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’.

Trust the tale not the teller? But, more important, the ‘subtle unsoundness’ which Marlow detected in Lord Jim is not only a part of Conrad himself but an essential part of the way literature and duality work together. Never mind about the ship at the end, and the way the captain, to do service to his double, risks his first command: what matters to Conrad and to us is the success of art, and the final irresponsibility of art. Dualities, as Miller intuits, are necessary to art because necessary to our nature: by and in the division of our beings we are all in some degree artists. Moreover dualities, like art itself, are incompatible with solutions, the key to the puzzle that is craved by one – the most responsible – aspect of our multiple selves. Conrad, it seems to me, understood all this as an artist when he began his story with a trim and haunting paragraph describing the strange incomprehensible structures in the calm shallow sea off the Siamese coast. Fishtraps? Perhaps: but they and the beings who put them there are outside experience or curiosity. They are not referred to again, but they have their place, like the towns and caves in A Passage to India, to remind us that separations are of the order of existence.

Like Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, ‘The Secret Sharer’ is one of the classic texts about duality and doubles. But as Miller’s book shows, the theme is often the more revealing the more it is traced into unexpected and less obvious places. Madame Bovary, for instance, is a far deeper, more comprehensive and more compromised study in doubleness than, say, Dostoevsky’s Mr Golyadkin in The Double. Miller’s book has an atmosphere at once like Scott and like Proust, full of marvels, full of shrewdness and of humour, its perspective all-embracing. For one thing, it redefines and reinstates the concept of escapism. Hawthorn’s shorter book is more avowedly clinical in its approach, often equally brilliant in its aperçus. Both authors discuss the case of Sylvia Plath, who for Hawthorn had the problem that being a woman – personified in the heroine of The Bell Jar – ‘she is not granted the luxury of a double life.’ But Madame Bovary has one – indeed, three lives and more. Plath’s problem was certainly connected with this disability but took a different form. Like many fictional heroines, she was trying to find out who she was, but her talents made this a matter of choice: should she be virgin, mother, whore, hostess, tragic poet etc? Instead of encouraging pluralism of roles, these various possibilities imposed on her the necessity for unity, and death is the great unifier, indeed the only one.

Hawthorn suggests that men are natural hypocrites who can enjoy being double. Their poetry, like their sex-lives, was for Hardy, for Frost or for Auden a thing apart, whereas for Plath it had to be her whole existence. My use of the Byronic tag –

Man’s love is of man’s life a thing apart,
’Tis woman’s whole existence –

shows that recognition of the problem is not new, but Sylvia Plath’s life and art put it in a form that has fascinated modern readers. No wonder Miller’s essay on her is entitled ‘Who is Sylvia?’ It does indeed seem true that she could not bear the thought of natural male dissimulation – obsession with father shows that – and the way in which a male artist is a natural double with his art, both sanctifying and discrediting it. One of Miller’s most suggestive chapters is on Robert Frost, and his talent for stealing away from himself into poetry; for his poetry to steal away from itself; for the poet to steal back into his own sort of wise odiousness. Sidling to and fro, with a finger on the side of the nose – that is the image of the poet Frost that has finally emerged, and it is an enhancingly satisfying one because it shows how dualities can be handled by art: art, that two-faced word, being in all senses a matter of dissimulation. More poignant, and equally effective for her art, was Sylvia Plath’s refusal to find it so. Aut simplex aut nihil was her motto, and in one sense it is odd to find her featured so prominently in two studies of duality.

But whereas Miller revels in duality, so to speak, and by loving it makes it show all it can do, Hawthorn is against it. This undeclared and perhaps almost unconscious bias in favour of unity becomes explicit in his conclusion. Though nothing human is alien to him, his purpose is therapeutic. ‘Case-histories and literary analyses’ alike suggest to him that ‘the pressure of the truly human is towards the fighting out of contradictions and the establishment of internal consistency both within society and within the individual.’ And he points out that the idea of an undivided society is linked with the ideal of the undivided individual: ‘only by establishing a society that is undivided, in a world that is undivided, can there be human individuals free from hypocrisy and duplicity.’ Good sentiments, and yet they have a chilling sound, not entirely due to the rather wooden way in which such pious hopes have to be expressed. The idea of unity in any field – political, psychological or artistic – may have its own drawbacks, even its own dangers. The age-old wish for unity and happy integration, for a golden time way back from the present, or to be realised in the immediate future, does not necessarily relate to anything that makes for actual human happiness. Besides, growing up in New Guinea turns out to be just as difficult and duplicitous a process as growing up in Market Harborough. What might more modestly be achieved is the reconciliation of individuals and societies with their own kinds of inner and outer disparity. Sylvia Plath might have been happier could she have felt like the sensible agony-aunt on a woman’s magazine, who advised anxious readers not to worry a bit if their views on sex and their fantasies about it did not match. But the separations that keep some people, and some artists, sane – like Wemmick and Jaggers in Great Expectations leading their different lives in home and office – were not possible for Plath as a poet, any more than they had been for Emily Dickinson. Their art, in Hawthorn’s unexpected words, was ‘not granted the luxury of a double life’.

