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The Secret Life of Puppets Paperback – October 8, 2003

3.8 out of 5 stars 12 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

This unusual work examines the roles of art and religion in relationship to each other from both historical and contemporary perspectives. Until the Renaissance, art was visibly influenced by religion. Yet in modern eras, states Nelson (On Writer's Block), the roles have been reversed, with art, entertainment, and literature responding to a universal human need for religious meaning and even influencing New Age and other spiritual approaches. Nelson studies many expansive facets of such provocative topics as the grotto as representative of the underworld; puppets and dolls in art and literature and their deeper contexts (e.g., as reflected in the writings of Rainer Maria Rilke and E.T.A. Hoffmann, among others); the macabre works of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe and their subliminal reach into repressed religious impulses; and the symbolism of expressionistic film genres and sf. She draws upon varied examples and sets her findings against frameworks of scientific, artistic, and philosophical thought. This book will yield rewards to serious readers and is most suited to scholarly and academic collections. Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ
Copyright 2001 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


Nelson has written an eloquent, exciting, memorable, important book. It is alive and disturbingly truthful. (Harold Bloom, author of The Western Canon and Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human)

A wonderful, unlikely, necessary book which links high and low and pop culture, the sacred and the profane, into a magnificent webwork of pattern and gnosis--it is erudite, irreverent, and profound. Just read it. (Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods)

The Secret Life of Puppets is one of the most important and inspiring books I've read in many years. Ranging widely in the imagination of Western culture, it shows wisely how the human soul went into eclipse, where it remained hidden, and how it might return. The language is fresh, the ideas original. Each page has at least one summary sentence, beautifully compact, that offers a way out of the scientism and displaced notions of transcendence that have chased the life out of modern experience. Drawing on a largely neglected tradition of Neoplatonic and magical thought, it opens up key themes of religion and literature that lie hidden in popular culture and high art. (Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul and The Soul's Religion)

Much more than intellectual history and literary criticism, Victoria Nelson's The Secret Life of Puppets is a provocative, important and exciting thesis about why organized Western religion is no longer the residence of religion. In a convincing series of essays, Nelson demonstrates how the sacred and our yearning for the transcendent has now reappeared in art, film and all manner of simulacra--yes, and even in puppets. This is required reading for any serious student or teacher of religion. (Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, author of God Was In This Place and I, I Did Not Know, Invisible Lines of Connection and other books.)

This is a book of powerful psychic allure: it consistently engages and challenges; one is pushed into new intellectual spheres by its very oddity and force. It is also spectacularly well-written on a sentence-by-sentence level. Nelson is a prose stylist of sometimes lyric and touching penetration. (Terry Castle, author of The Female Thermometer and The Apparitional Lesbian.)

Nelson plots an illuminating journey through a carnival funhouse...Unlike many similar, wide-ranging culture studies, Nelson's book arrives with no agenda, blaming no one; instead, she offers a learned, exciting ride through a phantasmagoric landscape filled with dark mysteries. (Publishers Weekly 2001-12-02)

From Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, A. I., and X-Files, to the genre grotesqueries of Child's Play and The Puppet Master, so much of our popular storytelling concerns forces and phenomena our culture firmly insists aren't real and cannot exist...In a dizzying and fascinating alternate history scored with subterranean connections, Nelson presents alchemists, Platonists, Gnostics and magi in their own terms and contexts...In this rich work of erudite charms, Nelson convincingly argues that the cultural pendulum is swinging back to the platonic side. But because our rigid scientific materialism doesn't allow us to take any of this seriously, we are left with mostly unconscious expressions that overemphasize the sensational and horrific dark side, with a little sentimental New Age nod to the latent good. (William S. Kowinski San Francisco Chronicle 2002-01-26)

In the opening chapter, Victoria Nelson issues a caveat that deliberately echoes the warnings that preface tales of horror. Do not expect to emerge unchanged. To read this book is akin to entering an ancient grotto, the ante-chamber of the otherworld. Since the Enlightenment, says Nelson,, Western culture has dismissed the supernatural as mere superstition and displaced these religious impulses into popular entertainments such as fantasy and science fiction. The emergence of new grottos such as cyberspace are signs that we are entering a new era of sensibility, in which the Platonic and Aristotelian world view can coexist. As a diagnosis of the role of the supernatural in modern secular society, this is a work of extraordinary originality, erudition and flair. Read it and be transformed. (Fiona Capp The Age 2002-03-16)

Freud theorized that modern civilization (the one in which he lived, anyway) repressed our sexual instincts. In her provocative new book, The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson contends that modern civilization has repressed our spiritual instincts. And these, she argues, like all repressed instincts, have come back to surprise us in strange new forms. (Merle Rubin Christian Science Monitor 2002-03-14)

Translating ancient thought systems into contemporary terms, finding equivalents of the old in the new, Nelson skillfully manages to thrust the sphere of academic research headlong into popular culture, making this both accessible and erudite...In a dizzying journey that opens with a Renaissance grotto and concludes with The Truman Show and virtual reality, we are taken on a rollercoaster ride through the underside of western mysticism. As Nelson herself warns the reader, when crawling out from the "hole of this book", whatever emerges "will not be the same as what went in." (Aura Satz Financial Times 2002-02-23)

This is no ordinary work of intellectual history...This is New Age prophecy at its most verbally sexy and literarily savvy. It is fun, enticing, and chockfull of brilliance. (Laura Bass Washington Times 2002-04-14)

