Rilke’s Dolls

Wednesday, December 21, 2011 § 1

I came upon Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Some Reflections on Dolls” in which he describes his nightmarish, visceral loathing of dolls. Granted he had a large assortment of issues to work out with dolls, the foremost being that his mother tried to pretend he was a girl and gave him dresses and dolls and called him "Sophie." Nonetheless, there's something more there:

... I pass over the intimate, the touching, the deserted, thoughtful aspect of many things, which, as I passed them, moved me deeply by their beautiful participation in human living; I will only cite in passing quite simple things: a sewing clamp, a spinning-wheel, a domestic loom, a bridal glove, a cup ... If we were to bring all this to mind again and at the same moment to find one of these dolls–pulling it out from a pile of more responsive things–it would almost anger us with its frightful obese forgetfulness ... it would lie before us unmasked as the horrible foreign body on which we had wasted our purest ardour; as the externally painted watery corpse, which floated and swam on the flood-tides of our affection ...

One: as L notes, "we’re freaked out by dolls and puppets and masks and distortions to the face because we’re programmed to carefully search faces, and abnormal patterns ring atavistic alarm bells." Two: I think that on top of ingrained human responses, Rilke really did see death in his dolls. There is a time when a child thinks a doll is a toy to be animated with imagination, and then the child realizes that humans are mortal, and begins to perceive dolls as lifeless things that don't respond to love and longing and sadness any more than people who have died. Other objects are warm and comforting because they have never changed and will not as long as you lavish care and attention on them, but dolls before and after the realization of mortality are two different things.  It is possible for dolls to die, and Rilke's did.

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