Being two is half the fun

John Bayley

  • Multiple Personality and the Disintegration of Literary Character by Jeremy Hawthorn
    Edward Arnold, 146 pp, £15.00, May 1983, ISBN 0 7131 6398 4
  • Doubles: Studies in Literary History by Karl Miller
    Oxford, 488 pp, £19.50, June 1985, ISBN 0 19 812841 X
  • The Doubleman by C.J. Koch
    Chatto, 326 pp, £8.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 7011 2945 X

‘The principal thing was to get away.’ So Conrad wrote in A Personal Memoir, and there is a characteristic division between the sobriety of the utterance, its air of principled and ample reflection, and the wild idea of getting out, of doing a bunk. It is one of the many divisions examined in Doubles, which explores in compelling proliferation the implications of duality in all the forms in which it has touched, inspired and shaped the writer. For imaginative literature not only depends upon but is duality. Novels need doubles to dream them up, and readers to find and recognise their own separate elements in the pages.

The sense of character is itself a sense of duality: amazement at the difference between the way we seem to ourselves and the way the world appears to find us. We pretend to be ‘men’ and ‘women’ in order the more diversely to be ourselves. By an obvious paradox awareness of identity is a natural response to the separations of experience; by our consciousness of being Hume’s ‘bundle of sensations’ we become ourselves, homo duplex, unified because multiple. To lead several lives and to be several people is thus the normal state – even the ideal state – and if there were such a thing as natural justice to our species and society it would protest against any attempt to force us into singularity on ideological or social grounds. Many novels, usually bad ones, recognise this in reverse today by giving out as text or theme that the hero, or more probably heroine, is trying to find out who he or she ‘really is’. Real people never try.

At least not in that way. For the inherently sane, who are interesting to each other as human beings, it is normal to explore the ways in which consciousness multiplies itself. Normal and indeed fascinating. Both Karl Miller and Jeremy Hawthorn consider as one of their classic texts Conrad’s short story ‘The Secret Sharer’. Suggested by the concealment of a fugitive which actually took place on board the clipper ship Cutty Sark, the tale is of a young mate accused of murder who swims to the narrator’s ship in the gulf of Siam (where the twins come from) and is harboured by him and put off for shore when the chance comes. The two young men have fascinated critics and psychologists alike, and many a theory has been woven round the story. Its strength in fact is in its simplicity as a tale, and the author’s saving lack of emphasis on any meaning it might have, for him or for us. It is full of matter, and the matter is chiefly romance. Conrad is deeply there, but in ways which – as always in his best work – show the contradictions of his being most subtly and most dramatically.

In The Double in Literature (1970) Robert Rogers pointed out that the young captain narrator ‘symbolically summoned his double’ by leaving a rope-ladder dangling over the side, as if in a tale by Hoffmann, whom Conrad mentions elsewhere, and that the story conjures up the contrasting sides of Conrad’s, or Everyman’s, character: notably the wish to stay and make a sober orderly success of things, and the urge to get out and do what one damn well likes. But the captain’s double is also, as Hawthorn says, the secret and ideal conception of Conrad’s personality, the sort of fellow we would all like to be. Taking the reductive view needful to psychoanalytic theory, Joan Steiner argued that the double was, quite simply, the captain’s unconscious come aboard, and that when the double is lowered into the water, and passes ‘out of sight into uncharted regions’, this signifies what she calls ‘the resubmergence of the captain’s unconscious and the reintegration of his personality’. Too tidy by half, surely, and above all too tidy for good art, as is Hawthorn’s reading of the story as an elaborate study in hallucination? Miller puts the finger on what is perhaps the most significant aspect of the tale – the fact that both young men ‘are united at the close in an exercise of freedom which does not bode well – though Conrad seems to think differently – for the future of the ship’.

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