Stanley M. Coleman (essay date 1934)
SOURCE: “The Phantom Double. It's Psychological Significance,” in British Journal of Medical Psychology, Vol. 14, 1934, pp. 254–73.
[In the following excerpt, Coleman finds similarities between the treatment of doubles in the works of Dostoevsky and Guy de Maupassant and examines the psychological implications of doubles overall.]
Still ist die Nacht, es ruhen die Gassen, In diesen Hause wohnte mein Schatz: Sie hat schon längst die Stadt verlassen, Doch steht noch das Haus auf demselben Platz. Da steht auch Mensch und starrt in die Höhe, Und ringt die Hände vor Schmerzengewalt; Mir graust es, wenn Ich sein Antlitz sehe, Der Mond zeigt mir meine eig'ne Gestalt. Du Doppelgänger, du bleicher Geselle, Was äffst du nach mein Liebesleid, Das mich gequält auf dieser Stelle So manche Nacht, in alter Zeit?
—Heine, Der Doppelgänger.
Among nineteenth-century writers it would be difficult to discover two novelists more dissimilar than Guy de Maupassant and Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Maupassant, materialist and atheist, was a master of style and clear thinking. He wrote austerely and with complete detachment. In later years, with the inroads of psychosis, sentimentality, self-pity and self-portrayal became increasingly evident. But in his best period he described exactly what he saw, used a minimum of words, added no comments and told nothing about his own thoughts or feelings. He was a realist.
Dostoevsky, on the contrary, was essentially the introspectionist. Neurotic, hypochondriac and epileptic, his mind was a seething mass of incompatibilities and contradictions. Every critic of this author, Gide1, Carr2 and Mirsky3 for instance, has stressed this state of conflict. For Gide the struggle was essentially ethical, one between good and evil. Freud saw in the rich personality of Dostoevsky four distinct facets: “the creative artist, the neurotic, the moralist and the sinner.” Dostoevsky's style is verbose and awkward; his novels are usually badly constructed and unwieldy. Sometimes, as in A Raw Youth and The Possessed, his ideas overflow and totally obscure the original plot. There is no coherence in Dostoevsky, no trite philosophy of life. In his writings, as in his life, all that is most despicable in human thought and conduct jostles cheek by jowl with the most lofty ideals.
It is not without interest, therefore, that for these two very different men the phenomena of doubles should have had a special significance. In the case of Maupassant it was not an active interest; the experience was forced upon him as an hallucination. Nowhere in his writing is there any direct reference to the experience, though it will be seen later that a whole series of horror tales bear directly on the phenomena. With Dostoevsky it was otherwise: there is neither evidence that he ever had any hallucination nor that his interest in doubles was anything more than a convenient device for giving expression to his subjective experience of intrapsychic conflict. […]
THE DOUBLE OF FYODOR DOSTOEVSKY
This story, written in the pre-Siberian period, is considered by Mirsky, Lavrin4 and by Dostoevsky himself to be a work of great significance. Carr is more sparing with his praise, pointing out that as a work of art it has the defect of holding an uneasy course somewhere between the macabre and the psychopathological. Narrated in the first person, the ‘double’ is presented as a tangible objective fact; but it is repeatedly indicated and is finally patent that this ‘double’ is a pure projection of the narrator's imagination.
Petrovitch Golyadkin is a petty official of insignificant appearance. He is without self-confidence, irresolute and burdened with an overwhelming feeling of inferiority. As first introduced he is rising from his bed one morning in a definitely clouded state. He feels ill and his brain is in the utmost confusion and chaos. It is soon clear that he is on the verge of a mental breakdown. Gradually it is divulged that he believes that people shout at him in the street; that something is being got up against him by his colleagues at the office; that there is a conspiracy afloat and that malignant enemies have sworn to ruin him.
On this morning, instead of proceeding to the office as was his custom, he astonishes his manservant by ordering a cab. After driving about indefinitely for some hours, he suddenly decides to visit his doctor. The latter, who had been frequently pestered by him of late, now regards his behaviour with some uneasiness. Petrovitch, on his side, is none too certain that the doctor is not in the gang and even suspects that the medicine may be poison. On this occasion it is advised that he should lead a less introverted and a-social life. He is recommended to try and get out of himself, see more people, have a little gaiety and so on. This gives Petrovitch an idea.
It appears that his former patron and benefactor is to give a ball this very night in honour of his daughter Klara's birthday. Petrovitch, though uninvited and on account of his recent behaviour under a cloud, drives up to his patron's house. He is refused admission and subjected to insults from the footmen, but finally succeeds in gaining entrance to the house by means of a side door. For several hours he lurks about in dark corridors in the vicinity of the ballroom, not daring to venture farther. There is an acute mental conflict taking place between his normal, timid, self-effacing personality and a new, until now unappreciated, urge to be in the limelight. Suddenly, almost against his will, he finds himself projected into the ballroom, stammering and floundering congratulations and birthday wishes to Klara. The girl, anything but pleased, moves away in the crowd. Repeated attempts by the butler to induce Petrovitch to leave the ballroom quietly are unavailing. Bewildered and confused, he is nevertheless dominated by one idea. At last he again sees Klara at the other end of the hall. Pushing violently through the crowd of dancers, this wild and dishevelled man again confronts her and implores her to dance with him. At this point Petrovitch is ignominiously propelled from the ballroom and then thrown into the street.
In a highly excited and wrought up state he wanders about St Petersburg far into the night. He hardly knows what he is doing nor where he is going. Exhausted at last he leans against the railing beside a canal. He is vaguely uneasy and frightened, he has the presentiment that something terrible is about to happen. Though the streets are deserted, he has a feeling that there is someone quite close to him. Presently he sees a figure hurrying towards him. As the stranger passes Petrovitch is struck by indescribable terror and, turning, he runs after the stranger. Catching him up at the next lamp-post his worst fears are confirmed. This stranger is his double. Fascinated, he is, in spite of himself, impelled to follow; what is his horror when the unknown stops before and finally enters the house in which Petrovitch lodges.
On the following day at the office ‘the double’ makes his second appearance. He is sitting opposite to Petrovitch at his desk. In the evening he accompanies him home and does not leave him all night. Poor Petrovitch indulges in an alcoholic debauch and on waking next morning is astonished to find his enemy has departed. There is not even a trace of the bed in which he had slept.
During the next few days ‘the double’ subjects Petrovitch to innumerable humiliations. In a café he behaves in an unseemly way, wolfs eleven pies, leaving the indignant Petrovitch to foot the bill. At the office he snatches his papers from him, presents...
(The entire section is 3226 words.)