In fact, I suspect that in art as in living we have made progress in the conscious recognition and acceptance of the dualities within us. Modern works which emphasise them do so in a fairly frivolous spirit, which may be good for society but bad for their achievement in art. The best doubles – Dickens is the prime case – are in some degree somnambulists, whose powers depend on working in obscurity and breaking out in unfamiliar fashion on the page. Miller writes on Martin Amis as ‘the latest of Anglo-America’s dualistic artists’ for whom ‘the world wavers,’ as we read in Money, and ‘people are doubling.’ Maybe so, but taken in this spirit the process becomes banal, in the novel or out of it.

Over-knowingness on the part of the author, and perhaps his audience too, is indeed liable to be the trouble with doubles. As Tolstoy pointed out, à propos of a particular kind of sensationalist literature, ‘you see what the author would be at and it bores you.’ Miller comprehensively indicates the modish side of doubleness, and its genesis in the Romantic movement, whose theoretical mechanics was largely supplied by the Germans: Tieck, who coined the phrase ‘romantic irony’ for the artistic apprehension of human duality; John Paul Richter, who invented the term ‘doppelgänger’; Schlegel, for whom, as for Coleridge, Shakespeare was a Proteus, and who wrote that dualism ‘is rooted so deeply in our consciousness that even when we are, or at least think ourselves, alone, we still think as two, and are constrained as it were to recognise our inmost profoundest being as essentially dramatic.’ A natural process which when exploited is easily turned into an artistic trick. Borges writes a story called ‘Borges and I,’ whose last sentence is ‘I do not know which of us has written this page.’ When accosted in the street by a stranger who asks, ‘You are Borges, no?’ he replies: ‘At times.’

This is merely tiresome, it seems to me, as is the appearance of the wild entrepreneur John Self and the sober writer Martin Amis in Martin Amis’s Money. The real power of the thing is lost by sophisticated literary exploitation. A recent novel by C.J. Koch, The Doubleman, scores by showing a more simplistic and old-fashioned attitude. But arguably, even some classics of the genre, like Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner or Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, suffer from our getting the point too soon, seeing what the author would be at. This is where Dickens scores so heavily, and Emily Brontë. Who shall say whether Quilp and Little Nell are really one and the same person, two aspects of Dickens himself, the ogre and the orphan? Dickens loved to be both victim and executioner, as he would probably have been revealed in Edwin Drood, in which, as Wallace Robson has brilliantly surmised, the figure of Mr Datchery might well have turned out to be ‘Dickens’ himself, the writer making his last bow. The masterly structure of Wuthering Heights conceals the fact that the author is Heathcliff, as the heroine Catherine proclaims she is. In her strange poem about the different coloured streams that ‘tumble in an inky sea’ Emily Brontë shows herself well enough aware of the sources of her most radical fantasy: but every other virtue of her novel contributes to a ramified sobriety that need never own up. Owning-up was left to sister Charlotte, who obtains the luxury of a double life by portraying herself as Jane Eyre and Lucy Snowe, air and snow with a torrid tropic burning within them.

Ranging exuberantly over the widest possible spectrum, Miller’s study notes that fictions like Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf of 1927, which ‘speak up’ for duality and multiplicity, are apt to do so too ‘solemnly and self-consciously’. More effective as art are the ones that steal upon us, as their duplicitous components steal apart from each other. Miller perceives that the word ‘steal’, like the word ‘bound’ (‘with one bound Jim was free’) contain their own dualities. Fictions steal from themselves, like the lovers at the end of ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, that most dualistic of poems. Keats both knew and did not know that his richly romantic tale was also a classic story of seduction and betrayal. He worships in it the images of purity and beauty of eager-eyed romance, but he also knew very well what Porphyro would be about, and remarked to a friend that he would be ashamed of any young man who left the girl in the same state in which he found her. The style itself steals from itself. Porphyro is ‘impassion’d’ by Madeleine’s ‘voluptuous accents’. ‘For if thou diest, my Love, I know not where to go.’ Keats’s other self is at home in the earthy practicality of Dryden’s Marriage-à-la-Mode, where song is very much to the point:

’Tis unkind to your Love, and unfaithfully done
To leave me behind you and die all alone.

‘Die’ is as fissile as ‘steal’ and ‘bound’. Keats is both a robust young man fighting butcher boys and frequenting prostitutes, and a pale romantic luxuriating in the glamour of castles and damsels, love and beauty. Both need each other and both are in the poem.

