Reading

The Dualists’ Dilemma

I love how some ideas just keep getting reworked. We don’t outgrow fairy tales; we just repackage them. We recreate some of the same archetypal scenes (this is just so-and-so’s odyssey) and characters: he’s such a Casanova. Today I’m entranced by our idea that we are dual in nature—a mixture of good and evil, or a compound of body and soul.

Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde explores our good and evil natures, but not in the way the cartoons taught me. Tweety Bird got huge and scary and violent when his evil side came out, as did many others, but Stevenson’s Hyde was smaller than Jekyll—wiry, malnourished, wild. Jekyll came to understand that he had cultivated his good qualities, and thus his body was tall and strong; his evil side was purely evil, and he had quelled his evil side, not fed it.
This is reflected in the Cherokee story about the grandfather who tells the boy there are two wolves inside each of us—a good wolf and a bad wolf. The boy asks which one is stronger, and his grandfather replies “The one you feed.”  Jekyll’s wolfish Hyde is in danger of growing when Jekyll sets him free and exercises him.
The popularity of Stevenson’s work in the 20thcentury, from cartoons to films to Star Trek episodes means this idea struck a chord with our imagination. In the Star Trek episode, entitled “The Enemy Within” splits Captain Kirk in to his good and evil side, and complicates matters by making his good side really problematic. He can’t make decisions or lead effectively. The implication is that the “whole” Kirk has enough ego and chutzpah to step on toes if he needs to get something done. Of course it’s the original Star Trek, so the evil Kirk is a pleasure-seeking hedonist, drinking and chasing women (more aggressively than usual).  Different context, but same idea.
The other way we seem to split ourselves, and perhaps with an even longer literary (and philosophical) history is the Cartesian dualist division between the physical and the conscious, or the body and soul. This is ancient, of course, but it hasn’t left us for all our technology. It came up today in class, reading Calvino’s The Nonexistent Knight. (Incidently, Calvino also explored the other dualism in The Cloven Viscount, where the titular hero gets blasted in to his good and bad sides by a cannonball, but today we were talking about matter and spirit.)
The nonexistent Knight is an empty suit of armor that walks and talks and rescues damsels, fueled, as he tells Charlemagne, by “will power… and faith in our holy cause” (7), which Charlemagne concedes is enough to get us all moving. This nonexistent knight is given a squire who is his opposite: a man who seems to be “all body” in the sense that he doesn’t know he exists, so he “becomes” everything he comes in contact with—ducks, pears, soup, and Charlemagne himself.
This novella is a thought experiment: what if we could separate our mind and body in to separate forms? What would a mind look like with no body? Nothing. He needs the armor to give him shape. What would a person be like with no core soul binding him to one identity? A person who seems to carry traces of all races and who, having no core identity of his own, borrows one from his immediate environment, which changes as he moves around. He’s not a duck at dinner time, only when he’s walking by the duck pond and dives in. He’s soup at dinner time, not knowing whether he should eat the soup, or feed the soup to a tree with a hole in it, or become the soup itself. He literally dives in to whatever surrounds him.
Why so many stories with binaries over the years? We have a long history of thinking of ourselves as composite, frequently of two parts. And is the real progress of the last century that we don’t anymore? That now we tend to think of ourselves in multiple parts or roles? Today my students discussed the idea of a Disco Ball theory of identity: we all have lots of different facets, not just two constituent parts. That idea could take us far afield from Jekyll and Hyde, more like boldly going where no one has gone before.
(Images from Shutterstock, Star Trek Season 1, Episode 5, and the Harvest/HBJ edition of The Nonexistent Knight)

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