To those interested in the history of uncanny dollls/mechanical dolls/automata:
Access provided by Northwestern University Library
Images of Death in Rilke and Freud
We pulled our dolls along behind the bars of our crib, dragged them into the heavy folds of illness. They appeared in dreams and were tied up in the disasters of feverish nights. They did not make any effort of their own; they were lying at the edge of childhood sleep, maybe filled with rudimentary thoughts of falling off, and they let themselves be dreamed. Just as they were accustomed to be lived tirelessly through someone else's power during the day.
Rainer Maria Rilke, "Dolls" 1
I. "Pulling her from a pile of more sympathetic things . . ."
The doll, although featuring prominently in many female children's lives, has found little attention from the academic community. In the history of psychoanalysis, as in the history of traditional psychology, the doll has not been found worthy of examination. Freud dismissed the doll in his discussion of the uncanny because she did not symbolize Oedipal issues very well. 2 Psychoanalysts since then who have worked with children discuss dolls in the context of play therapy, where they, like other toys, allow the child to project unconscious processes and facilitate the resolution of conflicts which the child is unable to articulate. 3 Once in a while, we find a case history where a female child uses a doll in an aggressive manner (CS 226-27), which is interpreted as a substitute for the absent penis, or where a little boy is brought to the therapist because he plays with dolls, 4 which is interpreted as his pathological identification with the mother. Yet here, too, the phenomenon of the doll is not explored but taken for granted as a symbol within the oedipal struggle of the preschooler.
D. W. Winnicott groups the doll together with teddy bears, blankets, and other soft toys as transitional objects which make the gradual separation from the mother possible. 5 The attachment to the consistent, transitional object allows the child to shift the cathexis away from the mother and so gains the child a certain amount of independence and [End Page 663] control. In the attachment theories, the doll is not differentiated from other toys, and her particular symbolic place in the world of the child is not discussed. And like other transitional objects, she represents the erotic attachment to the mother.
In the history of psychotherapy the doll of play therapy has become the "anatomically correct doll" in recent years, and the controversy rages over whether these dolls are an appropriate tool for discerning sexual abuse in children. 6 Here the focus is on the doll as a representation of the sexual body which allows the child's play to enact (or imagine?) sexual relationships symbolically, and allows the therapist to discern precocious and disturbed sexual knowledge in the child. Yet no particular attention is paid to the nongenital, symbolic function of the doll, which comprises most of her significance in the young girl's life.
With the rise of feminism, a revisiting of the girl's toy corner is in order. Through the recent inclusion of the female subject in psychological theory and practice the world of the female child attains new prominence, 7 and the doll as a key carrier of female childhood fantasy needs to be examined. The presence of the doll in the girl's life is more, though, than a patriarchal tool for socializing the mothers of the next generation. She profoundly attracts the child's desire, evokes passionate love and hate, and fulfills needs that are difficult to articulate in any other way than through play.
In short, the doll barely exists in psychological theory. Dolls are not distinguished from other toys; they are identified either with the erotic field of the mother or seen only as the girl's substitute penis (doll= baby=penis), and their symbolic significance has been limited to the sexual/genital representation of the human body. Together with the psychology of the female child, they have been dismissed from the history of psychology.
