The Doppelgänger – the creative self behind the door.

6th October 2011
Artists! What a funny lot! But are they really all that different to everyone else? I have to say I think the answer is no. The only real difference, perhaps, is that creative people - poets, musicians, composers, painters, anything! – tend to open the doors to the unconscious a little more often than most. And they do like to take a stroll around inside every once in a while.

That portal to the unconscious is a Pandora’s box of a kind, too, a space that once opened cannot easily be shut again. The creative process has its energy and source in there, in the very same place as dreams, mythology and all those primitive impulses of hunger and sexual desire.
painting of four people, two pairs identical, doppleganger
'How They Met Themselves' by Dante Gabriel Rossetti c.1860.


What a terrifying, unsettling place it sounds! And indeed it is. No wonder most people only take a peep into it and then shut the door again, because lurking in there is a person who looks strangely like ourselves. That person even dresses the same, speaks and behaves the same – mimicking our rational self so cleverly that other people can be quite taken in when he or she comes out to play. That person is also not altogether a wholesome creature, either, in fact it can be down right repulsive. And once encountered is a truly terrifying occurrence, out of control, anarchic and, darn it! often rather brilliant as well.
painting of two figures watching sunset, similar clothing style, 18th century
'Sunset' by Caspar David Friedrich 1830.

The Doppelganger

That person behind the door is called the Doppelganger – celebrated especially in the European neo-Gothic tradition. Artists usually encounter him (or her) at least once or twice in a lifetime and stare into his face with horror. Gothic literature is bristling with examples of him – Jekyll and Hyde, Dracula – and he is celebrated liberally in the poetry of Keats or Edgar Allan Poe. The most frightening thing of all, however, is that like it or not, everyone probably has one - a Doppelganger in the wings, just waiting for their chance to take to the stage. This, I believe, is the essence of the Gothic as it exists in all of our lives. And not just in the movies.
linking banner with red text on black background


Which brings me to another piece of Schubert genius, this time drawing upon a poem by Heinrich Heine: Der Doppelgänger – and sung on the YouTube clip by the tenor Gustavo Jimenez, accompanied by Mikhail Berlin on piano. I don’t normally like modern interpretations on film, but this one hits the spot. See if you agree. It has English sub-titles. The spaces between the lines and the silences punctuating Schubert's haunting piano motif are as extraordinary as the music itself – allowing us far more than a cursory glimpse into a different, altogether more terrifying world. Warning: afterwards, you might not be able to shut the lid quite as tightly again as you would like.
Der Doppelgänger – Franz Schubert, sung by Gustavo Jimenez, Mikhail Berlin, piano.
Still ist die Nacht, es ruhen die Gassen,
In diesem Hause wohnte mein Schatz;
Sie hat schon längst die Stadt verlassen,
Doch steht noch das Haus auf dem selben Platz.

Da steht auch ein Mensch und starrt in die Höhe,
Und ringt die Hände, vor Schmerzensgewalt;
Mir graust es, wenn ich sein Antlitz sehe -
Der Mond zeigt mir meine eigne Gestalt.

Du Doppelgänger! du bleicher Geselle!
Was äffst du nach mein Liebesleid,
Das mich gequält auf dieser Stelle,
So manche Nacht, in alter Zeit?
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

You might also like

Belle Epoque
The artist Aubrey Beardsley - a brief biography
drawing of woman in long robes, fine line with red block colour at top
Elizabeth Siddal. A reminder of why we remember.
close up detail shows face of young woman, pensive, red hair
Victorian Art
John Atkinson Grimshaw - painter of moonlight.
young male victorian with beard turning to camera
Historical Fiction
The Testament of Sophie Dawes. A Gothic Journal.
small close-up of book-cover title, gold text
small up-arrow linking to top of page