“When one creates phantoms for oneself, one puts vampires into the world, and one must nourish these children of a voluntary nightmare with one’s blood, one’s life, one’s intelligence, and one’s reason, without ever satisfying them”
Eliphas Lévi, 1810 – 1875, French occult author and ceremonial magician.
(adj) Phantom – something apparently sensed but having no physical reality.
I’ve been thinking about the notion of Phantoms; phantoms as phenomena that describe a quality and depth of immersion in an idea. Phantoms as the acute manifestation of the imaginative function that allows us to engage with life. Our minds generate phantoms that facilitate our belief in a cohesive self. They allow us to construct and maintain a sense of reality, to animate the inanimate and to materialise the immaterial. Our phantom selves are projected out into the world to commune with others. This incessant dialogue of speculation and invention is a reflex. The body and all it encounters becomes a constantly evolving narrative of sensations and confabulations.
This depth of immersion can also go into strange and uncomfortable places; think of phantom limbs, psychosomatic illnesses, phobias.
The mind is an incessant storyteller and the body is both a map and a stage. As in life and puppet theatre, without imaginative complicity there is no show.
Rodolfo Llinas, the chair of physiology and neuroscience at New York University Medical Centre, states;
“Thinking is internalised movement. …We are emulating reality inside our head. We have managed to generate a dreamlike condition where we actually have sounds and objects that move with respect to backgrounds and all of these things without effort. So that is basically what the nervous system is for. It’s a huge, beautiful device to emulate reality.”
Thinking both emulates and constructs reality. We live in a constantly evolving phantasmagorical narrative. We are inhabited by multiple phantoms – versions of our selves (realised or unrealised), memories, unfulfilled desires, and egos.
The creative process both harnesses and manifests phantoms on a deep level.
Within the world of phantoms the line between what is real and what is not and also what is alive and what is unalive is slippery. Puppetry is a theatre of phantoms which, like the shadows in Plato’s Cave, provokes and relies on the shifting multitude of associations and imaginative tangents that dance momentarily across the maps of our minds and bodies.
I have a personal reason for contemplating the notion of phantoms – in the wake of Hutch I have travelled through some ambiguous emotional and psychological territory.
After a month of development and rehearsal playing within the make-believe world of my ‘Hutch-ian’ nursery I arrived at a confusing place. In order to crystallise my ideas and make that rabbit puppet live I had to go through a strange process of ‘gestation’, birth and bonding. I spent weeks caressing, feeding, nursing that rabbit puppet – coaxing its awful infancy into being. At first I was really reticent about showing playful, tender aspects of the mother character – I didn’t want to go there and felt afraid and inhibited about exploring my ‘inner mother’ in rehearsal space or on stage. It felt very contrived and excruciatingly private. Any separation that I had created between the puppet and myself felt torn down and I found myself in a naked emotional space ‘mothering’ my puppet.
As rehearsal progresses I found myself more able to venture into these ‘maternal’ spaces – I rocked, and kissed, stroked and fed the puppet. As long as I could contrast these moments of tenderness with unpredictable changes of mood – little cruelties, moments of abrupt dissociation and absurd gestures and rituals – it was ok and felt authentic to the work. This constant vacillation between conflicting states became the signature not only of the mother, but the underlying theme of the work.
But this process took its toll. When the show was over and the props and puppets were put away I felt a big sense of loss. So much so, that I convinced myself that I was pregnant. It was as if I had so deeply internalised being ‘mother’ that I physically embodied the sensation with a phantom pregnancy. The show may have been over but the nursery remained encoded within me somehow. In the absence of the puppet I had begun puppeteering my own emotions and biology. In the aftermath of Hutch my focus had switched from an inanimate puppet to my own speculative flesh and blood.
What was astounding to me was just how suggestible we are – how pliable our physical matter is as it dances with our thoughts. Through the creative process I could convince myself and an audience of the infancy of a foam rabbit puppet and with that same energy convince myself of the presence of a developing foetus forming within my body.
In some ways Hutch could be looked upon as an extended phantom pregnancy – there was a period of creative gestation that was secret and internal, then the quickening that took place in the rehearsal room and the finally the birth and fruition on stage.
Phantoms are as much about what isn’t there as they are about what is.
Roman Paska (New York puppeteer, director and writer) describes puppetry as a kind of ‘necromancy’, an enlivening of the ‘awful otherness’ of puppets. Puppets are little corpses made to dance. Paska says:
”It’s the absence of the human that is frightening… The puppet is a dead thing and it’s up there moving. If it provokes deep anxieties, that’s why.”
[Puppets reflect to us that] “our own existence is not so different from a table,” – in the space of a moment the inanimate can become animate and vice versa .
In a sense my phantom pregnancy was born of the ferocious emotional investment that I had made in my infant puppet – and more broadly speaking, the project as a whole. Both my puppet(s) and the speculative embryo were little phantoms dancing briefly in make-believe nurseries – one to an audience of many, the other to an audience of one. And just like the mercurial nature of a puppets life, in the blink of an eye my phantom child was gone.