“The freedom of the marionette” – John GRAY

A puppet may seem the embodiment of a lack of freedom. Whether moved by a hidden hand or pulled about by strings, a puppet has no will of its own. All of its movements are directed by the will of another – a human being who has decided what the puppet will do. Entirely controlled by a mind outside itself, a puppet has no choice in how it lives.

This would be an unbearable situation, if it were not for the fact that a puppet is an inanimate object. In order to feel a lack of freedom you must be a self-conscious being. But a puppet is a thing of wood and cloth, a human artefact without feeling or consciousness. A puppet has no soul. As a result, it cannot know it is unfree.

For Heinrich von Kleist, on the other hand, puppets represented a kind of freedom that human beings would never achieve. In his essay ‘The Puppet Theatre’, first published in 1810, the German writer has the narrator, wandering through a city park, meeting ‘Herr C.’, the recently appointed first dancer at the Opera. Noticing him on several occasions at a puppet theatre that had been erected in the town’s market square, the narrator expresses surprise that a dancer should attend such ‘little burlesques’.

Replying, Herr C. suggests that a dancer could learn a great deal from these puppet shows. Aren’t marionettes – controlled from above by puppeteers – often extremely graceful in their movements as they dance? No human being can match the marionette in effortless grace. The puppet is:

incapable of affectation. – For affectation occurs, as you know, whenever the soul … is situated in a place other than a movement’s centre of gravity. Since the puppeteer, handling the wire or the string, can have no point except that one under his control, all the other limbs are what they should be: dead, mere pendula, and simply obey the law of gravity; an excellent attribute that you will look for in vain among the majority of our dancers … these puppets have the advantage of being resistant to gravity. Of the heaviness of matter, the factor that most works against the dancer, they are entirely ignorant: because the force lifting them into the air is greater than the one attaching them to the earth … Marionettes only glance the ground, like elves, the momentary halt lends the limbs a new impetus; but we use it to rest on, to recover from the exertion of the dance: a moment which clearly is not dance at all in itself and which we can do nothing with except get it over with as quickly as possible.

When the narrator reacts with astonishment to these paradoxical assertions, Herr C., ‘taking a pinch of snuff’, remarks that he should read ‘the third chapter of Genesis attentively’. The narrator grasps the point: he is ‘perfectly well aware of the damage done by consciousness to the natural grace of a human being’. But still he is sceptical, so Herr C. tells him the story of how he had fenced with a bear. A practised swordsman, he could easily have pierced the heart of a human being; but the animal, seemingly without any effort, avoided any harm:

Now I tried a thrust, now a feint, the sweat was dripping off me: all in vain! Not only did the bear, like the foremost fencer in the world, parry all my thrusts; when I feinted – no fencer in the world can follow him in this – he did not even react: looking me in the eye, as though he could read my soul in it, he stood with his paw lifted in readiness and when my thrusts were not seriously intended he did not move.

Humans cannot emulate the grace of such an animal. Neither the beast nor the puppet is cursed with self-reflective thought. That, as Kleist sees it, is why they are free. If humans can ever achieve such a state it will only be after a transmutation in which they become infinitely more conscious:

just as two lines intersecting at a point after they have passed through an infinity will suddenly come together again on the other side, or the image in a concave mirror, after travelling away into infinity, suddenly comes close up to us again, so when consciousness has, as we might say, passed through an infinity, grace will return; so that grace will be most purely present in the human frame that has either no consciousness or an infinite amount of it, which is to say either in a marionette or in a god.

The dialogue concludes:

‘But,’ I said rather distractedly, ‘should we have to eat again of the Tree of Knowledge to fall back into the state of innocence?’

‘Indeed,’ he replied; ‘that is the final chapter in the history of the world.’

Kleist’s essay was one of the last things he wrote. Born into the Prussian military caste in 1777, he was temperamentally unsuited to any kind of conventional career. Pressed by his family to join the civil service, he saw himself as a writer but struggled to produce anything that satisfied him, travelling here and there across Europe, burning what he had written. At one point, seeming to have given up the struggle, he attempted to join Napoleon’s army as it was preparing to invade England. Undoubtedly a writer of genius, he left seven plays, eight extraordinary stories and a number of essays and letters, and may have written a novel he destroyed before committing suicide in 1811. Congenitally restless, he could not find a place in the world.

With its teasingly enigmatic dialogue, the essay upsets everything modern humankind believes about itself. How could a puppet – a mechanical device without any trace of conscious awareness – be freer than a human being? Is it not this very awareness that marks us off from the rest of the world and enables us to choose our own path in life? Yet as Kleist pictures it, the automatism of the puppet is far from being a condition of slavery. Compared with that of humans, the life of the marionette looks more like an enviable state of freedom.

