Thursday 14 July 2022

The Question in Bodies #45: That Haunting Sense of Unexpressed Deformity

Many a man would have even blazoned such irregularities as I was guilty of; but from the high views that I had set before me I regarded and hid them with an almost morbid sense of shame.
– Stevenson, “Henry Jekyll's Full Statement of the Case”

Living with duality is something that I think most people do to some extent; we compartmentalise our selves, we communicate in different ways in different contexts. And it’s a survival technique, a thing we do naturally to maintain social discourse and our place in it.

But what if you’re autistic and you don’t know you’re autistic, and these changes of tone and etiquette don’t come naturally to you? This isn’t theoretical. In the house where I spent my childhood, sex and gender weren’t just taboo subjects, they were active subjects of revulsion and shame. I learned about bodily differences embarrassingly late. No positive depictions or discussions of sexuality were tolerated at home; and my mother particularly responded to scenes of people enjoying the act of kissing or canoodling with disgust and revulsion. 

(Footnote: I clearly remember the moment of the first same-sex kiss on British TV, between Colin and Guido on the episode of Eastenders broadcast 24th January 1989. I remember my parents’ seething outrage at it, having known in advance from the newspaper that this would be the episode where that happened, and having made absolutely sure that they tuned in and did not miss it.) 

The result of it was that very early on I developed a private imaginary space where I could escape the constant surveillance under which I was kept. And actually, my imaginary scenes weren’t really anything to be ashamed of – they certainly weren’t the twisted evil I was scared that everyone would think they were, and in later life I’ve actually become proud of the unique and odd fantasy world I made, and I have even used it in my work. But it didn’t matter. An internal Demiurge in my brain had brought into existence a fantastical world where my sexuality and imagination lived, separate from the world I presented to those about me, and the result was that I fractured.

Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty, and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow loveable. At friendly meetings, and when the wine was to his taste, something eminently human beaconed from his eye; something indeed which never found his way into his talk, but which spoke not only in these silent symbols of the after-dinner face, but more often and loudly in the acts of his life.
– Stevenson, “Story of the Door”

Readers of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde who are familiar with any of the pop culture manifestations of the story (and let’s face it, who isn’t?) almost always find themselves surprised to find two things: first, how short the story is (my copy, a venerable Dover Thrift Edition, extends to a slim 54 pages); and, more importantly that Henry Jekyll is not in any way the protagonist of the story – and isn’t even in the story in person all that much.

The hero of the story is Mr. Utterson the lawyer, whose first name doesn’t even get mentioned until well into the second half of the book. Utterson is really the only real point of view character we have. Even when, in the final two chapters of the story, the first-person narratives of Dr. Lanyon (the only person to witness Jekyll’s chemical transformation) and Dr. Jekyll himself intrude, we are aware that these are written testimonies that Utterson is reading, and that we are reading with him.

The introduction of Utterson in the very first paragraph of the novella surely must be one of the finest character sketches in British literature. We meet a man who we have every reason to dislike, a man with the outer semblance of a hidebound Calvinist bigot. But by the end of that first page we’re on his side. The structure of the writing itself reflects the shape of the man: it presents us at the outset with all those aspects of him that seem objectionable, forbidding, and dull – and then, as Utterson himself does, surprises us by showing us how likeable he is. By the time Utterson is rallying Poole, the doctor’s valet, to join him in kicking down the door of Jekyll’s lab and facing whatever horror lies inside, with the assurance that whatever happens next is on him, we’re as ready as Poole is to follow him to the end. Because by now we know dreary, dusty Utterson to be compassionate, decent, brave and possessed of that elusive twinkle in the eye that makes you realise that the person you’re speaking to has hidden depths, that there is a duality at play here.

Just as the textual structure reflects the man, so does he serve a role in a larger, structural duality, for he is one of the two primary players in the story: he is the opposite number, the true mirror, of Edward Hyde.

From that time forward, Mr. Utterson began to haunt the door in the by-street of shops. In the morning before office hours, at noon when business was plenty and time scarce, at night under the face of the fogged city moon, by all lights and at all hours of solitude or concourse, the lawyer was to be found on his chosen post.
“If he be Mr. Hyde,” he had thought, “I shall be Mr. Seek.”
– Stevenson, “Search for Mr. Hyde”

(Let us just for a moment take in that Stevenson had the balls to get that line over and done with before anyone else did, and executed it well.)

