On the essays shelf (yes, there are still more books to excerpt in my vast library. I can’t seem to stop this excerpts-from-my-library project. I started it in 2006!)
NEXT BOOK: Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing, a collection of a series of lectures, given by Margaret Atwood, about writers/writing.
Over the past year, I’ve been doing what I call my Shakespeare Chronological Reading project, making my way through all of his works based on the alleged timeline of the plays’ first appearance. I’ve done this once before, about 15/20 years ago, and I am really enjoying it. You can see him develop as a playwright. You can see him make mistakes in one play, realize the mistake, and then correct it in later plays. (My favorite example is Richard III, a breakthrough for him. You can FEEL the breakthrough when you read the plays chronologically. Richard III features a lead character who is in every scene. He never gets a break. Actors have been completely undone by playing that role, one of the most vigorous and challenging in the canon. King Lear, at least, has breathing space in between scenes: he’s not in every scene! Shakespeare seemed to realize his mistake – he was, after all, an actor – and so in later plays, none of the lead characters appear as much as Richard III does. He gives the actor time to catch his breath backstage. It’s a beginner’s mistake.) I’m on King Lear right now, which I thought of when I re-read this Margaret Atwood essay on “the double” – she references King Lear a couple of times, as well as Shaksepeare’s recurring themes of doubling, twins, and disguise. King Lear is full of doubles. (Shakespeare, on the whole, is obsessed with doubles. They’re a very useful storytelling tool. Comedy of Errors has not one set of identical twins, but TWO sets of identical twins, causing much mayhem and confusion.) King Lear has two old men, fallen from grace: Lear and Gloucester. Gloucester has two sons, the legitimate Edgar and the “bastard” Edmund – siblings with polar opposite personalities. Regan and Goneril are interchangeably evil, and it’s worse because there are two of them. They are twice as monstrous together as they would be alone. And then, multiple characters taken on disguises in the play, which is also a doubling. Edgar pretends to be a mad man, the “beggar Tom”. Kent disguises himself as an old madman. When they all meet on the heath, they do not recognize one another. There’s more, including the mirror that Lear holds up to Cordelia’s mouth at the end, to see if breath fogs it. Another kind of doubling. The play is so perfectly and devastatingly constructed. It’s relentless. Shakespeare used “doubling” for comedic results – in Twelfth Night, with the twins, and As You Like It, with girls running around dressed as boys, wreaking havoc (not to mention the actual Duke being mirrored by the Fairy King and Queen in the forest – a court at home, a court in the forest).
Margaret Atwood is obsessed with doubles as well, not only in literature itself, but in the writer’s life, in the pursuit of the craft itself. There is the regular human being, and then there is the writer persona. She explores that explicitly in the wonderful Lady Oracle, where the lead character splits off into a mysterious Other when she writes. Other stuff comes out, the truth, stuff that would be unlivable to the regular human being. I imagine that this becomes even more acute when a writer becomes famous, as Margaret Atwood is famous. She says that if she had known any better when she was young, she would have been like Thomas Pynchon, who never had an author’s photograph on any of his books, never did interviews, never asserted “who he was” as a civilian. He wanted the books to speak for themselves. He still does. Once everyone knows what you look like, it is harder to hide, and writers need to hide, they need the privacy of that hiding in order to do the tough work of writing.
Atwood is a WILD writer with a WILD and brutal imagination. As her non-writer self, she’s a partner, a mother, a regular person. She’s not this wild-woman living a wild life. Her life is pretty stable. She obviously prefers it that way. But there is that divide, and the divide fascinates her. Coincidentally, it is a divide that obsesses Jeanette Winterson as well, who became famous very young, and had to deal with the lack of privacy, and the demand of fans who wanted her to weigh in on every issue, etc. She had become a “public figure” and it did not suit her personality at all. She prefers being a hermit. She prefers making stuff up and creating a persona, being a trickster, she does not wish to be nailed down in the way her readers wish to nail her down (“So you ARE Villanelle in The Passion, right?”) So … it’s a problem. Some writers use pseudonyms, in order to create the privacy they need, a frank acknowledgement that there is the Person, and then there is the Writer.
Literature is so full of famous doubles that obviously Atwood is not alone in her obsession, and this essay/lecture is all about that. There’s the most famous, perhaps, Jekyll and Hyde, but think of all the others. Dostoevsky’s novella The Double is a gorgeous and terrifying story about a man who realizes he has an evil double running around. (If you haven’t seen the movie, starring Jesse Eisenberg, I highly recommend it! Totally under-seen, under-rated.) Joseph Conrad wrote a similar story called The Secret Sharer, about a sea captain who takes a castaway on board, hiding him in his cabin, and he gets the creepy feeling that the castaway is somehow … him. It’s truly eerie. Because we think we are unique, yes? We assume that we are the only one of us. How terrifying then is the doppelgänger. Alice, of course, goes through the looking-glass (Atwood talks a lot about Alice). There, in fairy-tale form, Lewis Carroll puts the writer’s position plain: There is the regular Alice, on the regular side of the mirror, and then there is the other Alice, through the looking-glass, where fantastical things happen, and she is the Star of her own Story, as opposed to shuffled aside. Atwood says that the moment of creation, of writing, is like the moment when Alice steps through that mirror. The selves are blended, the worlds are blended, there is no more divide. (In Lady Oracle – it’s been years since I’ve read it, so I may get some details wrong – the lead character stares into the mirror and does “automatic writing,” and words flow from her pen that she would never ever say in a more conscious or civilized state, where we are meant to “play well with others,” and soft-pedal the truth of who we are in order to get along, etc. It is the mirror that helps make that happen.)
