Triples

Michael Neve

  • The Double in 19th-Century Fiction by John Herdman
    Macmillan, 174 pp, £35.00, August 1990, ISBN 0 333 49024 X
  • Romanticism and the Sciences edited by Andrew Cunningham and Nicholas Jardine
    Cambridge, 345 pp, £40.00, June 1990, ISBN 0 521 35602 4
  • Schizophrenia: A Scientific Delusion? by Mary Boyle
    Routledge, 248 pp, £35.00, September 1990, ISBN 0 415 04096 5

It is the great merit of the literature on ideas of ‘the double’ that asking questions about the mysteries of the Devil gets such good historical answers. From Tymms (1949) to Miller (1985) to the touchingly named Herdman (is he trying to keep us safe, inside the yard?) the literary study of doubles roots itself in Christian accounts of the world, describing how, by trick, by election or by sin, characters break open, split apart, see things that may be themselves, even meet the return of their true selves. And, of course, get to meet the Devil. Over a dram, or out in the gale, or in some German place of retreat and learning, the fiendish splits are revealed. The time may be the early 19th century, the cultural atmosphere Romantic, but the origin lies in the Christian account of the struggle for the soul. Despite some of the amazing speculations in Karl Miller’s 1985 study, the doubles question does not flourish as an Enlightenment theme, and receives a dismissive scientific ‘explanation’ in the post-Romantic psychology of the 19th century. It is, above all, a discussion within Calvinism, within esoteric Christianity, and within European Romanticism.

John Herdman’s new study is an honest piece of work, a little bit underpowered, but with a thesis. This is that the theme of the double – a theme so dear to James Hogg, E.T.A. Hoffmann and Dostoevsky – has its origin in Christian dualism, and then becomes a literary device, and part of a moral psychology. What concerns Herdman more is what happens to the whole idea of the double once a scientific psychology gets its hands on the matter. What is, within Romanticism, deeply alarming and to do with the making of pacts, with coming to certain kinds of knowledge, including the knowledge of murder, is taken (at least on this author’s view) into a scientific psychology that subjugates the matter and fashions it into pathology. There is no let-up of interest in the theme (in studies of multiple personality, the hysterical subject, the amnesiac, the paranoiac, the schizophrenic), but the world of struggle, and of fate, has collapsed into the world of disease. Perception becomes hallucination, and accounts of a double themselves evidence of madness, a madness without content. The historical shift is very similar to what happened with the character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who in the 19th-century alienist literature appears as a wayward public schoolboy whose madness, contra Shakespeare, is real even as he disowns it and plays with it. The additional, and Jewish, view is that he also wishes to sleep with his mother.

The Devil then, and the powers the Devil may take, receive their dismissal at the hands of psychiatry and neuroscience. The landscape of the double turns out to be the topography of the human brain, both left and right, high and low, and the double and the nature of the double no longer an issue of education in terror, but a cerebral malfunction requiring explanation. Herdman leaves open the question (which occurs almost straightforwardly here) as to whether this doesn’t make 19th-century psychologists of the Devil’s party, since presumably their science, in absorbing the doubles matter into an idea of professional knowledge, is in itself infected and occupied, in a particularly modern disguise. If this thought was good enough for Büchner, in his play Woyzeck, it should be good enough for us.

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