“Oh, outcast of all outcasts most abandoned! —to the earth art thou not for ever dead?”
Returning to the Smashing Facebook meme — a meme of my own imagining, I acknowledge — it struck me that Edgar Alan Poe might shed light on the matter. Poe understood the psychology of social media when Mark Zuckerberg’s great-great-great-grandfather was still in short pants.
Just yesterday, an acquaintance of mine let it be known that he was, as he put it, “off the Book.” Translation: he had cancelled his Facebook account. This was not, I immediately recalled, the first time he had made such an announcement. He had gone off the Book, and then back on the Book, at least a couple of times previously. That’s not unusual these days. I’ve met a lot of people who, exhausted with the work of maintaining appearances on Facebook, try to break the habit, only to find, a few days or a few weeks later, that they’ve reactivated the account.
At the start of Poe’s story “William Wilson,” the title character recalls how, in his youth, he met a schoolmate who shared not only his name but his aspect, his tone of voice, his manner of dress, his personality. The very image of himself, this double, this doppelganger, becomes, after a brief period of friendship, William Wilson’s rival and then his nemesis. As the years pass, wherever Wilson goes the other Wilson is there. His presence becomes ever more oppressive.
“From his inscrutable tyranny did I at length flee, panic-stricken, as from a pestilence; and to the very ends of the earth I fled in vain.”
Finally, Wilson can take no more. In a moment of hopelessness and rage, he attacks his double.
“The contest was brief indeed. I was frantic with every species of wild excitement, and felt within my single arm the energy and the power of a multitude. In a few seconds I forced him by sheer strength against the wainscotting, and thus, getting him at mercy, plunged my sword, with brute ferocity, repeatedly through and through his bosom.”
The doppelganger is mortally wounded. And yet William Wilson is anything but liberated. He discovers, after the violent deed is done, that there is no other man in the room with him. He is alone. He looks into a mirror and, aghast, discovers that it is he himself who has been stabbed.
“But what human language can adequately portray that astonishment, that horror which possessed me at the spectacle then presented to view? The brief moment in which I averted my eyes had been sufficient to produce, apparently, a material change in the arrangements at the upper or farther end of the room. A large mirror, — so at first it appeared to me in my confusion — now stood where none had been perceptible before; and as I stepped up to it in extremity of terror, mine own image, but with features all pale and dabbled in blood, advanced to meet me with a feeble and tottering gait.”
I know you see the moral of the tale, dear reader, but indulge me while, like Aesop, I belabor it: One terminates one’s Facebook account only to discover that one has terminated one’s self.
“You have conquered, and I yield. Yet henceforward art thou also dead — dead to the world and its hopes. In me didst thou exist — and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.”
Image: still from Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.