In the following essay, I would like to invite you to follow the poet Rainer Maria Rilke through the psychological world of the doll as he reveals it to us through poetry, short story, and essay. Rilke will show us that the doll in the symbolic universe of the child is a human body, but that its meaning goes beyond its sexual/erotic signification. He will draw the line that separates the doll from the rocking horse and the teddy bear, and will lead us into the dark and deadly reaches of the transitional object, showing us the uncanniness of the doll at home in its pre-oedipal playground. And even though Rilke's perception of the doll is tinged with aversion, and he makes no attempt to represent fairly all aspects of the doll's impact on the child's life, his work nevertheless can shed new light on the psychological reality of dolls and their place in the experience of the child. [End Page 664]
II. "The big blue thing"
There is nothing ambiguous about Rilke's relationships with dolls: he despised and hated them with a passion that is surprising to anyone familiar with Rilke's usually reverent and gentle concern for the world of things. The image of the doll had haunted Rilke for a long time, and we find in his writing various attempts to cope with the terror which the doll had inspired in him since his childhood. Witness, for example, the following fragment which did not make it into the Duino Elegies:
If there is a dead body in the room--
that it does not become the gruesome
doll of the (childish) house
that he does not play with it
erecting it, against. . . . 8
The essay "Dolls," written at approximately the same time as the fourth of the Duino Elegies (which also tries to come to terms with pup-pets and dolls), gives us Rilke's reaction upon seeing a collection of dolls in Paris. It is a scathing critique of the doll's existence, addressed to the doll itself and written like one of those letters young adults sometimes write (but do not mail) to their fathers in order to even an old score, to understand the emotional entanglements of the past, to free themselves from a still haunting presence. When faced with images of angels, Rilke's terror is aesthetic and beautiful. When faced with dolls, Rilke's terror is urgent and real, and his emotions lie barely under the surface.
At the root of Rilke's hatred of dolls lies his encounter with the dolls of his childhood. For the first years of his life Rilke's mother raised her son like a little girl and, like a doll, dressed him in curls, dresses, pinafores, and bows. He was named Rene, which is a boy's as well as a girl's name, and his mother called him Sophie for a while. He dusted the piano and played with dolls. 9
In "Dolls," Rilke struggles with the gender confusion of his early childhood by contrasting the doll with the more masculine rocking horse:
Oh, how you lifted one up, soul of the rocking horse, up and further into an irresistibly heroic being, where one perished, hot and gloriously, with his hair most terribly messed up. Then you lay next to it, doll, and you did not have enough innocence to understand that your holy George was rocking upon the animal of your dullness, the dragon, who let our most flooding feelings become matter in you--a perfidious, indifferent, unbreakable thing. (W 3:540)
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In this fantasy, the heroic boy almost violates and crushes the doll as he assigns her the role of the dragon to his St. George. But in her dullness the doll does not respond. She overcomes the "hero" in the end by her very unresponsiveness. The doll is indifferent to the existence of the child, and therein lies her power.
It would be possible to further analyze Rilke's gender confusion, to point out the equation of doll with woman, to reveal Rilke's idealization of women and his inability to respond truly to them with love. We could study his disturbed relationship with his mother and the ensuing metamorphoses of the mother image in his unfolding work. But I would like to suggest a different direction. When the doll appears in Rilke's work she is "lying around in our earliest uncanny loneliness" (W 3:534), she reveals herself "as something unknown, and everything familiar with which we had showered and filled her becomes suddenly unknown in her" (W 3:539), and she is generally accompanied by images of emptiness, death, and futility. The aura of uncanniness surrounding the doll penetrates Rilke's works, even the mature work of the Duino Elegies. And on the level of his work, the image of the doll becomes more than a vestige of his disturbed childhood. Rilke perceives something true and truly uncanny about the very existence of dolls.
In 1899 Rilke wrote a strange, uncanny, and very "un-Rilkean" short story called "Frau Blaha's Maid." In a detached, almost journalistic style Rilke tells the story of the murder of an infant. The maid is a simple country girl who lives her life inside the grey, dark walls of a kitchen in the city. Unnoticed by anyone, she gives birth to a child whom she strangles, wraps in a blue apron, and then hides as her "big doll" in a trunk. During one of the next days, she measures the corpse and proceeds to buy a puppet theater with a king, a peasant, and a tower but which, alas, are much smaller than her "doll." She sets up the theater in the kitchen, and the neighbors' children come to watch her perform little dialogues and stiff movements, "but they never turn out to be a real play." 10 She tells them about her "really big doll," and they press her to show it to them:
Anushka went to the back to her trunk. It was already getting dark. The children and the puppets faced each other, very quiet and alike. But from the wide open eyes of the punch, which were as if they expected something terrifying, a sudden fear swept over the children so that without exception they began to scream and run away. Anushka came back with the big blue thing in her arms. Suddenly her hands trembled. The kitchen had become so quiet and empty after the children had gone. Anushka was not afraid. She laughed softly and kicked the theater over with her feet and broke all the thin boards which were meant to be the garden. And then, as the kitchen was completely dark, she went about and split open all the dolls' heads, also the big blue one's. (4:629)
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This is the sudden end of the story. Anushka can only transcend the confines of her life through an act of violence. The puppets never truly come to life; they stiffly bow before each other and knock each other over. This strange and ritualistic limitation of imaginative possibilities, this inability to truly enter into play is deeply linked to Anushka's act of violence. The puppets fail because they are nothing but the receptacle of Anushka's imaginative creations. She does not know what to do with them, as she does not know what to do with the newborn. Imprisoned in the kitchen, alienated from the social and cultural life of the city, she has no reference system for making sense out of her life in the act of playing. Even her own biological identity is undisclosed to her, and she bears a child without knowing that she is pregnant and murders the newborn without any emotional or moral response. Violence is the ultimate answer to a world which does not respond.