Utterson’s quest begins when he hears a story about a terrible thing done in plain sight by one Edward Hyde. He recognises the name from Henry Jekyll’s will – Jekyll is his friend and client – and already having profound misgivings about a man he has never heard of being Jekyll’s sole beneficiary, is horrified when he hears of Hyde’s increasingly horrible reputation.

Eventually his amateur detective work bears fruit and he meets Hyde. The meeting is brief, but Utterson registers the same sensation every person who tells of seeing the man notes: a wrongness, a sense that the man is, without being visibly deformed, somehow upsetting and repellent to look upon.

Pop culture has already spoiled the heart of the mystery for us, but the crucial thing to point out here is that while we think we know Mr. Hyde intimately by the end of Stevenson’s brief narrative, very little concrete is said about him. He receives only three objective points of physical description: he’s younger than Jekyll (Jekyll is fifty); he’s short; and he has more body hair than Jekyll does (Jekyll realises he’s changed without drinking the potion at one point by the hair on the back of his hands). Everything else is the perception of the characters in the book, and it is the central characteristic of Hyde that what is wrong with him can never seem to be nailed down by an observer. There is something inside.

“He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something down-right detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.”
– Stevenson, “Story of the Door”

Cinematic representations of Edward Hyde, with his hunched back, heavy brows and snaggle teeth, redolent of some primitive hominid, have drawn heavily on Poole’s descriptions of Mr. Hyde’s behaviour while hiding out in Jekyll’s laboratory: hunched over and masked; jumping out from behind boxes “like a monkey”; crying out “like a rat”; “weeping like a woman or a lost soul”. Earlier on, witnesses describe his murder of Danvers Carew as committed with “ape-like fury”. But the characteristics of an ape are only figurative, a signifier of Hyde as someone devolved (and remember that Stevenson, a convert to atheism, had a high opinion of Darwin).

Hyde’s nebulous condition is exactly what makes him so compelling as a character. Even what he does is only described enough to leave our imaginations to do the work.

To be fair, the two crimes that are described in detail are enough on their own to paint a picture of someone completely beyond the pale: a casual act of violence against a child, and the unprovoked murder of a man on the street. Both are performed on a whim, and although both happen by night, they are committed on city streets. The sense is that as terrible as these acts are on their own, what makes Hyde truly evil is that he just doesn’t care. It’s not that he’s unaware of the potential consequences of doing these things in a place where anyone can see him doing them, it’s that knowing this doesn’t stop him. The two things that keep us all from falling upon each other and tearing each others’ throats out are a functional conscience and a respect for the consequences of our actions – preferably the first, the second if we must, and a mixture of both for most of us – but Hyde is monstrous because he has neither.

“Even as good shone upon the countenance of the one, evil was written broadly and plainly on the face of the other. Evil besides (which I must still believe to be the lethal side of man) had left on that body an imprint of deformity and decay. And yet when I looked upon that ugly idol in the glass, I was conscious of no repugnance, rather of a leap of welcome. This, too, was myself. It seemed natural and human. In my eyes it bore a livelier image of the spirit, it seemed more express and single, than the imperfect and divided countenance I had been hitherto accustomed to call mine.”
– Stevenson, “Henry Jekyll's Full Statement of the Case”

Reflections, the standard go-to for metaphorical points in stories about doppelgangers and fractured identities, appear somewhat less in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde than you might think. Hyde isn’t really a reflection of Jekyll, nor is he strictly an opposite. The complex middle-aged man who transforms himself into Edward Hyde to be able to permit himself to do whatever it is he’s so ashamed of – that what it is doesn’t actually matter, even though we can guess, is a powerful exercise in future-proofing – remains a complex man made of good and evil, basically decent, but still living the same double life that he lived before his experiment. Mr Hyde is only part of him, the part without inhibitions. He is the product of chemistry, or more properly, alchemy, the chemistry of the spirit. He is a distillation, an essential salt, a part of the mixture rather than the whole.

And that’s part of the reason why he is smaller, part of the reason for his “haunting sense of unexpressed deformity”. Stevenson, without even knowing the term, is referring to the Uncanny Valley, the (disputed) idea that a thing that looks and acts human but which is missing some part of the human creates an unconscious terror in the viewer, a gut-level emotional response.

