Kermit on the couch

Puppets represent repressed spiritual instincts in a materialist age

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. Similarly, the burgeoning of New Age spiritualism and unorthodox beliefs like Wiccanism indicates the resiliency of the antimaterialist worldview.

Nelson admits that many of these beliefs can be disturbing, not only to rationalists, but also to the religiously orthodox. Nonetheless, she argues that the new credulity is a healthy trend: not a regression into a new Dark Age of fundamentalism and superstition, but an opening up of spiritual and visionary possibilities.

What makes her thesis radical is her insistence that this mode of perception should not be confined to the arts and her naïve supposition that the two ways of seeing are equally valid and not in conflict with each other.

It is certainly ironic that, at the very moment in history when the eminent Mexican writer Octavio Paz has blamed some of his country's historic problems on the fact that it did not have the benefits of the Reformation and the noted scholar Bernard Lewis is lamenting the lack of such a movement in Islam, Nelson should be bemoaning the intellectual shift brought about by the Protestant Reformation.

Her contention that what she's urging is not a regression into the Dark Ages, but a restoration of a harmonious balance between the spiritual and the material is belied by at least one example she offers as an instance of the healthy trend:

"When the first department store in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, opened with dress mannequins on public display in the 1970s, citizens rioted because they believed the souls of someone's ancestors were being desecrated. Instead of labeling this reaction as ridiculous superstition ... or extending rote tolerance toward 'indigenous spirituality,' is there a way we might actually try to inhabit this venerable viewpoint, to experience what it feels like from the inside?"

To which, one can only say, Why on earth would one want to be part of a rioting crowd that mistook a bunch of dummies for their deceased relatives? One would have to be crazy - oops - make that "in touch with the Delphic oracle."

• Merle Rubin reviews books regularly for the Monitor and The Wall Street Journal.

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