The coldness and absurdity of her actions, which are not explained by the story, lead to the uncanny and depressing effect of the tale. Her coldness, though, is not premeditated, and we even feel pity for this human beast, who is homesick and longs for music, companionship, and the splendor of a king's life as she, almost in passing, murders her child. The logic of the tale is like the logic of the dream: meaningful but inconsistent, senseless on the surface but pointing toward a deeper, unconscious order.
Examined critically as a piece of fiction, "Frau Blaha's Maid" does not work because the character of the maid is not convincing. Could a woman have sexual intercourse on various occasions without knowing that she does, especially if she grew up in the country and watched the procreation of animals? Could she be pregnant for nine months and not know it, bear a child as if it suddenly fell out of her? Could she strangle the child because it cries and then go into the parlor and serve Sunday morning breakfast--all a few minutes after delivery? And furthermore, while the character of the maid is drawn without conviction, it seems that Rilke also does not care about the logic of the plot of this story. We are never asked to understand Anushka or to identify with her. As she wraps the corpse in the blue apron, converts the dead child into the big blue doll, and finally destroys the puppet theater and all the dolls, we find the progression of the story arbitrary and baffling. Rilke's language remains cool and detached. He does not convey to us an understanding of the girl's feelings and motives, and makes no attempt to reveal the psychological motives for her gruesome deed.
However, the failure of the tale should give us pause for thought, for we have to admit that despite its literary inconsistencies it still conveys a certain mood of strangeness, depressiveness, and uncanniness. While poetically it may be a failure, psychologically it seems to work. The [End Page 667] narrator gives us the impression of distant objectivity as he retells the surface events of the story. The style of storytelling, though, is too indifferent to be convincing, and whenever we notice an indifference that seems to be out of proportion to the traumatic content of the story told, we suspect an overcompensation of extremely disturbing emotions. Something has been repressed.
III. ". . . spreading herself like a boorish Danae . . ."
For a psychological reading of this tale, let me turn to Freud's work on "The Uncanny" which discusses some of the haunted and uncanny qualities of dolls (SE 17:217-52). Through a careful study of a series of uncanny images and tales from the stories of E. T. A. Hoffmann, Freud examines the production of uncanniness in literature. He explores the psychological structure of the uncanny, which has as its core function a very particular and paradoxical relationship to the repressed: it conceals and reveals it at the same time.
