Michelle Bentsman

Impossible Reality, Infinite Doubling


Apprehending the phantom—inadvertent beginnings—in which fog descends from rain

Who has not once, in bright sober daylight, done a double-take, had a momentary lapse in which an intimate, formerly intimate, or simply familiar face is falsely seen?

Waved off as a trick of the imagination or plumbed as psychic visitation, these doubles poke little to large holes in the reality we think we know.

Love and desire, Wendy Doniger writes in Splitting the Difference, have the power “to produce the image of the beloved when someone else, or no one else, is there.”

Like "our habit of seeing, wrongly, the bus we are waiting for in the rain," says E.H. Gombrich.

Dissatisfaction with the rains have led to a projection of a phantom bus, born of the desire to escape a soggy miserable bus-stop—now.

But what is the ontological status of the phantom bus, or that familiar face flickering in a sea of strangers?

Nu no not nothing.

Doubling rends unrends re-rends our sense of reality, the constancy of our fleeting sense of reality (not yet present, already gone).

The doubled self—where I is indiscernible from I—where I created you—I and “I,” you and “you”—and so on since the beginning

In Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea, James tells his brother Charles, “As we know ourselves we are fake objects, fakes, bundles of illusions… Some kinds of fruitless preoccupation with the past can create simulacra, and they can exercise power, like those heresies at Troy fighting for a phantom Helen.”

Charles later remarks, “When did I begin to relax my hold upon Hartley, or rather upon her image, her double, the Hartley of the mind?”

Here we have it: our relationship to ourselves is, by most measures, incomplete.

The self we know is itself “fake," or, the self that purports to “know” lacks knowledge.

Full of illusions, we fixate on preoccupations that generate simulacra with real power.

Already, we are given to ourselves as fakes that generate fakes out of our fake-ness, and these fakes have the power to move reality.

Illusions nestled within the self expand outward once we empower them, spilling straight out into reality, where the historical record—here: the fight for a phantom Helen at Troy—attests to this process.

The preoccupation that becomes the simulacra is the double, the image, and the lover of the mind.

The fake that has power is a double generated in the mind.

In Kambar’s Tamil version of the Ramayana, the demon Shurpanakha says, after her demon brother Ravana fetches her because he thinks he is seeing Sita, for whom he pines, while she thinks that she is seeing Rama, for whom she pines, leaving them in a mirrored state of doubled pining:

As your consciousness, obsessed, fixes on nothing else,
and your great desire, spreading wide, burns within you,
everywhere that your eyes turn, they light on her,
and she appears for you! Look! This is an old story.

Ravana can't see past his projection of Sita—it's too real.

But Shurpanakha, even under the influence of her own projection of Rama, recognizes: "this is an old story.” (Look!)

Mourners and lovers both: gather the shadow for your eternal kiss

The mind’s capacity for projection from love and longing is bound up with a desired ideal in the mind, upon which the fruitless yet powerful simulacra-generating preoccupation is based.

Doubles emerge when love and longing seek the attainment of the perfect beloved, the preservation of a perfect union, or the reversal of the loss of the beloved.

Pliny the Elder tells a legend of a Corinthian girl who traces the profile of her lover’s shadow on the wall before he goes, creating a “shadow double to contain the memory of the lost lover.”

As Doniger puts it, “Mourners trace shadows in the attempt to create soul-catching doubles, preserving the memory of loved ones who have died or gone away.”

The shadow, or its representation, the statue, provides a palpable, even if illusory, sense of permanence, reinstated after the desired permanence has been punctured.

Unlike the involuntary projection of the lost or unattainable beloved, these statues and shadow doubles are voluntarily created and treated with a sense of reverent reality.

He Radha, your lover's in a million pieces now, each as good as the next—for once he lets us take, for once he'll have us all

Krishna’s cowherd maiden devotees, the gopis, deep in lusty love with him, often jealously seek him out, although they are married, although he is a god, although he has chosen Radha as his favorite.

In the story of the all-night Rasa lila dance, Krishna “divides himself into as many parts as there are women; each woman gets the real thing, not a fake replica. But Krishna also provides, conveniently, doubles of them to stay at home in bed with their husbands.”

Idyllic doubling, in which the fantasies of the gopis are fulfilled and their husbands are none the wiser, wives still by their side.

