by Gautam Pemmaraju
Thro’ the Heaven and Earth and Hell
Thou Shalt never, never quell:
I will fly and thou pursue:
Night and morn the flight renew’.
From William Blake's My Spectre Around Me Day And Night
Once I happened to see two brothers, tennis champions, matched against one another; their strokes were totally different, and one of the two was far, far better than the other; but the general rhythm of their actions as they swept all over the court was exactly the same, so that had it been possible to draft both systems two identical designs would have appeared.
In search of the derelict details of his deceased half brother, V, the narrator of Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, offers these words while reflecting upon the mysterious cadences that seem to be mirrored between siblings. But here, the sibling in no mere blood brother, he is no mere adventurer who sought fortune in a distant land, reinventing himself in name, manner and consciousness, but is instead in some sense, a projected second self, a döppelganger, an adrift double of V. Sebastian Knight, the gloomy maladroit émigré, whose successful literary conquests of the English language, driven in part by his unsuccessful attempts to ‘out-England England’ as V observes, was the ‘other’ – a phantasmagoric illusion of sorts, who had walked the path before him. The path of course, is no clear or easy one; it is instead chancy and treacherous; it is at times, labyrinthine and inscrutable, but as V discovers in ‘following the bends of his life’: “I daresay Sebastian and I also had some kind of common rhythm”. A sense of déjà vu, of an ‘it-happening-before’ twinship, persistently accosts V as he journeys on to trace Sebastian’s meandering and desolate path, leading ultimately, to the circumstances of his death.
In Dream Textures: A Brief Note On Nabakov (in the posthumously published essay collection Campo Santo) WG Sebald writes of V’s encounter with Silbermann, a ‘commercial traveller’, on the train to Strasbourg. A ‘restless spirit’ who is found crossing paths with several of Nabakov’s narrators, Silbermann, after ascertaining that V is a fellow traveller asks him ‘what he is traveling in’, and immediately understands when V replies that he travels in the past. Sebald writes here,
Ghosts and writers meet in their concern for the past – their own and that of those who were once dear to them. As V tries to trace the real life of Sebastian, the vanished knight of the night, he feels a growing suspicion that his brother is looking over this shoulder as he writes.
As we mark WG Sebald’s recent tenth death anniversary (see this article by a former student), such enigmatic and unsettling preoccupations, in turn mysteriously linked to the unfolding of history, the shared routes of intrepid travellers and emigrants, the spectral shadows of brief encounters and unlikely correspondences, of oddly familiar remnants and incantatory sepulchres, are to be found widely in art and literature. Uncanny coincidences, strange ironies, shadowy pasts and ‘elective affinities’ – these have all become decidedly Sebaldian over this difficult, embattled decade, the events of which already contribute in no small measure, to the ‘natural history of destruction’.
Exploring 'dream textures', Sebald writes of the story of a man in the beginning of Nabokov's autobiography Speak, Memory, who “suffers a panic attack when he first sees a home movie shot in his parents’ house a few weeks before his birth”. The man sees himself as a ghost in his own family, experiencing through the viewing of the film, “an anticipation of death in the memory of a time before life”. It is in this ‘study of spirits’ that Nabokov's genius lies, Sebald writes; it offers “the impression that our worldly doings are being observed by some other species”. Of unfathomable taxonomy, these beings, Sebald continues, perform ‘a guest role’ in our living plays and we perhaps appear to them transient, diaphanous even, ‘of uncertain provenance and purpose’, as they surely do to us.
Orhan Pamuk begins Istanbul: Memories And The City with the ghostly double that inhabited his childhood years. On the wall of his aunt’s house in Cihangir, he tells us at the very outset, there was a kitsch picture of a ‘cute child’, which his uncle and aunt would point to on occasion as a picture of the author in the making. This picture, and the abstracted, rarefied second self it presented, Pamuk says, informed his early suspicion that there was more to the world than meets the eye. In a somewhat symmetric construction to Nabokov’s tennis playing siblings, Pamuk too offers that he often imagined his ghostly other to be somewhere in Istanbul, in a house much like his own, an Orhan much like himself, who in all likelihood “must have emerged from a web of rumours, misunderstandings, illusions and fears”. Pamuk writes that as the years passed, as he entered adolescence from childhood, the second Orhan accompanied him too, ‘haunting his thoughts’, transforming into fantasies and nightmares. He would greet his ghostly twin with ‘shrieks of horror’ on occasion, and on others they “would stare each other down in eerie, merciless silence”.
