October 2011

Elizabeth Bachner

features

A Mirror Walks Down the Road: Reading "Puppet"

I’m thinking tonight about things that used to exist, but don’t anymore. There was a café called The Morning Glory that was always sunny, even when it wasn’t sunny outside, and the breakfasts there were always sunny, and everything always seemed right. A friend just wrote me about watching North by Northwest in Paris with her boyfriend, wishing that scripts these days were witty like that, that there were fancy restaurants on trains still, that men were more like Cary Grant. It made me think about a favorite old movie, Brief Encounter, and about a man I never watched that movie with, who said that what bothered him about our relationship was that we didn’t kiss hello and goodbye, we were like “two ships,” and he said that with a smoldering look, smoking his cigarette and staring out the window. I think I used to like nostalgia better than I do now. Or maybe I’m forgetting something.

“Lovers try vainly to touch each other through a hole in the wall. Their hands grope in the dark. The wall tries to console them. The hole alone is happy.” I’m reading this, and trying to decide whether I’m one of the lovers, or the wall with its failed comfort, or the hole. And then I remember that this isn’t a poem, although it seems to be a small poem, to me -- it’s a fable for a puppet theater, one of thirty-five in one chapter of Kenneth Gross’s Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life. So as ink on a page, these animate and inanimate characters -- the lovers, the wall, the hole -- are only a bare beginning.  They are meant to be created in real time and space, whatever that is, by a (probably human) creator, out of concrete materials like paper or wood or ballet shoes or string or discarded bread. Their fable is meant to be acted out, by puppeteers, and watched by an audience. Real time, real space -- I’m not sure about the difference between those things and imaginary time, and imaginary space. But Kenneth Gross explains that often, part of puppet theater is that the puppets get damaged or destroyed. They tear each other apart or eat each other. It makes them more real, that they can die like us.

“A man is pursued by his shadow…A stone cries out against being stepped on, kicked, buried, and split. It meditates revenge… The ghosts of girls betrayed by men dance living men to death… A man and a woman exchange parts of themselves with each other -- a hand, a leg, a heart. For a while this contents them. In the end they have rent each other to pieces… A mirror walks down a road… Children carry the corpse of their mother to a distant graveyard. From time to time she raises her head up from the coffin, crying, ‘Faster, faster…’ …Blocks learn to spell out words… Buildings shake themselves awake at dawn… Animals take over a theater… She turns to stare at a city in flames and is turned to a statue of salt… They gather at the edge of the dam, watching rising waters… A bed sails away… Don Juan tears up his book of conquests. Shreds of paper hover in the air and crowd around him, crying in mockery… A crumb explores a tablecloth… She returns, after many days.”

In the past few weeks, I’ve sat through an earthquake and a hurricane warning and then, after it was all over, sudden dark rains that made it feel like something was ending. I was alone. I thought more than usual about what was happening and what had happened in the rest of the world, tsunamis and uprising, revolutions and lack-of-revolutions, fires and wars. My apartment was trying to shake itself awake, I was exploring the tablecloth and tearing up my black book and learning to spell out words. It’s a strange, eerie time. I didn’t want to be alone the way I was. I saw my shadow against the door in the flickering candlelight, thin and twisty. It looked like someone else’s shadow. I was making a character that looked like me, not a puppet but ink on crushed trees. She stopped looking like me, and started to have someone else’s face.  

According to Kenneth Gross, in wayang kulit, Indonesian shadow-puppet theater, “the shadows are taken as avatars of the really real. They mark the presence of truth rather than that which conceals or takes the place of truth.” There’s one shadow-puppet that’s larger than all the others, the kayon, with a leaf-shaped profile that tapers like a flame, a tongue, or a tear. It is the only symmetrical puppet in the theater. It appears before any of the other puppets appear, and it’s the last puppet left at the end. “The kayon is thought in the form of a prayer or a spell” -- the mind of the world, but also the mind of the puppet-master. Gross talked to an old almost-retired puppet master  in the village of Buduk, Bapak Sidja, who was contemptuous of younger puppeteers who used more than one kayon. “The kayon is your heart, you have only one heart,” he said. “You use it even if it is broken.”

In Brief Encounter, most of the action takes place in the shadows, the underworld or otherworld of the train station, their first stolen kiss, quick and sudden, against the tunnel wall. The movie started out as a short play, “Still Life,” with Noel Coward as his own male lead. 1945. In the theater, the audience is usually a “fourth wall,” according to Barry Day’s comments in The Noel Coward Reader. In a movie, like in a novel, you can twist the narrative around, you can distort or stop time, and in this screenplay, Noel Coward puts us inside Laura’s head, we can feel her feelings, we can hear her secret thoughts. But then, he also takes us outside of her, shows us what it’s like to see her from outside, to look into her wide eyes. “I’ve fallen in love,” she thinks. “I’m an ordinary woman. I didn’t think such violent things could happen to ordinary people.” In The Noel Coward Reader, songs and plays and screenplays are mixed with diary entries, so this time as I’m watching the movie I’m thinking, They’re puppets. Everything that they say, think, feel, happened first in Noel Coward’s mind, it was all invented by him -- or maybe not, maybe the characters skipped his mind and flew out straight through his pen. It’s hard to feel like Laura and Alec are less real, less human, than their actors, Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, than Noel Coward, than me.