But while the gopis get the “real” Krishna, Doniger notes: "the husbands do not get the real thing; they are fooled.”

Though the husbands never find out, the gopis are committing—without repercussions—what looks very much like widespread adultery.

The attribution of reality or unreality to the double, at the very least, champions the virile magnetism of Krishna over these hapless husbands.

The doubling allows the gopis to attain their idealized beloved, while the husbands of the gopis preserve the illusion of an unperturbed union with their wives.

They may taste the infinite fruit of divine love and still retain the status quo.

From such grandiose doubling, elaborate interaction and subterfuge between lovers and their beloveds has already arisen.

As Doniger puts it: “where Western tales of adultery have a mere eternal triangle, the Hindu myth gives us an eternal mandala.”

Ladies, keep your phantoms close—the "you" you thought your lover loves so swiftly slips away

A desire to erase the possibility of adultery and preserve the ideal faithful union strongly motivates doubling in the stories of Sita and Helen.

In a retelling of the story of Helen by Hofmannsthal, the goddess Aithra creates “an airy ghost that looked just like her” while the real Helen is kept safe in far off Egypt, sleeping for a decade.

The ghost-double device, here and elsewhere, appears to be meant to absolve Helen of any suspicions of committing adultery with Paris.

However, the presence of the double rends the fabric of reality, which becomes further convoluted by an interweaving of altered states.

Helen is not only asleep for a full decade, but is given a drug of forgetfulness that makes her “forget her guilt” and therefore look young and innocent.

What guilt would she have, one might ask, if she was sleeping by her lonesome in Egypt instead of in the arms of Paris?

Silence, the narrative plows on:

Menelaus is on the same drug, and so comes to believe that he has the real Helen. (Indeed the real Helen, says the narrative.)

They spend a blissful night in reunion.

But alas!

He awakes the next morning in confusion, and thinks this real Helen is “the phantom, a mirror image or temptress made of air. Perversely, he fears that the has betrayed the real Helen.”

He is convinced of this because the woman “in his arms looks too young, that she resembles an eternally young goddess; she looks too good; with a face ‘too untouched by life,’ while the real Helen would have aged.”

By means of alternate modes of reality (decade-long sleep, drugs), the real Helen becomes, for Menelaus, a phantom of herself.

This sentiment reifies the phantom Helen, for the real Helen becomes jealous of her, the so-called “adulterous ghost,” and “resolves to win her husband back by administering an antidote to the amnesiac drug, a drug of remembering that is another shadow double: Aithra has warned Helen that the two vials of drugs look so alike that one might mistake one for the other.”

Helen has lost her beloved idealized union with her husband Menelaus.

She blames the phantom, but has become the phantom.

The only way for her to retrieve her realness, at least in his eyes —the only eyes that matter for her — is to introduce a final doubled element from another uncertain reality, in the form of twinned vials of memory-drugs.

The disruption of the initial double inserted to allay a disruption can only be rectified by a deepened doubling, if at all.

Ladies become phantoms, phantoms—find the real, touch the fake

Euripedes’ Helen worries that she will be mistaken for the “false Helen, the Helen of her name” if she returns to Sparta.

Another sense in which Helen has indeed become her phantom: she must pay for its transgressions without having enacted or experienced them.

Roberto Calasso says, “When people speak of Helen, we can never know whether they are referring to her body or her phantom copy.”

Euripedes’ Helen is called a “copy or a sculpted image or a ‘cloud image.’”

These classifications point to Helen’s status as mere image even before she is doubled.

In one version of her story, her double is given to Paris as a “a breathing image made in likeness to me, made out of air, and he thinks he has me, but has a useless seeming.”

This fulfills the lover’s desire for the perfect beloved by turning the unattainable into something entirely attained—“a permanent sign of presence, always available to the lover’s desiring embrace.”

But Helen is already “herself a work of art, hence a fake; her phantom double is a fake of a fake, twice removed from reality.”

Call me what you will—hang me on a name—we duplicate disintegrate reintegrate your signs, our shadows

Euripedes’ Helen is worried about being mistaken for not only the “false Helen,” but the “Helen of her name.”

Helen’s worry introduces another classification of fakes, in which the phantom representation takes on a verbal shape, and identity doubles within the letter.