Whenever I was unhappy, I imagined going to the other house, the other life, the place where the other Orhan lived, and in spite of everything, I’d half convince myself that it was he and took pleasure in imagining how happy he was, such pleasure that, for a time, I felt no need to go to seek out the other house in that other imagined part of the city.
The double is a widely used literary device, not to mention a cinematic trope (see this interesting critique of Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence here at 3QD). It offers many solutions to complexity, particularly in offering alternate views, imagined vantage points, and a successful cleavage of an internal conflict. While simplistic binaries abound – good versus evil, beautiful versus ugly, familiar versus foreign – the compound variables and meta-constructions that may be generated through the double, allow for more imaginative articulations of alienation, fear, loss, memory construction and trauma, in the mapping of broader psychosocial topographies. As Sebald deftly demonstrates across his oeuvre, the uncanny correspondences across time – from the grim, abstracted memories of past conflicts to the banal humdrum of everyday life – may be collapsed into a single emblematic object/image, a desolate discard chanced upon by the wayside in an achromatic landscape. Everything is linked through human endeavour, through the movement of people across time and place, and finally, through seemingly random synthesis.
Otto Rank’s study of the double is often cited as most prominent, alongside writings on the uncanny by Freud and Jentsch, and followed in due course, by many works over the 20th Century. Harry Tucker Jr, in the introduction to his translation of Rank’s The Double: A Psychoanalytical Study, writes that Rank sees the double motif as a primitive conception of the soul’s duality. On the one hand, the ‘spiritual double’ offers immortality, which Rank says emerges from man’s need for self-perpetualization, and on the other reminds him of his mortality. Tucker points out though that Rank makes a distinction between the artist and the neurotic individual, in the former's ability “…to present his creation in an acceptable form justifying the survival of the irrational in the midst of our over-rationalized civilization”.
This artifice of a double offering a pathway to immortality, as redemption in a morally illegitimate world where there is scant regard for ‘just’ actions and where oftentimes chicanery finds reward, is expressed in photographic pioneer Hippolyte Bayard’s protest fiction, Le Noyé (about which I have written before here at 3QD). Bayard presented to the public a staged photograph of what appears to be a morgue scene. In an audacious conceit, Bayard himself appears as a drowned man who took his own life to protest the callousness of the people towards his genius. The ‘ingenious and indefatigable researcher’ offers the daring fiction of his symbolic death, not merely as a diatribe, but also as an expression of his artistic alienation.
Citing Eric Stern’s interest in Ranks’ analysis of the double, Tucker Jr points to the recurrence of the double in literature: from ETA Hoffman, Dostoevsky, Oscar Wilde, amongst many others. Self-infatuation and narcissistic ties come in to play as the hero transfers some of his guilt on to his double, and in Stern’s words: “In order to escape this fear of death, the person resorts to suicide which, however, he carries out on his double, because he loves and esteems his ego so very much. And finally the double represents the embodiment of the soul”.
Nabokov plays out this idea incandescently in Despair (Fassbinder’s film can be seen here; and here’s Vincent Canby’s review), where the protagonist Hermann, ‘a second rate businessman with ideas’, plots his own murder through the means of his identical double – a tramp that he encounters in Prague. Although the tramp does not see it, Hermann insists on an uncanny resemblance.
That man, especially when he slept, when his features were motionless, showed me my own face, my mask, the flawlessly pure image of my corpse…in a state of perfect repose, this resemblance was strikingly evident, and what is death, if not a face at peace – its artistic perfection? Life only marred my double; thus a breeze dims the bliss of Narcissus; thus, in the painter’s absence, there comes his pupil and by the superfluous flush of unbidden tints disfigures the portrait painted by the master.
