Georgia Panteli's From Puppet to Cyborg: Pinocchio’s Posthuman Journey is published in Legenda's Studies in Comparative Literature series. Barbara Burns has this interview.
BB. You did your first degree at the University of Athens. What brought you to London, and how did your interest in literary studies, and fairy tales in particular, emerge?
GP. I studied English Literature in Athens, but I always wanted to live in London. I even had a map of the British Isles in my room as a teenager. My interest in fairy tales stems from my love for myths and legends – they all share the same symbolic language, after all. As a child what I loved even more than fairy tales were the Greek myths. When I was six years old, my favourite book was a collection of myths about flowers and their etymology. Then at school I was introduced to the creation myths, and later to Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad. Learning about literary techniques and studying the Homeric texts in modern Greek translation became my favourite subject. After that, I went to a classical High School, where we continued with textual analysis of the Greek tragedies, this time in ancient Greek. Texts such as Antigone and Oedipus Rex have a great impact on your thinking, especially when you study them at a young age. I feel very lucky to have had this influence.
In my free time I would read literature from all over the world. As a teenager my favourite books were Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Franz Kafka’s The Castle and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It was a natural step for me to follow my love of fiction and study English Literature. I had some inspirational lecturers, for example Dr Christina Dokou, who offered courses in Comparative Literature, such as The Greek Myth in Literature. This is when I first thought of continuing my studies in that direction. I was interested in comparing myths from different cultures, and this led me to Comparative Literature and to UCL.
BB. Your book is all about retellings of the Pinocchio myth. When they hear this name, many people think of the 1940 Disney film, and perhaps don’t realize that the story originated as a work by the nineteenth-century Tuscan author Carlo Collodi. Did Collodi have a didactic purpose in creating this figure for children, and what impact did his writing have in 1880’s Italy?
GP. Absolutely, Collodi had written educational books before, and he had translated fairy tales from several French collections, so he was familiar with didactic material. With Pinocchio, he wanted to give an example to both young and older audiences of how an Italian should behave for Italy to prosper. The ideal that the Blue Fairy presents to Pinocchio, the rules she asks him to follow in order for him to become human, i.e., never lie, work hard and obey his father, is something that humans seldom manage to do. Pinocchio is therefore asked to be better than human.
Collodi’s work had a great impact both in the Italy of his time and thereafter. He helped shape what we understand today as standard Italian, which also contributed to forming a national identity. By using the Tuscan dialect that most Italians were able to understand, he was creating a text and an icon that would represent all Italians and that informed what we refer to as Italianness, ‘l’Italianità’. Through his little puppet’s adventures, he shows that the newly unified Italy needs education in order to prosper, but before that, children and all citizens need to eat first, hinting that tackling poverty was a key priority. Let’s not forget how often in the novel Pinocchio is hungry, an important detail that was completely erased by Disney who did not want to upset his audiences, still going through the Great Depression.
BB. For decades the Pinocchio figure has enjoyed iconic status as a metaphor for the human condition, and there have been countless interpretations across many media. What do you think are the reasons for this?
GP. At the heart of the Pinocchio myth is the desire to become human. This stands for becoming better, improving oneself, something which resonates with most people. His happy ending, being rewarded for his efforts and hard work and transformed into a human boy, is a symbol of hope. It is the ultimate story of transformation and upward mobility, one that starts with the protagonist’s desire for change.
BB. In your study you examine science fiction film versions of the story such as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. Then you move on to postmodernist novels of the 1980s and 90s that deconstruct the Pinocchio myth, and you close with an analysis of some quite disturbing and challenging graphic novels. Did you have a favourite case study among these?
GP. My favourite one is Blade Runner, in particular the character of Rachael. She is one of the first examples of a non-threatening humanoid on screen, which is groundbreaking for the technophobic attitude of the time (1982) and she is a woman, too – a female cyborg bringing up existential questions about human nature to global audiences. Her loneliness and vulnerability are still relevant today. The world around her changes overnight once she realizes she is not human, as she believed. It’s a pity we don’t get to see an older Sean Young next to an older Harrison Ford in Blade Runner 2049 (2017). Instead (and this is a spoiler for those who haven’t watched it) we only see her remains after the revelation that she was the first replicant to become pregnant and bring life into the world. It would have been more interesting to see her character develop than have the tired old trope of death at childbirth.
BB. How do people react when you tell them the subject of your research? Is the familiarity of the Pinocchio theme an advantage or a disadvantage?
GP. People are usually interested and surprised to hear about the various references and connections to Pinocchio that they hadn’t thought of before. I think it’s great that everyone has heard of Pinocchio, the most famous puppet in the world, and can relate to my research. Most do not anticipate the connection to robots and cyborgs and are usually intrigued to hear more about it.
BB. Have you been able to engage with a wider public audience about your work?
GP. I was invited to participate in a podcast about Pinocchio for The Forum, BBC World Service. It was an exciting experience to record live from different studios in the world. I also had a wonderful book launch at the University of Vienna, where I currently teach. Despite the pandemic, it was a great event with stimulating conversations, and I was honoured that Professor Enrico Palandri came all the way from Venice to introduce me and lead the discussion.
BB. Do you cover anything related to this topic in your teaching and, if so, in what ways have students’ responses to the subject struck you?
GP. I teach Pinocchio as part of my Fairy Tales class, both at the International Summer School for Undergraduates at UCL and at the University of Vienna. Students always love the connection between Pinocchio and robots, something which is seen in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. Artificial Intelligence. This idea of bringing together Pinocchio and robots was originally Kubrick’s, but he died before he could materialise his vision, and then Spielberg took over. However, the Pinocchio myth, a big part of which is the desire to become human, is reflected in many examples of robots or cyborgs who think they are human or wish they were. Posthuman science fiction often has references to Pinocchio, deliberate or not. For example, in the final transformation of Pinocchio to a real, human boy, his wooden body is not turned into flesh. Instead, Collodi imagined the human boy Pinocchio staring at his old wooden body, now hanging lifeless on a chair. Isn’t that extraordinary? This is the very first mind and consciousness uploading with the help of magic. Consciousness transfer is one of the most explored topics in science fiction (for example, in Ghost in the Shell, Battlestar Galactica, Altered Carbon and more) and it began with Pinocchio.
BB. You have also been active in promoting contemporary Greek literature abroad. Can you tell us a bit about this?
GP. Greek literature was part of my BA degree and is a keen personal interest. While I lived in the UK, I was involved in initiatives such as the series of events at the Southbank Centre ‘Greece is the Word’, and in organizing Greek reading groups for the independent publisher And Other Stories. I’m currently working at the Department of Theatre, Film and Media here at the University of Vienna, which led to my interest in Greek film and media. In 2023 I will be a Junior Fellow at the University of Graz researching violence against women in modern Greek cinema.
BB. Finally, what do you do to switch off from academic work?
GP. I love playing the piano, I have been playing since I was five, and it always transports me inwards and upwards. When I was a teenager, it was difficult to choose what career to follow, I had to decide between music and literature. Sometimes these two merge, for example when I play Vangelis’ soundtrack for Blade Runner: the mood of the film is recreated and for seconds I look through my window over Vienna and this blends with Ridley Scott’s vision of a past future LA.