Review of The Secret Life of Puppets

Victoria Nelson, The Secret Life of Puppets,
(Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001) cloth, 350 pp.

Reviewed by Arthur Versluis

Occasionally books come in for review at Esoterica that have largely, it would seem, escaped wider public or scholarly attention, even though they are in fact richly deserving of it. One such book is Victoria Nelson's The Secret Life of Puppets. From the title, one would hardly suppose the subject to be Western esotericism, and indeed, Nelson doesn't even employ that term in the book itself. From what I can tell, Nelson is an independent American scholar writing about the hidden intersections between Western esotericism and contemporary society—but without drawing on European scholarship in the field. As it turns out, because her subject matter is so unusual, this absence of familiar scholarly reference points is more than made up for by her revealing an exceptional array of unexpected connections. The Secret Life of Puppets is an important book that I very strongly recommend both for the general reader and for specialists in the history of esotericism.

Nelson's argument is rich and complex, and begins with her thesis that contemporary Western society, particularly American society, is undergoing a paradigm shift to re-include esoteric elements that have been excluded for several centuries. She holds that "in the current Aristotelian age the transcendental has been forced underground, where it has found a distorted outlet outside the recognized boundaries of religious expression" (viii). Our "repressed religious impulses," in a secular society, can be found in "fantastic novels and films." Hence, she writes, "we can locate our unacnowledged belief in the immortal soul by looking at the ways that human simulacra—puppets, cyborgs and robots—carry on their role as direct descendents of graven images in contemporary scient fiction stories and films" (viii). Nelson includes a lengthy discussion of American horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, and she includes considerable analysis of such films as the Alien series, and probably the greatest science fiction film of the late twentieth century, Dark City.

The last chapter of the book, entitled "The Door in the Sky," makes her case most explicitly. She argues that contemporary society both American and European is moving away from Aristotelian rationalism and back toward Platonism. Nelson writes that "The new sensibility does not threaten a regression from rationality to superstition; rather, it allows for expansion beyond the one-sided worldview that scientism has provided us over the last three hundred years" (288). This shift in sensibility, Nelson holds, offers nothing less than "the exciting moment of opening up" "that is ushering us into a new Renaissance—not so much a technological one (our overvaluing of technology, like our exalted notions of materialist progress, is part of the perversion and displacement of the religious impulse) as one of expanded intellectual and artistic possibilities." It is, she concludes, "precisely . . . when we become completely conscious of the boundaries of the worldview we have comfortably inhabited for several centuries that is also, inevitably, the moment we abandon it" (290).

What makes Nelson's book so remarkable is its range of reference, its breadth of argument, and her willingness to make a daring speculative leap. She makes reference in this book not only to all the usual major literary figures of the twentieth century, but also with equal ease to popular entertainment like the horror film genre or the novels of Philip K. Dick—and connects them with figures like Giordano Bruno and arcane traditions like alchemy and Kabbalah. I did at times wish that she had been a little more familiar with European scholarship concerning the esoteric traditions to which she referred, but Nelson nonetheless makes a convincing and provocative case that draws on and helps explain contemporary popular entertainment in an historically informed light. I should note that the layout of this book, with its peculiarly situated page numbers and odd citation system at first seems attractive and futuristic, but later becomes slightly annoying when one tries to find sources. Still, these are minor quibbles, and this is an important book that I urge readers of Esoterica to look into.