Freud refers to the uncanniness of dolls in the context of an argument that he has with E. Jentsch, author of the study Zur Psychologie des Unheimlichen. Jentsch claims that the key element of uncanniness is a confusion between animate and inanimate processes, which leads to an intellectual uncertainty in the reader. Referring particularly to Hoffman's character of the doll Olympia, Jentsch writes:
In telling a story one of the most successful devices for easily creating uncanny effects is to leave the reader in uncertainty whether a particular figure in the story is a human being or an automaton; and to do it in such a way that his attention is not directly focused upon this uncertainty, so that he may not be urged to go into the matter and clear it up immediately, since that, as we have said, would quickly dissipate the peculiar emotional effect of the thing. E. T. A. Hoffman has repeatedly employed this psychological artifice with success in his fantastic narratives. (quoted in SE 17:227)
Freud wants to push our understanding of the uncanny beyond Jentsch's notion of intellectual confusion and introduce a dynamic model which includes conscious and unconscious processes. And although Freud quotes at length from Jentsch's book, he plays down his argument by introjecting: "But I cannot think--and I hope that most readers of the story will agree with me--that the theme of the doll, Olympia, who is to all appearance a living being, is by any means the only element to be held responsible for the quite unparalleled atmosphere of uncanniness which the story evokes; or, indeed, that it is the [End Page 668] most important among them" (SE 17:227). Discarding the doll, Freud moves on to discuss a different, and according to him more terrifying, figure, Hoffman's Sand-Man, who repeatedly threatens the hero with barely disguised castration. At home at last with the Oedipus complex, Freud is on familiar turf and continues to explore the uncanny through the terrifying but forgotten childhood wounds of eros.
Yet we are still in need of understanding Rilke's uncanny dolls, and Freud seems to deny us his psychological insight by refusing to take the doll seriously as an uncanny character. Yet Freud's abrupt dismissal of the doll and the quick turn toward the familiar castration issues make me wonder if there is not an unconscious undercurrent at work which disturbs the smooth flow of Freud's thought. Maybe the kind of uncanniness the doll evokes has to do with the refusal to entertain her seriously? I agree with Freud that Jentsch's argument is not sufficient to penetrate the dreadful nature of the doll experience, or better, that Jentsch touches a certain level of psychological experience which is still tied to the function of consciousness. Through Rilke's "Frau Blaha's Maid," we can affirm Jentsch's observation that one of the technical elements which support our experience of the uncanny is that the story distracts our attention from the intellectual uncertainty whether we are dealing with a doll or a corpse. Rilke euphemistically calls the dead child/doll "the big blue one," and the story gives us no pause for reflection on the cruel transformation between the living child and the inanimate doll. But Jentsch still leaves the "particular emotional effect of the thing" unexplained. Our dilemma is that Freud refuses to look at the doll, while Jentsch's glance only touches the surface. It is almost uncanny: both authors either repress or rationalize the emotional impact of the doll.
IV. ". . . the doll, she was the first to inflict
this larger than human silence upon us . . ."
Since Freud denies us a quick answer, we are forced to take some detours, and those lead us through the labyrinth of Freud's other insights into the uncanny. Hopefully we will come out at the other end with a deeper understanding of the doll's uncanniness. Let us begin unraveling the thread by looking at the doll's rival, the Sand-Man/castrator. The image of the Sand-Man is uncanny because he touches upon a fear from our early childhood. Freud generalizes from this insight to say that a fear or a wish from the Oedipal scene is evoked by an uncanny image. The fear or wish can also have its origins in infancy, [End Page 669] namely in the fall from the grandeur of the infant's early narcissistic world, which is evoked through the image of the double in uncanny tales. Freud writes: "The other forms of ego-disturbance exploited by Hoffman can easily be estimated along the same lines as the theme of the 'double.' They are a harking-back to particular phases in the evolution of the self-regarding feeling, a regression to a time when the ego had not yet marked itself off sharply from the external world and from other people. I believe that these factors are partly responsible for the impression of uncanniness, although it is not easy to isolate and determine exactly their share of it" (SE 17:236).
Regression is the key word in this passage, and it implies a disturbance in the ego's sense of time. The ego regresses to an earlier identity formation which is marked by a relationship to reality different from the adult's ego, namely to a developmental stage where self-perception and perception of the world are not clearly distinguished.