Doniger relates the Hindu story of Samjna, whose name “means ‘mutual understanding’ or ‘consciousness,’ or, by extension, ‘sign’ or ‘image’ or ‘name,’ or, finally, ‘recognition.’ […] Samjna is the Signifier. Since the image or name is the double of the thing or person, Samjna is her own double from the start.”

Samjna creates her own double, named Chaya, and “their names render both of the mothers of the human race unreal in one sense or another: one is “the Sign,” the other “the Shadow.”

Yet, the final, crucial, cherry on top is this: “names and images in Hinduism are regarded as in many ways isomorphic with reality or even able to create reality.”

As Lorraine Daston hazards, “What if all philosophy since Plato was crashingly wrong about the ontos on, the really real? What if it is really the shadows in Plato’s cave that are true […]?”

Thus do Daston and Doniger retrieve shadows from Plato’s pit of condemnation, to raise them up to the light of the “true” rather than the “really real.”

This may give a clue as to why the myth of Saranyu and Samjna, like many of the aforementioned stories, ends in a proliferation of doubling that is the origin for humankind:

“the first wife bore Manu (son of the Sun) and the twins, while the second wife, the double, bore another Manu, a double of Manu, called Manu the Similar, who will reign in the future. And since, according to many subsequent texts, this second Manu is our ancestor, the tradition implies that we are descended not only from a replicated mother, a mother who was nothing but a copy, a fake, but now from a replicated Manu as well.”

According to this myth, we are born from a double born of a double of a double—inherently thrice doubled in our origin, and stuck in a chain of constant reduplication.

What holds us molds reality—navigating shells—we are burrowed in

David Shulman gives another justification for doubling, illustrated through the temple worship of the goddess Lepakshi, who must be approached through a mask and a mirror:

“The mirror thus offers the reflection of a mask of an image seen in a dream—and, as in so many Hindu contexts, we might expect that the more deeply embedded the form, the more whole and real it must be. This is the ontic advantage of the play within a play, the story within a story, the dream inside a dream.”

By calling the doubling (by mirror) and representation (by mask) mechanisms of a more deeply embedded form, Shulman reframes the discourse on doubling, fakes, and phantoms.

Instead of de-stabilizing reality, this mechanism fixes it more firmly beyond the reaches of what is unreal.

These various valences of doubling serve as supports and surrounding structures that ensure its continuity while functioning as an access point for the thing itself—much like the expanding protective shells of a nesting doll, each a doll in its own right.

Gregory Nagy, playing off Pindar’s line that “Man is the dream of a shade,” has considered our so-called reality through the metaphor of a nested shadow, or shade:

“It is as if we the living were the realization of the dreams dreamt by our dead ancestors.”

In this vein, creator deities are swapped for shades, and these shades surround us, projecting us into being with their dreams that hold us in this world of their imagination.

When you’re gone I’ll keep you close—When I’m gone I’ll make you

Although Shulman speaks of a particular dynamic in which the human seeks a divine reality that would be overwhelming to encounter head-on, the residue of this divine unattainability has bearing on the impossibility of manifesting a static ideal of any of our mortal desires.

The double may, in some cases, allow one to keep up the ghost, so to speak, of a perfected reality by subverting the imperfect one, or in Nagy’s case, invert reality so that the ghost keeps us up.

Doubling allows for rifts in reality that open up the possibility of access to and from the beloveds beyond the limits of space-time, foregrounding a connection between the once present by representing them, while anticipating those to come by means of its self-perpetuating mechanism.

From this side of illusion, nothing could ever not be—lover unraveled, unwittingly returned

One version of the Hindu story of Nala and Damayanti takes the interplay between reality and illusion and chaotic doubling to a fever pitch:

“They were in the same place, thinking that they were in different places, and they actually embraced in the midst of their illusory selves […] Corresponding as they did in every way to their real selves, they rejoiced to embrace, even when each discovered that the other was unreal.”

This doubling creates the illusion of separateness within a fragmented reality of togetherness, and presents an ethic of joy despite believing, falsely, that the object of love is unreal.

Lest we get caught up in the notion that we are incontrovertibly stuck in a self-propagating web of deception, fakes, and lies, this version of Nala and Damayanti happily coming together, truly, in the midst of a world of illusion, and rejoicing even under the illusion that they are rejoicing in an illusion, provides, perhaps, a model for embracing the tenuousness of reality as we know it.

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