I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product… of me.
– William Monahan, The Departed screenplay, 2006
I’ve been exploring the impact on postmodernism of Hegel’s “master-bondsman” discourse. Hegel talks about the ways in which selves attempt in vain to attain self-sufficiency from others. But Hegel says he’s really talking about an internal division, where the self and the self-conscious compete for dominance, only to come to the realization that what they’re fighting over is an emptiness at the core of the self, an emptiness that serves the ultimate Master, who is death.
The Departed centers around two main characters: Colin is a cop who is really an operative of Costello, an Irish gang boss who speaks the film’s opening line cited at the top of this post; Billy works for the gang boss but is really an undercover cop working for the head of the organized crime division. Colin and Billy are ambivalent bondsmen, seemingly serving one master while really serving the other. Each is a kind of mirror image of the other. But each is also his own double: both cop and criminal, a servant both of the Law and of Transgression. These two worlds aren’t just opposites; they too are mirror images of one another in structure, in language, in internal codes of honor and corruption. And within each of the two characters is a divide. When he tries to discover a united, coherent self he discovers that he is simultaneously a loyal servant and a traitor, a violator of the code and a subject to the code of violation. In serving two masters does he serve no master but himself? But in his self-mastery does he discover that he really is no one, a servant of Death who rules all and who spares no one?
I’m reminded of another, very different movie on which I once posted: It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey, at the end of his rope, is ready to kill himself. His guardian angel Clarence tries to talk him out of death by showing him what things would have been like if George had never lived. Clarence reveals an alternate reality, a mirror image that’s different only in that it lacks George. It’s a disorienting experience to visit a world defined by your own nonexistence. It’s uncanny. And it’s an inner split: am I the self who observes the mirror world, or am I the non-self that is the hole in that world?
And now I recall Freud’s essay on “The Uncanny,” in which he recounts one of the Tales of Hoffman, “The Sandman,” about a nighttime visitor who throws sand in children’s eyes until the eyes, bleeding, jump out of the children’s heads. This too is a story of death, of selves who are divided and mirrored, of the uncanny. Freud elaborates:
These themes are all concerned with the phenomenon of “the double,” which appears in every shape and in every degree of development. Thus we have characters who are considered to be identical because they look alike. This relation is accentuated by mental processes leaping from one of these characters to another — by what we should call telepathy –, so that the one possesses knowledge, feelings, and experience in common with the other. Or it is marked by the fact that the subject identifies himself with someone else, so that he is in doubt as to which his self is, or substitutes the extraneous self for his own. In other words, there is a doubling, dividing, and interchanging of the self. And finally there is the constant recurrence of the same thing — the repetition of the same features or character-traits or vicissitudes, of the same crimes, or even the same names through several consecutive generations.
Freud says that in traditional cultures the double — the mirror image, the dream self, the shadow, the guardian spirit, the soul which inhabits the body, the image of the dead person that decorates the Egyptian sarcophagus — serves as a protector of the self against death. Later, with the emergence of self-awareness, the double becomes a harbinger of death: the doppelganger, the voodoo doll, the zombie, the ghost. When the self as subject looks upon self as object, what it sees is a self rendered inanimate, dead, subjected to the ultimate Master.
Think about Hitchcock movies: Vertigo, Strangers on a Train, Psycho — the uncanny double drives the story toward the ultimate Master. The divided selves, and the doubled worlds they inhabit, reunite only in death and madness. In more optimistic movies like It’s A Wonderful Life the doubling reunites around an awareness not of self-as-dead but of self-as-alive. I suspect that for Hegel the tragic and the comic resolutions are equally based on a self-deception that short-circuits a more profound, more spiritual synthesis.
Eventually Colin is assigned to find the rat in the police department who tips Costello off about impending raids. The irony is that Colin himself is the rat. I’m looking for myself, Colin tells Costello. Finally Costello gets killed, ratted out by the rat himself. Billy the undercover cop comes in out of the cold. I want my identity back, he tells Colin. I erased you, Billy tells him. Eventually everyone is erased by the ultimate Master.