With respect to the doll, these reflections of Freud lead us to the following questions: what is the nature of the repression concealed by the uncanny atmosphere of Rilke's dolls? Or, to ask more directly: what stage of infantile ego development is reactivated through Rilke's description of the doll? "Frau Blaha's Maid" conceals the regression, but the essay "Dolls" gives us many clues as to the psychological presence and function of the doll in childhood development. In the lives of many children, as in Rilke's childhood, the encounter with the doll is of primary importance and set apart from the play with other toys. As we saw before, part of the terror the doll inspires in Rilke comes from her lifelessness and her indifference and unresponsiveness to the child's emotions. Things, too, are without life, but they, as Rilke says, almost acquire a heart by being the silent companions and memorabilia of human existence. They are "thankful for tenderness" and, although fading and vanishing with use, they come to life under the "demanding caresses" of the "hardest wear":
If we would become aware of all this, and at this very moment would find--pulling her from a pile of more sympathetic things--one of our old dolls: she would almost upset us by her terrible, thick forgetfulness. The hatred, which unconsciously has always been a part of our relationship with her, would flare up, and she would lie before us, finally without disguise: as that gruesome alien body for which we have wasted our purest warmth; as that superficially painted drowned corpse, lifted and carried by the floods of our tenderness until it dried out and we forgot it somewhere in the bushes. (W 3:535-36)
Here, again, we see the confusion between toy and corpse, and the rage and hatred which this image inspires. If the doll is this unresponsive, [End Page 670] thickly forgetful, hate-inspiring alien body, why do we give such a toy to the child? Rilke asked himself the same question, and his answer is startling and reveals a deep psychological insight: we give the doll to our child because the soul of the child would get lost in a human presence. "The simplest exchange of love far exceeded our understanding" he says, and so we, as children, practice our existence and our loving with the unresponsive, unloving doll (W 3:536). The doll exists on the threshold of ego-identity, where subject and object are undifferentiated and merge in an erotic fusion. At a certain point in the child's development primal narcissism poses the threat of self-annihilation in the narcissistic union with the mother. While the child would "get lost" in the other by "pressing itself into her" (W 3:536), the doll does not respond to the child's cries and other outpourings of emotion. She does not mirror the young self, does not smile, does not affirm good or bad, does not take the infant into her arms. In fact, she is usually smaller than the child and her function is to be an object against which the child must assert its own identity. She stands at the threshold of narcissism, forcing the child to assume an identity of his own, and to distinguish between I and the world: "We were forced to assert ourselves against the doll, for if we gave ourselves up for her nobody would be left over. She did not respond, and hence we found ourselves in the position of taking over tasks for her. We split our slowly widening being in part and counterpart, and kept, so to say, the world at bay through her, which before was unlimited and merged with us" (W 3:536).
In terms of regression, the doll in Rilke's work evokes the period of awakening self-consciousness in the child. Self-consciousness comes with the severing of the narcissistic, symbiotic union with the mother, and is a painful and terrifying process which brings with it feelings of helplessness and limitation. Where before was the engulfing love of the mother who was the world, there is now an absence, an abyss. And the doll can never take the place of the mother. I think that a large part of the rage, hatred, and aggression against the doll is the memory of the lost union with the mother, for which the doll is merely a poor substitute.
The position of play in Freud's work is central to his understanding of desire and the psychological mechanisms for coping with loss. The child, as Freud points out in the discussion of his grandson's "Fort-Da" game, fills with fantasies the space of the absent mother and symbolizes the fulfillment of his wishes. The doll, as do other toys, offers itself as an object for the attachment of the child's erotic and aggressive fantasies. Her very unresponsiveness, although it does not gratify the child's desires, leads to a continuous effort on the part of the child to invent an imaginary world and to hallucinate satisfaction: [End Page 671]
Like in a sample glass we mixed in her what happened to us before recognition, and there we saw it change color and boil up. That is, even this we invented again, for she was so bottomlessly without fantasy that our imagination became inexhaustible in her. For hours, for whole weeks it might satisfy us to drape the first feathery silk of our heart into folds around this quiet mannequin, but I cannot imagine it otherwise than that there were certain endless afternoons when we grew tired of our doubled ideas and when we suddenly faced her and expected something. (W 3:536-37)
But why is it the doll, and not the rocking horse or any of the other toys, that functions as this primary entry into the world of the imagination? The answer, I think, lies in the fact that the doll, among all the toys, comes closest to imitating the child's own body. Because the body of the doll resembles the human body it lends itself to an imaginative representation of the human world. The child plays family, school, grocery store, and so on. During play the doll can assume the child's place in the adult world, while the child plays all the others: mother, father, teacher, grocer. Through the doll the child can explore some of the parameters of the adult world.