Some books are fated and fêted for cult status. They have a particular feel and fervency about them. The Secret Life of Puppets by Victoria Nelson, a writer on writing...seems like one of those uncanny, unclassifiable books that break the mould and promise to have a market appeal across disciplines and hobbies, among sober seekers after enlightenment as well as cranks...Nelson's breathtaking jaunt through the underground of Western culture is certainly illuminating and sometimes intoxicating...Expertly researched, forcefully written, magnificently produced, The Secret Life of Puppets is a haunting, highly charged book that leaves a strong after-image of worlds within worlds. (William Keenan Journal of Contemporary Religion 2003-01-01)

The Secret Life of Puppets explores the hauntings, possessions, and other uncanny phenomena proliferating in literature and entertainment (and by no means only on the margins); she argues strongly, through vivid and original readings of H. P. Lovecraft, Edgar Allan Poe and many artifacts in a variety of media, for a new approach to the uses of fantasy and to the relationship between material and immaterial phenomena. (Marina Warner Times Literary Supplement 2002-12-06)

In a remarkable scholarly book, The Secret Life of Puppets, Victoria Nelson argues that our sense of the supernatural and yearning for immortality has been displaced from religion to such expressions of popular culture as superheroes, robots and cyborgs. (Francisco Goldman New York Times Magazine 2004-11-28)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1st edition (November 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674012445
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674012448
  • Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,159,880 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Benjamin D. Steele on August 3, 2009
Format: Paperback
This book is one of the best I've ever read. My copy is heavily underlined and well-thumbed. There are few authors that connect the topics she does in the way she does it, and there are even fewer who do so with such insight. It's a hard book to describe as it includes much: puppets and humanity, reality and imagination, philosophy and religion, film and fiction, high and low culture. It's a fairly large book at around 300 pages of text and also there are useful notes in the back. Even though her ideas may be above the head of the average person, her writing style is easy to follow. If you're a somewhat curious and minimally intelligent person, then what you'll probaby enjoy about this book is learning new ideas and discovering new authors. I'm very well read and I came across a number of things I'd never heard of.

Two topics Victoria Nelson covers that are of particular interest to me are Gnosticism and Noir. If you like these topics, then another book you'd like is Eric G. Wilson's The Melancholy Android: On the Psychology of Sacred Machines and Secret Cinema: Gnostic Vision in Film. Wilson is directly influenced by Nelson. There aren't many books that look at the religious aspects of Noir, but another one is Thomas S. Hibbs Arts of Darkness: American Noir and the Quest for Redemption. Somewhat oddly, a major connection for these authors is that they all discuss Philip K. Dick who is a favorite author of mine.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a book that at times reads a bit like a Ph.D. thesis, but's it really much better than that.
If you've ever entertained the idea that popular films such as The Matrix, or TV shows (X-Files) might be saying something interesting about ideas in today's world at some deeper level, but you're not really sure what it is, this is the book to read. Nelson shows how Robocop, the Terminator and so on are just the latest puppets standing in for a certain way of thinking about the world, even a 'religious' way of thinking, that in fact is very ancient in Western society. It's been driven into eclipse by our modern, scientific, and materialistic society, but becomes strangely ascendant the moment we walk into a movie theatre, read a Stephen King novel, or listen to a conversation about an 'interesting' movie at the water cooler. Why? Well, buy Nelson's book.
I could imagine this book being misread as an attack on conventional religion, but it really has nothing to do with that. I could also imagine that some readers, not accustomed to slogging their way through terms such as 'Platonism', 'demiurge,' and so on, might miss out on finer moments in Nelson's work, when she casts off the robes of the academic (which don't really suit her, anyway) and speaks in plain language about her ideas.
In any case, this is a fine book well worth a careful reading in my opinion.
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Format: Hardcover
If you have bookshelves at home covering sci-fi/fantasy/horror, mythology, AI, psychology, alchemy, animation, and semiotics, and know them only as "things I'm interested in" without being aware of any other common thread, Victoria Nelson just might convince you that you are interested in those things for the same reason she is, and that people throughout history have been: you are mapping a geography of human imagination, taking a journey that you can't help but pursue. Although the book is structured as a history of ideas, there's an autobiography being told, too, about a precocious, sensitive kid fleeing grad school to Hawaii (just as I did) only to return years later "to finish the PhD thesis I never wrote". Along the way, you'd find many great books and films you may never have heard of.
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Overall Victoria Nelson has written a fine book. I was particularly interested in her Chapter on the American Fantastic Mode, and her excellent description of the difference, historically and currently, between European and American High Literature (Art). Where European high culture has embraced The Fantastic, in America the Genre has been delegated to comic books, murder mysteries, ghost stories, love-based romances, and recently, science fiction. Nelson points out that American literary icons such as Hawthorne or Fitzgerald only occasionally ventured into non-realism as "entertainments" leaving "fantasy" mostly for the pulp fiction mongers. She also seems to feel the "lower" form of fiction have been unjustly disparaged. Although the intent seems to be academic, Nelson's prose style renders THE SECRET LIFE OF PUPPETS more of a pleasure read than a textbook.
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Do not be put off by the notion that this is an academic text. It is written with flair and flash, and it addresses the curious niche puppetry has carved out of the human psyche. I love this book. It is erudite, charming, and brilliantly written. It covers such things as why we love our puppets, (now as Avatars - our 21st century version of them,) today in gaming, as well as exploring the role puppets have played from the primeval past to today and why they still mystify and horrify us.
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