Lhermitte, Professor Jean - Visual Hallucination of The Self – 05 The Double in literature
Type of Spiritual Experience
A description of the experience
BRITISH MEDICAL JOURNAL LONDON SATURDAY MARCH 3 1951 - VISUAL HALLUCINATION OF THE SELF BY JEAN LHERMITTE, M.D. Honorary Professor, Faculty of Medicine, Paris
The "Double" in Literature
The phenomenon of the double as we find it in literature has long been considered to be a purely intellectual notion or the result of imagination. But in fact all we know to-day shows that nothing is created that has not been more or less deeply felt.
Many are the writers, novelists, philosophers, or poets who have used the image of the double in their work.
First comes Aristotle, the greatest philosopher of ancient Greece, who tells the story of a man who could not go for a walk without seeing his own image coming towards him. Wigan and Michea give similar examples of subjects permanently followed by their shadows or doubles. I have already mentioned de Musset. The double is also used in
- Tales of Hoffman in (story of the lost reflection, for example),
- The Classical Stories of Chamisso (Peter Schlemyl),
- Hans Andersen's Tales,
- Hesperus (Jean Paul Richter),
- Le Dissipateur (Ferdinand Raimund),
- Notturno (Gabriele d'Annunzio),
- The Portrait of Dorian Gray (Oscar Wilde); also in
- the Tales of Edgar Allan Poe (especially the singular one of William Wilson),
- Steinbeck's Great Valley, and more recently
- Robert Hichens.
All these authors have introduced the character of "the double " to give more colour to the tales and to stimulate the reader's imagination by showing him the strangeness of life and the complexity of the human mind.
[the part of this paper dealing with Dostoyevsky can be found under this section on the site]…….
In the same way Guy de Maupassant was also visited by the apparition of his double, was subject to persecutions and hallucinations, and, finally, became insane. And in Kafka's famous novel The Trial we find the hero in a very similar state.
Literary Genius and Mental Abnormality
No doubt one can object that if so many authors have indulged in a description of the phenomenon one cannot consider them all to be ill or insane. Although I do not want to generalize to excess, let me remind you that all the writers who best described the vision of the double were singularly abnormal. Hoffmann, the son of a hysteric, used to see ghosts, and wake his wife so that she could witness his visions. He was tortured by the thought of death, his mind deteriorated, and he ended in general paralysis.
Guy de Maupassant, when he described his hallucination in Le Horla, was already stricken with the same disease. Jean Paul Richter was obsessed by the fear of madness. From his youth he sees his double, and he writes: " I look at him, he looks at me, and both of us hold our ego in horror." Edgar Allan Poe was subject to melancholia, alcoholism, toxicomania. He was unstable, epileptic, and tortured by all sorts of phobias.
Dostoievsky was subject to major epileptic fits and to most unexpected changes of temper. What can one say about Alfred de Musset ? Everyone knows that he was cyclothymic and subject to toxicomania.
This list, which I could extend, shows well that the greatest literary geniuses can carry in them very great mental abnormalities, yet it is perhaps to these that we owe the most surprising products of man's genius.