Rilke would agree with this sociological explanation of the doll's function in the child's universe. In "Dolls" he expresses a very similar idea: "We found our orientation through the doll. By nature she was lower than we were, and so we could gradually flow down into her and collect ourselves and recognize, although somewhat dimly, our new surrounding world" (W 3:539). But Rilke also reminds us of another, less optimistic aspect of the doll which does not fit into the slick picture of the child practicing to be an adult with her doll. What about those "endless afternoons when we grew tired of our doubled ideas and when we suddenly faced her and expected something" (W 3:539)? What when the fabric of the child's fantasy world tears apart and she suddenly recognizes that through the web of fiction she is faced by a lifeless body? It is in those terrifying moments, Rilke thinks, that the child glimpses an aspect of human existence even adults find difficult to accept. When the imagination ceases to perpetuate itself, when boredom sets in, the world that we had taken for granted suddenly takes on dark and unfamiliar hues. Behind it we sense a threatening emptiness which begins to permeate the solid floor, the walls, the chair, the rocking horse, and the doll:
When nothing was lying around to captivate and change our train of thoughts, when that idle creature continued to stupidly and heavily spread itself like a peasant Danae who did not know anything else but the infinite golden rain of our feelings: I wish I could remember whether we started up in anger and told that monster that our patience was at an end? Whether we did not face her, [End Page 672] trembling with rage, and wanted to know, post for post, what she was doing with all our warmth and what had become of all this wealth?--Then she was silent, not because of arrogance, but silence was her continuous excuse because she was made of a good-for-nothing, completely irresponsible stuff--was silent and did not even think to be proud of it, although it provided her with great importance in a world where fate and even God himself have become famous for facing us with silence. At a time where everybody made an effort to give us quick and soothing answers the doll was the first who made us suffer this immense silence which later on would often breathe at us out of space whenever we stepped on the limits of our existence. Facing her as she stared at us we experienced for the first time (or am I wrong?) that certain hollowness in our feeling, this pause of the heart in which one would perish if not the whole, soft, far-reaching Nature would carry us like a lifeless thing across the abyss. Are we not strange creatures that we obey and let ourselves be instructed to invest our first tender inclinations where they must remain unsatisfied? (W 3:537-38)
Suddenly the doll has become a harbinger of a universe unresponsive and indifferent to the human cry for meaning. In her the absurdity of life finds its first dark abode. The "hollowness in our feeling" and the breathless "pause of the heart" bespeak an instant of utter terror. A sense of futility and helplessness interrupts the newly found identity of the child and threatens to annihilate all boundaries--yet not in a blissful union with the motherly universe, but through a sudden ceasing of the meaningful structure of reality. The great fear which the doll inspires is the fear of a silence and emptiness at the heart of our existence. It grasps the possible absence of transcendence, the possible unreality of a spiritual invisible realm, the possible meaninglessness of our life beyond the fragile clearing of the present. While in Rilke's work the angel affirms existence beyond and without human beings, the doll, in her small and silent way, denies being itself.
V. ". . . that superficially painted drowned corpse,
lifted and carried by the floods of our tenderness . . ."
But in more than one way the doll is a harbinger of the death principle in Rilke's work. We already saw how her unresponsiveness supports and destroys the imaginative reality of the child's play. We examined how nothingness glares at the child through the doll's glassy eyes in moments of boredom. But there is another connection between the doll and death, one which we have hinted at and which is so obvious that it is easily overlooked. The doll is a dead body, an inanimate child, an unresponsive, rigid corpse.
This morbid sense of the doll can clearly be seen in the fragment from [End Page 673] the discarded early fifth Duino Elegy which we mentioned before. It gives a warning to the adult to be aware of the child's naive confusion of the corpse and the doll, and the advice to cover the dead body lest the child play with it like she plays with her doll. The gruesome picture that Rilke paints here of a child playing house with a corpse and erecting it against an unspecified surface comes to a sudden stop in mid-sentence, as if the poet suddenly became aware of the absurdity and terrifying importance of this uncanny, dream-like scene.
