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Divining the plaything. The relevance of puppets and dolls in a contemporary, adult culture

Studienarbeit 2016 20 Seiten

Kunst - Allgemeines, Kunsttheorie


This text aims to explore the longstanding relevancy of puppets and dolls and considering the idea that the humanoid figurine could present itself as a vessel for a soul. The ‘soul’ is an ambiguous and elusive topic which remains as slippery and hard to pin down as ever; nevertheless, this flexibility allows for one’s perception of the world to shape what one may consider a soul to be.

“We cannot prove a priori the immateriality of the soul, but rather only so much: that all properties and actions of the soul cannot be cognized from materiality” (Bishop, 2000, p.262)

By suggesting that a soul is simply the summary of its actions, Bishop follows the idea that the soul cannot be physically added or removed through literal means; therefore, it may be considered possible that the soul can exist within an object that is animated through the energy and thoughts of a human.

Aristotle introduced his idea of the soul as something which needs a vessel, something that cannot exist without a body; “And for this reason those have the right conception who believe that the soul does not exist without a body and yet is not itself a kind of body. For it is not a body, but something which belongs to a body, and for this reason exists in a body, and in a body of such and such a kind.” (Aristotle, 1993, p. 13) this idea applies to the beliefs of animism in religion, suggesting that it is possible for a soul to be contained within any kind of body - anything which represents a body, such as the body of a plant, or, more poignantly, the body of a puppet or doll. It comes up repeatedly that the soul seems to hold its own potency that is not just another part of the body as a liver or heart would be; it is an essence, whereas the body is a physical object with the capability of literal, growth and movement.

The self was defined by Descartes as something different from the vessel it is contained in; according to his thesis now referred to as "mind-body dualism”, the self can exist without the requirement for a body, being a separate and mobile entity. “[O]n the one hand I have a clear and distinct idea of myself, in so far as I am simply a thinking, non-extended thing [that is, a mind], and on the other hand I have a distinct idea of body, in so far as this is simply an extended, non-thinking thing. And accordingly, it is certain that I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it ” (Skirry, 1995) By embracing this approach, the wide field of humanoid jointed figurines is open to be explored in such a manner that these humanoids could, in fact, have souls of their own - or souls of others placed upon them. This essay will explore possibilities surrounding this notion; when a puppet or doll is animated by an actor, their life essence travels through their points of contact and into the body of the doll itself. It could absolutely be considered that at this moment, the doll has a soul. However, following Bishop’s thoughts on the subject as mentioned in the first paragraph of this introduction, the Pagan approach to spirituality is logical: the soul is a summary of its actions, and is an ethereal and non-solid opus that could move between vessels, matching the ‘recyclable’ ethos - the soul, after inhabiting a living creature, may be reincarnated into a plant, tree or other physical being. The same soul may experience many realities in its journey of self-reflection and discovery.

Judaism also uses the concept of mobility of the soul in the traditional religious media of the Golem, a stone idol which becomes animated under the word of its owner; “the golem is heavy because of its unnatural soul. Only when it doesn’t have a soul is it light... [One wonders] At what point the soul of the golem re-entered its body, or if possibly there could be more than one lost soul embodied in all that dust, weighing it down so heavily” (Morris, 2007: 19). The Golem is an entity which, according to this quote, gains its physical weight from possessing a soul; supporting the concept of the soul having transience. Golems serve to protect without the fragility of a human body - the impermeably strong body of stone is set out to protect the mortal, physically weak humans; obvious evidence of a fear of injury and demise.

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Figure 1: A small traditional Jewish golem.

It is a basic instinct to fear bodily damage and, ultimately, death; all animals have a concern with mortality and a drive to breed in order to combat the end of a species - the human fear of mortality is a potentially more complex example of this. By creating a figure representative of a character that can be animated over generations, mortality is escaped. Even when the original puppeteer ceases to exist, their puppet character will live on forever - immortality is favourable and exciting - it leaves a mark on the world which cannot be achieved by a single, finite life form.