It’s a really thought-provoking essay with many different parts. Atwood starts off by saying that she grew up without television. Of course. She was born in 1939. Her entertainment as a child was comic books. And, naturally, comic books are FILLED with doubles. Superman and Clark Kent. Batman and Bruce Wayne. Captain Marvel and Billy Batson. As a child, reading these stories, Atwood just GOT it, as all children do. Children are small and powerless, and yet inside – their lives are as huge and as important as adults. There’s a divide. Superheroes represent a wish fulfillment for a child. I may seem weak and small and flawed, but at night I fly over the city with a cape. These stories launched Atwood’s imaginative capabilities. She knows she is not alone in that, and she moves forward to make the connections between those comic book heroes and the Jekylls and Hydes that fill our literature from almost the very beginning.
Excerpt from Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing: “Duplicity: The jekyll hand, the hyde hand, and the slippery double: Why there are always two”, by Margaret Atwood
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde owes something to old werewolf stories – the ordinary man who is transformed into a fanged madcap, given the right conditions – but it also owes a great deal to old stories about the Doppelgänger. Robert Louis Stevenson was far from being the first to have taken an interest in this species of duplicity. Identical twins – not quite the same thing as doubles – have always attracted attention. In some African societies they were killed, to ward off bad luck, and we still find something uncanny about them: perhaps such exact replication suggests to us a denial of our own uniqueness.
I remember twins first catching my attention through an advertisement in a magazine, when I was twelve. This advertisement was for a home permanent known as a Toni, and it showed two identical girls, each with waved hair. The slogan was, “Which Twin has the Toni?” – the idea being that one of them had a cheap home perm and the other one had an expensive salon job, and nobody could tell the difference. Why was it that I suspected fraud? Perhaps because of the suggestion that one twin was somehow the original – the authentic, the real thing – of which the other was merely a copy.
Twins and doubles are a very old motif in mythologies. Usually they are male – Jacob and Esau, Romulus and Remus, Cain and Abel, Osiris and Set – and often they struggle for dominance. They can be associated with the founding of a city or a people, though often one twin or double does not fare so well as the other. In his book on human sacrifice, The Highest Altar, Patrick Tierney would have it that the successful twin represents the living society, and the unsuccessful one his dark alter ego – the one who was sacrificed and then buried under the cornerstone in order to deal with the Underworld, propitiate the gods, and protect the city.
Twins or twin-like siblings continued to exert a fascination into the age of “literature” – Shakespeare’s good Edgar and bad Edmund, in King Lear, or, for less drastic effect, the two sets of identical masters and servants in The Comedy of Errors. But the double is more than a twin or sibling. He or she is you, a you who shares your most essential features – your appearance, your voice, even your name – and, in traditional societies, such doubles were usually bad luck. According to Scottish folklore, to meet your own double was a sign of death: the double was a “fetch,” come from the land of the dead to collect you. The ancient Greek story of Narcissus may be connected with a similar superstition about seeing your double: what Narcissus sees is his own reflection – himself, but a self on the other side of the watery mirror – and it lures him to his death.
Those who have taken an interest in the Salem witch trials in seventeenth-century New England will be familiar with the concept of “spectral evidence,” which was accorded the same legal status as more tangible exhibits, such as wax effigies stuck full of pins. Witches were supposed to have the ability to send out their “specter,” or incorporeal likeness, to do their dirty work for them. Thus if someone saw you in the barnyard hexing the cows and you could demonstrate by witnesses that you were home in bed at the time, what was proven was not your innocence, but the fact that you had the ability to project your own double, and were therefore a witch. (It was not until spectral evidence was barred from the courts that the New England witchcraft trials finally ended.)
Among the things that fascinated the early Romantics were folk-stories and folklore, so it is perhaps through this door that so many doubles got into the literature of the Romantic and post-Romantic periods. The atmosphere of these “double” stories and their many descendants is usually delirium and terror – as moviegoers will recognize if they’ve seen, for instance, such “double” films as The Stepford Wives, The Other, or Dead Ringers. One of the earliest English-language literary “double” stories of this type is James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), in which the protagonist – convinced he’s predestined to salvation, and is therefore free to sin as he likes – wakes from what he thinks is a long sleep to find that a man who looks just like him has been doing nasty things, for which he himself will have to take the blame. Poe’s story “William Wilson” (1839) is similar: the protagonist is haunted by a man with the same name who looks exactly like him, and functions as an interfering conscience. Our hero ends by killing the other William Wilson, thereby killing himself: like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the two William Wilsons share their mortality, and one cannot exist without the other. Later in the nineteenth century, Henry James has a more psychological “double” story: in “The Jolly Corner” (1909) an American aesthete returns from Europe, and becomes convinced that his former house is inhabited, not by an exact replica of himself, but by the ghost of what he would have been if he’d stayed in America and become a rich tycoon. He stalks this shadow, finally confronts it, and is horrified: his potential self is powerful, but he’s a brute, a monster.
Then of course there is Dorian Gray, he of the magic picture. Because the artist who painted the picture put too much of something or other into it – himself? His repressed passion for Dorian? – the picture is partly alive. It takes on the effects of age and experience, while Dorian (a golden boy, and related to the ancient, pagan Greeks, as his first name suggests) is freed from the consequences of his own cruel and depraved actions, remains young and beautiful, and is able to sin and collect objets d’art as much as he likes. He isn’t an artist or a writer – nothing so banal. His life is the work of art, and a decadent one at that. But when he finally decides to be good and to destroy the picture, doom falls. He can’t maintain his vow of virtue; realizing that the picture is his conscience, he sticks a knife into the canvas, the picture is restored to youth, and Dorian perishes. He and the uncanny picture have changed places, and Dorian now looks like what he really is – a degenerate old man. Motto: if you’ve got a magic picture, don’t mess around with it. Leave it alone.