Mr. Hyde & the epidemiology of evil.
One way of solving the problem is by appeal to the phenomenon of doubling. At least once a week, usually more often, a patient in my clinic describes himself to me as a Jekyll and Hyde. The assumption always is, of course, that the Jekyll is the real him or her, while the Hyde is an intruder, alien, or interloper. The transformation from Jekyll to Hyde is often effected, as it is in the novella, by a chemical substance, though one less cinematic than that described by Stevenson:
The mixture, which was at first of a reddish hue, began, in proportion as the crystals melted, to brighten in colour, to effervesce audibly, and to throw off small flames of vapour. Suddenly and at the same moment, the ebullition ceased and the compound changed to dark purple, which faded again more slowly to a watery green.
How that passage takes me back to my adolescent days in the chemistry lab, when we would heat and mix chemicals just for the thrill of releasing gaseous iodine, a violet vapor whose transience in that state introduced us to the bittersweet impermanence of excitement, pleasure and beauty.
No, the substances that transform (or are alleged to transform) our modern Jekylls into Hydes are alcohol, cannabis, and cocaine. The transformative effect, however, is not purely pharmacological: for many a Jekyll and Hyde has told me that a quantity of alcohol taken as beer does not have the terrible consequences for his character as the same quantity taken as whisky. I suspect that it is the knowledge, or rather rumor, of Stevenson's gothic tale that is the really necessary ingredient for the transformation.
Even the most unliterary people, who have never read a book in their lives, make use of the Jekyll and Hyde metaphor, and perhaps it is not surprising therefore that some of the subtleties of the story are lost in the self-serving use to which it is put by them. Interestingly, those who are unfortunate enough to live with a self-proclaimed Jekyll and Hyde also refer to the story, as if it provided a true physiological explanation of the changes that come over their loved, or loved and feared, one. I've heard "He's a Jekyll and Hyde character" as often as I've heard "I'm a Jekyll and Hyde character."
In the mouth of the wrongdoer, the metaphor is, of course, an exculpatory one. Its function is to allow a person to do evil and yet think of himself as essentially good. Intoxication with alcohol or cannabis has another great advantage: when severe enough, it destroys, or rather prevents, memory for events, and it is difficult to feel truly guilty for acts which one does not remember having committed. It allows the miscreant to say, as many have said to me, "It's not me (Jekyll) who did those things, because they are not the kind of things I (Jekyll) do" No, it was someone else; in short, Hyde. Ergo, I (Jekyll) am innocent.
As for the person who claims that her lover is a Jekyll and Hyde, the metaphor serves to preserve and justify her love for him, despite all the evidence that he is unworthy of it. The transformation being a physical or a physiological one, he cannot truly help himself. His evil is therefore to be pitied rather than condemned; he may strangle his lover occasionally ("But not all the time, doctor"), yet he retains his inner core of goodness. Therefore he is essentially lovable; and therefore also it is not absurd that she remains with him, which--for a variety of reasons--is what she wants and is determined to do.
Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was not the first tale of doubling in Scottish literature, of course. In some ways, its forerunner, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, published anonymously by James Hogg sixty-two years earlier, in 1824, is even more illuminating as a source of our modern penchant for gnostic psychobabble. It has not entered the popular consciousness as Stevenson's Strange Case has done; no patient has ever said to me, "I'm a Robert Wringhim, doctor"; there are too many ambiguities in the story, the style is too convoluted, the resort to Scots dialect too frequent, for any line, scene, or character from it to have become universally recognized.
Robert Wringhim is the son, possibly the natural son, but possibly also the adopted son (the text does not make it entirely clear), of the Reverend Wringhim, a fierce Calvinist churchman, and Mrs. Colwan, herself something of a religious fanatic, who is the estranged wife of a hedonistic Scottish lowland landowner, George Colwan, by whom she has a legitimate son, also called George. George Junior and Robert are temperamentally opposite, as well as rivals and (in Robert's eyes, at least) enemies. George takes after his father, Robert after the Reverend Wringhim.
Robert is convinced by the Reverend Wringhim that he is one of the saved, according to the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. Thereafter, the ground having been laid for his success, the devil in human form approaches Robert. He has the power to take on the appearance of whomever he addresses: he is the universal double, a faculty suggesting that the devil resides within all of us. Robert, however, mistakes his double for a genuine theological and moral guide. He persuades Robert to begin the great work of ridding the world of the ungodly, and together they kill a good and inoffensive preacher called Blanchard. Subsequently, Robert pursues his brother and finally kills him, inherits the family estate, and leads a debauched existence, though the book does not make it entirely clear whether it is Robert himself who commits all the crimes, his true alter ego, or the devil disguised as Robert.
