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.

Like the best of recent historians of psychiatry, Herdman starts in his book with some reflections on Christian accounts of madness, and how Christianity sees Reason and Unreason as doubles, and how many early Christians were themselves seen as mad. In the writings of St Augustine, and up to John Bunyan in Grace Abounding, the central discussion concerns the way in which God sets the terms, and prepares the grounds for, a surrender to him and his authority. Augustine proposed a harsh, predestinarian conception for the subsequent operation of ‘grace’; Protestant writers like Bunyan were less determinist. But in most cases the grounds for the understanding of God’s existence lies in the crisis of the individual life that he deliberately orchestrates, since this orchestration is the blueprint for the new life. Breakdown is both necessary and sufficient for the outlines of the life of the future to become visible. It is, therefore, within Christianity that the idea first appears that madness is in certain cases (cases not hopelessly lost) educative, retrievable, and involves the necessary destruction of a false self – in this case, the self that is not yet close to God, not yet shepherded in. Breakdown is purposive, has a language that is coherent (for those with the ears to hear), and is nothing less than a sign of the operation of God’s grace.

The fear of a breakdown is the fear of an event that has already taken place (to paraphrase D.W. Winnicott); the way to complete an understanding is to embrace the disaster for what it was – the new morning of a whole life. Instead of the endless repetition of a hopeless language of love and passion, where disappointments, as for all great psychologists, are a prime cause of breakdown, the convert comes to understand Love itself, within these Christian terms. This is of course the magnificent belief of Friedrich Nietzsche, only he wants to keep the Big Joke: all this, and no God around after all. What an achievement!

But in all these cases, and in the relations between Christianity and madness, the point is the same: the psychologist who denies the content of the breakdown, and its language, obstructs the passage from illness to conversion or escape, and is thus an agent of the Devil.

If the obstructionist psychologist (the listener who simply takes what he is hearing and makes it his own) is an agent of the Devil, how does the idea of a double actually fit with the origins of this discussion inside Christianity? To put it bluntly, what has happened in all this, within the flights, the sightings, the terrible recognitions, to the third party? Because there is always a third party. It takes three to make a double, to provide the environment where the double idea, the idea of recognition and of doubling, can take place. Someone, maybe something, has to hear the story of doubles, to see a difference and to make a difference. With doubles, the last tango takes three.

Romanticism may indeed have kept certain aspects of this alive, but many of the important ideas (the unity of nature, the doppelgänger) are in fact Medieval. Romanticism’s claim to attention consists in an act of maintenance: what some see as its triviality, its own empty myth (deployed mostly as a way of defeating secular individualism), consists in imagining all this to be completely novel, or the product of special kinds of genius.

Herdman’s book could be read as a story of degeneration. In the founding idea, and in Christian views of madness, the breakdown of a life, the onset of madness (which will include making pacts with the Devil, and breaking apart in the process), is an opportunity, a chance for something new, and of becoming closer to God. Christianity – the greatest statement that we have that there is always a third person – sees the discovery of other selves, of duality, as part of a process, not an achievement in itself. Thus the idea of doubles, the literary development from within Christianity is degenerate, since it ends the idea of opportunity and wills an anti-cathartic dualism that has, as it were, nowhere to go. It becomes the static hall of mirrors, with endless variations and sightings and notions of escape, but where nothing can happen. Except to confess. The justified sinner is an obsessive character, for all the idea of being elected into sin, and produces a memoir and a confession. James Hogg has this third party (perhaps the reader, the knowing, implicated reader) strongly in mind. The literary device of doubles can seem anti-dynamic and repetitive, divorced from the Christian idea that this is a madness which contains lessons, and marooned in a banal idea of two as against that greater idea, three. The trinitarian origin gives way to a form of Calvinist paranoia, or a literary device which can seem overworked.

The subsequent collapse of the whole idea, the absorption of a dualistic Romantic moral psychology into a scientific psychology becomes less surprising. The repetitive idée fixe that doubles in literary and medical writings have come to represent starts to look like a form of mental illness, drained of its original religious creativity and isolated into a form of obsession. Even as jejune an idea of a human science as 19th-century psychiatry would have little difficulty in making intense concerns with duality look like manifestations of mental disturbance, with the ashen-faced Romantic savant batting on about it and, as it were, getting nowhere before at last getting to the madhouse. The life of Heinrich von Kleist, discussed by Nigel Reeves in Romanticism and the Sciences, was exactly fashioned around this collapse. Reason was revealed to be a fraud, the world a perverted madhouse, peopled with spectral doubles, doubles emanating from a multiple and diseased, broken self. For Kleist, the world should have been trinitarian and settled. It should have been Kleist, his girl and Immanuel Kant. And then the jungle drums began to beat the dread news: ‘Mr Kant, he dead.’ Kleist could only think of one way out, the only alternative to the endless repetition of duality: killing himself and his girl on the banks of the Wannsee in Berlin in November 1911.

