October 3, 2023

A TV interviewer once asked an astronomer whether he thought there was life elsewhere in the universe. “Look,” replied the astronomer, “somewhere in the universe at this very moment, someone looking very much like you is asking that question of someone looking very much like me.” So it isn’t so much a question of “Are we alone?” as “Are you alone?”

If there is an infinity of universes, as some scientists speculate, the cosmos may contain an infinite number of Russell Brands. It follows that if there is a God, he must surely be a malevolent one. There is, however, an upside to this nightmare. Several million of these Brands are at this very moment being torn limb from limb on various women-governed planets, while several million others are being hung upside down from lamp-posts.

Doubling has its comic aspects. If a monstrously fat man in pink tights and a sombrero crosses a stage, and a moment later another monstrously fat, similarly dressed man does the same, the audience are likely to laugh. In Freudian terms, they can avoid the mental labour of coping with difference, and by economising on psychical energy in this way they can release it in the form of laughter. Most humour involves a sense of incongruity, and in this case, ironically, it is sameness which is incongruous in the sense of out of step with the way things usually are.

If this were to happen in real life, however, it would probably be more eerie than funny. I was once on a flight to Sydney, waiting for the aircraft to take off, when an enormously tall Japanese man, not a common sight, entered the plane. He was followed almost immediately by another Japanese man well over six foot tall, and he by another, and so on until fifteen or so of them had lumbered down the aisle. This was pretty spooky until I discovered that it was the Japanese basketball team en route to the Australian Olympics.

Pure repetition is unnerving. Exact identities don’t happen in everyday life, which is why Nietzsche thought that words such as “leaf” were fictional because they implied that all leaves are the same. It’s also why identical twins have a sacred status in some cultures, “sacred” meaning both blessed and cursed. The fact that the alien children in John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos all look the same is part of what makes them so sinister. We are speaking of the uncanny, which means something both strange and familiar — familiar because it’s exactly like something else we know, but strange because this repetition is creepy.

One reason we enjoy rhythms and rhymes is that they combine difference and repetition, thus avoiding a monotonous thud on the one hand and a disorientating diversity on the other. “Baa baa black sheep” is fine, but “Baa baa black bull” has a surfeit of sameness. Pure identity is tedious, while pure difference would be unintelligible. Hell is traditionally thought to be less agonising than boring. It has the eternal sameness of shit.

It’s much the same with aliens, who are never very alien. They may have weird eyes, but at least they have eyes. If they were entirely different from us it’s hard to know how we could be aware of them. Perhaps a couple of them are sitting in your lap right now. Aliens may be tiny and greenish and stink of sulphur, but otherwise they look much like Jonathan Ross. More to the point, they bear a remarkable resemblance to both William Hague and Dominic Cummings. In fact, there are people for whom aliens, who touch down on Earth occasionally, are the only acceptable kind of immigrants, given that they presumably don’t intend to take our jobs, houses, primary school places or PhDs.

An interplay of sameness and difference can be found everywhere you look these days, and its technical name is narcissism. To be besotted with yourself is clearly an example of sameness or self-identity, but it also involves treating yourself as though you were someone else, and thus a degree of difference or self-alienation. You treat yourself and your body with exquisite care, as though you were carrying a precious but sickeningly fragile vase in your hands. Putting items in this brittle container, an activity traditionally known as eating, is a particularly fraught affair. There has probably been no civilisation for which food was simply food, but it’s rare to find one like our own where it’s scarcely food at all but invasion, potential poison, crime against non-humanity (eating meat), moral blackmail, emotional manipulation or a slavish surrender to patriarchal demands.

The opposite of treating yourself as Other is treating the Other as oneself. In ancient Greek tragedy, the ultimate other is the monster, some deformed creature which civilisation needs to shut out in order to preserve its sanity and stability. The monster in Sophocles’s plays about Oedipus seems to be the Sphinx, but in the end it turns out to be the blinded, incestuous, parricidal Oedipus himself, the king who is driven out of society and reduced to a homeless beggar. Shakespeare’s Lear is a later version of this tragedy. In Aeschylus’s Eumenides, it is the hideous Furies who threaten to subvert social order, while in Euripides’s Bacchae it is the god of orgies and erotic love, Dionysus.

