Saturday, July 07, 2007

What's so Scary about an Evil Twin?

Is there anyone who is genuinely frightened by ''evil twin'' stories these days? The scenario has become something of a joke in popular discourse, considered to be a naive trope of silent melodramas and frothy soap operas. And yet it wasn't always this way. Twin stories, or double stories, have been a commonplace in literature of the uncanny for several centuries now. As we know from Shakespeare, the comedic aspect of double stories has always been there too. But we seem to have little of the sense of terror in being confronted by one's own double.

Recently, I've been working my way through Dostoevsky who I've been hearing about for years, but had missed out on, aside from reading The Brothers Karamazov when I was sixteen. I just got done reading his short novel The Double and was surprised at how unnerving it actually was. Dostoevsky wrote the novel at age twenty-five and returned to it years later, after his imprisonment and conversion, and the version that is most often published is the later re-write. It reminded me of the psychological anguish in his other works, especially Notes from Underground, but it's also quite a funny story in many places.

The story tells of ''our hero'', Mr. Golyadkin a rather timorous and vindictive civil servant who humiliates himself by crashing a party where he is unwanted. In his humiliation, Golyadkin desires ''not only... to escape from himself, but even completely to anihilate himself, not to be, to turn to dust.'' That night he meets Mr. Golyadkin, just arrived in Saint Petersburg, who shares his name, appearance, and his job.

Golyadkin Junior soon becomes the enemy of Golyadkin Senior, ingratiating himself around the office, subtly undermining the ''original'', and apparently trying to replace ''our hero''. I say apparently because one of the masterstrokes of the story is that we're never entirely sure if the hero is truly confronted by his malicious double, if he is unfairly maligning an innocent man, or if he has entirely created the double by externalizing all of his negative traits. In fact, when Golyadkin is committed to a hospital at the end, we still don't have any idea if he was insane or if he has been betrayed by most of the people who know him. Suggestively, we learn that he has expected to come to this end for quite some time.

Why is this ''evil twin'' story so unnerving? Well, the first thing about it, and what makes it a modernist work in my opinion, is that is suggests that selfhood is already divided in modern society. The idea that there is a conflict between an innate, natural self and social selfhood dates back to Rousseau, who famously contrasted être and paraître, or being and appearing. It may well be that social selfhood has always been somewhat artificial, and has always involved some amount of acting, but Rousseau is the first to suggest that we moderns are hopelessly divided against ourselves. Nietzsche would take the idea further with his calls to reclaim the Dionysian or instinctual, and Heidegger would claim that we have lost the original sense of Being. Freud, of course, posed the Id and Superego as analytic categories. This obsession with the divided self is a major problem in modernity and may well indicate the issues raised by the end of religious faith- or at least the loss of faith in a soul that is metaphysical coupled with a social order that derives from a sacred order. In other words, religious or not, we might be stuck with this problem.

I've complained before about literary criticism that seemed overly ''politicized'' to me, but I now think this is too simplistic. Society as such is a main character in much fiction, therefore it's relatively impossible to separate the ''political'' from Dickens, for example. I think what bothers me is a sense that literary criticism often brings its own political concerns in an anachronistic way to fiction that doesn't support them. ''The masturbating girl in Jane Austen'', for example. But the social is psychological in this case. Not only does Dostoevsky suggest that social selfhood is difficult; he also suggests that it carries with it the terror of forgetting one's lines or being ''found out'' somehow. The double is therefore terrifying because it represents what is hidden in social life. Even worse, because the twin looks exactly like we do, he can ruin our standing in society without us being aware of it. The idea that we can do everything correct in maintaining a certain social role and still be revealed by an identical double whose actions are beyond our control is still unnerving I think.

Secondly, the double suggests that our identity is not as unique or self-contained as we would like to think. For a man of faith, like Dostoevky, this is even more unnerving because it goes against the article of faith that God has created each one of us as a unique, unrepeatable, impermeable self. The idea that we could live just lives and yet be mistaken for a sinner double is bad enough, but to suggest that our finite identity is not so finite or unique is an affront against us.

Even if we don't believe in metaphysics, the double can be unnerving. In the existential sense, if there is no God or metaphysics, what we call the soul must be a property of the body. And if the body can be doubled, one's self is still put at risk because this can be replicated as well. I think there's a sense of this when victims of identity theft feel that their life has been stolen. It's not entirely rational, but in an existential sense, being adheres to essence, which resides in the body. If someone else has our body, why can't they take our being with it? I think this is also part of the horror of concentration camps, gulags, and torture- that there is nothing which can be considered off limits for the state, that we have no self which is irrevocably ours.

Therefore, the double is terrifying simply for the questions that he or she poses about us- are we unique? Do we have finite identities? Is our social role anything more than acting, or could we be easily replaced by our understudies? As long as these questions persist- and I do think that most contemporaries couldn't care less about the question of an inner self, which they find terrifying in that it expires- the stories of doubles will be terrifying. At least to me.


Holly said...

In his most recent book, Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs, Irvine Welsh addresses this, and perhaps takes it a step further. The central character encounters his "flip side" -- someone who is everything he is not (in both good and bad ways) and they develop a symbiosis, where the actions of one take consequence with the other.

Aside from being a punch-drunk tale of the fantasy of finding someone else to take all your hangovers for you, it also struck me as an examination of what would happen if the interactive social dynamics that do exist (even in a world where many of us feel like we don't really connect with many other people) were played out on an very intimate level. It's the alternate self as another human being, with all the associated freedoms and pains. Where does self interest end (or begin, for that matter) and social responsibility pick up?

Although, thinking back over your description of Dostoyevski, I'm inclined to think Chuck Palaniuk's novel Fight Club took a generous scoop of inspiration from that direction.

Rufus said...

The Welsh story reminds me of the movie Persona, which I've been thinking about writing on for a few years now. I think the questions that you ask about self interest and social responsibility are huge questions in modernity. I get the feeling that many people have decided that the self is entirely fictional, or the confluence of social forces. But I find that disturbing, even though I feel like I can't argue against it without arguing for the soul. So be it.

Stephen King has said that the double story is one of the four basic storylines of horror fiction, and of course he wrote The Dark Half with that storyline. The movie Dead Ringers is also really unnerving, I think because it poses the possibilty of watching your own twin decline mentally and physically, which seems worse than losing a relative somehow.

Interestingly enough, Omar and Saddat no longer look much alike at all. But my friends Bryan and Mike are identical. I wonder sometimes what it's like for Bryan because his brother's band, The Bravery, is on TV from time to time playing for Jay Leno and people like that. I'm not sure if I wouldn't find that a bit strange if it was me.