I just finished the book The Melancholy Android by Eric G. Wilson. I really enjoyed it. It covers much of the same material as another book I’ve read: The Secret Life of Puppets by Victoria Nelson. I want to blog about those books later on, but thinking about some of the ideas from those books reminds me of the story of The Velveteen Rabbit. I never read that story as a child, but its become a favorite of mine since I read it a few years ago.
What does it mean to be real, to be alive, to be human?
The Velveteen Rabbit
by Margery Williams Bianco
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day, when they were lying side by
side near the nursery fender, before Nana came to tidy the room. “Does
it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that
happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just
to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When
you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit
“It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It
takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who
break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.
Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved
off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very
shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are
Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
This resonates with what I was saying in my comments in my blog post Personal Public Problems. I was speaking about Bob Arctor in A Scanner Darkly. Philip K. Dick was interested in what is reality, but this relates to what it means to be real. Maybe Arctor is like the Velveteen Rabbit. Isn’t there a hope in suffering? Isn’t that what the Christian tradition teaches? To be real is in some sense to be saved. What we’re saved from isn’t suffering per se, but the illusions and lies that keep us from seeing suffering clearly. Our suffering can’t be avoided… it must be faced. We must let ourselves be transformed by fire.
“I am the nursery magic Fairy,” she said. “I take care of all the
playthings that the children have loved. When they are old and worn
out and the children don’t need them any more, then I come and take
them away with me and turn them into Real.”
“Wasn’t I Real before?” asked the little Rabbit.
“You were Real to the Boy,” the Fairy said, “because he loved you. Now
you shall be Real to every one.”
Human love may be where it starts, but that only awakens in us the awareness of a greater possibility, a greater Love. To be Real in the deepest sense is to find that sense of Realness within ourselves… not dependent on specific relationships. And this brings up the question of what does it mean to be autonomous, to be free? The Velveteen Rabbit is saved by the fairy and goes to live with the wild rabbits. He is no longer dependent on the boy. What the rabbit does now is up to him. His Real life is only beginning.
I love the Velveteen Rabbit and the Little Prince. There are so many profound truths.
Thank you for your beautiful blogs, dear friend.
I appreciate your appreciation. I don’t know the Little Prince story very well, but I did see a nice adaptation of it a while back. Its a strange story.
I was thinking of various stories that are related. The Velveteen Rabbit has a similar motif to Pinocchio, and both ot those stories seemed to be direct influences of the movie A.I. – Artificial Intelligence. All three of these involve non-human beings desiring to be made real and also each of them has its fairy. The fairy in Pinocchio and in AI is blue. And, interestingly, the flowers are blue in A Scanner Darkly, but I have no idea if Philip K. Dick meant that connection. Some info about PKD’s blue flowers:
“Philip K. Dick also gives the name of the species of the flower, which helps to show the relevant meaning of the story and the nature of both the drug and the character’s struggle. The name is Mors ontologica, which translates as “ontological death”, that is “death of being”, or more loosely “the being of death itself”.”
So, the blue flowers are a symbol of death which would seem to make them opposite to the blue fairy. But what kind of death are the blue flowers symbolic of?
Are the blue flowers symbolic of “the being of death itself”… the demiurge? That could make sense… what seems like life in this world would be death from the Gnositc perspective. The blue fairy and the demiurge are both demi-god creators of life.
Or, instead, are the blue flowers symbolic of “death of being”? Bob Arctor loses himself, a death of self. This is the transformation that Gnostics sought. Even in Christianity, Jesus death is the precursor to life redeemed. Also, the Velveteen Rabbit had to face the potential of death before he gains living form.
“Time becomes our chance for action, though action is no guard against regret or failure. Twice a person in authority tells Bob Arctor about blue flowers in the spring. First the psychologist, then Donna, both in the context of romance, both specific to size and time of year. Spring, romance, action. Love buries him.”
We must die to the limits of human love. This what the Velveteen Rabbit did. Plus, this aspect of romance fits into what I said earlier about betrayal. For certain, Donna’s betrayal couldn’t be more deeply cutting. Donna invites Arctor to someday go with her to the mountains. And he does make it to the mountains, but without her. While there, he discovers the blue flowers in bloom.
living is always about dying. we are always dying to parts, being born, and ultimately dying for the last time in this life, perhaps to repeat the whole cycle again (i remain agnostic about reincarnation as i have not “been there” so don’t feel i can really know 🙂 )
the little prince also died at the end of the book, because it is the only way he can return to his home planet. he invites a snake to bite him, again very archetypal, eh?
yes, i agree that the blue flowers are about death, in fact at every level, which is why they are ontological.
death of the self, death of the ability to maintain a healthy connection to reality, death of relationships with other people, death of being able to work or do anything but stay addicted, death of the mind, and finally, death, leaving the world in a sigh of relief.
one of the things we haven’t talked about which is most intriguing about this movie is the “scramble suits”, which make it easy for Donna to deceive Arctor. What are our “scramble suits” but our personae, behind which we look at the world to see how it is responding to the rapidly changing masks we are flashing in front of our true selves to distract it from who we really are.