Let us return to Freud at this point and remember his psychodynamic explanation of the uncanny. The uncanniness inspired by a dead but seemingly alive object is that it reminds us of a primitive period in our personal and cultural development where the boundaries between the I and the world were less clearly defined. He summarizes it in the following way: "An uncanny experience occurs when either infantile complexes which have been repressed are once more revived by some impression, or when primitive beliefs which have been surmounted seem once more to be confirmed" (SE 17:249). The child of the above fragment does not distinguish between the doll and the corpse, and neither does Anushka in "Frau Blaha's Maid." Both of them cross the boundary between life and death and break the taboos surrounding the human corpse out of ignorance and simplemindedness. For us as observers this failure to respect and understand the nature of death is extremely uncanny because it reminds us of a developmental stage where the distinction between life and death was not as clear cut as it seems to be to the adult mind. Yet to blur the distinction is a threat to our continuous effort to keep death at bay through technology and medicine.
In one of the papers developing the concept of the death instinct, "The Economic Problem of Masochism," Freud expresses the thought that at an early stage of human development the death instinct is actually the primary instinct ruling the organism, and that the desire to regress to an inorganic state expresses a fundamental tendency of all life forms:
In (multi-cellular) living beings the libido meets the instinct of death, or destruction, which is dominant in them and which seeks to disintegrate the cellular organism [composing it] into the state of inorganic stability (relative though this may be). The libido has the task of making the destroying instinct innocuous, and it fulfills the task by diverting that instinct to a great extent outwards--soon with the help of the special organic system, the muscular apparatus--towards objects in the external world. The instinct then is called the destructive instinct, the instinct for mastery, or the will to power. A portion of the instinct is placed directly in the service of the sexual function, where it has [End Page 674] an important part to play. This is sadism proper. Another portion does not share in this transposition outwards; it remains inside the organism and, with the help of the accompanying sexual excitation described above, becomes libidinally bound there. It is in this portion that we have to recognize the original, erotogenic masochism. (SE 19:163-64)
Ultimate regression would be a regression to a state of primary masochism, which is characterized by the absence of Eros and the desire to level all tensions through "inorganic stability," that is death. As primary narcissism is the first stage of erotic development, primary masochism represents Eros's primordial counterpart, the death instinct, in its early and unsublimated form.
Through Freud's concept of primary masochism we have come a step closer to understanding the uncanniness of the doll. Through her "thick forgetfulness," her unresponsiveness, her coldness, her inanimate body we encounter an image of the human form in the ultimate realization of the death instinct: inorganic stability.
Prior to the threat of annihilation of one's gender through castration--which Freud mentions as a major cause of our sense of the uncanny--comes the threat of the body to annihilate itself. The uncanniness of the doll in Rilke's work has its roots in this regression to primary masochism, which is a regression to an even earlier stage of development than the love triangle of the castration complex.
As Rilke's child stares at the doll through the window of boredom, he unconsciously faces the final futility of Eros's imaginative constructions. The undercurrent of destruction from within the world, within the body, slowly hollows out the heart of his world and threatens to render meaningless the work of Eros. The child's response to this threat is hatred directed against the silence of the doll and rage against the waste of affection and imagination on a being that assumes the human form but is ultimately without love.
The aggressive response, though, directs the destructive impulse away from one's own body and toward an object "out there." Remember the sadistic scene of the little boy with the tousled hair phantasizing about crushing the doll under the rails of the rocking horse, or Anushka destroying her puppets and splitting open her baby-doll's head in the darkness of the deserted kitchen: both acts seem to say that if the image, the representation of the human form, does not fulfill its promise of warmth and companionship, it will be destroyed. Better to rip the comforting fiction and bring about an absolute and unthinkable darkness that knows no pain than to suffer the futility of one's own creative act. Especially with Anushka we get the impression that her final act of violence is not just a destruction of a puppet theater, but the symbolic [End Page 675] annihilation of everything that gives comfort and meaning to her life. She destroys her world. And although directed against the object, the destructive impulse seems to have the ultimate aim of self-destruction by abolishing the world necessary to human survival.
