What is your experience with a double

The double in literature. A psychoanalytic interpretation according to Otto Rank



The creation of the doppelganger


Avoidance of displeasure as the highest principle

Displacement and the mechanisms of alienation

The doppelganger as the result of a process of repression

Final consideration and outlook



The psychoanalyst Otto Rank devoted himself in his 1919 essay "The Doppelganger" to a topic that is of considerable psychological explosiveness, but which has nevertheless received little attention. It is about the ancient and widespread popular belief that people can have the uncanny experience that a part of themselves splits off and leads a life of its own. The split-off self appears in the form of a mirror image that suddenly becomes independent or as a shadow that detaches itself from its owner.

There is a vast abundance of literary representations of the doppelganger motif, of which only a few of the most famous can be mentioned here. The novel "Siebenkäs" by Jean Paul from 1796 and "The Elixirs of the Devil" by E.T.A. Hoffmann from 1816. Anette von Droste-Hülshoff took up the doppelganger motif three times, in 1841/1842 in the poem "Das Spiegelbild", in 1842 in the crime story "Die Judenbuche" and in 1844 in another poem "Der Doppelganger". The novella "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" by the Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson from 1886 and the novel "The Portrait of Dorian Gray" by the Irish writer Oscar Wilde are among the most famous depictions of the doppelganger motif in world literature .

With the advent of film art at the beginning of the 20th century, the performing arts also took up the doppelganger motif. The science fictin film "The Matrix" from 1999 should be mentioned here, the hero of which leads a double existence. While his body is in a kind of incubator in the real world, his conscious experience only takes place in a computer simulation. The double motif is used in its clearest form in the 2005 science fiction film "The Island". The two main characters, a man and a woman, are clones that were specially bred to serve their "producer" as a living spare parts store for organs. This film occupies a special position among the media works, since it already openly expresses what the psychoanalytic investigation will still uncover.

However, the model for all media processing of the doppelganger figure is a black and white film from 1913 with the title "The Student from Prague". Otto Rank took this film as an opportunity to devote himself to the doppelganger theme and to work out an interpretation based on psychoanalytic doctrine. He was evidently very impressed by the scenic possibilities of the film, which reminded him of the representations of dreams. He was also of the opinion that this film adequately represented the material on which the old folk tradition was based.

For these reasons, I will primarily refer to this film for the present work. An excellent summary can be found in Rank (1919).

The doppelganger motif is not only used in the literary and media works that can hardly be overlooked, but also in countless folk traditions. There the doppelganger appears as a mirror image that has become independent or as a shadow that detaches itself from its owner. The traditions often emphasize the threatening aspect of the mirror image, respectively. of the shadow. It is difficult to check to what extent the customs listed by Rank are still valid today. For example, whoever steps on their own shadow or who does not cast a shadow on the wall of the room when lighting the light on New Year's Eve has to die. But even today, many contemporaries are wary of breaking a mirror, because this should bring seven years of bad luck. Behind this is the belief that the injured reflection will take revenge.

If the doppelganger motif is widespread in the mythological ideas and customs of many peoples and is passed on and moreover finds such a rich literary and, more recently, media processing, then it can be assumed that it takes up a universal experience of being human.

But which experience is meant? - In the general understanding, the shadow refers to the unknown terrain in soul life par excellence. The persecuting mirror image is supposed to stand for the fact of experience that one can never get rid of one's past. Both views apply, but fall short and therefore miss the point. The claim to validity that is made with this assertion can only be redeemed at the end, when the work of interpretation has been done.

On the basis of the psychoanalytic doctrine (worked out by Freud up to 1919), Rank developed an interpretation of the doppelganger motif with the aim of uncovering the "deeper and significant spiritual experience" or opening up its actual meaning. Rank understands the doppelganger notion as a creation of the unconscious that comes from an ontogenetically early phase of development and serves to ward off the threat of death, the notion of the inevitable annihilation of the self.

Rank's thesis is coherent and plausible, but requires extensive knowledge of psychoanalytic doctrine. With his article in the "Imago, magazine for the application of psychoanalysis to the humanities", he had turned to specialist colleagues and could therefore assume appropriate knowledge.

The number of literary and media works that deal with the doppelganger motif by far exceeds the number of psychological publications that attempt to understand it. The importance of the doppelganger motif, which stands for a basic human experience, has by no means been adequately appreciated. The present work would like to contribute to compensating for this disproportion to some extent by explaining Rank's thesis and making it accessible to a wider audience.

The creation of the doppelganger

In a very early phase of individual development - called "primary narcissism" by Freud - a rudimentary self already exists. In this phase, the infant does not yet experience an outside world that is separated from it, rather the mother becomes part of its own self1 perceived. Therefore, the sexual drive energy that is present from the beginning (the libido) is initially completely located in the self. Only later, after the child has overcome the phase of primary narcissism and acquired the ability to differentiate between self and object, can the mother experience the mother as different from him and transfer his libido to other people.

Freud's theory of psychosexual development is a layered model. Ontogenetically earlier phases are not simply replaced by subsequent ones, but only superimposed, so that ultimately all the peculiarities of the phases remain. Due to genetic predispositions and unfavorable environmental conditions (e.g. experience of deficiency), individual phases (fixations) can be intensified. If the child or adult later finds himself in situations that overwhelm him / her, this can lead to a relapse to an earlier phase of development and a temporary loss of skills that have already been acquired. A typical example of this is secondary enuresis, when a child who was already dry gets wet again. Frequent triggers are events such as moving the family, separating parents or changing schools.

A fixation on the phase of primary narcissism under such conditions can lead to a repetition of the libidinal overcathexis of the self at later points in life. Freud illustrates such a narcissistic overestimation of one's self in parental love for one's own children. This is where the overestimation is particularly evident. In this way, "all perfections" are ascribed to the child, for which "sober contemplation would not find any reason". Freud goes on to say:

"The child should have it better than its parents, it should not be subject to the necessities that one has recognized as prevailing in life. Illness, death, renunciation of enjoyment, restriction of one's own will should not apply to the child, the laws nature and society should stop at him, it should really be the center and core of creation again [Emphasis from me]".

Your own narcissism is reflected in your love for your child. In the same section Freud points out the incompatibility of the great self with the idea of ​​death:

"The most delicate point in the narcissistic system, the immortality of the self, hard pressed by reality,..."

For the libidinally overstated self, the great self, the idea of ​​one's own annihilation is a tremendous offense, an insult to majesty2that it can't possibly take.

It could save its immortality if it had the ability to duplicate itself on the model of its own body and to create an incorporeal, but similar to its own body, second form for itself in its imagination. Indeed, the child has such an ability. Since there is still no difference between self / subject and reality / object in the phase of primary narcissism, the wish and its fulfillment are not yet differentiated from one another in the child's experience. In other words: what happens in the imaginary world also happens in reality.


1 In psychoanalysis, the term "I" denotes an instance of the psychic apparatus in the narrower sense (in addition to id and superego). Occasionally, however, this term is also used in a broader sense and then comes close to what is called "self" in everyday use.

2 Freud had referred to the child as "His Majesty, the Baby" during the primary narcissistic phase.

End of the reading sample from 17 pages