Friday, November 30, 2012

Vendredi: Chthonian Histories

On a list of harbingers of death, the doppelganger seems an oddity. Meaning "double walker" in German, meeting one's doppelganger is said to be a sure omen of imminent demise. On the other hand, there have been enough verified accounts of doppelgangers in relatively modern times - with no death in sight - that one has to list the doppelganger as a kind of paranormal activity.

Since ancient times, seeing yourself "in the flesh" so to say was considered a sign that your death was just around the corner. Often the person seeing themselves saw their own corpse rather than a "walker". Pliny the Younger, the Roman historian and pundit, wrote of seeing his body on its funeral pyre not long before his death, one hopes prior to the lighting of the flame. Elizabeth I of England told of seeing herself laid in state not long before she died and almost every American child has been told the story of Abraham Lincoln seeing himself in the same condition before his assassination. But there are other, perhaps even more chilling stories of people actually meeting themselves much like the couple in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting above.

Over at About's Paranormal Page, Stephen Wagner gives a nice list of some of these. Percy Bysshe Shelley claimed to have seen himself in Italy just prior to his death in a boating accident. Guy de Maupassant claimed to have not only seen but heard from his doppelganger, who, the writer said, dictated one of his last short stories: "Him." When Catherine the Great saw her double walking toward her, she was so distressed that she ordered her guards to shoot at it. She died within the month; there is no record of any injury to that other Catherine.

Johanne Wolfgang von Goethe saw his double while out riding one afternoon. A number of years later, while riding the same road but in the other direction, Goethe realized that he was wearing the same gray suit his double had been wearing when he say it. For some, including Wagner, this points to doppelgangers effectively stemming from a rift in the time continuum. This, logically, leads to Einstein's theory of relativity and the fact that linear time is a veil over truth and all things throughout history are happening right now. Perhaps we are allowed a glimpse of truth only once in a great while, or perhaps our minds are playing tricks on us.

One of the most famous doppelganger stories - and the one that must be put down to mass hysteria of some kind should we chose to disbelieve it - is that of the girls' school teacher Emilie Sagee. At the age of 32, Mademoiselle Sagee was teaching at an exclusive boarding school in modern Latvia. The year was 1845 and Sagee's students were uniformly pubescent girls between the ages of 9 and 16. The students all claimed to have seen Mademoiselle's doppelganger silently hovering near her on more that one occasion. At one point, the doppelganger stood next to Sagee, mimicking her movements as she wrote on a chalkboard in front of a class of 13 students. On another, the double stood behind Sagee while she ate, again mimicking her movements silently. The occurrences seem to have been relentless although Mademoiselle swore she never saw her double, Sagee did say she felt tired and listless at the exact times that people claimed to have seen her doppelganger. The unfortunate Mademoiselle Sagee, who was always given sterling references for her poise, virtue and teaching ability, went through jobs like socks due to her recalcitrant double.

Doppelgangers are also compared to "sendings," in which a person - a witch for instance - sends out an astral projection of themselves to do some type of errand. As Robert Masello notes in Fallen Angels, this was a handy trick for condemnation in witch trials. No matter how many people had seen the witch elsewhere when the milk overturned or the plague descended, the misfortune could be blamed on her sending out a doppelganger to cause trouble.

In the end, the doppelganger seems far more than a simple harbinger or portend. Outstripping the banshee and the apparition in versatility at least, the "double walker" seems something far beyond our ability to understand even in this most scientific of times.

Header: How They Met Themselves by Dante Gabriel Rossetti c 1864 via Rossetti Archives (where you can purchase various prints of the painting)


Capt. John Swallow said...

Well that was a collection o' strange tales indeed! Some things I'd never heard regarding Doppelgangers.
Something I had heard on many occasions was that the Doppelganger was a sort o' "reverse copy" if ye will - like the opposing side o' yer usual personality. To pull a Star Trek reference, a bit like matter and anti-matter; like ye in aspect and movement, but opposite in thinking and action.
A curious condition however it manifests!

Pauline said...

Now that's a good one too, Captain. I did not find that reference in my research, although why not - and why it didn't occur to me - make for good questions.

Thank you, as always my friend, for the great addition to this post!

Timmy! said...

Personally, I think that doppelgangers, like all "paranomal activity" are tricks that our minds play on us, which is why they can't be explained or understood... But that's just my opinion and I could be wrong, Pauline.

Pauline said...

And that's one of the beautiful things about the paranormal, to my mind. It is one of the few stomping grounds remaining where everyone is entitled to their own opinion and no one feels the need to yell and scream about it. And that's fairly awesome in our current "intellectual climate."

Calliope Street said...

Hi Pauline,
This is Arthur on Calliope Street. I think you've already met Arthur at the Louisiana State Museum. Just wanted to introduce myself, tell you how much I love your blogs, and thank you for the honor and privilege of a line on your blogroll. I will do my best to be worthy.

Arthur and I love doppelganger stories. You've inspired me to re-read J. L. Borges, in particular, "The Other." Will hit the French Quarter booksellers this weekend in search of all his collections. Build me a big pile on the bedside table. A story a night. Perfect energy snack for a dreamer's mind. Many thanks! A.

Pauline said...

Thank you so much, Arthur, for your support. I love Calliope Street and read you all religiously!

Borges definitely deserves a place on the night stand! Now I'm wanting to read "The Other" again too.

Calliope Street said...

Why thankee, Pauline!