blackbird online journal spring 2002 vol.1 no. 1


ELIZABETH KING | Clockwork Prayer

Part V: Looking at the Monk Now

The monk is, like all automata, a recording, a kind of artificial memory. What can he tell us?

David Todd winds the mainspring and we watch the monk perform on a table in Todd's workshop. While we both agree that this is a serious object, a haunted object, Todd believes his purpose was to intimidate and warn. I believe he instructs by example. Todd thinks the eyes and head move to make confrontational contact with onlookers, "You! You! And you!" I think the eyes are rolling in the head in trance. Though I have to admit, when he advances in my direction—comes at me—it is with such steady and unswerving forward momentum that my animal flight urge stirs. Just when I ruefully smile, he turns away, finished with me. I nervously postulate that the square path of the walk is the invisible cloister around which the monk shuffles in prayer. Todd thinks this is the clockmaker's device to "keep the fellow from falling off the table and knocking his head. (!)" He reminds me that some of the musician automata walk in squares too. The monk moves slowly—unnaturally so. But the fusee keeps his progress steady. (How much does he weigh, I suddenly wonder, this 15 inch tall homunculus? When the play is over, I ask Todd if I may pick up the actor, a bold request to make with so antique a clockwork. Over a cushion, with museum gloves, and absolute concentration, I lift him with both my hands by the torso, like a baby . . . just for the space of a second. He is heavy! But not in the way of an organic thing, more like a little tank.) Would the measure of the monk's power have come from the sight of a king setting him in motion? But Todd and I agree the power flows in the opposite direction, so that once the tiny man is seen to move independently, the operator's status takes a leap, he becomes a kind of god. Either way there is a mutual transfer of authority and magic. Todd, jesting only a little, likens the possession of the monk to owning the pentium chip a couple of years ago. Who commands the highest technology possesses the highest power. I'm fascinated, but am yet absorbed by how the monk possesses us.

Sigmund Freud's now famous definition of the uncanny: ambiguity about the extent to which something is or is not alive. [62] I like the notion of a sliding scale, a greater or lesser degree of doubt. We are biologically driven by this distinction, which we can observe every time a coat rack in our peripheral vision startles us as an unexpected guest. It can be of a very very tiny duration, this uncertainty, and still register a measurable shock. Might an unsuspecting viewer long ago have believed it to be alive, this small figure moving on the table? This is not a question with a hard yes or no answer. It is a rolling question.

But perhaps one could ask it differently. To what extent would a viewer's response to the monk be an emotional response, and as such, a response as if to a living thing? [63] We are reminded of the puppet's power to enchant us, not only by the illusion of autonomy and agency, but by the illusion of personality. Even if just a crude bit of wood and cloth, a puppet's movement transforms it into something with a complicated psychology. We understand right away that it is, say, embarrassed, or lying, or hatching a plan: it exhibits intent.

A storyteller once said, to secure the immediate attention of children, begin a story with a contradiction. It hypnotizes them. The puppet itself is a contradiction: while one part of our mind carefully observes the techniques of the illusion, another part fully, involuntarily, participates in the masque. With the monk, there are several overt contradictions. It has the shape of a man, and a very individual one at that, with delicate, protruding ears and direction-finding nose—but it's much too small. It moves by itself, and as an animate thing the gestures of arms and legs and head are familiar, but they are much too slow, unnervingly slow. This is what the monk possesses that the Hollywood robot or the wax museum figure lacks: something seriously wrong right away. The paradox is that it holds our attention longer. ("It" or "he" . . . ? throughout the essay I've used both, for the monk is truly a thing one moment, a being the next.) In fact, the very constraints on the clockmaker, which include things like limits on speed and range of motion to preserve center of gravity and thus stability on three wheels: these very limitations give rise to qualities we interpret on a completely different level. The slowness becomes loaded, as if the figure marshals a kind of extreme concentration. Once we are willing to invest a thing with independent agency, and this is where the starting shock ignites our credulity, our very faculty of rational thought, once ready to detect the deception, suddenly skips a beat and is arguing instead for the utterly implausible. The mechanical repetition? But the monk enacts something that is repetitive by mandate, by definition. It is when the monk turns, for here the motion is its most three-dimensional to our eye, that he is most uncanny. As he turns away from you, it is with the most profound disdain. He is clearly not real, and yet we are wanting to believe and believing he is real. Just for the moment, to want is to have. And now it is we who are in the trance.

In her recent book, Art and Ritual in Golden-Age Spain, Susan Verdi Webster examines the great Spanish tradition of penitential processions during Holy Week, occasions in which elaborately dressed and decorated wooden figures of patron saints—some even with hidden mechanisms for animating the arms and heads—were carried through the streets, in a commingling of theater and devotional passion. Among classes of objects remotely connected to the monk, these articulated sculptures—imágenes de vestir as they are called—offer some productive comparison. Webster describes the powerful emotional responses they drew from onlookers, and of particular interest is the contrast she marks in comparing the figures as they were seen throughout the year in repose in the churches, with their animated appearance in the street during Holy Week. She writes:

The spatial and temporal status of the sculptures in procession significantly enhance their mimetic effects, and their unique kinesthetic character allows them dramatic entrance into the realm of human experience. They are able to move both physically (through articulated limbs) and spatially (through the streets of the city). Furthermore, the incorporation of sculpture within a processional context acts to change a most fundamental aspect: the sense of time. No longer static, eternal images of altars and retablos, their temporal state is extended so that they merge with the spectators' own experience of space and time. [64]

Our emotional engagement with the monk, as he performs in our own time, bears comparison with Webster's portrayal of this penitential spectacle. The distinction between the moving and the still effigy is crucial in understanding the nature of its claim on our attention, especially in the case of an object that is first or primarily seen to be immobile, and which then begins to move. Not only does such a transformation irrevocably alter essential relations between all parties, but it also makes an interesting fellowship of all viewers across time who have experienced it: something close to our hearing the same music our forebears heard in centuries now gone. The great difference between the imagen de vestir and the monk of course is size: the former is defined always as being carved to human scale. The monk's miniature height, coexisting with the immediacy and purpose of his motion, may be the most disturbing contradiction of all, for the combination of "small" and "moving" holds ancient, almost primal anxiety for us. He can play to only so large an audience, but his relation to a spectator is personal.

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Part VI: Looking at the Monk Then: Some Historical Speculations

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