Last night I watched Brief Encounter alone. Today, I had an ordinary day where nothing violent happened, in my heart or outside of my body. I went to a kundalini yoga class where the teacher played the guitar and told us about how vibrational frequencies shift reality, he had us lift our arms as if in prayer, it’s not the kind of yoga I usually do. Outside in Chinatown, I bought a watermelon. The trains were a disaster, I was carrying a too-heavy bottle of prosecco, I gave up on the broken trains and the cancelled trains and skipped going into Brooklyn, I went home to read. A book had arrived in the mail, Grace Dane Mazur’s Hinges: Meditations on the Portals of the Imagination, about a topic I’ve always been obsessed with -- katabasis, journeys to hell and back, portals or trapdoors into other realms. The author is a novelist and a visual artist and a biologist who studies silkworms. She’s married, according to the flyleaf, to a mathematician. I was eager to curl up with this book (“We curl up with a novel,” it begins, “The very verb implies a narrowing, a spiraling inward of our attention. If all goes well, we soon enter an altered state of consciousness, in which we descend into a world not our own… Stories begin with instabilities -- perhaps because beginnings themselves are such unstable conditions.”), and with Kabbalah: A Very Short Introduction, and with more of the Kenneth Gross book about creepy puppets, but instead of reading I went into the bathroom and stared at myself in the mirror. If I could choose any face to inhabit I wonder what kind of face I would pick. But tonight, there was something mesmerizing about my own face. I can’t remember what my face used to look like, before.

“The hand of the manipulator,” writes Kenneth Gross, “travels from puppet to puppet, stuck inside one and now another form of cloth, or picking up and putting down the strings or rods of many different figures. It is 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.” But we can see that the puppet is a thing, however uncanny, however much it calls into question its animism and animation. We see that it can be destroyed, and that it cannot be killed.

“When looking at some taboo things,” writes Grace Dane Mazur, “we cannot see them, even while we are looking, because we are not ready. After we have undergone preparation, they become possible to grasp. Or we become able to grasp them. One of the places we are forbidden to look, in both senses -- both because we should not and because we are unable -- is into the mind and soul of another person… it is forbidden to inhabit another and if we do, then we may be inhabiting two people at once, our self and our other self, and what we are doing seems awfully close to schizophrenia, or multiple personality disorder, or some other form of madness. It is considered sick, and may not be so far from the madness that is love... But what is writing but taking up residence in the mind of another?”

1945.  The year that Alec and Laura (played by Trevor and Celia, more real, now, than Trevor and Celia) fell in love, and kissed in the shadows, and went back to their kind spouses and gave each other up. The year the real Noel Coward wrote, after the war was over, “I wish I had more feeling about it. My mind seems unable to take it in. It has all been too long and too stupid and too cruel. We shall see how the sweet face of peace looks. I cannot help visualizing an insane, vacuous grin.” Kenneth Gross describes seeing once, in a museum collection of artifacts made by prisoners from a Nazi concentration camp, a tiny figure of a marionette. “A label beside it explained that the black, crudely formed and segmented limbs were sculpted by an inmate out of pressed and hardened bread. It seemed unreadable, also astonishing, that sacrifice of scant food to create a form of play among the living and dead… Who made it? What are the plays that it performed in, and for whom? What form of love did it give or demand?”

I curl up with a pile of books. I read Longfellow’s “Theologian’s Tale,” Elizabeth with her innocent eyes, sitting by the window with her work and looking out at the snowy landscape, “White as the great white sheet that/ Peter saw in his vision, / By the four corners let down and, descending out of the heavens. /Covered with snow were/ the forests of pine; and the fields and the meadows. /Nothing was dark but the sky.” I want to be like a lover and not like a flying bed or a shadow or hardened bread or a ship or a hole, but sometimes we aren’t what we hope we are. I’m thinking about creatures inhabiting other creatures, and the transmigration of souls. Mirrors, I read in Hinges, “can be a means of looking at something that is too dangerous to look at straight on,” and I have the sudden realization, childish and classical and retarded and terrifying, that I have never once seen my own face. I’ve seen versions of representations of it, its skewed mirror-image, pixilated photographs of it, its broken or upside-down Narcissistic reflection in water or spoons. I’ve never once seen my really face and I never will. The character I am writing who looks like me catches a glimpse of her reflection, and she’s frightened. Now I wonder if maybe it’s not her reflection. If maybe she’s seen her real face. Or, maybe she’s seen my real face, even though I can’t.