Despite the striking likeness, there is always ambiguity linked to the double. The shadow, the second self, although uncannily like the ‘original’, is also flawed. In a theorization of the double, Milica Zivkovic (The Double As An Unseen Of Culture: Towards A Definition Of The Döppelganger, 2000; read it here), asserts the its seductive value in literary works. While its ambiguity and immateriality are key values, Zivkovic alludes to the Platonic conception of twin souls as an expression of likeness and complementarity. The writer also points out that in many ways the double remains an elusive concept, whose origins lie in myth, mystical traditions and folklore. Variations of the Faust myth often inform double narratives, particularly in that “the demonic is not supernatural, but is an aspect of personal and interpersonal life, a manifestation of an unconscious desire”. Zivkovic cites also contemporary scholars of the double, in their assertion that the use of doubles in literature, art and culture is linked to psychoanalytical theories. In particular, CF Keppler (The Literature Of The Second Self, 1972):
Often the conscious mind tries to deny its unconscious through the mechanism of “projection”, attributing its own unconscious content (a murderous impulse, for example) to a real person in the world outside; at times it even creates an external hallucination in the image of this content.
I will draw attention here to the Vedantic construct of the mayavi rupa (see this entry on Subtle Body) – the illusionary body. The soul, or the ethereal inner self, finds objective form through intense unconscious desires being externalized or through a conscious act of projection. The Theosophists in particular, were quite attracted to these ideas. Helena Blavatsky claims this mayavi rupa as an astral body projection, ‘in the vicinity’ and at ‘no great distance’. Such projections, she cautions, sometimes may emanate without the knowledge of the subject, and the double may wander about but is not ‘fully endowed with consciousness’. In Secret Instructions To Probators Of An Esoteric Occult School, she writes:
If a man thinks intensely of another at a distance, his Mayavi Rupa may appear to that person, without the projector knowing anything about it. This Mayavi Rupa is formed by the unconscious use of Kriyashakti, when the thought is at work with much energy and concentration. It is formed without the idea of a conscious projection and it is itself unconscious, a thought body but not a vehicle of Consciousness. But when a man consciously projects a Mayavi Rupa and uses it as a vehicle of Consciousness, he is an Adept.
It is fair to say here that any and all kooky spiritualist formulations offer keen potential as literary devices. A great deal of stories and parables of antiquity, from the Puranas, Jatakas, to ancient Egyptian mythology, Nordic, Arabic mythical traditions, abound with doubles, djinns, spirits, döppelgangers, second selves, traveling souls, astral projections, and shape shifting life forms.
During my first reading of The Rings Of Saturn about nine years ago, I felt particularly drawn to the part where Sebald finds himself at the house of his friend, fellow writer and emigrant, Michael Hamburger, in Middleton. The writer is seized by a strange sense of familiarity although it is his first visit. He feels as if he had once inhabited the very same house; he feels an inscrutable sense of kinship to the objects within the house; the mahogany bureau that Michael no longer uses appears to make him feel as if he were the one who had abandoned it; the wicker basket full of twigs for the kindling, the jars of pickled fruit in the pantry – he is mysteriously drawn to these artifacts of this amorphous, singular kinship. Sebald writes here of Stanley Kerry, a professor of German at Manchester University and recalls his own meeting with him in the Japanese garden that Kerry had made for himself at the back of his bungalow in Wythenshawe and is astonished to find a mention of Stanley Kerry in Michael Hamburgers’ memoirs, of their journey from Blackburn to Manchester.
When I now think back to Stanley Kerry, it seems incomprehensible that the paths of Michael’s life and mine should have intersected in the person of that extraordinarily shy man, and that at the time we met him, in 1944 and in 1966 respectively, we were both twenty two. No matter how often I tell myself that chance happenings of this kind occur far more often than we suspect, since we all move, one after the other, along the same roads mapped out for us by our origins and our hopes, my rational mind is nonetheless unable to lay the ghosts of repetition that haunt me with ever greater frequency.”
How is one to confront these ‘ghosts of repetition’? Must we necessarily be waylaid by apparitions of time, of memory, and of mood? When is it that we see our doubles and what then do they reveal to us?
I end here with Freud’s words (from The Uncanny):
But it is not only this narcissism, offensive to the ego-criticizing faculty, which may be incorporated in the idea of a double. There are also all those unfulfilled but possible futures to which we still like to cling in phantasy, all those strivings of the ego which adverse external circumstances have crushed, and all our suppressed acts of volition which nourish in us the illusion of Free Will.