I believe in my conscience I intercept many a thought which heaven intended for another man.So runs the epigraph to José Saramago’s The Double, a novel I read recently, and rather enjoyed (though it seems many did not, to go by a google search of press reviews at the time of release).
The epigraph gives the measure of the thing—as well-chosen epigraphs should. Our thoughts often arise unbidden, they do not fully belong to us; our minds have a mind of their own, in spite of our bodies; and the imagination summons into being selves which are not quite identical with the thinking subject. The writer of imaginative literature is a creator of duplicate selves: a fictional character is always in some sense an alter ego.
Don’t misunderstand me: it is not my intention here to paddle in the shallows of the biographical fallacy. The creator of fictional characters is not alone in being able to breathe life into golem-like alter egos. (It is only my sense of decorum that restrains me from writing ‘alteri nos’ here.) Borges had the sense that it was the other Borges, not himself, that things happened to; and knew that the written word ‘no longer belongs to any individual, not even to that other man, but rather to language itself, or to tradition.’ He recognized himself less in his own books than in those of others—‘or in the tedious strumming of a guitar’.
In first person narratives, a doubling is operative at the level of language, since the ‘I’ of the enunciation is not identical with the ‘I’ of the utterance. There is both an internal and an external perspective to any narrative, an intra- and an extra-diegetic dimension, and the gap between the two is most prominent when it is bridged or concealed, for example in free indirect style.
When Borges writes, ‘I am not sure which of us it is that’s writing this page’, the split in subjectivity makes itself felt at the level of the referentiality of the pronoun: as Ovid’s Narcissus had it, ‘iste ego sum’, or, in Rimbaud’s formulation, ‘Je est un autre’.
Doubled selves are a part of literature from the very beginning: Odysseus is noted for his duplicity. To speak more properly of doubles, it was Ovid who did the most to explore the complications of the doubled self: the Metamorphoses is peopled with doubles of all kinds.
In ancient literature there is, I think, always an explanation for the appearance of a double, whether it be a naturalistic or a divine one (or both, as myth is rarely resistant to double, triple, four-fold interpretations). Plenty of gods can take on the exact appearance of humans: Morpheus as Ceyx in book 11 of the Met., Cupid as Ascanius in book 1 of the Aeneid, Mercury as Sosia in the Amphitryon of Plautus. This last example is notable because it has made its way, via Molière, into the most literary modern language, French, in the form of the everyday word ‘sosie’ (look-alike).
Each of these examples has its explanation in the natural order of things, too: dreams, love, deception. And there is the most naturalistic of explanations for the doubling of Narcissus, the most famous of Ovid’s doubles: it is simply a matter of mistaking a reflection for another self. There is also, naturally, a psychological explanation: already there in Ovid, and later seized upon and greatly expanded by Freud.
The appearance of the inexplicable double in literature is, as far as I know, more modern: it is a creation of the Romantic imagination, and we understand it best under the sign of the ghost story. It has more to do with the doppelgänger or fetch of folklore than with the divine doubles of classical myth. Examples are too numerous to list; Poe’s William Wilson is one of the best known. A more complex treatment of the theme is to be found in James Hogg’s brilliantly deranged Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.
Dostoevsky’s The Double is perhaps a more obviously psychologizing treatment of the theme; but of course, the inexplicable phenomena of ghost stories are always in fact profoundly explicable at the level of the unconscious.
Saramago’s novel, then, is elbowing in on pretty crowded territory. But as Schlegel said (Saramago tells us), ‘all great truths are basically trivial, and so we have to find new ways, preferably paradoxical ways, of expressing them, in order to keep them from falling into oblivion.’
We all experience a doubling of the self at the level of internal dialogue; we might even hazard a basic definition of fiction—or indeed, of all writing—as the playing out of internal dialogues. Saramago’s narrator worries that this may in fact be the case, and he exhibits concern that his own ideas and feelings should not impinge on the autonomy of the character. The voice of the narrator should not speak over the voice of the character. Identity of appearance is one thing, but identity of voice goes much deeper. The human voice has a unique ability to unsettle us, since it is imagined to emanate not from the body exactly, but from the profoundest recesses of the unique self.
The holding apart of narrator and character, Saramago claims, is a matter of the ‘laws of good writing’ (laws that are regularly violated by the worst postmodern novelists). In an attempt to avoid calling undue attention to duplicity at the heart of his fiction, the writer substitutes the (not entirely satisfactory) device of dialogues between the protagonist and the voice of ‘common sense’, reminiscent of those between the narrator in Flann O’ Brien’s The Third Policeman and his soul, to which he gives the name ‘Joe’.
The names we give things (and people) are a part of their identity. The protagonist of the novel is in flight from ‘the authentic name, the real name’ (the name which, in his case, can prompt no other reaction but spontaneous laughter), and is striving to inhabit those temporary names that are ‘as necessary in life as in fiction’. A need to become as empty as words themselves, to live, disembodied, in language. Actors take on disguises, different roles, different names – that is why Camus saw the actor as one of the ideal types of the absurd man. A disguise can make us feel more authentic, more like ourselves.
One of the anxieties bound up with the fantasy of the double is the idea that we ourselves might be the duplicate, the inauthentic copy of an original that preceded us. This is closely related to the fear of usurpation. Such anxieties more commonly affect interactions with others, as is the case with sufferers of Capgras syndrome, or with those subject to the adolescent fantasy that one’s real parents have been replaced by impostors who are outwardly identical to them.
The primordial self-recognition, the moment when the infant child first sees its reflection in the mirror and thinks ‘that’s me’, is the first stage in the formation of a sense of identity. How profoundly troubling, then, to be confronted with an image of oneself and to think ‘that’s not me’. This is not just Narcissus’s problem. Tragedy, to put it crude terms, is the narrative of what happens when men fail to recognize themselves. Part of the modern sense of alienation is the nagging feeling that the one having the experiences, feeling, consuming, and enjoying, is not me: it is someone else.
But the fantasy of the double can also be a comforting one. The flipside of the fear of usurpation is the desire to be an impostor oneself, to live the life of someone else. Fiction is a way of vicariously inhabiting this fantasy. As perversions go, it is a relatively widespread, and perhaps not an immediately dangerous one.