“The Double” by Jorge Luis Borges (From Book of Imaginary Beings)
Suggested or stimulated by reflections in mirrors and in water and by twins, the idea of the Double is common to many countries. It is likely that sentences such as A friend is another self by Pythagoras or the Platonic Know thyself were inspired by it. In Germany this Double is called Doppelgänger, which means ’double walker’. In Scotland there is the fetch, which comes to fetch a man to bring him to his death; there is also the Scottish word wraith for an apparition thought to be seen by a person in his exact image just before death. To meet oneself is, therefore, ominous. The tragic ballad ‘Ticonderoga’ by Robert Louis Stevenson tells of a legend on this theme. There is also the strange picture by Rossetti (‘How They Met Themselves’) in which two lovers come upon themselves in the dusky gloom of a wood. We may also cite examples from Hawthorne (‘Howe’s Masquerade’), Dostoyevsky, Alfred de Musset, James (‘The Jolly Corner’), Kleist, Chesterton (‘The Mirror of Madmen’), and Hearn (Some Chinese Ghosts).
The ancient Egyptians believed that the Double, the ka, was a man’s exact counterpart, having his same walk and his same dress. Not only men, but gods and beasts, stones and trees, chairs and knives had their ka, which was invisible except to certain priests who could see the Doubles of the gods and were granted by them a knowledge of things past and things to come.
To the Jews the appearance of one’s Double was not an omen of imminent death. On the contrary, it was proof of having attained prophetic powers. This is how it is explained by Gershom Scholem. A legend recorded in the Talmud tells the story of a man who, in search of God, met himself.
In the story ‘William Wilson’ by Poe, the Double is the hero’s conscience. He kills it and dies. In a similar way, Dorian Gray in Wilde’s novel stabs his portrait and meets his death. In Yeats’s poems the Double is our other side, our opposite, the one who complements us, the one we are not nor will ever become.
Plutarch writes that the Greeks gave the name other self to a king’s ambassador.