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Seeing (The) Double

Ayoade et al.'s adaptation of The Double is set in what one might describe as a futuristic post-near-apocalypse version of the 1980s, as though something had gone terribly wrong in that decade and the world had frozen in dim dilapidation, indefinitely served by the same clunky, temperamental technology and entertained by the same particularly fuzzy sci-fi TV shows and bleak electro-pop. Along with some satisfyingly jarring images, a tense and (mostly) suitably restrained script, a sound-track which unsubtly but cleverly gives the whole the feel of an oncoming train, and some proficiently well-meaning-but-chronically-anxious fumbling on the part of Jesse Eisenberg, it does almost as good a job as the book of conjuring up a sense of claustrophobic loneliness and paranoid anticipation of disaster, as the protagonist finds his life usurped by a doppelgänger -- a man physically identical but temperamentally antipodal to himself, with all the self-assurance, social nous and ruthlessness required to rip away what little fragile status, opportunity and tentative romantic prospects he had, with so much difficulty, accumulated. [1]

However, I couldn't help but feel that the film lacks some of the book's ... for want of a better word ... Dostoyevskianism. Now, I don't know what others typically associate with Dostoevsky, but the thing which really strikes me in what of his I've read so far (this, The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment) is his profound grasp of the ungraspableness of human nature. The character of Mr. Goldyakin, in the novella, is all inconsistency and flux. One minute rapturously drawn to his mysterious counterpart...
"Do you know, Yasha," Mr. Golyadkin went on in a shaking voice, weak with emotion, "you must stay with me for a time, or stay with me for ever. We shall get on together. What do you say, brother, eh? And don't you worry or repine because there's such a strange circumstance about us now; it's a sin to repine, brother; it's nature! And Mother Nature is liberal with her gifts, so there, brother Yasha! It's from love for you that I speak, from brotherly love…" (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Double, Chapter VII)
...the next, recoiling in vague and indecisive fear, self-loathing, paranoia, pride...
 "…Oh, Lord, have mercy upon us!" he moaned in conclusion, in quite a different voice. "And why did I invite him to what end did I do all that? Why, I am thrusting my head into their thievish noose myself; I am tying the noose with my own hands. Ach, you fool, you fool! You can't resist babbling like some silly boy, some chancery clerk, some wretched creature of no class at all, some rag, some rotten dishcloth; you're a gossip, an old woman! … Oh, all ye saints! And he wrote verses, the rogue, and expressed his love for me! How could … How can I show him the door in a polite way if he turns up again, the rogue? Of course, there are all sorts of ways and means. I can say this is how it is, my salary being so limited … Or scare him off in some way saying that, taking this and that into consideration, I am forced to make clear … that he would have to pay an equal share of the cost of board and lodging, and pay the money in advance. H'm! No, damn it all, no! That would be degrading to me. It's not quite delicate! Couldn't I do something like this: suggest to Petrushka that he should annoy him in some way, should be disrespectful, be rude, and get rid of him in that way. Set them at each other in some way. … No, damn it all, no! It's dangerous and again, if one looks at it from that point of view - it's not the right thing at all! Not the right thing at all! But there, even if he doesn't come, it will be a bad look-out, too! I babbled to him last night! … Ach, it's a bad look-out, a bad look-out! Ach, we're in a bad way! Oh, I'm a cursed fool, a cursed fool! you can't train yourself to behave as you ought, you can't conduct yourself reasonably. Well, what if he comes and refuses. And God grant he may come! I should be very glad if he did come. ..." (Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Double, Chapter VIII)
Most of Dostoevsky's characters are similarly un-pin-down-able: joyful and miserable in the same breath; full of love and full of hate, and perfectly capable of sending both in the same direction at the same time; always good, and always bad, in both extremes; terrified whilst abundantly confident; hopeful to the point of self-delusion in the midst of deep despair. Personally, I find this to be an enlightening and liberating diagnosis: once ever self-analytical, and obsessed, as well, with figuring out what other people thought of me, I now am more frequently content to accept that I, and others, too, as far as I can tell, are far more complicated than can be described by a finite set of binary indicators, even for one fleeting moment.