I’ve been meaning to respond to this last comment of yours. The scramble suits are intriguing. The plot of the movie wouldn’t have been possible without them. I’ve never thought too much about this aspect of the story, but what you say makes sense to me.
We hide behind our personae and its through this that we deceive others. But its also how we deceive ourselves, pretending to be something we’re not. The scramble suits scramble how the characters are perceived by others, and in combination with the drug it scrambles Bob’s perception of himself. He puts on the suit and he becomes ‘Fred’. The vague blur that he is when wearing the scramble suit is a symbol for what he becomes.
Part of him knows that he is sacrificing himself. Here is some of a monologue of Bob as he is going down the hall to take off his scramble suit:
“Crazy job they gave me. But if I wasn’t doing it, someone else would be. And they might get it wrong.” … “Better it be me, despite the disadvantages.”
This scene starts with his being Fred and follows him as he transitions into Bob The whole end of the movie is about these two sides of him merging back together. As he walks home, the monologue shifts into a commentary about perception and what the scanner sees. The closer he comes to discovering the truth, the further away the truth seems. And when Donna in her scramble suit finally tells him that he is Bob, his world utterly collapses.
There are several themes that are similar in A Scanner Darkly and The Velveteen Rabbit: remembering and forgetting; being seen, known and being forgotten; seeing clearly and knowing reality; love and betrayal; loss, suffering, and becoming real.
I’m reminded of how the Rabbit thought the mechanical toys were more real because he didn’t know that there was such a thing as real rabbits. His life with the boy in the house is like Plato’s cave. Even when he goes outside and sees real rabbits, he didn’t see them as anything other than toys because that is all he had known. It was only when he had been abandoned by the boy, put out to be burned, that he became really real and understood what reality was.
In becoming real, he was seen and aknowledged by the real rabbits. This is something that Bob Arctor never received from anyone. He couldn’t rely on anyone else, but had to see and aknowledge his own reality.
thanks for responding, Ben, i did want to talk about scramble suits with you, and i really agree with your answer. you have helped me understand and have deep compassion for Bob (and PKD and all his friends).
your last paragraph is sad, it makes me think of people i know who are broken and fragmented like Bob. even when i try to give them the “yes” for their lives, they cannot receive it. as you say, they have to see and acknowledge their own reality. and instead they beat themselves up…
What a great blog…thanks for linking me to it and writing about it! What a wonder! I did not see it in April, but we may not have been friends then…not sure…thanks so much fr allowing me the chance to read it!
Of all my blogs, this is one of my favorites. The discussion in the comments is connected with the discussion in a few other blogs around the same time. Nicole and I were having an in-depth conversation about Philip K. Dick.
I don’t remember when we became friends, but it seems like it might’ve been after this blog.
I was just speaking with Nicole about a movie I like immensely: The Fountain. I think that movie relates to the subject being discussed here. The Fountain is about suffering, death, and transformation. But its a bit different in that it has a heavier focus on the value of relationship. And The Fountain reminds me of another movie about an obsessed scientist and his wife: Altered States.
I just was thinking of how all the narratives that I mentioned are from a male point of view. The Velveteen Rabbit was written by a woman, but the rabbit itself was male. Do you know of any other good stories about deep transformation from a woman’s perspective?
The author of The Velveteen Rabbit reminds me of an interview I heard recently with Ursula K. Le Guin that was on the extras of the dvd of The Lathe of Heaven. She was saying how for most of her career she had written from the perspective of male characters, and she had never thought about it. She eventually started writing from a female perspective and was then considered a feminist. Isn’t that funny? 🙂 Another related element is that I’ve read that Le Guin and Philip K. Dick were friends and that The Lathe of Heaven was intended as an homage.
funny, seems like we have been friends much longer eh? but it was about then, indeed.
I really enjoyed our talks about PKD. I learned a lot.
Altered States…. that sounds familiar. Do you recommend it too?
Other good stories about deep transformation from a woman’s perspective? Hmmm…. that’s a very good question. Nothing jumps to mind, so I’d have to do a little looking around.
But you did mention K Le Guin, and that’s funny, what you say about her… she has a great sense of humour… She is a good example of what you were asking. I found her books about Ged and EarthSea to be very much about personal transformation, sometimes literally 🙂 as Ged would use his powers to shape change, but much more importantly on an inner level..And one of them is even about a girl…
Altered States is a good movie, but a bit strange. Like what you said about Ged and Earthsea, its partly about literal transformation. Its loosely based on the life of John C. Lilly who was a very interesting scientist and thinker who wrote several nonfiction books. Lilly did scientific research about the intelligence and communication of dolphins and he was the inventor of the isolation/flotation tank. He was a scientist who believed in firsthand experience and did quite a bit of drug experimentation.
I’ve never read much of Le Guin. I read a collection of her short stories, but I don’t remember ever having read one of her novels. There was one story in that collection that I found particularly amusing. It was titled “Schrodinger’s Cat”.
haven’t read that one but i’m sure it’s delightful!
Lilly, yes, I have heard a little about him but don’t know much.
i’m fascinated by dolphins, in fact, my only ring is two dolphins diving… 🙂