What Hogg does make clear are the moral consequences of believing in original--that is to say, predestined--virtue. The Reverend Wringhim tells Robert
how he had wrestled with God ... not for a night, but for days and years ... on my account; but that he had at last prevailed, and had now gained the long and earnestly desired assurance of my acceptance with the Almighty, in and through the sufferings of his Son. That I was now a justified person ... my name written in the Lamb's book of life, and that no by-past transgression, nor any future act of my own ... could be instrumental in altering the decree. "All the powers of darkness" added he, "shall never be able to pluck you again out of your Redeemer's hand."
This is a belief that does not necessarily provide a strong incentive for virtue, to put it mildly, and it is not a coincidence that the devil seeks shortly afterwards to reinforce it. The devil says:
"Now, when you know, as you do (and as every one of the elect may know of himself) that this Saviour died for you, namely and particularly, dare you say that there is not enough merit in His great atonement to annihilate all your sins, let them be as heinous and atrocious as they may? And, moreover, do you not acknowledge that God hath pre-ordained and decreed whatsoever comes to pass? Then, how is it that you should deem it in your power to eschew one action in your life ... none of us knows what is pre-ordained, but whatever is pre-ordained we must do, and none of these things will be laid to our charge."
The man who is saved can therefore do as he pleases, and remain thoroughly saved. Rousseauvian man, who is good by his essential nature, can do evil and yet remain at heart good. A famous, or rather infamous, speech by Himmler to senior SS officers in Posen in 1943, is the ne plus ultra of this line of thought:
Most of you will know what it means when a hundred corpses lie together, when five hundred or a thousand are lying there. To go through all this ... and yet remain decent men.... This is a glorious page in our history, a page which has never been written and which can never be written.
The man who commits genocide thus preserves his inner core of goodness and decency, which can no more be destroyed by a hard day's slaughter than can Robert Wringhim's election be overturned by his conduct.
What Rousseau did, then, was merely to democratize Calvinist election (he wasn't a Swiss for nothing, after all). The Calvinist elect were a small and elite, if not necessarily happy, band of men; for Rousseau, every. man was elect merely by virtue of drawing breath, because he was a member of the human species, even if the veneer with which society subsequently covered him concealed his essential goodness.
In fact, my patients who explain their own evil conduct by reference to Jekyll and Hyde exactly overturn the meaning not only of the Strange Case itself, but also of its Scots forerunner, The Private Memoirs and Confessions. Both Hogg and Stevenson make it clear that, far from being extraneous to the characters of Robert Wringhim and Henry Jekyll, evil is intrinsic to them, and by extension, to the whole of humanity. They believe in original sin, not original virtue.
In the case of Robert Wringhim, not only does his belief in his own moral election predispose him to the commission of evil, but he is bad by his very nature. His account of his childhood and adolescence, for example, makes it clear that he was born both envious and unscrupulous, with a tendency to hypocrisy and bearing false witness. When a serving man of the Reverend Wringhim "discovered some notorious lies that I had framed ... my cheek burned with offence rather than shame" And he then exults in denouncing him, for the sake of revenge, to the Reverend Wringhim.
In his youth, Robert Wringhim is in competition with his brother (or half-brother). George Colwan is the kind of boy who is at ease with himself and others, who is popular and, while no dunce, is a sportsman moyen sensuel. Robert seeks to compensate for his own awkwardness, and awareness that he will never equal George in social graces, by academic prowess. In order to do this, of course, he has to be the best scholar in his class; no other position but the top will do. Unfortunately, good scholar though he is, there is a boy in his class who is greatly and effortlessly more gifted than he, called M'Gill. In order to achieve preeminence, he brings M'Gill down by a series of subterfuges and dirty tricks.
This raises the question whether men choose doctrines, or doctrines choose men, in accordance with their temperaments. It is clear that Robert Wringhim is temperamentally predisposed to the doctrine of election by predestination because it is a convenient mask for his own unscrupulousness. Even before the Reverend Wringhim tells Robert that he is one of the chosen, and his double, the devil, leads him yet further astray, he uses religion as a cover for his envy. "I strove [academically] against him [M'Gill] from year to year, but it was all in vain; for he was a very wicked boy, and I was convinced he had dealings with the Devil." In other words, any means of destroying him were theologically justified, though it takes very little to see that Robert is not intent upon punishing evil but in advancing himself. Robert's sense of election and entitlement to do wrong precede his adoption of the doctrine of predestination in all its fullness.
