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Robert Louis Stevenson and his “Other Fellow”: The Dreaming Self and the Death of the Author

Audrey Murfin, Sam Houston State University

Robert Louis Stevenson and his “Other Fellow”: The Dreaming Self and the Death of the Author
In 1892, Robert Louis Stevenson wrote to F.W.H. Myers, founder of the Society for Psychical Research, of which Stevenson was a member, describing a series of dreams and out-of-body experiences that he believed to be “of a high psychological interest” (331). Myers published Stevenson’s accounts in the society newsletter. In one fever dream, Stevenson invents a nonsense word, to be “compare[d]…with the nonsense words of Lewis Carroll.” In this letter as well as in his 1888 essay “A Chapter on Dreams” he expounds a theory of authorship in which his creative projects are produced not by him, but by a shadowy character he calls “the other fellow,” for whom Stevenson himself acts only as an amanuensis. This paper will discuss three separate dreams Stevenson describes. The first is from “A Chapter on Dreams,” which includes in it an account of the creation of the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The next two dreams come from the letter to Myers. I contend that these dreams reveal three things: First, that Stevenson’s fixation on the self divided is a recurrent obsession, both in his craft and in his personal life. Second, that this notion of the divided self is inextricable from the writing process, and the identity of the author specifically. And third, that the accustomed treatment of Jekyll and Hyde as a story of dualism and polarities: good/evil, rational/irrational, civilized/primitive, does not do justice to the nuance and complexity of Stevenson’s thinking about the complexities of the self.
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
The frequent doubling that we see in Stevenson’s work extends also to his theories of authorship. Stevenson’s magnetic personality and adventurous life has so strongly influenced his reception that his fame and name recognition have sometimes led to a “great man” sort of literary criticism. But my research finds Stevenson consistently struggling with control over his own works. Though Stevenson’s “brand” was, during the late-nineteenth century, inseparable from his personal fame, his writing practice did not support the stereotype of the famous author working alone. In fact, his practice was just as often collaborative, and his discussions of his creative process decentering. Part of this struggle is his frequent disavowal of his own authority, and for the purposes of this paper I’m going to focus on the shift of control from what he calls his “ego” to his dreaming self. I argue that this decentering of authorship becomes the primary concern of Stevenson’s fiction, progressively explored through the development of the split self from early works such as (the collaboratively written) Deacon Brodie (first printed 1880 and performed in 1882) and “The Body-Snatcher” (1884) up through his masterpiece Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). These three works present the self as prism rather than the unified perspective of the authorial (and authoritative) self.
Before discussing Stevenson’s dreams I want to make a few points about the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the emblematic story of the self divided; the ego and the id, before Freud talked about the ego and the id. Henry Jekyll notoriously states that “man is not truly one, but truly two” (59). Critics Richard Dury and Anne Stiles among others have noted that Stevenson was inspired by a French medical journal, unidentified (Stiles 27). I want to make a few brief points as correctives to the pop culture versions of the story. The first is that what people sometimes forget in all the business with the potions is that Jekyll’s duality is a universal situation and it predates Hyde. The potion doesn’t create duality, it just literalizes it. Jekyll says that he “learned to recognize the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both”(59). This is his perception of the reality of human psychology prior to his experiments. Second, the experiment is not meant to create duality, it is meant to destroy it. And third, an over focus on duality also misses Jekyll’s prediction “…that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens” (59)—two is just the start. Jekyll sees his work as being a first step in what would be more like a theory of multiple personality; there is a danger of overinvesting in the binary. In sum, when I talk about duality in Jekyll and Hyde, I want to restrict myself to the duality that exists in Jekyll at the beginning of the story. While Jekyll and Hyde in popular culture have become a shorthand for multiple personalities and psychosis (as, for example, Judith Walkowitz discusses when she argues for the importance of the novella in popular theories about Jack the Ripper), it is important to remember that the self that is made up of multiple personalities is not pathologized in Stevenson. Indeed, as Stevenson’s dreams will show, it is the ordinary make-up of the artist.
A Chapter on Dreams
Stevenson describes the creation of Jekyll and Hyde and develops his theory of authorship in his 1888 essay, “A Chapter on Dreams,” where he distinguishes between two selves. On the one hand there is “my conscious ego, the denizen of the pineal gland unless he has changed his residence since Descartes, the man with the conscience and the variable bank–account, the man with the hat and the boots, and the privilege of voting and not carrying his candidate at the general election.” On the other hand, there is the true author of his works, “some Brownie, some Familiar, some unseen collaborator, whom I keep locked in a back garret.” In this schism between his two author selves, Stevenson predicts Michel Foucault’s sense of the “author-function,” which “arises out of the scission—in the division and distance of” the historical author and the implied author (129).
Written as it is by two selves, no—more—the structure of this essay is ludicrously complex. The first of many “doubles” to appear (if we can have many doubles) is our memories—our past selves who have now split away from us. The past self is both essential to our identity (because we cannot define ourselves without it), and yet it is no longer part of that identity. In the same way, Stevenson argues, we can understand the dreaming self, whose experiences (in Stevenson’s case, he dreams he participates in the Jacobite rebellion) also create us, though they are not us. Then there is Stevenson’s choice to talk about his own past in the third person—the old “this is a story about a friend” ruse. Finally, there is the essay’s mise en abyme structure. Stevenson studied engineering, and then law at Edinburgh College. However, in the “dream-life” of Stevenson’s “friend” he studies medicine. (Stevenson never studied medicine, though of course Dr. Jekyll did, and so does the student in his 1884 story “The Body-Snatcher,” also about criminal doubling.) So the essay describes dreams dreamed by a medical student who is dreamed by a college friend of Stevenson’s, who turns out to be Stevenson himself.
