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Doppelganger

The German Romantic poet and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe met himself coming and going while riding on horseback from Sesenheim to Drusenheim as a young man.  To be precise, he met his doppelganger (literally, “double goer” in German), an apparition that was his exact likeness in every detail, except for the clothes he wore.  His double was wearing a gray outfit with gold trim, unlike anything Goethe then owned.  Eight years later the poet was travelling by horseback on the same road in the other direction, and he again encountered his doppelganger.  This time Goethe was astonished to realize he was wearing the same costume he had first seen on his double in their earlier encounter.     

The doppelganger, by whatever name, has been a staple of life and literature since the time of the ancient Greeks.  Edgar Allen Poe, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Robert Louis Stevenson, Guy de Maupassant and Oscar Wilde all produced works featuring a doppelganger or a psychological double, usually presented as a sinister figure.  Certainly, the appearance of a doppelganger in real life tends to be regarded as a bad omen.  Percy Shelley encountered his doppelganger pointing toward the water shortly before the poet drowned in a sailing accident off the Mediterranean coast in Italy.  John Donne saw his wife’s doppelganger carrying a dead baby on the same night she delivered a stillborn child.  Abraham Lincoln glimpsed a pale second image of himself in a full-length mirror on the night he was elected president – an incident his wife interpreted as a sign he would be elected to a second term and then die in office.

Psychologists have long understood that the human psyche is often dogged by a “shadow” self embodying traits at odds with our idealized self-image.  In order to become the good little boys and girls our parents wanted us to be, we are forced to dissociate from the less savory parts of ourselves, which are then exiled to the nether regions of the psyche.   The problem, of course, is that these cast-off parts of ourselves tend to incubate in the darkness.   Under certain circumstances, they emerge to become our evil twin, often without our conscious awareness. 

Otto Rank, an early disciple of Freud, was the first to document this phenomenon in a work entitled The Double (Der Doppelgänger in the original German).  The prominence of the doppelganger in German literature and philosophy suggested to Rank that there was some particular propensity for a Jekyll-and-Hyde bifurcation in the German soul.  Goethe himself explored this theme in Faust, where the protagonist was only too aware of his divided nature: “Two souls, alas, reside within my breast/And each withdraws from and repels its brother.” The psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton sounded much the same note in his psychological study of German physicians assigned to the Nazi death camps.  In order to adapt to conditions of moral extremity, doctors sworn to uphold the Hippocratic Oath would adopt a nearly autonomous “Auschwitz self” whose job it was to send inmates to their deaths.  This was the only way they could operate as handmaidens of evil while continuing to think of themselves as good Germans.

We will never achieve psychic integration by surgically removing the parts of ourselves we regard as unsightly or by trying to quarantine them.  The evil in ourselves is only energized by our opposition to it.  Thus, the more energetically we identify with our idealized self-image, the more likely we will succumb to unconscious forces of darkness from within.  This explains why Jesus never condemned sinners but was unsparing in his treatment of the pious Pharisees, whom he compared to whitewashed tombs that “outwardly appear beautiful, but within …are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness.”  Our doppelganger can never be defeated, but he can be tamed.  Friendship may even lead to marriage, and the two may become one flesh.      

Robert Jay Lifton, The Nazi Doctors
Matthew 23:27   

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