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Essays On Dolls - Heinrich von Kleist, Charles Baudelaire, Rainer Maria Rilke (1994)

This slim volume, in Penguin's Syrens series, collects three essays: von Kleist's On the Marionette Theatre (1810), Baudelaire's The Philosophy of Toys (1853), and Rilke's Dolls: On the wax dolls of Lotte Pritzel (1913/14). It's a remarkable collection, demonstrating the casual yet weighty essay style which in our age has become the realm of the polemicist alone.

von Kleist's conversational, but dense, essay, concerns a master dancer's discussion of marionettes, dolls which are attached to those who manipulate them only by one string placed at the centre of gravity. The joy of these dolls, says the dancer, is that they are unselfconscious, free from affectation, and weightless. Grace (and here we see a confluence of divine grace, and gracefulness), argues Kleist, exists in opposition to thought. In the human form, it can only be reconciled in the inanimate (the soulless), or the divine (the infinite soul).

Baudelaire takes us from a childhood experience in a rich woman's fantasyland of toys, to a discussion of the way in which playing with toys is the first expression of abstraction and imagination (though Baudelaire excludes from this those children who 'merely' recreate adult situations - and here there is a certain misogyny in evidence in his scorn for female children playing at childish women - and also excludes 'men-children' who collect, rather than play with, their toys - a problematic argument, to my mind, since this might be read as a symptom either of anxiety or of possessiveness, but not, certainly, as a lack of creativity). But the ultimate desire of a child is to see the soul of a toy, and for this reason, at some time or another, the child breaks the toy. Just as playing marks the beginning of abstraction and imagination, so the failure to find the soul gives the first sensation of stupor and melancholy. And so, we might conclude, imagination and creativity are inextricably linked with disappointment and melancholy...

Rilke takes us to darker places yet. He begins with an examination of the dolls, made for artistic exhibition to adults, of Lotte Pritzel - these, according to Idris Parry, the editor and translator, were elongated, emaciated figures dressed in weird gauzy costumes suggestive of dance, decadence, and a Beardsley-esque atmosphere of eroticism and melancholy.



This is Rilke's introduction to his argument on the way in which dolls, in contrast to other everyday objects which gain by their integration into human life, are 'gruesome foreign bodies' on which our affection is entirely squandered, dense repositories of forgetfulness, so devoid of imagination that, at an age in which it was impossible to truly interact with other humans but only to lose ourselves in them, they can be used to establish distance between the self and the external world, as they become repositories for split or opposing parts of that self as it expands. But we rage at these creatures, because they do not need us, and we have wasted our affection on them (and the doll's lack of response gives us the lovely thought that silence confers considerable importance in a world where both destiny and God 'have become famous mainly by not speaking to us'). The doll helps the child become used to things; but it also inspires the first bitterness of wasted tenderness. Of all toys, the doll is soulless, or rather the self is uncertain whether the doll's soul resides in the self or in the doll; dolls have a quality of not being present. They are thus kept in existence only by a monumental mental effort combining anxiety and magnanimity, but we can never entirely detach ourselves from this experience of the uncertainty of the other, our desire to create them, our rage at the fact that they will never return what we gave in the spirit of expectations with which we gave it. And these adult dolls of Pritzel's? They are are dolls who have 'entered into all the unrealities of their own lives', have become an unnerving symbol only of the permanent sensuality of the doll, 'into which nothing flows and from which nothing escapes'.

These reflections on creation in our own image essentially concern the constructed nature of the self and the sensual, the physical, the material and its relation to the soul or the spirit. They inform our understanding not only of their subject but of works from Coppelia to Hans Bellmer's Doll, and the perennial fear of dolls and mannequins expressed in films from House of Wax to Child's Play. It's no coincidence that that most of the earliest examples of works of creativity are human forms, or that man made god make man in his own image...


x-posted to againstnature, strange_tears, talkbooks
Tags: books
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