Friday, July 18, 2014

Dancing With Doppelgängers

A doppelgänger, at least one, appears in Algernon Blackwood’s The Dance of Death (1907).  The word translates imperfectly from the German as “double”, “duplicate”, or “look-alike”, often in the context of a ghost or apparition who closely resembles someone living.  But the word has additional connotations.  Depending on context, a doppelganger can also be a counterpart, decoy, or alter ego—not merely a replica. 

Doppelgängers appear often in horror entertainment, especially in stories involving ghosts or on a more material plane, “dissociative personality disorder”, (i.e. multiple or split personalities).  The concept is inherently disturbing.  On a supernatural level, it is frightening to think of being erased by another who can take our place in society, even among loved ones.  Is our precious individuality that easy to replace?  On a more realistic and psychological level, there is much anxiety in being ignorant of one’s true nature in all its manifestations.  Who am I really?  Am I the kind of person who could have done this?

The Dance of Death is unfortunately titled since the end of the story is suggested on the first page.  It is made even more predictable by the very first line: “Brown went to the dance feeling genuinely depressed, for the doctor had just warned him that his heart was weak and that he must be exceedingly careful in the matter of exertion.”  Blackwood was a sophisticated horror writer, so it seems that this telegraphing of the story’s likely end is quite intentional. 

With the title and the first line the author seems to be telling the reader “Just so you know, the lead character is going to die by the end of the story, so let’s get that out of the way right now.”   Readers expecting to be shocked or startled at the end will criticize the story for its predictability.  But the power of the story is not so much in what happens as how it happens.  The Dance of Death is a story where the process is much more important than the end result.

Browne ignores his doctor’s advice and attends the dance, but the doctor’s words to him are revealing:

“Well—in moderation, perhaps,” hummed the doctor.  “Not wildly!” he added, with a smile that betrayed something more than mere professional sympathy.”

As Monty Python would say, “Nudge, nudge.  Wink, wink.  Say no more.”  Insightful readers will suspect that the concern is more with sexuality than cardiac health.  Almost immediately Browne is drawn to a beautiful and mysterious woman at the dance, but she is already accompanied by a gentleman who weirdly enough closely resembles him.  At first, he watches her longingly from a distance. 

She somehow embodies his highest dreams and ideals—especially regarding Nature with a capital ‘N’.  Though working as a dreary and unsuccessful office clerk, Browne aspires to “a life close to Nature”, perhaps as a shepherd, or a huntsman.  The woman is appropriately dressed in ivy green, but no one seems to know her, and most of the other guests cannot even make her out in the crowd.

By degrees, their eyes meet, his “double” conveniently disappears, and he learns that her name is “Issidy”.  It seems that such an unusual name should have a special or symbolic meaning, but I could find no referent to it, other than its appearance in this story.  Interestingly, he can no longer remember his own name when she tells him hers, and he experiences other subtle effects on his consciousness of himself and surroundings.  He is delighted to be in such close proximity to her, and it is clear the author intends their meeting to be a consummation not only physically but spiritually as well.  They begin dancing. 

Browne’s seamless acquiescence to his fate—a fate we all will share—is the most interesting part of this story.  Blackwood seems to be saying that death is not so much a separation as a union—with our dreams, with the masculine and feminine aspects of our personality, with all those who have gone before.  The approach to death is one of hope, even sexual longing, without any fear, regret or despair.  
The story’s denouement is a clever jab at capitalism and office work.  Hearing of Browne’s death, Blackwood has Browne’s boss invoke another kind of doppelgänger, still very prevalent today unfortunately:  “He’s no loss to us, anyhow…Smith will do his work much better—and for less money, too.”  Our economic replacement by a duplicate employee is a special horror all its own.

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