There is an absurd element to this rage against the world. The doll, experienced in itself and apart from the world of play, reveals that there is a limit to life, that brute matter cares very little for human feeling, and that death is everywhere. It also shows that our involvement with the material stuff of the universe constitutes its meaningful structure. Without the child's compassion and imagination, the doll is a corpse. Rage denies this participation in the meaningful structures of the world and tries to raze the limits of our imagination and the boundaries of our life. It tries to overcome death and destruction by willingly killing and destroying the very harbingers of death and destruction.
In a strange and disconcerting way Rilke's doll seems to share an inhuman space with the figure of the angel. The angel is the idealized, pure form of Eros prior to organic involvement and differentiation into sexes--the archetypal image of primary narcissism. The doll, on the other hand, embodies the victory of death and destruction over the life of the organism--the archetypal image of primary masochism. While the angel is the ideal, unattainable achievement of perfect being, the doll is the grim threat of nonbeing. Both can paralyze the imagination: the angel by luring the soul into dreams of paradise, and by revealing our human fallibility, insufficiency, and ultimate dependence on the material world; the doll by inspiring a petrifying fear of death and meaninglessness. The one leads to narcissistic dispersal of the self in search of the impossible ideal, the other to masochistic depression and a doing away with the terrifying human body.
Our reflections on Eros and Thanatos through the images of angel and doll pose the startling question whether the goal of both instincts is not the same, namely narcissistic union with the universe--which is first the fusion with the mother and then the fusion with the earth in death. In terms of Freud's work we can understand now that primary masochism comes prior to primary sadism, for sadism already presupposes a distinction between body and world. The self-destruction of the organism, on the other hand, comes before the awareness of the world as separate. It attempts to restore a state prior to "organic instability," or life, and is retrogressive toward a narcissistic wholeness void of tension and movement. Masochism is the shadow side of original narcissism, the dark side turned away from the blissful smile of Eros. We could call masochism by another name: narcissism of the death instinct.
The uncanniness of the doll is a reminder that primary masochism is still familiar and present, albeit repressed and forgotten. Although [End Page 676] dismissed by Freud, the doll can show us the vicissitudes of an instinct other than Eros. Its uncanniness reveals and conceals the dynamics of the death instinct.
Eva-Maria Simms is Assistant Professor of Psychology at Duquesne University. Her background is existential-phenomenological psychology, and her writings encompass the psychological study of literature, as well as the development of children. She has written about Rilke in German and English.
1. Rainer Maria Rilke, "Dolls," in Werke (Frankfurt a/Main, 1966), 3:534; hereafter cited in text as W by volume and page number. All translations from Rilke's works are mine.
2. Sigmund Freud, "The 'Uncanny,'" The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, ed. James Strachey (London, 1953-1966), 17:219-52; hereafter cited in text as SE by volume and page number.
3. See Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society (New York, 1950), hereafter cited in text as CS; Melanie Klein, Narrative of a Child Analysis (New York, 1961); Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment (New York, 1975).
4. E. Kirsten Dahl, "Fantasies of Gender," Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, 43 (1988), 351-65.
5. See D. W. Winnicott, The Family and Individual Development (London, 1965); and his Playing and Reality (London, 1971).
6. See Sue White and Gail Santili, "A Review of Clinical Practices and Research Data on Anatomical Dolls," Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 3, no. 4 (December 1988), 430-42; Alayne Yates and Lenore C. Terr, "Anatomically Correct Dolls: Should They Be Used as the Basis for Expert Testimony?" Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 27, no. 2 (March 1988), 254-57.
7. See Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge, Mass., 1982).
8. Rainer Maria Rilke, Duino Elegies, in Sämtliche Werke (Frankfurt a/Main, 1965), 3:461; hereafter cited in text as SW by volume and page number.
9. Wolfgang Leppmann, Rilke: A Life, tr. Russell M. Stockman (New York, 1984).
10. Rainer Marie Rilke "Frau Blaha's Maid," in Sämtliche Werke, 4:629; hereafter cited in text by volume and page number.