One of Miller’s happiest démarches is on ‘Keatses’, the metamorphoses of the Keats image that haunted the 19th century and its writing. One hitherto undetected Keats double is Dickens himself, the small orphan of the blacking factory, who was to write of his childhood, ‘Small Cain that I was, except that I had never done harm to anyone,’ and who was actually tipped half a crown at the factory by the father of Keats’s friend, Charles Wentworth Dilke. Keats and Dickens were both Cockneys, both alienated from and formed by what Keats described in his first published poem as ‘the jumbled heap of murky buildings’; and in Little Dorrit Dickens invents John Chivery, a Keats figure both amusing and admirable who is also one of Dickens’s doubles:

Young John was small of stature, with rather weak legs and very weak light hair. One of his eyes (perhaps the eye that used to peep through the keyhole) was also weak, and looked larger than the other, as if it couldn’t collect itself. Young John was gentle likewise. But he was great of soul. Poetical, expansive, faithful.

Typical of Dickens to make the eyes themselves doubles, one the weak wide-eyed voyeur. Miller thinks Dickens had Keats in mind and is re-creating him, with the authority that comes from recognising a side of oneself. Both unite in the epitaph that Young John, disappointed in love, invents for himself.

               STRANGER!
            respect the tomb of
           John Chivery, Junior,
          Who died at an advanced age
           Not necessary to mention.
  He encountered his rival in a distressed state,
              and felt inclined
      TO HAVE A ROUND WITH HIM:
       but, for the sake of the loved one,
conquered those feelings of bitterness, and became
            MAGNANIMOUS.

Keats advised Shelley to ‘curb his magnanimity’, but it was a word dear to Keats as to Dickens, expressive of new and wholly secular political and moral hopes. (A French ship of the line called the Magnanime fought at Trafalgar.) Had Keats died at an advanced age he would certainly have been magnanimous, though he might have been no longer a poet.

The 19th century saw the heyday of the double. In his book on literary metamorphosis, The Gaping Pig, Irving Massey commented on the separation of self and status, present in Gogol’s story ‘The Nose’, and of key importance in Dostoevsky. Most Soviet fiction, for obvious reasons, suppresses and ignores duality, and is impoverished in consequence. Leaping with one bound into strikingly different cases, Miller ranges from Hogg and Scott, via Poe and Chekhov and Dostoevsky, to Eaton Stannard Barrett’s The Heroine, which came out in 1813, midway between Jane Austen’s writing of Northanger Abbey and its posthumous publication. The Heroine beautifully burlesques literary treatments of the girl divided between romance and everyday, and, as Miller shows, beckons to the Edith Wharton heroine at the end of the century, the Edith Wharton of whom it was said, ‘Wherever there is romance it is the proof that you are outside yourself and leaving yourself behind’ – a remark of Percy Lubbock’s which in its delphic ambiguity might be taken as the motto of doubleness.

Duality in America, land of orphans, assumes a more clinical aspect. It also happens on a suitably vast scale. Flora Scheiber’s book Sybil (1973) is about a woman with 16 distinct personalities, and Doris Lessing felt it forced you ‘to look at yourself and the people around you in a new way’, as well it might. William James and Weir Mitchell, who looked after Edith Wharton during a breakdown, had earlier investigated the multiple self, or ‘alternating personality’, as James calls it in The Principles of Psychology, and he thought it of significance in relation to the hypothetical survival of consciousness after death.

From art’s point of view clinical multiplicity is not very rewarding. Neither perhaps is the mass exploitation of the artist’s selves, even though it can lead to such masterpieces as the Berryman Dream Songs, heavily influenced by the duality of the Yeatsian masks. Yeats, though, like his fellow Celt William Sharp, took a more naively dramatic view of doubleness. Sharp sometimes called himself Fiona Macleod, inscribing his book The Winged Destiny with the words: ‘William Sharp from his comrade Fiona Macleod’. Sharp was a robustly heterosexual Anglo-Scottish type, happily married, who nonetheless felt the need as an artist to function sometimes in what Miller calls ‘Celtic drag’. It fascinated his contemporaries and no doubt increased the circulation of his books. It also leads us back to the implications of ‘getting away’. The authority and point of art narrative seem to require a ‘real self’, from which others diverge down the long perspectives of possibility, like the hypothetical self which Henry James’s hero meets in ‘The Jolly Corner’. At the same time, escapism is a misnomer, for we are not getting away from the real, but entering another version of it. Art begins on the inside of life, where dualities are the norm. As the talented Soviet novelist Yury Trifonov rather surprisingly put it: ‘Reality has no exclusive external status. It is wherever your thoughts happen to be.’