Cunningham and Jardine have done well to collect together the essays in Romanticism and the Sciences, especially given English intellectual hostility to finding anything coherent in Romanticism, let alone seeing a connection to the history of natural science, or indeed the creation of the intelligentsia and of the genius as part of that connection. The best essays here bear on this broad theme: the appearance of a new kind of intellectual community committed to the ‘totalisation’ of the natural sciences, and the need to see further into things than had been managed within Enlightenment philosophy. Alexander von Humboldt, Goethe, Humphry Davy all loom large. In an essay on Goethe’s novel Elective Affinities, Jeremy Adler makes an important contribution to the literary discussion of doubles. Goethe, that true pagan, describes two doubles. In the one case, the two people in question – Eduard and Charlotte, married – embrace each other by bringing another couple, the Captain and Ottiline, into their lives and minds. They commit spiritual adultery from which a child is born, each of them imagining one of the other pair while making love. The adultery is a ‘double affinity’, a concept Goethe derived from chemistry, and Adler skilfully suggests that the reason the novel is a tragedy, the reason that Ottiline wastes away as a supplicant, is that the chief character, Eduard, does not fully understand the double affinity that he is a part of: he seeks death, he presses for divorce from Charlotte, he is unable to complete the equation, to see the quartet, rather than his own desires, as fully sympathetic. Eduard is out of date with himself, Goethe may be suggesting, because Eduard has a restricted idea of doubles, an idea that cannot complete itself.

The chemical analogy in Goethe is distant from the Devil’s appearances, his doubling-up operation, in Hogg: but like Hogg, Goethe puts an idea of doubles to the test, since both writers are exploring the limitations of duality without the third party. Hogg is more élitist, Goethe sexier, but both see duality as more than double talk when the purpose, the educational aspect, is made prominent. This kind of duality leads to confession, to conversion, or to an inclusive idea of marriage instead of a confinement where the real ‘adultery’ happens between a man and a wife, unhappily trapped in their twinship, and wanting out. The dynamic writers on duality ask forgiveness for the stop/go economy that their readers have entered, and know that without readers, theirs is merely a mirror world.

Keeping alive a literature of duality that keeps its third purpose alive might be important in preventing too much annexation, by psychiatry, of the experience of division and splits. Romantic natural philosophy made much of polarity, of division, of attraction and repulsion, and much of it seemed (to later philosophers) a chaos: a ‘Black Death’ or a ‘Walpurgis-nightmare’. The moral psychology which Romantic duality promoted, and which, in Herdman’s account, scientific psychology naturalises through a cerebral anatomy, wants its independence – not least from psychology as its own double, its own trickster. It was, for example, quite striking that, at a seminar on the history of psychiatry run last year at the Wellcome Institute for the History of Medicine, a line was drawn between Romantic psychiatry (Feuchtersleben, Freud), whose exponents were wishy-washy and confused, and realists (Griesinger, Kraepelin) whose realism consisted precisely in their having expunged ‘Romantic’ ideas from their psychology. Part of Mary Boyle’s study of schizophrenia consists in examining quite why the category is used in the way it is: as a taxonomic catch-all that cannot hold, in any useful scientific sense, the varieties of behaviour it is asked to hold at the moment. If the Romantic legacy both in literary ideas and within psychiatry is seen as the enemy of science, then broad taxonomies serve a professional purpose: they may be inexact, lacking, for example, adequate genetic proof, but they will serve in the detaching of the Romantic consciousness from ideas of normality. The history of psychiatry is sometimes seen as having occasional conjunctions between speculative philosophy and organicist accounts of mental illness: it seems increasingly that this is too cosy a view, and that 19th-century professional psychiatry pitted itself against the perceived vacuities of the Romantic imagination. Boyle is not up to date with all the work in this area, and her book can seem ill-informed. But she uses the constructionist idea of medical modelling with skill, and her book deserves a proper discussion, since all honest psychiatrists (and there are some) know that schizophrenia is their Waterloo.

The origin of the double idea lies in the vulnerability of the exposed self in the course of breakdown. The repetitive history that follows, with dualities abounding and ravings accompanying them, may allow the Devil his victory, a victory that is secured (in modern terms) by the installation of a vindictive paranoia that is the thought world of the Devil himself: a degenerate language that repeats itself endlessly even as the world appears to fill out with the demonic. Doubles are, in a deep sense, trivial, since the true purpose of the breakdown is to force a conclusion back to the origins of health, either in God’s love, or with a third party who can adjudicate (as with Adam Smith’s Impartial Spectator), or with someone (a reader, or a judge) who will listen and learn from the long story about doubles. All of these presences make duality itself a heroic, wild, insightful but incomplete condition. The third presence makes the split benign, and ends the particular force that dualised thinking can advance. It is not necessary to accept a Christian view of the relationship between breakdown and opportunity to see that the paranoid style in Romantic literature (some of which seems strongly homosexual, as in Maturin or perhaps even Godwin) has the feel of a plenitude that has yet to be filled. Given the grandeur of much of what results from literary duality, and from the critical minds who have had the courage to keep it alive, it is worth looking forward to what the equivalent consequences might be of a unified ego, freed of the folie à deux, and speaking the language of a love that has defeated dread.