. …