But that can’t be all of it. If Hyde represents only a part of Jekyll, where does Jekyll go?

It was on this side that my new power tempted me until I fell in slavery. I had but to drink the cup, to doff at once the body of the noted professor, and to assume, like a thick cloak, that of Edward Hyde. I smiled at the notion; it seemed to me at the time to be humorous; and I made my preparations with the most studious care.
– Stevenson, “Henry Jekyll's Full Statement of the Case”

Initially, Jekyll is giddy with the absolute lack of inhibition that being Hyde gives him. Jekyll remembers being Hyde but is only in control of his actions insofar as the personality of Hyde is in control when he is Hyde, and while they share memories, they are functionally two different people.

You can see in this an accidental metaphor for dissociative identity disorders. It’s not a bad metaphor, frankly. There are two alters. They have their own names, their own moral universes. As time goes on, the two personalities grow and develop. They argue with each other without conversing, their conversation unspoken but eloquent. As time progresses, the two alters become more or less prominent. The more in denial the person becomes, the more in conflict with their other selves, the more profound the fracture.

To cast in my lot with Jekyll, was to die to those appetites which I had long secretly indulged and had of late begun to pamper. To cast it in with Hyde, was to die to a thousand interests and aspirations, and to become, at a blow and forever, despised and friendless. The bargain might appear unequal; but there was still another consideration in the scales; for while Jekyll would suffer smartingly in the fires of abstinence, Hyde would be not even conscious of all that he had lost... it fell out with me, as it falls with so vast a majority of my fellows, that I chose the better part and was found wanting in the strength to keep to it.
– Stevenson, “Henry Jekyll's Full Statement of the Case”

This isn’t where Stevenson was coming from, of course. It doesn’t mean you can’t read it that way or find truth or meaning in it, but It’s well known that Stevenson’s initial inspiration was the 18th century case of Deacon Brodie. Brodie, Edinburgh city councillor and deacon of the cabinet makers’ guild, used his encyclopaedic knowledge of locks and doors to maintain a prolific secret career as a burglar, partly to fund his gambling addiction, and partly for the thrill of it. Until he was caught and hanged, that is. Brodie’s double life – respected leader of craftsmen and august local politician by day, ruthless thief and profligate gambler after dark – struck a chord with Stevenson, not only in terms of the duality between virtue and sin, but in the experience of the addict.

Stevenson, who struggled with substance abuse issues for much of his adult life, supposedly wrote his first draft of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde straight after a bad drug experience. I don’t know how much of that is mythology, but I think it’s telling how closely Dr. Jekyll’s experience cleaves to that of the alcoholic. He revels in the loss of inhibitions the drug gives him, the freedom from guilt. It makes him feel younger. Initially he thinks he can stop at any time; eventually he goes too far, repeatedly, and a terrible thing is done. He realises he has a problem, but thinks that if he’ll just stop drinking his elixir, he can escape all consequences.

But of course he can’t, and he’s lying to himself that he is not responsible for the things he has done or that simply deciding to be good will sweep away the irreversible, terrible thing he has done. The elixir has done its work and changed him forever.

He is stuck with Hyde, and he's kidding himself that there is any easy escape.

Henry Jekyll stood at times aghast before the acts of Edward Hyde; but the situation was apart from ordinary laws, and insidiously relaxed the grasp of conscience. It was Hyde, after all, and Hyde alone, that was guilty. Jekyll was no worse; he woke again to his good qualities seemingly unimpaired; he would even make haste, where it was possible, to undo the evil done by Hyde. And thus his conscience slumbered.
– Stevenson, “Henry Jekyll's Full Statement of the Case”

I don’t know for sure how deep my own fractures go. Jekyll’s double life unsettles me: the memory of a Bible I once had, defaced in my own hand, returns to me, just as the good doctor’s favourite pious work lies splayed on the floor of his lab, hideous blasphemies in its margins; the potential consequences of an inner life separate from the public sphere haunt me.

Because Dr. Jekyll cannot synthesise his other self, because he cannot accept it as just him, at the last extremity it eats him, and it becomes all he is. His vices weren’t all that much to begin with but in refusing to own them he creates opportunities to risk more and more, deluding himself that it isn’t him.

And then Hyde is all he is, and he is left with no choice. The more I think about that, the more it terrifies me.