Have we not been told that somewhere in the world there is another human being who looks exactly like us but lives a different reality than we do? Have we not been told that each of us has a darker side?It should be easy to believe in since Buddhism, science fiction, and quantum physics all suggest that we are living in multiple timelines, each a result of different causes and effects.
The doppelgänger is German for ‘double walker.’ The ‘double’ is usually evil and the ‘other half’ often reflects the baser instincts of the same individual. In English literature, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the classic example of the type, the one that most people would think of first, although Dickens created another instance: Charles Darnay and Sidney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities. Dostoyevsky rendered the Russian version, “dvoynik,” in a Bartleby-like government clerk named Yakov Petrovich Golyadkin in his short story “The Double.” José Saramago gave us his version in the person(s) of Tertuliano Máximo Afonso and Claro in his novel, The Double. In American literature, there is Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson” and Phillip Roth’s novel Operation Shylock.
Nothing I wrote above is new, but after having seen the movie The Black Swan, I began to think of doppelgänger as the reflection of the same person in the mirror. No spoilers here, but Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers does one pirouette after another that includes sexual confusion, obsession and possession, body-image distortion, and the blurring of every plane of Art with Reality and Reality with Art. The ‘I’ for Nina points in both directions, outward and inward, with the same kind of nihilistic violence as in Emily Dickinson’s ‘My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun.’
But are all doubles evil? Mark Twain provides a commentary on social injustice in The Prince and the Pauper. There is the sense of social injustice and literal false-imprisonment in Dumas père’s The Man in the Iron Mask, which was an instance of Art imitating Life. Harry Haller in Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf searches for his totem animal, but not before starting each day staring into the mirror while he shaves and deciding whether or not to slit his own throat with his razor. The thought alone makes you think twice about giving Harry his morning coffee.
One last example of the doppelgänger that is not evil, nor a portent of dread, but that is simply put, uncanny, is in Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Other,” where the younger and older versions of the author meet on a park bench near the Charles River in Cambridge, MA.
The double-walker, I think, is an extension of Immanuel Kant’s interpretation of Plato and moral agency: that in each of us there are conflicting wills and selves, the phenomenal and the Noumenal; which suggest that schizophrenia is that psychotic break when reality cannot hold or be reconciled. That is Philip K. Dick territory: see the film A Scanner Darkly. Philip K. Dick is worth a blog posting all his own since he was a visionary unto himself.