Last week, Art of RetroCollage published the post “Bébé Marie Presents…” , which recounted artist Joseph Cornell’s “rescue” of a Victorian doll that he named “Bébé Marie.” Cornell seemed to lend part of his soul to the doll by naming it and later encasing it in a glass-fronted box environment.
Many readers responded to this post. Their reactions varied: some expressed frank dismay at Cornell’s act of physical “art appropriation” and the box construction he created as a result of it; others felt disturbed by the idea that a doll could have an existence and a soul of its own; and still others welcomed or accepted the notion of a doll imbued with a portion of its owner’s soul.
Interestingly, a comment posted by one reader brought to mind talking dolls. These toys have been made for over a century, with many different mechanisms: first mechanical, and then, more recently, electrical.
By association, the comment also recalled a step in the manufacture of talking dolls in the 19th century: in the 1880s, before the advent of electronic recording technology, the doll-making factories employed scores of young women to record, on hundreds of miniature wax phonographic cylinders each day, little snippets from nursery rhymes: “Little Bo-Peep,” “Jack and Jill,” “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” and so forth.
The women would speak lines of poetry loudly into the horns of small recording lathes. In response to vibrations from the women’s voices, needles in the lathes would cut grooves in the surfaces of the cylinders. The wax cylinders would then be mounted in inexpensive miniature gramophone mechanisms within the metal bodies of the dolls. Turning a small crank in the back of a talking doll would cause its recording to be replayed: the doll’s voice, lent to it by a person by now long gone.
Inevitably, the “voice” of every doll would carry the emotions of the young woman who recorded it, in the intonations of her speech. If she was weary from hours of labor, that would be conveyed by the recording; if she was sad or in pain, those feelings would be communicated as well.
And there they would stay…
Imagine if one of these dolls still existed, in working condition, able to play again the speech of a woman long gone. It might be the only evidence that this woman once lived–a weak and scratchy recording giving voice to the tedious factory routine of her days one hundred and thirty years ago. A spoken memorial to her soul.
The talking doll returns full-circle to the question of soul in objects. Do nonliving objects have their own souls? If they do, reason, logic, and everyday experience cannot prove it. But remember that these rational processes form only a part of the way we perceive and interpret the world. Very often after we sense something, we act or react to it, decide or choose it, on the basis of intuition alone. Even quite important matters are resolved by such subjective means: the Empire State Building in New York City is said to owe its appearance to the shape of a thick pencil once used in the lower grades in elementary school.
As very young children, during our ceaseless quest to understand how the world works, we use every intuition, hunch, or hint that we can, however far-fetched and nonsensical it may seem to others. Psychology has described these childhood inquiries as “magical thinking”: in one form of this, a child may witness two events, one happening after the other, and infer without proof that the first event caused the second. For example, when the child speaks harshly to an elderly relative who dies shortly afterward, the child may conclude that the harsh words caused the relative’s death.
In another form of magical thinking, one takes the resemblance of one object to another as evidence of some supernatural activity or divine intervention. According to some psychologists and skeptics, a miracle is a form of magical thinking–not because it happens, but because of the meaning we attach to it. In his detective story “The Blue Cross,” English novelist G.K. Chesterton says of miracles:
The most incredible thing about miracles is that they happen. A few clouds in heaven do come together into the staring shape of one human eye. A tree does stand up in the landscape of a doubtful journey in the exact and elaborate shape of a note of interrogation [a question mark]. I have seen both these things myself within the last few days. Nelson does die in the instant of victory; and a man named Williams does quite accidentally murder a man named Williamson; it sounds like a sort of infanticide. In short, there is in life an element of elfin coincidence which people reckoning on the prosaic may perpetually miss. As it has been well expressed in the paradox of Poe, wisdom should reckon on the unforeseen.
Some adults do believe that miracles happen and that they are evidence of divine or supernatural action. In the resemblance of their dolls to living people, children see evidence that the dolls are alive. The dolls walk, talk, open their eyes, cry, and wet themselves as babies do; how could they not be alive?
What makes the beliefs of children any less valid than those of their elders? Do we know more about the world as we get older, simply because we find out how the doll walks, talks, cries, or wets? Or are the world, and our existence in it, mysteries that become more unfathomable the more facts we know? Two millennia ago, some Greek philosophers and scientists denied that cats and dogs had intelligence; today we know this is not so. Until recently, we thought that most of the matter in the universe had been accounted for; now we know that just the opposite is true.
Modern physics has in some cases found exceptions to the causal “laws” and logic that we claim to use, as rational adults navigating through our lives and the world. In the near future, we may indeed prove that we are able to invest inanimate matter with our own emotions and thus transform it into something having a soul, if not life itself.