“If Orpheus had not looked back,” writes Grace Dane Mazur, “it is quite possible that Eurydice would have always held it against him…’ You don’t love me, really -- you didn’t even look back at me when we were coming up from Hades.'" Orpheus, she thinks, is wiser than most heroes. Even when he looks back, he knows what he’s doing. After he’s dismembered, his tongue still sings. His lyre, floating along beside his severed head, still plays. The riverbeds moan in response. As for Eurydice, Mazur wonders -- especially looking at her in Rubens’s Orpheus and Eurydice with Hades and Persephone -- if Orpheus could have been resentful and envious of her lack of grief, for he is the one who feels and sings his pain, both times when she dies. “There is an uncomfortable feeling that she gets off scot-free. Even in Ruben’s painting, Orpheus is grim-faced, while Eurydice seems full of longing, not for him, but for her new chthonic companions.”

And of course, Eurydice gets to look back whenever she wants, with no consequences, the way my character, my character who looks like me, can see her own real face if she wants to, she can sprout ears from her mouth and stop time and go down on Trevor Howard and fly and die and come back again as a lizard, she can sing more beautifully or more horribly than anyone has ever sung before, she can be the wall or both lovers or the hole, she can go to The Morning Glory still, she can be happy. And all I can do is make her, not the way I want to, in the flickering candlelight from inside my strange face. Is she jealous of me, though, for being really real?

“Even in cases where the puppeteer is fully visible to the audience,” writes Kenneth Gross, “something of this blackness remains in place. The myriad passageways through which impulse, emotion, and life pass back and forth between the living manipulator and the inanimate object can never be made entirely clear.”  

“At times, while we are writing,” says Mazur, “our characters take it into their heads to dictate to us. When this happens, the process can feel more like recording than inventing, more like pulling back the veil than like making things up from whole cloth.”  

“The story of puppets becomes the story of embodied souls and ensouled objects; it insists that our souls are never perfectly our own, as our bodies are never our own.”

The whole world of Brief Encounter, suspended in time and space, came from Noel Coward, and his pen (or his typewriter?), pacing or sitting still, creating or recording. And then there’s the really real Noel Coward, twenty years before, writing about a really real affair that really lived and really died, an affair in time and space: “Harry was the first time it happened to me seriously… we settled down, loved each other good and true until the accident happened and he was killed. I’m not going to think about that because even now it still makes me sick and want to cry my heart out. I always hated that fucking motorbike anyhow but he was mad for it, forever tinkering with it and rubbing it down with oily rags and fiddling about with its engine… He loved machinery and football matches and all the things I didn’t give a bugger about. We hadn’t a thing in common really except the one thing you can’t explain… He loved me true did Harry-boy and I loved him true, and if the happiness we gave each other was wicked and wrong in the eyes of the Law and the Church and God Almighty, then the Law and the Church and God Almighty can go dig a hole and fall down it.” And hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people have watched Laura and Alec’s moment of love, in theaters and living rooms, and so many fewer have seen Noel’s really real love with the really real Harry, and in the worlds of love and writing and puppetry maybe there is no private life, we’re mirrors walking along, we’re made of bread or made of some substance other than pure music, we’re shadows.

I’m thinking about things that used to exist and don’t anymore, and about lost things and holes, about trapdoors and gilgul and metempsychosis, still lives and brief encounters, passing ships and a look and a voice and darkness again and silence, the transmigration of souls. But then there are the things that haven’t existed yet that someday, will. The second-to-last chapter in Kenneth Gross’s book talks about Paul Klee, the eerie, ugly charm of the strange puppets he made for his son, Felix. I have a Paul Klee print on my refrigerator, Cat and Bird, where you can’t tell if the cat is thinking about the bird or the bird is thinking about that cat. They are both imaginary. Klee wrote in his diary in 1901, “The future slumbers in human beings and needs only to be awakened. It cannot be created.” He wrote, “Some will not recognize the truthfulness of my mirror… My mirror probes down to the heart. I write words on the forehead and around the corners of the mouth. My human faces are truer than the real ones.” He wrote (later to be used in his epitaph): “I live as much with the dead as with the unborn.”

I see that character in the mirror, skewed, it’s safer not to look directly at her. I don’t know whether she’s someone from my past or someone from my future. Maybe she’s someone not yet born, flickering awake. I don’t know whether I’ll put my hands inside her or pour her out of my pen, maybe I will kill her or make her never be, which is different from killing. Maybe inside me is a graveyard of never-born, unreal beings. I hope she at least understands that, if I don’t kiss her hello or goodbye, it’s because I’m shy. (Another fable for the puppet theater: “A creaking cry. A white sail appears on the horizon at a great distance, then moves out of sight.”) I can’t really see her, I can’t really see myself, but then there’s the startling sense that she can see me, that the world would re-order itself if only I could look back at her, if only I would risk looking back at her. “The puppet’s staring eyes,” says Gross, “look at me with a candor, with a demand for attention, that I cannot forgo. It is patiently waiting for something.”