The idea that self-awareness may be an obstacle to living in freedom is not new. It has long been suspected that the ordinary mode of consciousness leaves human beings stuck between the mechanical motions of the flesh and the freedom of the spirit. That is why, in mystical traditions throughout history, freedom has meant an inner condition in which normal consciousness has been transcended.

In modern thinking freedom is not much more than a relationship between human beings. Freedom in this sense may come in a number of varieties. There is the freedom that consists in an absence of human obstacles to doing what you want or may come to want, sometimes called negative freedom; the kind that implies not just an absence of impediments, but acting as a rational human being would act; and the sort that you exercise when you are a member of a community or a state that determines how it will be governed. For Kleist and others who have thought like him, however, freedom is not simply a relationship between human beings: it is, above all, a state of the soul in which conflict has been left behind.

In ancient Europe, Stoics asserted that a slave could be freer than a master who suffers from self-division. In China, Daoists imagined a type of sage who responded to the flow of events without weighing alternatives. Disciples of monotheistic faiths have believed something similar: freedom, they say, is obeying God’s will. What those who follow these traditions want most is not any kind of freedom of choice. Instead, what they long for is freedom from choice.

It is easy to dismiss those who yearn for this freedom as wanting to be ruled by a tyrant. After all, that is what many human beings have wanted in the past and continue to want today. Wanting freedom to choose may be a universal impulse, but it is far from being the strongest. It is not just that there are many things human beings want before they want this freedom – such as food to eat and a place to live. More to the point, if freedom means letting others live as they please there will always be many who are happy to be without freedom themselves.

In contrast, those who seek inner freedom do not care what kind of government they live under as long as it does not prevent them from turning within themselves. This may seem a selfish attitude; but it makes sense in a time of endemic instability, when political systems cannot be expected to last. One such time was late European antiquity, when Christianity contended with Greco-Roman philosophies and mystery religions. Another may be today, when belief in political solutions is fading and renascent religion contends with the ruling faith in science.

In late antiquity it was accepted that freedom was not a condition that could be established among human beings; the world was too unruly. Some of the mystical currents at work at the time went further: freedom meant escaping from the world. When Herr C. tells the narrator that he should read the third chapter of Genesis, Kleist points towards the most radical of these traditions – the religion of Gnosticism.

In the Genesis myth Adam and Eve lived in the Garden of Eden having no need to work; but a serpent tempted them, promising that if they ate the forbidden apple of knowledge they would be like gods. They ate the apple. Having disobeyed God, they were punished by having to pass their lives in unending labour.

In a traditional reading eating the apple was the original sin; but, as Gnostics understood the story, the two primordial humans were right to eat the apple. The God that commanded them not to do so was not the true God but only a demiurge, a tyrannical underling exulting in its power, while the serpent came to free them from slavery. True, when they ate the apple Adam and Eve fell from grace. This was indeed the Fall of Man – a fall into the dim world of everyday consciousness. But the Fall need not be final. Having eaten its fill from the Tree of Knowledge, humankind can then rise into a state of conscious innocence. When this happens, Herr C. declares, it will be ‘the final chapter in the history of the world’.

Herr C. invokes one of the most uncompromising demands for freedom that has ever been made. Believing humans were botched creations of a demiurge – a malign or incompetent deity, not the true God which has disappeared from the world – the ancient Gnostics viewed the experience of choosing as confirming that human beings are radically flawed. Real freedom would be a condition in which they would no longer labour under the burden of choice – a condition that could be attained only by exiting from the natural world. For these forgotten visionaries, freedom was achieved by storming the heavens in an act of metaphysical violence.

Many people today hold to a Gnostic view of things without realizing the fact. Believing that human beings can be fully understood in the terms of scientific materialism, they reject any idea of free will. But they cannot give up hope of being masters of their destiny. So they have come to believe that science will somehow enable the human mind to escape the limitations that shape its natural condition. Throughout much of the world, and particularly in western countries, the Gnostic faith that knowledge can give humans a freedom no other creature can possess has become the predominant religion.

If one of Kleist’s marionettes were somehow to achieve self-awareness, Gnosticism would be its religion. In the most ambitious versions of scientific materialism, human beings are marionettes: puppets on genetic strings, which by an accident of evolution have become self-aware. Unknown to those who most ardently profess it, the boldest secular thinkers are possessed by a version of mystical religion. At present, Gnosticism is the faith of people who believe themselves to be machines.

GRAY, John, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom. New York: Penguin RandomHouse, 2015.

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