The double refers to a representation of the ego that can assume various forms (shadow, reflection, portrait, double, twin) that is found in primitive animism as a narcissistic extension and guarantee of immortality, but which, with the withdrawal of narcissism, becomes a foreshadowing of death, a source of criticism and persecution.
The figure of the double dates back to primitive civilizations, as shown in legend, but it is also found throughout literature. It was Otto Rank who in his essay on the double (1914) was the first to develop this idea in psychoanalysis, and Sigmund Freud quotes him at length in "The Uncanny" (1919). However, the idea of the doubling of consciousness is present in his first texts on hysteria (1893, 1895), and the unconscious itself is introduced by Freud as a second consciousness capable of producing dreams, parapraxes, and so on. The theme of the double is taken up by Freud and integrated in his concept of the uncanny. "The 'uncanny' is that form of terror that leads back to something long known to us, once very familiar" (1919), but has become terrifying because it corresponds to something repressed that has returned. "The double," Freud wrote citing Heinrich Heine, "has become an image of terror, just as, after the collapse of their religion, the gods turned into demons." (1910).
Rank's study of the double has two aspects: anthropological and psychopathological, the latter being approached through literature and the personality of authors. For anthropology, the double is omnipresent as a representation of the soul and therefore a guarantor of survival. It also helps us understand the nature of sacrifice, such as the cannibalistic incorporation of the son by the father (Chronos) because the son has drawn to himself the father's image or shadow. The double is similarly the origin of certain taboos, and Rank notes the evolution between the narcissistic claim of immortality and the acceptance of the genetic continuity of parents through their children, which is at the origin of totemism. "It is no longer the double itself (the shadow) that continues to live but the spirit of a dead elder who is reborn in the embryo" (Rank, 1914).
In literature (E.T.A. Hoffmann, Edgar Allen Poe, Guy de Maupassant, Alfred de Musset, Fyodor Dostoevsky), Rank points out the description of a paranoid state revolving around the persecution of the ego by its double and compares these imaginary creations to their authors' symptoms, through which the theme of the double reveals a psychopathological dimension (epilepsy, splitting of the personality). Similarly, Freud noted that an older form of narcissism that has been overcome can continue to have an effect by changing into a "moral conscience" susceptible of being split off from the ego, as seen, for example, in delusions of being watched.
The double is also found, although on a different plane, in real or imagined twins and, more generally, in twin brothers. The paradox of identity versus alterity arises here together with—in the case of the doubles of myth who are not brothers (Achilles and Patroclus, Orestes and Pylades)—the narcissistic foundations of friendship. This can be contrasted with the tragic destiny of Narcissus, who drowned while looking at his own reflection. The theme of the double appears, therefore, to be susceptible to very broad interpretation, similar to the primal narcissism from which it originated.
- Freud, Sigmund (1919h). The Uncanny. SE, 17: 217-256.