Thursday 28 July 2022

The Question in Bodies #47: What say of it? What say of CONSCIENCE grim?

Alain Delon as William Wilson in Spirits of the Dead (1968)
“What say of it? What say of CONSCIENCE grim, that spectre in my path?” – Chamberlaine’s Pharronida – Poe, “William Wilson”

I have never quite nailed down in my head whether I think Edgar Allan Poe misremembered the spurious epigrammatic quotes that pepper his work or if he just made them up. It doesn’t matter, in the end, but the effect is the same: an epigram offers up your text to be commented on by the world that already exists. It places it in a space, a context. But Poe’s epigrams all too often enhance the unreality of his worlds, the dreamlike nature of his stories. The footnotes in the editions of Poe I have – I have several – pretty much always say of the epigrams at the start of his stories and poems something like “this quote does not appear in the source it’s attributed to”.

The one at the start of “William Wilson”, my favourite of all Poe’s stories, might be the best example.

William Chamberlayne (with a Y) was a relatively obscure 17th century English poet and playwright. There’s evidence Poe had read Chamberlayne – he briefly had something of a revival in Poe’s time thanks to an edition of his collected works – but while there is a line about conscience in the play Love’s Victory, there is nothing like this specific quotation anywhere in Chamberlayne’s work, and certainly not in his epic poem Pharronida. There is a sort of legitimacy in referencing a book that in Poe’s context many more people had probably heard of than actually read, but these are Poe’s words.

The line frames conscience as a threatening ghost that stands in our way. Conscience is a horror, a thing that you cannot talk about lest it destroy you.

The epigram matters because right up front it gives us the central key to the story, its moral point, a point that the main body of ”William Wilson” avoids telling you, even to the extent that the word “conscience” appears at no point in the body of the story: a man is plagued by his conscience, which stands in his way to thwart him, personified in the form of the most unsettling of all spectres: the Doppelganger.

Yet, at this distant day, let me do him the simple justice to acknowledge that I can recall no occasion when the suggestions of my rival were on the side of those errors or follies so usual to his immature age, and seeming inexperience; that his moral sense, at least, if not his general talents and worldly wisdom, was far keener than my own; and that I might, today, have been a better, and thus a happier man, had I less frequently rejected the counsels embodied in those meaning whispers which I then but too cordially hated, and too bitterly despised. – Poe, “William Wilson”

A synopsis: the narrator tells you he’s about to die, and that story serves as a sort of confession. He assures the reader that he is a creature of diabolical evil, and explains that he’s about to tell you the story of how he gave up the last vestiges of morality, the moment when, “in an instant, all virtue dropped bodily, as a mantle.” Since early adolescence, he tells us, he was plagued by a double, a man with the same name as him, who looked and acted just like him, and who always spoke in a whisper. This enemy dogs him through various adventures, thwarting every crime he tries to commit, until, finally, they meet in a duel of swords, and the narrator murders his tormentor, only to find that he has murdered his own self, or, more specifically, all that is good in himself.

Throughout the story, the narrator and his Doppelganger are named eponymously: William Wilson. But our narrator is also clear from the beginning that William Wilson is not in fact his name.

Let me call myself, for the present, William Wilson. The fair page now lying before me need not be sullied with my real appellation. This has been already too much an object for the scorn, for the horror, for the detestation of my race. To the uttermost regions of the globe have not the indignant winds bruited its unparalleled infamy? Oh, outcast of all outcasts most abandoned! To the earth art thou not forever dead? to its honors, to its flowers, to its golden aspirations? and a cloud, dense, dismal, and limitless, does it not hang eternally between thy hopes and heaven?

For many people, most people, I suppose, their name is the linchpin of their identity, a vital part of the soul; those of us, like me, who lack any emotional connection with their names, who don’t feel that they have one, lack something fundamental. Our name is the idea of who we are that others attach to it. It is a signifier, the complex structure of a person’s meaning encompassed in a brief string of words, a picture in a person’s head, and the only fragile posterity most of us will ever have.

What then does it mean to read a story that hinges on the meaning of a name that isn’t a name?

He says his name is like William Wilson, in that it’s an ordinary name, the sort of name a lot of people have. But if that were the case, why would it be the immediate subject of hate and revulsion?

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there's a pair of us!
Don't tell! they'd advertise – you know!
How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –
To tell one's name – the livelong June –
To an admiring Bog!

– Emily Dickinson, “Nobody”

Certainly the only person who actually appears in the story – and there aren’t all that many, and you couldn’t really call any of them characters apart from the narrator – in whom the name inspires horror is our William Wilson himself. And he hates it because it’s an ordinary name. He feels he deserved to be called something elevated, something patrician. Something unusual. But he’s got the name of a nobody, a non-name, and he becomes even less of the bearer of a name by taking on a name that isn’t his. He becomes nobody.

Even his early life isn’t his own, really: the boarding school he describes is Poe’s, the author imposing his own life on the character. Which is a perfectly normal thing for a writer to do, of course. Writers insert autobiography into their fiction all the time – write what you know – but I think the point is that here it imperils Wilson’s personhood even more. He is only part of a person, and as such falls into the uncanny valley.

I cannot better describe the sensation which oppressed me, than by saying I could with difficulty shake off the belief that myself and the being who stood before me had been acquainted at some epoch very long ago; some point of the past even infinitely remote.

If he is nobody, then the other William Wilson, who becomes his classmate on the same day as him, who shares his birthday and his first and last name, is doubly nobody, a person only in the context of our narrator.

