Forty Thousand Kilocupids

Marina Warner

  • BuyThe Erotic Doll: A Modern Fetish by Marquard Smith
    Yale, 376 pp, £35.00, January 2014, ISBN 978 0 300 15202 9

One of Baudelaire’s Petits Poèmes en prose, ‘Le Joujou du pauvre’ (‘The poor child’s plaything’), opens with the remark that very few amusements are free of guilt, but he knows of an ‘innocent entertainment’: a flâneur out for a stroll can fill his pockets with fairings – a rider on a horse with a whistle for a tail, or a clown on a string – and then, when he comes across one of those ‘unknown and poor’ street waifs of 19th-century Paris, give him a toy and watch his eyes widen. At first, Baudelaire writes, the urchin will hesitate to take it, doubting his luck, but then he’ll snatch it and run off, like a stray cat tossed a scrap which then skulks in a corner to eat it.

‘Le Joujou du pauvre’ goes on to expose something intrinsically disquieting about dolls: the deathly antithesis to life and consciousness that they embody. Baudelaire describes how he once saw a boy who was ‘beau et frais’, primped and pampered, wearing a coquettish country outfit, with next to him, lying on the lawn, a doll as beautiful as its owner, varnished, gilded, attired in purple, plumed and sparkling. But the toy doesn’t interest the child. His gaze is intent on something ‘between the thistles and the nettles’ on the other side of the park railings: a pariah urchin (‘un marmot-paria’), filthy and smelly and rickety (Baudelaire, lover of disease and dirt, piles it on), who is holding out his own toy for the other boy to see. He is shaking the cage, baiting its inmate – ‘a live rat!’ The poem ends: ‘And the two children laughed at each other in a brotherly way, and their teeth were equally white.’

A live animal is so much more fascinating than the splendid doll, for reasons that underlie the erotics Marquard Smith explores in his peculiar and highly equivocal study. Yet a doll promises everything the rat in a cage can give and more: she/he/it can be a human friend, a dream lover come to life with whom one may do as one wants – in every form of engagement, from tender care to sadistic self-pleasuring. A doll will not bite, will not let rip with her tongue. Rilke describes this ideal complicity in ‘On the Wax Dolls of Lotte Pritzel’, an impassioned and influential essay about dolls: ‘made into a confidant, an accomplice, like a dog, but not as receptive’, ‘dragged as companions into cots’; the dolls ‘themselves took no active part in these events,’ ‘letting themselves be dreamed’.

Smith calls his subject Pygmalionism, or sometimes ‘agalmatophilia’, from a Greek word for ‘statue’, and his book is less interested in dolls as toys than it is in replica humans – statues and waxworks and automata. He begins with Ovid’s story about Pygmalion, a rampant misogynist who has decided that women are immodest and unkind and has chosen to live alone. A sculptor by trade, he carves an ivory statue that looks just like a real girl, and even seems to return his kisses. He gives her presents, likes dressing her up and buying her jewellery and ribbons and ‘pet birds’ (no doubt caged); he takes her to bed with him on a regular basis. At the festival of Venus, he goes to the celebrations and implores the goddess of love to help him find a wife ‘just like my ivory girl’. His prayer is granted: that night when he lies down once more beside the statue, the ivory softens and warms at his touch: ‘It is a body!’

Ovid’s tone is customarily offhand, exposing the absurdity in Pygmalion’s behaviour, as well as hubris, since the sculptor’s work echoes the gods’ creation of man – and of Pandora, also perfect in every way. With his light-footed scepticism he is also calling on his readers to marvel at the contrary actions of a god like Venus. He doesn’t comment on the outcome of the miracle – did the couple live happily ever after? But the outlook is usually overcast in Ovid, and the next story is about Pygmalion and the living statue’s unhappy grandson, who inspires a furious passion in his own daughter, Myrrha, with catastrophic consequences. She is turned into the myrrh tree, weeping bitter, fragrant tears.

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