Meditations on the Actual and the Imagined: ‘Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life’

This unusual little book explores the idea of puppetry, beginning with a visit to a master puppet maker in a small studio in Rome, and ranging far and wide to include Balinese shadow puppets, Punch and Judy shows, literary puppets in the works of writers like Kafka, Dickens, Rilke and Philip Roth, and puppets as works of art in themselves, exemplified in classic pieces from Paul Klee and Joseph Cornell.

Over 11 short chapters, less than 200 pages, author Kenneth Gross uses these various approaches to the idea of puppetry to conduct a series of poetic meditations on “the closest thing we have in the ordinary human world to the transmigration of the soul from one body to another, or from one creature to another.”

“This book invites a double vision. The puppet and the idea of the puppet move together here, the actual and the imagined, or unknown, puppet, the visible and invisible puppet. I want to trace the sources of the theatrical fascination of puppets, their peculiar powers and limits onstage, but also to touch on broader questions about artistic making.”

An English professor at the University of Rochester, Gross has published several works that examine the relation between literature and visual art: “One thread that connects his writing and teaching is a fascination with what Samuel Johnson calls the force of poetry, ‘that force which calls new powers into being, which embodies sentiment, and animates matter.’”

It’s a fascinating study, and Gross’ contemplations are frequently poetic, rather than academic. On first read, this can be a little distracting (you often want him to just say what he means and to stop framing his thoughts as subtle or puzzling, densely constructed prose poems), but this format rewards re-reading. This is the sort of book you can return to and find inspiration and food for thought, as well as information about an uncanny subject.

At first, the idea of puppetry may seem old-fashioned, especially in the context of 3D/CGI everything, but many of Gross’ thoughts on the subject resonate strongly. For example: “What strikes me here is the need for a made thing to tell a story, to become a vehicle for a voice, an impulse of character — something very old, and very early. The thing acquires a life.”

Even though he’s contemplating “something old”, this doesn’t feel out of place in any discussion of the “uncanny valley” effect that so often arises with any new animated movie. Compare this theory, which posits “that when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers” (as described in wikipedia), with this statement from Gross’ prologue, “The Madness of Puppets”:

“The madness lies in the hidden movements of the hand, the curious impulse and skill by which a person’s hand can make itself into the animating impulse, the intelligence or soul, of an inanimate object — it is an extension of that more basic wonder by which we let this one part of our body become a separate, articulate whole, capable of surprising its owner with its movements, the stories it tells.”

Similarly, in a 2009 essay-review of a new translation of The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, author Tim Parks writes (in the New York Review of Books), “The question with a puppet is: Who will manipulate him? When the puppet turns out to have a stubborn and stupid will of his own, that question becomes: Whom will he allow himself to be manipulated by?”

These sinister questions of control also bring to mind two films that featured puppetry in extraordinary ways: Spike Jonze’s epic and surreal 1999 debut, Being John Malkovich, and Anders Rønnow Klarlund’s stunning 2004 fantasy, Strings. One of the central premises of Being John Malkovich was the idea of inhabiting another person’s body and manipulating that person as if the body is (in Gross’s words) “a made thing.” The world of Strings is one where every living thing is a marionette, and startlingly, is aware of its existence as a made thing being controlled by strings that lead skyward into darkness. As an early passage in Gross’ book states: “A wooden head opens up strange worlds.”

Ultimately, these meditations lead to a conclusion that is as poetic as what came before. Titled “Coda: Everything Else”, Gross seems to summarize all the notions and uses of puppetry that he has shown us and, like a puppeteer, grant them a strange form of life that is weirdly connected to ours: “To find this life in objects returns us to life, to the experience of life arriving from inside us and outside us, in all of its surprises, its energy of conflict.”

RATING 9 / 10