'Course, as a deeply spiritual Orthodox believer, Dostoevsky was well-versed in scripture, so it shouldn't really surprise me that the Bible should turn out to be so 'Dostoyevskian' in places (I mean, once I remember to reverse the implied direction of causality). An example which I find particularly compelling, and which bears some analogy to the plot of The Double, is the story of Saul and David, as recorded in the book of 1 Samuel. The people of Israel, desiring to be like the nations around them, clamour for a king to rule over them, in spite of the judge/prophet Samuel's warnings (1Sam8:10-18). By way of gracious concession, God gives them Saul -- a man literally head and shoulders above the rest of them (1Sam9:2), who immediately begins to lead them into impressive victories against their enemies (1Sam11). But Saul repeatedly presumes (albeit seemingly well-meaningly) to take matters into his own hands, contrary to God's instruction via Samuel (1Sam13:8-15, 15:1-31). And so God rejects him as king (1Sam15:22-23), and Samuel warns him that he is to be replaced with "a man after [the Lord's] own heart" (1Sam13:14).

That man turns out to be David, the youngest of eight sons, employed tending sheep for his father Jesse (1Sam16:1-13). Samuel meets with him and, in a private ceremony before his family, anoints him for his future role. Shortly afterwards, by strange 'coincidence' he is summoned to the house of Saul, who is deeply troubled in spirit and has been advised of the soothing benefits of music. David's renowned skill on the lyre is balm to Saul's being and quickly earns him the king's favour and the status of armour bearer (1Sam16:14-23). He proves himself a man of great valour in his service to Saul by standing up to the Philistine giant Goliath in a confrontation that has lent its name to nigh-on every triumph of the underdog ever since (1Sam17). He wins the close affection of Saul's son Jonathan and the respect of all Israel (1Sam18:1-6). But Saul is pathologically conflicted: in many ways he sees and loves David almost as a son, but at the same time experiences feverish jealousy towards him for his popularity and the threat that he poses to Saul's own position...
As they were coming home, when David returned from striking down the Philistine, the women came out of all the cities of Israel, singing and dancing, to meet King Saul, with tambourines, with songs of joy, and with musical instruments. And the women sang to one another as they celebrated, 
“Saul has struck down his thousands,
and David his ten thousands.”  
And Saul was very angry, and this saying displeased him. He said, “They have ascribed to David ten thousands, and to me they have ascribed thousands, and what more can he have but the kingdom?” And Saul eyed David from that day on. (1 Samuel 18:6-9)
So agitated is Saul that lashes out in a violent, unprovoked attack during one of David's musical performances (1Sam18:10-11). Afterwards, he sends him away -- no longer able to bear his presence -- and appoints him as a military commander in the secret hope that he will lose his life on the battlefield (1Sam18:12-30). But "...David had success in all his undertakings, for the LORD was with him. And when Saul saw that he had great success, he stood in fearful awe of him. But all Israel and Judah loved David, for he went out and came in before them." (1Sam18:14-16)

David continues serving affectionately and valiantly but Saul's harmful intentions against him become ever more evident. Jonathan's friendship gets him out of trouble several times, as does his marriage to Saul's daughter Michal, whose protective interventions include a classically ingenious ruse reminiscent of Tom Sawyer's antics, or a Just William story...
Saul sent messengers to David's house to watch him, that he might kill him in the morning. But Michal, David's wife, told him, “If you do not escape with your life tonight, tomorrow you will be killed.” So Michal let David down through the window, and he fled away and escaped. Michal took an image and laid it on the bed and put a pillow of goats' hair at its head and covered it with the clothes. And when Saul sent messengers to take David, she said, “He is sick.” Then Saul sent the messengers to see David, saying, “Bring him up to me in the bed, that I may kill him.” And when the messengers came in, behold, the image was in the bed, with the pillow of goats' hair at its head. (1 Samuel 19:11-16)
David, though anointed by Samuel, harbours no grand ambitions nor designs against Saul, nor even resentment for the way that he has been treated. He is merely confused and sad that Saul has turned against him for apparently no reason (1Sam20:1). Eventually (though not before bravely and graciously bearing with an awful lot) he accepts that he can no longer live safely as part of Saul's extended household, and flees, resigning himself to life on the run (1Sam20-21).

Saul continues to pursue him, and to punish anyone who aids him (or appears to aid him) in his flight (1Sam22). Meanwhile David, a natural leader, amasses a modest-sized troupe without (it would seem) even trying: "...everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them. And there were with him about four hundred men." (1Sam22:2) For some time, they lead a perambulant existence, punctuated by various raids and rescue missions as they tried to stay at least one step ahead of their aggressor (1Sam23, 25).

