Rilke’s Disappointing Dolls

Rilke’s Disappointing Dolls

Posted on May 22nd, 2008 by Marmalade : Gaia Child Marmalade
The Secret Life of Puppets
By Victoria Nelson
Pages 69-70

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.

Rilke continues:

    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.

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Nicole : wakingdreamer

38 minutes later

Nicole said

yes, indeed, Rilke always aspired toward that true integration. you can see it as well when he speaks of love, for example in the passage I quoted in the God Pod discussion What is Love? excellent blog. I’m really enjoying this Rilke series, learning a lot

Marmalade : Gaia Child

about 1 hour later

Marmalade said

I posted these blogs about Rilke for 4 reasons.
1) I thought you might enjoy them.
2) It might start some nice discussion.
3) The 2 books I quoted from are ones I’ve been looking at recently and this gives me an opportunity to think about them.
4) Its a non-poetic way of looking at poetry.  🙂

I was noticing how different a view Rilke’s ideas of the doll are from The Velveteen Rabbit.  No amount of human love(no matter how innocent and pure) is going to animate Rilke’s dolls into animate Reality.  The puppet, on the other hand, draws forth the animating power beyond the human(child or otherwise), the Angel.  The doll can’t be ensouled, but the puppet can be moved by the angelic spirit.  The puppet can be animated because that which animates is transcendent to it.

Nicole : wakingdreamer

about 6 hours later

Nicole said

yes, Ben! oh, how do you see so clearly? i very deeply admire your keen mind and insight.

and thanks that you were at least partly motivated by my enjoyment. that is definitely full reality!