Hold on a second, though. It’s not cut and dried that the Doppelganger is wholly a product of the narrator’s imagination, either; he tells us that at school there is gossip among the higher forms of the school that he and the other Wilson are twins; a servant announces the Doppelganger’s intrusion; the double stands amidst the appalled victims and instructs them to find the doctored cards in his jacket; instructed to leave, his honour destroyed, the narrator accepts his uniquely tailored overcoat – except it isn’t his coat, because his own coat is already on his arm.

Wilson’s double has a physicality that extends beyond his imagination. People know when the other Wilson is present. They see. They hear. For them the Conscience is a different person.

Immediately upon my entering he strode hurriedly up to me, and, seizing me by the arm with a gesture of petulant impatience, whispered the words "William Wilson!" in my ear. I grew perfectly sober in an instant. Poe, “William Wilson”

Trying to decipher Wilson’s experience to make sense in some real world is missing the point. Sure, you could imagine the sixth formers getting confused because Wilson acted so differently when he was good that they thought he was a different kid and had a nicer twin brother, or that the scene in the card game is actually precipitated by Wilson, plagued by an attack conscience, coming clean in the face of Lord Glendinning’s despair and revealing everything. But that misses the point. We’re not supposed to decipher what “really” happened, or even make sense of it. Just as in our own heads, the story is rarely straight or sequential or Aristotelian in its unity. A fiction doesn’t have to be factual. It just has to be true.

Could he, for an instant, have supposed that, in my admonisher at Eton -- in the destroyer of my honor at Oxford  -- in him who thwarted my ambition at Rome, my revenge in Paris, my passionate love at Naples, or what he falsely termed my avarice in Egypt -- that in this, my arch-enemy and evil genius, I could fail to recognise the William Wilson of my schoolboy days -- the namesake, the companion, the rival, the hated and dreaded rival at Dr. Bransby's? Poe, “William Wilson”

It’s probably not a bad idea to compare the William Wilsons to Jekyll and Hyde: once again, we have a distinct person of sorts who is not a person at all, and how that fractionation becomes conducive to unease. But while Henry Jekyll takes futile steps to cordon off and defeat his sin, William Wilson successfully stabs his virtue.

The device of the “evil twin” is a standard of popular storytelling, but this, which surely must be one of the earliest if not the very first of the important examples – the story was published in 1839 – turns the idea around, for the evil twin is the narrator’s good.

But, of late days, I had given myself up entirely to wine; and its maddening influence upon my hereditary temper rendered me more and more impatient of control. I began to murmur -- to hesitate -- to resist. And was it only fancy which induced me to believe that, with the increase of my own firmness, that of my tormentor underwent a proportional diminution? Poe, “William Wilson”

I wonder if it is a characteristic of authors prone to addictions to imagine themselves as split beings? Poe’s reputation for addiction was inflated, but that he had an alcohol problem is as indisputable as it was for Stevenson.

Once again, a writer imagines that alcohol makes a brute of you, that the conscience is dulled by your descent into addiction. And addictions really do damage us morally.

The Twelve Step Program, as initiated by Alcoholics Anonymous and widely used by recovery organisations, includes in all its variations as its eighth step:

[We] made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.

None of us live in isolation. Anything that makes us put a substance, or a behaviour, or an experience, or even perhaps an idea, an ideology, above our care for those around us damages our relationships and may cause material and emotional damage to the people with whom we maintain relationships.

Because human relationships are fragile and it takes courage to have them.

It’s as easy to spot an addict as it is to spot a fanatic, and when the throes of addiction and fanaticism alike manifest in conversation both give a signifier of something missing, something damaged, and perhaps something contagious. Something oddly repellent.

Those higher, better human traits still exist inside us, but they are locked away. They are consigned to a different state of personhood. They are over there, in that other person. They are the Doppelganger who whispers advice, fragile and intermittent.

It was Wilson; but he spoke no longer in a whisper; and I could have fancied that I myself was speaking while he said -- “You have conquered, and I yield. Yet henceforward art thou also dead -- dead to the world and its hopes. In me didst thou exist -- and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.” Poe, “William Wilson”

What does it mean to murder a part of yourself?

I don’t know. I don’t have a hated double to stab; I don’t have much skill with a rapier. In a fight between me and my other, I picture them driving their bladed nails deep into my face, their hands closing on my throat.

But the sort of person who’d take a toddler by the ankles and smash the child’s skull against the wall for the sake of Nazism – or the sort of person who’d go into a Black church and be welcomed and given coffee and then open fire on the congregants – or the sort of man who’d kill 69 children on a youth camp – or the sort of person who’d take a boat out into the English channel and attempt to sink a boat full of refugees – or the sort of person who’d convince themself that conversion therapy was compassionate and moral, regardless of the evidence of their senses – is a person in whom something has died, and these things don’t die naturally, on the whole.

The death of the partial self might not be consciously achieved – it might be the result, metaphorically, of slow environmental poisoning, of a botched surgical procedure, of criminal negligence, of reckless driving. Oppressive organisational bodies, whether military, legislative, religious or cultic, everything from antivax conspiracy groups, to national standing armies, to gender-critical activists, to bureaucratic employers, to, ironically, churches, strive to extinguish the whispering voice of compassion. The result is the same, and it is growing around us.

In Poe’s day, the image of a man’s higher self being stabbed was in itself enough to inspire horror. It happened every day in his society of course – the man lived in Virginia in the first half of the nineteenth century, after all – but now it feels like we’re seeing a move to destroy the human conscience forever on an industrial scale. A single murder is the first step to more deaths.

When we think about what William Wilson looked like when the good in him was dead, perhaps it is a long-ago precursor of how the human race will look once the genocide of the human spirit has been effected.