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On Dolls

Our non-fiction column begins with a collection on the weirdness of wooden folk

Houman Barekat is the editor of critical journal Review 31. Under this Blog, he will be covering radical ideas from recent non-fiction books

From Ovid to Mary Shelley, from Carlo Collodi to the science fiction of the last century, humanity’s preoccupation with dolls, automatons and effigies has provided fertile ground for writers. The Austrian novelist Rainer Maria Rilke traces this fascination back to childhood, where as ‘[b]eginners in the world …[w]e took our bearings from the doll. It was by nature lower, so we could flow off imperceptibly towards it, converge in it and, even somewhat dimly, make out our new surroundings in it.’ His is one of ten contributions - nine essays and one poem - making up On Dolls, a thoughtful and stimulating enquiry into mankind’s relationship with simulacra. 

Their role in the instruction and conditioning of children is only an obvious starting-point; as Kenneth Gross explains in his introduction to this volume, the study ‘becomes a way of exploring the life of our own thoughts and instincts, the life of our words and ideas…’  The characteristically tenuous speculative leaps of Sigmund Freud’s essay, ‘The Uncanny’, which attributes the animistic pull of malevolent bogeymen and the ‘safe places’ of sleep to homesickness for the womb, are a case in point. Other essays, like Baudelaire’s reflections on ‘The Philosophy of Toys’, are altogether warmer and more affecting: 

‘The child, like the populace besieging the Tuileries, makes a last supreme effort; finally he prises it open, for he is the stronger party. But where is its soul? This moment marks the beginnings of stupor and melancholy.’

Nearly all the writers featured in On Dolls predate the computer age. One wonders what the likes of Freud, Franz Kafka or Walter Benjamin might have made of our generation’s electronic marionettes, such as the ludicrous keychain-sized virtual pet, the Tamagotchi, or the Japanese robot-doll that says ‘I love you’ to elderly widows - surely the bleakest, most heartbreaking toy ever conceived. They might perhaps have felt a little of the traditionalist’s resentment towards toys that, for want of a better phrase, do stuff - the point, with dolls, is that their dumbness forces you to invent a life for them.

Roboticism was only the tip of the iceberg: in the digital era, the doll need not be a physical thing at all, as anyone with a passing familiarity with gaming will tell you. Consider, for example, the Football Manager simulation game, where you can train up an imaginary footballer, give him encouragement and praise, and watch him - so to speak - grow. Meanwhile the proliferation of social media has enabled us to make playthings out of our selves, reprising an age-old obsession with doppelgangers and body doubles through Instagram filters and microblogs; though it would probably be a stretch too far to locate, in the development of increasingly mediated online identities, a regressive current of what Freud called primitive narcissism.  

We are not quite in the realm of nostalgia - whatever else may have come along, dolls of the old sort are still with us - but neither would it be excessively sentimental to bemoan the attenuation, amid the 24-hour din of digital culture, of the capacity for that quiet, solitary contemplation that is so conducive to creative engagement, and so essential for both child development and adult sanity. 

On Dolls, edited by Kenneth Gross, is published by Notting Hill Editions. 

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