Everybody has a double, they say. I believe it.
When I finished school, I took a gap year before going to university. That winter I travelled to a small town in the South of France to stay for a couple of months with the family of a childhood friend of my father’s, his best friend in his early teens in Tunis. Raymond was a dentist now, nice guy, and his wife was still beautiful in her forties, but their oldest boy was three years younger than me and was, you know, OK but kind of an arsehole, as I’m sure I was at fifteen. So I was quite solitary a lot of the time, but I’ve never minded that too much. I loved that trip to the Basses Alpes. I did a lot of walking, and bouldering, and loved spending the afternoon hours perched above the town on top of a huge upended rock stratum called La Durance, on the other side of a river called La Baume. I loved those names. Endurance. Balm.
Soon after I arrived, I looked critically in the bathroom mirror at the beard I was trying to grow (it was 1975). It was doing all right on the sides, but it was was kind of thin around the chin, so I took a razor and shaved my chin and upper lip, shaping big side-burns like the singer of Mungo Jerry, a band who’d had a number one hit when I was at school. Happy with my new look, I went wandering round the town looking for a bar where I might meet some people of my own age.
I saw a bar that had a Bebé Foot table and walked in. I went towards the bar to order a beer but before I could get there an attractive brown-haired girl intercepted me bodily, exclaiming in French, ‘Hervé, where have you been?’, and twining her arms around me without waiting for an answer, kissing me passionately on the mouth.
I gladly entered into the kiss, as she put her hand on the back of my head to pull me against her face. Then she drew back and looked hard at me.
‘But Hervé, what have you done with your hair?’
My hair at that time was jaw-length and had a slight wave in it.
I had to say something.
As soon as I opened my mouth she’d know I wasn’t Hervé.
‘Enchanté,’ I said, and held out my hand.
She didn’t think it was funny.
I stayed for a while and had a laugh with some of Hervé’s friends, a few beers and games of Bebé Foot, but the girl stayed at another table with her friends and disappeared before long.
I went back to the bar a couple of times that month but none of that crowd were around, and I never met Hervé, whose place I had taken in a deep and passionate kiss. For me France was my first experience of the romance of travel, at least by myself. I loved France, and Hervé was French and had lots of friends and a sexy girlfriend in this alpine town — so of course I felt a little jealous of him.
I forgot all about this incident, but three or four years ago — around the time I was getting into Baudrillard, coincidentally — a friend of mine picked a film called The Double for our movie night, and as we watched I remembered about Hervé. The film is based on Feodor Dostoevski’s novella Двойник (Dvoynik), The Double, published in 1846, about Golyadkin, a shy young office clerk working in a government department, who meets his double on the way home from a party he’s been asked to leave after a series of embarrassing social gaffes. They become friends and the double gets to meet all his colleagues. He is identical to Golyadkin except in character, being confident, outgoing and charming; everybody loves him and soon it becomes apparent that the pseudo-Golyadkin is taking over Golyadkin’s life. It’s an excellent film, so I won’t give away the ending. I told my friend about Hervé, and we riffed for a while on the fiction of me taking over Hervé’s life and his girlfriend. How would it end? Would he come back at some point from wherever he’d gone, and when he did, would I just disappear in turn? Or maybe I’d have to murder him, in order to maintain my nice new life in beautiful Provence.
The story would need a twist. A doppelgänger story told from the point of view of the doppelgänger is interesting. Where does the doppelgänger come from? Does it have a sense of its own identity, as deep as its counterpart’s? The twist would have to hinge in some way on my own identity being unknown to me, perhaps. As in Blade Runner —
How can it not know what it is?
In which case, with her looking searchingly into my face and waiting for me to say something, perhaps I opened my mouth and somehow out of it came, to my own amazement, not just her name but a perfect stream of colloquial, Provençal-accented French.
And me thinking — how the fuck did that happen?
And only later — who am I?
Doppelgänger stories came into fashion during the Industrial Revolution, as an archetype in Gothic horror. The term was coined by Jean Paul in his novel Siebenkäs in 1796, and came of age in E.T.A. Hoffmann’s Die Doppelgänger (1821). Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson was published in 1839. Later, in 1886, we get Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), and in 1908 Henry James’ The Jolly Corner. In every case the doppelgänger is identical in appearance but opposite in character and ultimately inimical to the protagonist. The trope is still very much with us — more so than ever, did we but realise it.
Feodor Dostoevski’s novella Двойник (Dvoynik), published in 1846, is an excellent example of the genre. The central character is Golyadkin, a shy young office clerk working in a government department, who meets his double on the way home from a party he’s been asked to leave after a series of embarrassing social gaffes. They become friends and the double gets to meet all his colleagues. He is identical to Golyadkin except in character, being confident, outgoing and charming; everybody loves him and soon it becomes apparent that the pseudo-Golyadkin is taking over Golyadkin’s life.
