The Other and My-self

Poe_william_wilson_byam_shawYou have conquered, and I yield. Yet henceforward art thou also dead – dead to the World, to Heaven, and to Hope! In me didst thou exist – and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself. That’s the ending of “William Wilson” (1839) by Allan Poe, a short story which shows the dreadful life of someone who introduces himself as William Wilson, and who is horrified by the presence of someone identical to him. This “other” has his same name and appearance and, according to the narrator – which is William Wilson-, his objective seems to be that of interfering with all what William attempts to do. The terrible whispering of the “other” tortures William every time it suddenly appears along his life, since he’s a child. Indeed, the “other” seems to become the whispering which actually unmasks every unfair action William pretends to achieve. While the weary presence of the “other” increases, William’s dreadful desires do too. He escapes all through Europe (Oxford, Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Moscow, etc.) from the tormenting whispering however impossible it results to be.

This disturbing presence in fact reminds Sartre’s theory of the Other in Being and Nothingness (1943). William Wilson becomes catch by the “other” every time he tries to achieve a goal by suspicious means; he is shamed by the presence of the “other”, who, moreover, interferes with his will. Both William and the “other” incarnate a fight to impose their respective wills on each other:

Thus far I had succumbed supinely to this imperious domination. The sentiment of deep awe with which I habitually regarded the elevated character, the majestic wisdom, the apparent omnipresence and omnipotence of Wilson, added to a feeling of even terror, with which certain other traits in his nature and assumptions inspired me, had operated, hitherto, to impress me with an idea of my own utter weakness and helplessness, and to suggest an implicit, although bitterly reluctant submission to his arbitrary will (…) I began to murmur, -to hesitate,- to resist. And was it only fancy which induced me to believe that, with the increase of my own firmness, that of my tormentor underwent a proportional diminution? Be this as it may, I now began to feel the inspiration of a burning hope, and at length nurtured in my secret thoughts a stern and desperate resolution that I would submit no longer to be enslaved.

The dialectical relation “master-slave” is explained by Sartre, among others, to argue that the encounter with the Other takes place in terms of competition among different personal interests; just one will can win. That seems very likely to the relation William expresses regarding the “other” which in this case is “his other”. And it adds a challenging point as in Poe’s story the disappearance of one seems to imply that of the other, or the other’s, that of the one’s. This fact brings back again the importance of the “other’s look” in Sartre. It could be argued that William needs to be looked at in order to exist, as the “other” tells him to be living in the other’s self. So William can just survive in relation to the Other, acquiring a position regarding the Other, which turns him in the other’s object.

In William’s case this dialectic is enhanced by the ambiguous fact of the other’s identity; at the same time, it’s very nicely presented as a metaphor of the double or the split self which is presented as the own’s other. It gives a wide range for interpretation together with Sartre.