Twins, Dead Ringers & Lookalikes:
the Doppelganger & the Other ‘Yous’
You may have one of those faces. The other day, someone just saw your doppelganger walking down the street. You see people who resemble you all the time. But are we really all lookalikes, made of a relatively few number of templates, plus variables added as toppings?
The thought of not being physiognomically unique is quite unnerving, and as common as a pair of identical twins. We fancy that we’re one of a kind ever since we first recognized ourselves in the mirror. Mom told us herself. But then we meet our dead ringer and all bets are off.
One of the most fascinating phenomenon of living species is the double birth, the twins, and in humans, identical ones have been source of inspiration and awe since prehistorical times, central to a number of cultural traditions, the embodiment of kinship and parallel lives.
They’ve also been the target of scientific curiosity, knowledge, and sick experiments. Identical twins, specially, are rare but statistically expected. In Brazil, however, there’s a whole town, Cândido Godói, full of doubles, in way higher-than-normal rates. Researchers have come up with a variety of possible causes for it.
One that immediately got an enduring currency is that Nazi ‘Angel of Death,’ Joseph Mengele, had something to do with it, since he lived and died in the 1970s in a nearby farm community, across the border with Paraguay. But that theory has been debunked and replaced by another, more in line with scientific data.
WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
Twins do share a special bond, and seem linked in extraordinary ways to each other. Genes, naturally, explain their similitude and that among relatives, but it’s no less astonishing when that happens across generations, with grandkids being uncanny copies of their forebearers. Doppelgangers, and lookalikes, however, are another story.
All genetic research considered, it’s taken the work of a few photographers to shed an intriguing perspective into this subject. One captured strangers who look stunningly alike, while other linked recent pictures of people with their former selves, and yet another, combined faces of members of the same family.
Variations of the theme go further, using photo manipulation effects, for instance, to create a perfectly symmetric match of only one side of someone’s face split in two. Or trying to explain why some ‘complimentary’ personalities attract each other, based not on resemblance but on intuitive behavioral and genetic factors.
And then there are the case of celebrities, both contemporary, and those whose previous physical likeness have been somewhat spotted in pictures of the past. Even without totally abstracting the cunning lure of prying into the lives of the famous, it’s surprising to realize how closely some do look like each other.
IT’S LOOKING AT YOU, KID
As for the myth of the evil twin, the doppelganger walking around and startling our friends and relatives, while remaining elusive to our own frightening eyes, it’s also present in ancient literature and art. It seems that even the description of someone who looks exactly like us but it’s obviously not us gives everybody a chill.
Suddenly, it’s as if the image on the mirror escapes our domain and acquires its own life, exchanging its comforting familiarity for a new-found sense of strangeness and horror. The ‘I is another’ of Arthur Rimbaud, the immaterial essence of our opposite, sudden independent to exercise itself, away from our control.
This ‘double goer,’ as the translation from the German would have it, is both capable of being the incarnation of our inner evil and also of being everything that attracts us to ourselves, as Narcissus, who falls in love with his own reflection. The underlying, common theme, however, is the imminent danger present in all accounts.
In Carlos Castaneda‘s Don Juan, the ‘double’ is a scary and powerful being, who serves as a stand in for the man himself, here in this realm and in the netherworld, in the best Gnostic tradition,. And the biblical account of Christ’s resurrection, it’s mentioned that some disciples thought that ‘it’ was not Jesus, but something that looked like him.
THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE LOOKALIKE
The photographer François Brunelle learned quickly that unrelated lookalikes hate being called that and have little in common. Whereas having a double is integral to a twin’s individuality, for strangers it’s an annoyance. Nancy L. Segal, a psychologist who compared this with her own study on twins, confirmed that blood ties, not appearance, bonds them together.
There’s a great deal of poignancy in the pictures of Tom Hussey and Margherita Viagliano, who both captured people staring at or sharing portraits of their younger selves, but in both cases, the images tell stories mostly about the passage of time, which takes precedence over genetics and similarity.
The work of Ulric Collete and Alex John Beck, on the other hand, show yet another facet, so to speak, of face portrayal, with the focus being on the powerful pull of the genetic pool, no pun intended, in the case of Collette, and in Beck’s photos, a meditation on the essence of beauty and symmetry.
Both combine half faces; one of, say a father and a son, and the other, one side of the same person,mirrored with itself. The resulting composite, an entire ‘new person,’ proposes questions raging from a particular genetic strain telling its tale throughout an entire family, to the nature of perception, and the subtle impact of harmony on our visual senses.
COMPILING ONE’S OWN BOOK OF FACES
It may be a humble realization that humankind, despite its billions of bodies born throughout history, has been shaped out of a much less extensive number of prefab templates, with little variations amongst each other. It gives us the somewhat deflating feeling that we weren’t really worth the effort by nature.
But it’s also a formidable feat of evolution, always finding defining differences within the confines of facial details, and constantly producing new batches of diverse sets of eyes, ears and mouths, just in time for yet another body. Lookalikes are thus like escapees that jump from one assembly line of similar genetic material, to another, completely diverse.
While this my sound like a strict mechanical view of human body manufacturing, it also conveys the depth, mystery, and poignancy that a familiar face, or an unsuspecting glace at the past, can evoke or arrest in our sense of normality. In other words, only when we stop seeing ourselves on the mirror, it stares right back at us.
That’s the other that we’re constantly told that it was seen crossing the street with abandon. While only twins know how it feels like to lose this other being, in their case, very real, the rest of us carry on under the impression that the best part of ourselves has walked away from us long ago. And we wish we could see it again through a mirror.
TURN ME ON, DEAD MAN
We’re considerably less impressed with semi-invisible entities these days, or scary apparitions that haunted visionaries, geniuses and mad artists of the past. But it’s still an enduring archetype that of the immaterial reflection of our face catching our unprepared eye, and driving an instantaneous gash in our perception of reality.
It’s in fact akin to see a dead person walking – it’s happened, we’re told – or running into someone we thought were no longer with us. But while seeing ghosts or encountering the deceased remains a deeply private, if not doubtful, occurrence, meeting someone who looks like us is a disquieting experience.
Many would rather gladly skip them both, and go on with life without ever having to realize, in a most concrete way, how absurdly not unique they really are. Others simply don’t care one way or another. We’d prefer scrutinize that moment, like a detective of lost and found objects, wondering what belongs to where, and to whom.
Lacking both the expertise and, let’s be honest, the cojones to face such an unusual prospect, we’re content in retelling the stories we hear, in a way that hopefully will drive someone else to go and meet the damn double. Even if in reality we’d be terrified, vicariously we’d be willing to share the experience.
It reminds us of that long, and unattributable, quote about how we start off searching for that core that binds us together. But as we grow older, we also spread apart from ourselves, and in the end, what began as a quest for our uniqueness and originality, winds up making us all look like everyone else.