In order to explore conceptual ideas behind the humanoid figurine, we must first define what characteristics these figurines often possess. When looking into the puppet, it is considered to be “A movable model of a person or animal that is typically moved either by strings controlled from above or by a hand inside it. ” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2008); the most important part to take from this definition outside of the fact that the figurine is a model of a living thing, is that it has moving parts; allowing the puppeteer to manipulate it in a way that creates a more animated persona. The definition of the word ‘doll’ is rather similar; “A small model of a human figure, typically one of a baby or girl, used as a child’s toy. ” (Oxford English Dictionary, 2008) this more specific definition is potentially somewhat archaic; modern use of dolls has spread above and beyond ‘a baby or girl, used as a child’s toy’ into the realms of representations for all types of beings, humanoid or otherwise, and into the hands of adults for collection, decoration, nostalgia and of course many types of play, from social to sexual.

For the purpose of this discussion, the importance of distinguishing between the puppet and the doll is not hugely significant; whilst the differences will definitely be acknowledged and discussed, the main focus is pointed towards the energies and intentions of playing with a figurine, much less who they are doing it for. The terminal difference between the two is the presence of an invited onlooker;

“A puppet is an inanimate figure that is made to move by human effort before an audience. It is the sum of these qualities that uniquely defines the puppet. Nothing else quite satisfies the definition... It is definitely not a doll. When somebody plays with a doll, it involves an intimate action which never extends past the two of them. The player supplies the life for the both of them.” (Baird, 1965, p.3)

Baird’s discussion focuses on the importance of the ‘player’ as the life force which drives the activity of both the doll and the puppet. However, the intentions which separate the two are unique; the player of the doll is entirely selfish in their actions, creating an intimate process of imagination beneficial only to the self. Contrastingly, the puppeteer animates the puppet for the enjoyment of the audience - perhaps the audience enjoys the performance even more than the puppeteer enjoys creating it. Whilst the doll is recreational only for the player, the puppet creates a world of its own that shifts attention away from the puppeteer and draws the audience into its liveliness, thoughts, concerns - and survival.

Bunraku is a fantastic example of the relationship of liveliness between player and puppet because of how it is considered more of an art form than a show. It is a traditional type of Japanese puppetry in which puppets almost the size of a human are operated on a platform at the waist height of the performers, who typically operate three to each puppet; feet, body/arms and head.

“Bunraku practices neither the occultation nor emphatic manifestation of its springs; it rids the actor’s animation of all sacral staleness and abolishes the metaphysical connection the west cannot keep from making between the soul and the body, cause and effect, motor and machine, agent and actor, destiny and man, God and creature. If the manipulator is not hidden, why - how? - do you want to make him a god? In Bunraku, the puppet is not controlled by strings. No more strings, then no more metaphors... man is no longer a puppet in the hands of divinity.” (Schechter, 2013, p.52)

Bunraku doesn’t place the player above the puppet as in traditional western marionette shows, because Japanese religion doesn’t revolve around the concept of a God creating and ruling over all from the skies; instead of the hidden puppeteer behind the strings, up in the eaves of the theatre and controlling the puppet from their distant nest, Bunraku places the player at the feet of the puppet they animate; the puppet’s head sits level or above the heads of its controllers - the character is encouraged to become more than the sum of its parts; more than the plaything of some spirit in the sky, the character is risen up as a powerful, immortal entity; thrown down in the face of tragedy and built up again with as much strength and liveliness as before.

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Figure 2: Bunraku lovers in a tradional play.

“It is an art which plays on the importance of the puppeteer’s understanding of the essence and transience of the soul; “Fragility, discretion, sumptuousness, unparalleled nuance, the abandonment of all vulgarity, the melodic phrasing of gestures - in short, the very qualities ancient theology accorded to heavenly bodies... this is how it converts the body-fetish into a body worthy of love, how it rejects the animate/inanimate antimony and banishes the concept hidden by all animation, which is, quite simply, the ‘souľ.” (Francis, 2012: 135)



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University for the Creative Arts
Puppetry puppets puppet doll toy children freud theatre film puppeteer soul philosophy hans bellmer bellmer aristotle descartes pagan golem judaism fear survival play playing plays baird bunraku japan ando gross francis schaffer fetish currell mask masks taylor




Titel: Divining the plaything. The relevance of puppets and dolls in a contemporary, adult culture