the doll games
shelley and pamela jackson


s doll journal

double pleasure

A doll is a thing we think with. In this it is hardly unique, but it is special in resembling its users. Such a tight circuit between the object, its representation, and the girl who observes the resemblance. Is the doll something like symbolism with training wheels, the easy first step? The little girl observes that she can use this thing to mean herself. She branches out from there, gets the hang of simulacra, developes a taste for it. When the simulacra begin to develop simulacra of their own, then you know you’ve got it: it seems to be the ability to represent yourself that makes you real. The portrait of the doll, the private papers of the doll, the handicrafts of dolls, these second order fakes make the first order fakes stauncher, sturdier.

We even played mirror games, ascribed to the doll the playful desire to see herself transformed. Not the same, somehow, to actually transform the doll; then she would be someone else, when what we wanted was for her to seem to be someone else, while remaining herself (maybe even more herself than before): to layer that semblance on top of who she really was. It’s funny that this trick mirror was also a sex change device—this, in a world in which sex changed frequently, if not capriciously. Shakespearean games of disguise layered upon disguise. (We note also the Shakespearean echoes in the brother sister twin sets that abound in the doll games.) I think also of the Borgesian impulse to shore up an imaginary world with footnotes and documentation. Not a narrative art, exactly, but world-creation.
It is a good model for writing, playing doll games. The doll as word never loses its materiality; much of doll games consist of perfecting (with an editorial exactingness) the right arrangement of symbolic elements. The perfect shoes—soft rubber shoes that fit—earrings that really go through the ear lobe—these things satisfied a lust for precision in us; at the same time, we handled our tools with a lordly casualness. Things should be just right, but they could not be perfect; there was a huge excess, a wrongness, unavoidable, right down to the coarse weave of the clothes they wor. But it that didn’t, finally, matter; it burned off in the magic of that translation into story—the action, limpid and unbroken, for which the dolls were only the best vehicle. Besides, too much perfection—say, the iconic objects that came with storebought Barbie clothes, like a miniature pair of sunglasses—stopped us in our tracks. There was nothing to do with it but look, and feel a small shock of pleasure, and then do that again, and again. Eventually the pleasure had to be put aside; it became boring.
So, two pleasures, apparently at odds: the pleasure in the material object for its own qualities including verisimilitude, which is importantly also a pleasure in its lack of verisimilitude, since what is SO REAL is delightful precisely because it isn’t quite real; real is no marvel. And the pleasure of the story (immaterial, virtual, a mental apparition) which could in a pinch make do with sticks or shampoo bottles instead of dolls.
The most interesting thing about a doll to me is that double pleasure: it’s real but it’s not alive; it’s alive but it’s not real. This is the wobble in writing. I have a taste for exaggerating that wobble, while most of the history of western art has been dedicated to minimizing it. Language is for representation, so it’s perverse to point out its materiality. Writers, like doctors, are forced to get mucky in the works, but neither of them are supposed to forget that it’s the soul or the story that counts. As little girls, though, we knew both mattered, the stuff and the story.