The Face That Replicates

From The Paris Review:

Sylvia refused to wear her glasses, which is why she saw me everywhere on campus. It seemed like it was every day that she’d come to our dorm’s living room and tell me about the not-Katy. “I yelled at her again,” she sighed, flopping onto the worn couch. “It wasn’t you.” It never was.

There wasn’t only one not-me. There were several other girls on our small liberal arts campus who had dirty-blond hair and shaggy bangs, girls who wore knee-high boots and short skirts, low-rise jeans and V-neck sweaters and too many tangled necklaces. In 2005, I didn’t stand out. I still don’t. My face, I suspect, is rather forgettable. I’m neither pretty enough to be remarkable nor strange enough to be interesting. This is true for the majority of people, though I have wondered if I have “one of those faces” that is particularly prone to inducing déjà vu. Some people seem like permanent doppelgängers. I became hypervigilant, on the lookout for not-mes that were also, sort of, me.

Looking back, I’m not surprised that I became obsessed with these look-alikes during this particular time period, in those heady and exciting early days of social media. Although the idea of doubling and mimesis dates back to the ancient Greeks and flourished in the popular imagination in gothic horror, my experience with doppelgängers still feels distinctly contemporary to me, an anxiety that arose with the camera in the nineteenth century and was then compounded by social media and its endless catalogues of faces. Although Facebook back then was limited to college students, it was still a place where one could get lost. You could lose hours searching, as I did, for people with your exact same name and friend requesting each and every one of them. You could meander through the uncanny haze of “doppelgänger week,” a destabilizing moment in the early 2000s when my classmates’ pimpled, imperfect, earnest faces were suddenly replaced by thumbnails of Angelina Jolie, Natalie Portman, and Halle Berry. It was more than just embarrassing. It was a massive Freudian slip, a sudden reveal of latent desires and delusions. We wanted to replace our faces with better, more beautiful ones—but not completely. We wanted to represent ourselves with images that weren’t us, exactly, but that were close.

. . . .

One of my favorite doppelgänger stories is Edgar Allan Poe’s “William Wilson,” which I read around the same time that my not-me began appearing in the edges of Sylvia’s blurry vision. This Poe tale is about a boy named William Wilson who meets another William Wilson and is dogged, throughout his life, by the disturbing presence of this other William Wilson. As the story progresses, we learn that this weird fellow is not actually our narrator’s evil twin, as we might have expected. He’s better than our narrator. He stops our narrator from doing a number of bad things before the original William succeeds in reasserting his uniqueness—by an act of murder, naturally.

William Wilson is not a funny story, exactly. But it’s full of little ironies that start to feel like jokes, from the name (William, son of Will, a pseudonym that’s also an echo) to the weird origins of the text itself. First of all, the story is a homage to a story that Washington Irving wrote called “An Unwritten Drama of Lord Byron.” Poe even wrote to Irving, sending him a copy of his tale, and asked him for a blurb to help sell the story. Later, in a review of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Twice-Told Tales, Poe wrote that one of them, “Howe’s Masquerade,” was very similar to “William Wilson,” so much so that “we observe something which resembles a plagiarism—but which may be a very flattering coincidence of thought.” A few years later, in 1846, Fyodor Dostoyevsky published his own similar novella, The Double: A Petersburg Poem, which he later rewrote and republished in 1866.

This type of doppelgänger story continued to multiply. Vladimir Nabokov called The Double a “perfect work of art” in his classroom lectures, though of course the story was ripe for rewritings—hence Nabokov’s own beleaguered and haunted narrators. The novels Despair and Lolita feature not quite doppelgängers but pairs of men behaving badly. In the twentieth century, we became adept at capturing, manipulating, and presenting precise visual copies of individuals through photography, film, and digital manipulation. Humans no longer had to use a hall of mirrors (or a skilled portrait artist) to see themselves doubled, tripled, quadrupled. We also became better at selective breeding and genetic manipulation. Dolly the sheep emerged from an adult cell in 1996, and attendant anxieties and sensational interest in the literal copies spiked Eventually, the concept of the double in art was superseded by the clone, as we slouched closer and closer to literal self-replication.

Link to the rest at The Paris Review

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