By Victoria Nelson
In the essay “Doll: On the Wax Dolls of Lote Pritzel” (1913-14), inspired by an exhibit of life-size adult dolls he had seen in Munich as well as the Kleist esay, Rainer Maria Rilke confronts the frustrating paradox of graven images that will not come to life. Noting as a casual given that most inanimate objects “eagerly” absorb human tenderness (“a violin’s devotion, the good-natured eagerness of horn-rimmed spectacles”), he laments the fact that the childhood fusion with the self-object doll is a barren union that promises everything and delivers nothing. “You doll-soul,” he exclaims in this monologue addressed to an idol that does not reply, “not made by god, you soul, begged as a whim by some impetuous elf, you thing-soul exhaled laboriously by an idol and kept in being by us all.” As children, he says, we invent a soul for the doll, but ultimately the doll makes the child feel cheated, “unmasked as the gruesome foreign body on which we squandered our purest affection.’ By the end of cihildhood “we could not make it into a thing or person, and in such moments it became a stranger to us,’ and so the doll-soul and its possibilities die for good. Rilke suggests that this kind of infantile wish-animism is doomed to wither in the object once it has died within us.
The same is not true of the puppet, however. Rilke expresses his hope that this simulacrum will prove to be a potential soul vessel in the fourth Duino elegy, where he builds explicitly on the paradoxes Kleist set forth in “On the Marionette Theater”:
when I am in the mood
to wait before the puppet stage, no,
to watch it so intensely that, in order
finally to compensate for my watching, as puppeteer
an angel must come to set the puppets in motion
Or, as Harold Segel has elegantly paraphrased this passage: “Once the self is overcome, one stands before the possibility of a heretofore unrealizable interaction of the material world, represented by the puppet figure, and the transcendent world, represented by the figure of an angel… the path to harmonize the world.” The puppet-angel conjunction is in fact Rilke’s solution to the mute and fruitless idolatry of childhood, a state of innocence to which, like the Garden of Eden, we cannot return.
Angel and puppet. Now we will have a play.
Now will there come together what we always
Divide because of our presence…
Now will the angel perform over us.
To achieve the loss of ego necessary to experience the true unio mystica, the conjunction of the visible and invisible worlds, he says, we must do precisely as Kleist’s Mr. C. suggests — bite the apple again and re-lose our innocence. For Rilke, however, this loss of ego may represent not, as Louis Sass argues about Kleist, the subject-object fusion that is “an obliteration of all individuating self-consciousness,’ but rather a more sophisticated state of integration, “a higher self-consciousness that is, at the same time, a higher self-fogetfulness,” the true Paradise on earth.