In Baudrillard’s theory, the industrial revolution gave birth to new orders of simulation which infiltrated our experience and became inherent to our existence. Mass-produced objects are copies, but copies of what? They no longer refer to a real original, as a portrait does to a real face or a map to a real place. In the industrial age, a tide of mass-production overwhelms authentic making, and eventually destroys even the concept of originality. A mass-produced product is a second order simulacrum: indistinguishable from its ‘original’, the image now threatens to displace reality. Such second-order images are described by Baudrillard as being of the order of malefice. This dramatic word-choice resonates with the strange anxiety reified in the stories.
Automation-anxiety found violent expression in the hammers, torches and and rifles of the Luddite uprising in England in the early years of the nineteenth century. A mechanised loom is a highly specified mimicry: it simulates the skills of a human artisan. According to tradition, when an apprentice weaver New Ludd, or Ludlow, took a hammer to two looms in the 1780s, he was merely venting his frustration at being criticised for the quality of his work. But as machines progressively took the place of skilled artisans in England’s textile industry, his act of destruction became an inspiration to a growing movement of under-employed weavers whose livelihoods were threatened. In the opening decades of the nineteenth century, the products were still inferior to the real thing, but machines were growing in sophistication. From 1804 there was the Jacquard loom, fitted with a device that was essentially a punch-card computer, which could co-ordinate the execution of sophisticated weaves and embroideries such as brocade, damask and matelassé.
By 1810, Ludd had become the folk hero and fictitious leader of a resistance army using sabotage and arson to roll back mechanisation in the textile industry, or at least to force negotiations over the role of skilled labour in the new economy. The Luddites attacked mills and factories across the North of England, smashing machines and scrawling NED LUDD DID THIS on the walls.
As the rebels grew in daring and violence, Ned was promoted to Captain, then General, and finally King. His soldiers were organised and disciplined, meeting at night in the woods or on the moors to train and plan. Eventually twelve thousand British troops had to be diverted from the Peninsula War — so for a while, King Ludd was a more urgent threat than the Emperor Napoleon. There were several pitched battles before the movement was finally put down in 1813, with the imposition of the death penalty for machine-breaking. There were mass hangings and deportations, and eventually the mill-owners could sleep easy in their beds once again, without fear of arson or assassination.
That’s the kind of vengeful, life-or-death ferocity that tends to spill out in the end, in these doppelgänger stories.
Ray Kurzweil, author of The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999) and The Singularity is Near (2005), invented the first text-to-speech reader for the blind, among many other software applications. He is known now as a futurist, transhumanist and prophet of artificial intelligence, and occupies a position of significant influence as Google’s director of engineering — his brief, to gift the machine with natural language.
Kurzweil wrote his first computer programme at the age of fifteen. The programme used pattern-recognition software to analyse the works of classical composers, then synthesised new compositions on the basis of those patterns. In 1965, at the age of seventeen, Kurzweil appeared on television playing one of these synthetic compositions on the piano, and later that year the invention won first prize in the International Science Fair.
Once his career in information technology was well-established, specifically in the area of text recognition, Kurzweil returned to the subject of electronic music. He was lucky enough to get to meet Stevie Wonder, who complained to him about the poor quality of electronic instruments at the time, and this inspired Kurzweil to apply himself to the creation of a new generation of music synthesisers. In 1982 he founded Kurzweil Music Systems, and in 1984 unveiled the Kurzweil K250, the first synthesiser to use sampled sounds from real instruments, coupled with improved methods of storage and recall. In tests, professional musicians were unable to distinguish its piano sounds from the real thing. With the K250, a composer would be able to produce an entire symphony without any recourse to real musicians or musical instruments.
Kurzweil’s work on the synthesis of musical sounds and the simulation of musical composition typifies a mindset which seems entirely animated by the spirit Baudrillard tried to define. This mindset can do amazing things, and seeks its ultimate expression in the creation of synthetic worlds indistinguishable from reality. But despite its vast confidence, its self-apotheosis, the doppelgänger-mindset cannot create, only recreate: it can simulate, infiltrate, subvert, and displace, but it cannot truly make — it can make no sacrament.
It may do some good in the world along the way, as with Kurzweil’s reading machines for the blind, but these are stepping-stone applications, emphasised purely for PR reasons — golden rice with terminator genes. The fundamental drive is the fetishistic compulsion to map, analyse, copy.
Kurzweil was lucky not to have come to the attention of that other Dr K around this time, as a leading contributor to a particularly insidious form of information technology. He helped make manifest the machine-music hitherto only imagined by Orwell and Huxley in their satirical dystopias. It might seem a trivial thing; but music is inherent in reality, and human music a vital thread in our connection with the universe.
Reality, in Baudrillard’s dispiriting definition, is ‘that which can be simulated.’ To the doppelgänger-mindset, it appears, nothing that exists in this creation is of interest except in as far as it can be mimicked, replicated and put to the uses of sorcery. Now, according to the hype surrounding artificial intelligence, the ultimate simulation is just around the corner: a machine-intelligence so sophisticated that it awakes into sentience, into consciousness — a simulacrum of the order of malefice — a doppelgänger for the human race.
Featured image: “Double” by Lena Mikulinskaya.
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