Who’s the Who of the Body? Adventures in Bodily Misrecognition

You’re in a conference room, wondering why all these seemingly intelligent people around the table can’t seem to remember what this “follow-up” meeting is a follow-up to. You all remember there was a “launch” meeting two weeks ago, but from among the nine (occasionally prodigious) brains around the table, there doesn’t seem to be a whole one to be assembled from all the pieces that has a hope of reconstructing what decisions you all made.

And then there’s that young fellow you’re pretty sure is the lover of the long-lived VP sitting two seats down. The innocent keeps offering ideas that sound suspiciously like his man-friend’s. Why are they beaming at each other as each thinks he’s thinking his own thoughts?

Many of the world’s mystical traditions tell us that the apparent separateness of bodies covers over a deeper reality: that there is a seamless continuity between you and all those who are apparent “others”: Not only is your neighbor as yourself, your neighbor is yourself. So is everybody (and — guess what? — everything) else.

Aside from our religious or spiritual perspectives, in our everyday rounds we live out what could be considered a very rough but down-to-earth, social counterpart of the idea that bodies do not house distinct selves. Identity can be intersubjective. We think the thoughts others have shared with us as if they were our own, as in the rapid volleying of the same idea between the lovers at the conference table. We carry forward our parents’ judgments while not recognizing their source (probably far before even them). We catch the mood of the testy traveler verbally assaulting the airline employee at the ticket counter.

That intersubjectivity can extend from the phenomenon of more than one person thinking the same thoughts or experiencing each other’s moods to the sharing of identity through physical likeness — think of identical twins’ potential for experiencing themselves as a collective being, perhaps in response to other people’s confusion of one twin for the other.

I find that I think of the sharing of selves across bodies in connection with the frequency with which I am taken to be someone else in public places. Here’s what happens:

I’ve made a special trip to a suburban mall, and am striding swiftly toward the “anchor” store that carries the cosmetics brand I’m seeking. Echo! I hear a woman call out from where she is sitting. I keep walking: that’s not me anyway. Echo! she exclaims again, her voice edging toward me this time with lightning bolt edges. Why the urgency? I wonder. And, people name their children that?

The woman’s no longer sitting, she too is striding, with energy and toward me, a smile tinged with anxiety on her face. Though she’s not holding her arms open to me, she walks in an open-hearted way.

She thinks I’m Echo. Hesitantly, I think I should be kind: this woman will be disappointed, her tender heart tumbled a bit, when it turns out I am not her long-lost friend (relative?). It’s only as we get within about eight feet from each other, that her expression of joy, as at a surprise reunion, turns. Yet it’s not disappointment I’m reading on her face, but apparent confusion. I’m not her younger sister’s best friend from home; there’s something about me that clues her in. Yet, because I remind her so much of  Echo, in a sense I’m also not not her.

The woman stays glued to me after asking me my name. The woman, who without apparent embarrassment introduces herself to me as Pamela, seems fond of me — like longtime fond. Why does she hang on, as if she’s hoping that through gentle persistence I will be Echo after all? We chat a bit. She tells me about her sister’s friend and how long it’s been since she’s seen her, about the time Teresa and Echo carried the regional debate team. She wants to hang on. Soon it seems she’s talking to me as if I were Echo.

And what’s happening to me? From the very point at which I recognize that she has mistaken me for someone else, I have been somewhat willing to play the part, to give the woman the experience of recognition and reunion. In some sense, if I look that much like her, aren‘t I Echo (whoever she is)? At a certain point, I’m not just humoring Pamela: I’m entertaining the idea that, on some plane, in some respect, I am Echo.

Obama opposite his Indonesian lookalike Ilham Anas in Reuters photo

Over and over again this happens: something like the same self appearing in different bodies. The Indonesian Obama lookalike is a local celebrity peppered with questions about American politics. Your new girlfriend looks an awful lot like your last one, and for some reason you think you’ve already told her the things you only told the beforehand woman. The teacher at your kids’ school routinely punishes both of the twins when it’s only Natalia who goads the other girls at recess. An auditorium full of (probably) heterosexual men raise their hands, indicating they believe Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal are gay because they played cowboys in love in Brokeback Mountain (and they still look rather a lot like themselves).

The Hindu dictum Thou Art That has been interpreted to mean that the self we take ourselves to be is none other than the universal self present in all. Personality can be taken on and shed at will; indeed, it has always been only a put-on. Thou Art That suggests that the fact of having different bodies or shells should not be taken to represent genuinely distinct selves. Add to that the phenomenon of mistaken identity, and, in a sense, neither the self nor the body can be said truly to “belong” to any one. They are both slippery surfaces — which is why, in literature, meeting one’s doppelgänger, or physical double, is tantamount to coming face to face with one’s own death — the death, that is, of one’s ego. Save a lot of money on your Halloween costume and check the mirror; a character is ready for the playing, no special accoutrements needed.

Sarah Snazell, artist
“Doppelgaenger” oil painting by Sarah Snazell.