Amazingly, David continues ever faithful and reverential towards the man who is irrationally bent on destroying him. More than once he is presented with a perfect opportunity to kill Saul and liberate himself from his life of danger and constant caution (not to mention the implications for his own position if the people who were such big fans of his should find themselves without a king). First there's the time when Saul inadvertently picks the entrance to the cave where David and his men are stationed as a convenient spot to relieve himself in privacy. "Now's your chance," is the theme of the chatter around David at the back of the cave; instead, he creeps up and cuts a corner from Saul's robe, without even catching his attention. When Saul exits, David goes after him, and explains to him how he has spared him:
And David said to Saul, “Why do you listen to the words of men who say, ‘Behold, David seeks your harm’? Behold, this day your eyes have seen how the LORD gave you today into my hand in the cave. And some told me to kill you, but I spared you. I said, ‘I will not put out my hand against my lord, for he is the LORD's anointed.’ See, my father, see the corner of your robe in my hand. For by the fact that I cut off the corner of your robe and did not kill you, you may know and see that there is no wrong or treason in my hands. I have not sinned against you, though you hunt my life to take it." (1 Samuel 24:9-11)
Saul, whose affection for David seems always to linger (Dostoyevskianly) alongside his loathing, is suitably moved:
As soon as David had finished speaking these words to Saul, Saul said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” And Saul lifted up his voice and wept. He said to David, “You are more righteous than I, for you have repaid me good, whereas I have repaid you evil. And you have declared this day how you have dealt well with me, in that you did not kill me when the LORD put me into your hands. For if a man finds his enemy, will he let him go away safe? So may the LORD reward you with good for what you have done to me this day. And now, behold, I know that you shall surely be king, and that the kingdom of Israel shall be established in your hand." (1 Samuel 24:16-20)
But (loath as I am to mix literary analogues) David is the Moby Dick to Saul's Captain Ahab. Even mutual affection, and proof of integrity, and Saul's own explicit acknowledgment of the wrongness of it all -- combined! -- are not enough to halt the murderous campaign. When Saul later vows to "no more do him harm", after a similar incident in which David steals his spear and water jar while Saul and his men sleep unguarded (1Sam26), David (wisely) pays no regard to this promise. In fact his very next move is to devise a more medium-term solution to his predicament:
Then David said in his heart, “Now I shall perish one day by the hand of Saul. There is nothing better for me than that I should escape to the land of the Philistines. Then Saul will despair of seeking me any longer within the borders of Israel, and I shall escape out of his hand.” (1 Samuel 27:1)
And so, David finds favour with the enemies of Israel and shelters amongst them, just at a time when they are gearing up for war against Israel's army (1Sam27). And Saul becomes ever more desperate -- even going undercover to consult one of the mediums that he had long ago banished from the kingdom (1Sam28). This encounter gains him little more than the forewarning of defeat and death at the hands of the Philistines. Indeed, not long afterwards, he and his sons fall slain on Mount Gilboa (1Sam31).

The relentless, unwarranted pursuit against David is finally at an end and, what is more, David is pretty much a "shoo-in" for Saul's successor as king. But, far from rejoicing in relief and jubilance, David grieves, anguished at the death of “Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!" (2 Samuel 1:23a); the anointed king to whom he had remained allegiant against the wildest odds, and his dearest friend, lost to him on the same day (2Sam1).

So...what's my point? "Be humble and faithful and brave like David, not proud and capricious and fearful like Saul"? There's certainly worse morals to draw. After all, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” (James 4:6) Moreover David, in his best moments at least, hints towards Jesus in many ways (cf. Luke 23:34, 1 Peter 2:23, Philippians 2:5-7).

But what especially struck me from the book this time round was "hey, this is a great read!" I mean, I totally believe that the Bible is much more than a source of good stories and insightful observations on human nature and our ideas about God. But it certainly isn't less than that, and you don't have to begin from a particular worldview to enjoy it and get something from it. All the better if one reads it willing to have one's worldview challenged (and I say that to Christians as much as to skeptics...I don't half worry sometimes that we process it with a filter of "I already got me my Christianity and anything which don't fit that neat little package don't feature with me"). So to anyone out there "in between novels" and looking for "a good story"...why not pick up 1 Samuel? or Ruth? or Jonah? or Esther? (for starters).




[1] I begin to question to what extent I actually want to be drawn into the fictitious mental anguish of expertly drawn characters... Inside Llewyn Davis is probably the best film I've seen all year but put me in a foul mood for an entire weekend, and I seem to recall similar from the (at the time) unexpectedly impressive Punch Drunk Love...

[Thumbnail image CC by crackdog on flickr]

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