So Hogg, pace my Jekyll and Hyde patients, is not saying that evil is external to man, that it requires an external force to lead him astray to perpetrate it. He is saying that there is evil in the heart of man, evil that finds expression if the wrong doctrines are propagated and adopted, and if the man with a natural propensity to evil finds or is found by an evil genius, within him or without. But he leaves one aspect of the mystery of evil as mysterious as he found it: for why should Robert Wringhim have been born with an evil temperament, as the book implies? The devil tries his blandishments with the good preacher, Blanchard, whom he and Robert eventually kill, but to no effect, because Blanchard is a good man who is proof against the devil's wiles. Why should Blanchard be as naturally good as Robert Wringhim is naturally bad? And if a man is good by nature, is he good at all, given that virtue depends on the existence of choice? To what extent, in other words, are we responsible for our own temperaments?
A closer reading of Stevenson's Strange Case than most of my patients ever give it who invoke Jekyll and Hyde to explain their own evil provides a partial answer. For them the fact that they sometimes turn into Hyde is an illness, an involuntary departure from their normal state, which of course is that of Jekyll. But in Stevenson's parable, it becomes harder and harder for Hyde to turn back into Jekyll. Once he has been Hyde for too long, the transformative chemicals lose their power, and have to be taken in ever larger doses before they both lose their efficacy altogether and can no longer even be obtained: in short, Jekyll has become Hyde permanently. "The powers of Hyde seemed to have grown with the sickliness of Jekyll" In other words, if you practice evil, you become evil. Character is habit.
Moreover, Jekyll does not start out as a paragon of virtue. He is, he informs us, 90 percent virtuous (and it is not given to many of us, after all, to be more virtuous than that). The evil is already within him, waiting to pounce, as it is within all of us. The chemicals do not create the evil--they release it from the chains in which virtue has hitherto imprisoned it. Jekyll is a very fortunate man, blessed with money, high intelligence, and great gifts, and he starts out with decent sentiments and principles. But once he gives in to the attractions of evil, he decisively changes the balance between good and evil within him.
This is not what my patients mean when they say they are Jekyll and Hyde characters. What they mean is that they are Jekyll (not 90 percent good, but 100 percent good, a la Rousseau), and that an external force over which they have no control turns them to absolute evil to which they have no natural propensity. Thus, a self-proclaimed Jekyll and Hyde will describe what he does that is bad or evil: he puts his hand around his girlfriend's throat, for example, and squeezes, or pulls her across the room by her hair, or shatters her jaw, or blacks her eyes, and so forth, not once, but repeatedly, many times, over periods of years, joyously, and then will blandly assert that "It's not me, doctor, I don't do those things."
Who is it, then? Why, Mr. Hyde, of course. And Mr. Hyde is as invasive, as extraneous to the normal course of things, as pathological in the literal sense, as a brain rumor. What does one do with a brain tumor? One finds a neurosurgeon to excise it. Similarly with Mr. Hyde--one seeks a sweet, oblivious antidote to exorcise him.
It is curious how a work of literature such as Stevenson's Strange Case should have supplied a universal metaphor, and yet one that is almost always used in a sense precisely the opposite of the meaning that a deeper consideration of the story itself might suggest. Far from implying that evil is an alien force over which we have no control--that invades us as an alien--Stevenson is telling us that our capacity for evil will be indefinitely enlarged, until it overwhelms us utterly, if we make a habit of indulging in it. To claim to be a Jekyll and Hyde character is not a mitigating but an aggravating circumstance.
Could it even be that a misguided notion of the meaning of Jekyll and Hyde has actually contributed to the prevalence of evil in Western societies? I know of no studies in the epidemiology of evil, but my impression (admittedly derived from the rather peculiar circumstances of my medical practice) is that evil, at least in the sphere of daily social relations, grows ever more prevalent. Perhaps I have merely reached the age of despair, when youthful optimism seems shallow and callow, but yet the willingness with which people explain evil away by reference to Jekyll and Hyde, as a putative neurological condition, has never been greater.
Only today, for example, I was consulted by a patient who had tried to kill herself because she had found her boyfriend in bed with another woman. As he had spent several years accusing her of infidelity, to the extent that he would allow her out of her house only on sufferance, and then provided that she dress as unattractively as possible, this was too much for her, and she swallowed the nearest pills.
"Has he ever been violent to you?" I asked, knowing the answer in advance.
Well, not very violent. He had hit her many times. He had once split her lip and "cracked" (as she put it) her jaw.
"But of course," I said, "when he's nice, he's very nice."
"Yes" she said. "He's a real Jekyll and Hyde."
It crossed my mind that perhaps she would have had a clearer-sighted view of her own situation if Stevenson had never written his story, if Jekyll and Hyde had never entered popular consciousness. Could it be that no knowledge of literature is better than a misunderstanding of literature?--a question at least worth considering as we contemplate the condition of our humanities departments?
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|Date:||Sep 1, 2004|
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