In all these cases, society can only survive if it has the courage to recognise something of itself in the monstrous Other which confronts it. It must acknowledge this thing of darkness as its own, as part of the unspeakable truth about itself, and integrate it into the community. If it can do so, a great power for good will be released. The social order must recognise that its stability rests on the violent repression of these life-giving, death-dealing forces; only then can it be truly secure. When you meet your double, so legend has it, you die; but it might also be the occasion for a transformed existence.

Naomi Klein’s new book Doppelganger is about her double Naomi Wolf, about whom it is not exactly complimentary; and if Wolf reads the work, as of course she will, and runs into Klein with a knife conveniently to hand, one fears that the legend might turn out to be true. Klein is a Left-wing scourge of corporate capitalism, while Wolf was once a liberal feminist and darling of the Democrats who groomed Al Gore in how to give a convincing imitation of a human being.

She is now a conspiracy theorist who has a cavalier way with the facts, has compared Barack Obama to Hitler and thinks that people who are vaccinated against Covid don’t really feel human. She appears regularly on podcasts with Steve Bannon, who is said to have expressed disapproval of his children going to school with Jews (Wolf is Jewish). One of the two Naomis, then, embraces a paranoid form of politics, while the other does not. As Samuel Beckett remarked of one of the two thieves on Calvary being saved, it’s a reasonable percentage.

Nobody’s afraid of Naomi Wolf, but what she stands for these days is deeply alarming. The real Naomi, i.e. Klein, is regularly confused with the unreal Naomi, i.e. Wolf, and her book is among other things an exorcising of this embarrassment. A similar situation used to exist in Britain, where there was a real Stuart Hall, a Left-wing cultural theorist from Jamaica, and an unreal Stuart Hall, a slick TV performer and fawner on royalty who ended up in prison.

Why do so many conspiracy theories originate in the United States? One answer lies in the vast size of the place. This means that Americans are accustomed to a fair amount of personal space, and are particularly sensitive about that space being “invaded”. An American might say “Excuse me” if they come within six feet of you, which is not true of the citizens of Beijing. Smoking is taboo not only because it can kill you, but because smoke represents a contaminating connection between one hygienically sealed body and another. The model of human contact is infection. Rather as smoke becomes invisible but remains all-pervasive, these apparently separate bodies are caught up in some terrifying web of secret powers, and thus by no means as free and autonomous as they think.

Conspiracy theorists, for whom (like the paranoid) nothing happens by accident, are out to give a name to this system, whether you call it the political state or the work of a bunch of paedophilic Jewish reptiles from a distant galaxy. In doing so, you have the satisfaction of ascribing what seem to be random, anonymous forces (the market, for example) to a purposeful agent, so that the world makes some sense, however sinister, and you have someone to blame.

You can also combat the sealed-off bodies syndrome with new forms of bonding and brotherhood like the Proud Boys. When a pandemic breaks out in this situation, it isn’t the virus which a lot of citizens regard as deadly, invisible, infectious and omnipresent, but the state which seeks to protect them from it. At a time when bodies need to be hygienically sealed off from each other in order to survive, they cast off their masks, demand liberty or death and sometimes end up with both. They insist on the right to breathe together, which is the literal meaning of the word “conspiracy”.

In Dostoevesky’s chilling tale The Double, a timorous clerk called Golaydkin is persecuted by a smirking, malicious doppelganger whom he finally kisses in a despairing attempt at reconciliation. In doing so, however, he merely seals his doom, as he is driven away in a coach by a fearful coachman who is no less than Death itself. The real Golyadkin is destroyed by his phantom double.

No observer of the current American scene can doubt that this may happen there too. The Left, after all, is accustomed to defeat: our adversaries have more tanks than we do, not to speak of a lot more money and control of the means by which they can propagate their lies. What the big bad Wolf represents may trump what the real Naomi stands for in every sense of the word. But Klein has one monumental advantage: what she says, give or take a bit, is true. So you must either prove her wrong or create a world in which truth doesn’t matter anyway. That project is already far advanced.