In common parlance a doppelganger is a person who is so identical in looks to another person (think Tina Fey/Sarah Palin) that it is uncanny. I have a friend who looks so much like me that we are frequently confused by people. We both go to the same coffee shop so it happens all the time. I haven’t decided if I am his doppelganger or he is mine.
But in literature, there is a much more sinister meaning for the word doppelganger. It is a reference to an apparition which appears to someone, usually in their peripheral vision. Writers over the years have given a sinister character to the apparition, and in some circles a doppelganger is a foreshadow of pending trouble. And writers of sci-fi and horror stories and screenplays have employed doppelgangers as frightening characters who do all kinds of horrendous things.
My interest in them, however, is more from the curious kind of “other” who appears as a conscience character or the reflective being who inspires the main character to inquire about (her) morals, her decision-making skills, or her failure to have remembered the purposes of her life. In a sense, I take a page from psychoanalyst Karl Jung who developed the school of psychoanalysis which embraced the “alter-ego” as a legitimate part of one’s psychological makeup.
Sigmund Freud, the second person of the historic hierarchy of psychological pioneers, postulates that in every person there is the existence of the “id” which is comprised of the “ego” and the “super-ego.” These are the rational and the irrational personalities that exist in a free-flowing tension which allows a person to act and react throughout one’s life. The healthy person is one who is capable of maintaining a balance of these two aspects of one’s personality. The unhealthy person is a victim of the conflict or imbalance between the two.
These two pioneers have exposed what literature has revealed as the doppelganger in one’s life. Whereas in many lives, like mine, there is an actual person who is the spitting image of myself, there is in others the metaphorical and more ethereal “person” with whom dialogue may take place and where conflict of life decisions may be worked out. Writers, particularly journalists, may refer from time to time to someone who is demonstrating a doppelganger relationship to a famous person. In this year’s Republican race for nomination of a candidate for President, it is frequently noted that a candidate is demonstrating a doppelganger attempt to recreate Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, or George Bush. That is wishful thinking on the part of some; for others it seems like an accurate description of the situation.
The same could be said to be true of Democratic candidates who see themselves as the doppelganger of Senator Ted Kennedy, President Bill Clinton, or even financier Warren Buffett. It all depends upon who is making the observation as to whether it is meant in a positive or negative way.
But the term is used best when referring to someone’s mind-blowing moment when they look in a mirror and see themselves transformed by the image of someone who has gone before them, or their “old” self before notoriety set in to their lives. It is in this context that the doppelganger is more of a conscience character than anything else, drawing the person back to articulated values which have been jeopardized by fame, ambition, or financial success.
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