Don Juan and the Double

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In 1914 and 1922, Otto Rank published two essays in German in Imago : The Double and Don Juan. Rank was inspired to write The Double after seeing a film by H. H. Ewer, The Student of Prague, and a presentation of Mozart's Don Giovanni led him to write Don Juan. As the author himself noted, "In both texts, there is a question of problems going back to the most remote origins of mankind, which continue to have a profound influence on art." These problems are "the relationship between individuals and their own ego and the threat of its complete destruction by death."

Rank was a particularly prolific writer with an extensive knowledge of literature and anthropology, as shown by these two essays and alluded to in his belief that "the creative artist is, from the psychological point of view, the extension of the hero of prehistoric humanity." In The Double he explores the theme of the double in literature as a kind of shadow, reflection, portrait, twin, or even duplication of mental life resulting from amnesia or manipulation (as in Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ). Rank examines various possibilities, including the terrible consequences if the shadow is lost and the independent double persecutes the ego.

Sigmund Freud in his essay "The Uncanny" (1919h) noted that Rank had succeeded in explaining the surprising evolution of the theme of the double. "For the 'double' was originally an insurance against the destruction of the ego, an 'energetic denial of the power of death,' " but, Freud adds, "such ideas have sprung from the soil of unbounded self-love, from the primary narcissism which dominates the mind of the child and of primitive man. But when this stage has been surmounted, the 'double' reverses its aspect. From having been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny [unheimlich] harbinger of death" (1919h, p. 235).

Referring to the myth of Narcissus and to the narcissistic hero Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, Rank notes that the hero's misfortune follows from his disposition to narcissism, which turns him into the prisoner of his double. The double then becomes a rival in sexual love or appears in superstitious belief as a terrifying messenger of death, a devil, or an anti-ego, destroying rather than replacing the ego.

The essay on Don Juan (1922/1975) is also related to the theme of the double. Rank asserts that it is impossible to consider the legend of Don Juan solely in Freud's sense and explain it by the father complex (p. 86). Rank shows that the division of the personality into the master Don Juan and the valet Leporello is a "necessary part of the artistic presentation of the hero himself" (p. 50), for "[b]y inhibiting the will of his master, whose thirst for action he continually keeps in check with uncanny irony, he is characterized as the critical-ironic part of the ego" (p. 59). Starting from the idea of "avenging death" Rank also develops interesting perspectives on cannibalism.

Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor

See also: Double, the; Rank (Rosenfeld), Otto; "'Uncanny,' The."

Source Citation

Rank, Otto. (1971). The double: a psychoanalytic study (Harry Tucker Jr., Trans.). Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. (Original work published 1914)

Rank, Otto. (1975). The Don Juan legend (David G. Winter, Trans.). Princeton: Princeton University Press. (Original work published 1922)


Freud, Sigmund. (1919h). The uncanny. SE, 17: 217-256.

Lieberman, E. James. (1985). Acts of will: the life and work of Otto Rank. New York: Free Press.