One of the most original ideas in Stevenson’s description of the dreaming self is his claim that as he learns to write more marketable fiction, the dream self (or selves) do too. Whereas we usually expect a dream self to be pure imagination, Stevenson’s dream self is equally civilizable. This observation is crucial to a more nuanced understanding of Jekyll and Hyde, which we too often talk about by reverting to polarities between the civilized and the primitive: Jekyll is Victorian, ego, rational, and Hyde is atavistic, id, irrational. Though Stevenson remains best known for Jekyll and Hyde’s dualistic system, he was not typically one to think in dichotomies. In this dream we see something different—a dreaming unconscious self that not only is creative, but that can actually understand the literary marketplace. This is not primitive, and it undermines the notion that the dream self, or Hyde, are entirely atavistic.
It is in defense of the claim that his dreams are marketable, that Stevenson shares a markedly Oedipal story that he has dreamed. He splits himself between the disassociated self, which is the author, and the “actual” self, which is the reader. The entirety of the story, he says, is based around its “trick” ending, and though he as the dreamer invents the whole story, he claims to remain completely naïve to its ending. Stevenson dreams he is a son who quarrels with his father (not himself, although Stevenson often did quarrel with his father). The father and son meet
in a desolate, sandy country by the sea; and there they quarrelled (sic), and the son, stung by some intolerable insult, struck down the father dead. No suspicion was aroused; the dead man was found and buried, and the dreamer succeeded to the broad estates, and found himself installed under the same roof with his father’s widow, for whom no provision had been made. These two lived very much alone, as people may after a bereavement, sat down to table together, shared the long evenings, and grew daily better friends. (184)
As the story continues, the son eventually follows his attractive young stepmother to the murder scene, where she discovers the evidence that he is the murderer. She says nothing and they go back to their happy life together, until, one morning at breakfast the son breaks under the stress:
Why did she torture him so? she knew all, she knew he was no enemy to her; why did she not denounce him at once? what signified her whole behaviour? why did she torture him? and yet again, why did she torture him? And when he had done, she fell upon her knees, and with outstretched hands: “Do you not understand?” she cried. “I love you!” (186)
Stevenson’s claim that he did not know this final twist in the plot of his dream is made dubious because it is essentially the plot of Oedipus Rex, and is only plausible because he wrote “A Chapter on Dreams” eight or nine years before Freud ever mentions Oedipus (Gay xxxvi); an author could not make this claim post Freud.
Stevenson, as has been frequently observed, believed the purpose of reading is pleasure. This comes up again and again in his literary criticism, and in his appreciation for authors such as Dumas who privilege incident over reflection. But what if, this essay ventures, Stevenson could read Stevenson? Stevenson says
I will go bail for the dreamer (having excellent grounds for valuing his candour) that he had no guess whatever at the motive of the woman—the hinge of the whole well-invented plot—until the instant of that highly dramatic declaration. It was not his tale; it was the little people’s! (186)
Stevenson becomes split into both reader and writer in this idealized, fantasy version of literary transmission. By becoming his own reader, Stevenson is able to replicate a perfect, and unmediated, relationship between writer and reader, one that he experiences with “a pang of wonder.”
Letter to Myers
However, not all instances of contact between reader and writer proceed so pleasantly, even if they both live in the same brain. I return here to the letter to Myers and the Society for Psychical Research that I began with. In this letter, Stevenson details four instances of the split self experienced through dreams. He concludes that the other self in each dream is in fact the same other self who dictated the Oedipal dream of “A Chapter on Dreams.” But in this letter, the dreams are violent, and the relationship between the conscious self and the “other fellow” contentious, much more like the relationship between Jekyll and Hyde. I’m going to discuss two of them.
The first dream described is older than the rest: Stevenson says he had it while ill at Nice. Biographer Jenni Calder notes that Stevenson became violently ill in Nice in January of 1884, and his wife had a hard time nursing him, and was frightened by his bloody hemorrhaging (182). This is the year he wrote “The Body-Snatcher,” two years before Jekyll and Hyde. In pain as he slept, Stevenson believes that his pain is caused by “a wisp or coil” of something he can only describe as words, which must be brought together to bring him relief. His conscious self realizes this idea is absurd and attempts to remain silent, but, Hyde-like, his other self prospers, and in his sleep he grabs his wife “savagely by the wrist,” crying “Why do you not put the two ends together and put me out of pain?”(332). It was, he says, “cruelty,” and his description is very much like Jekyll under the influence of Hyde: “Here is action, unnatural and uncharacteristic action, flowing from an idea in which I had no belief and which I had been concealing for hours as a plain mark of aberration. Is it not so with lunatics? (333). Here, Stevenson is tortured by a string of text, but it as yet has no meaning. It is, he says, “grotesque and shapeless” (331) without the proper interpreter. The author panics when his meaning cannot be understood, He requires a reader—in this case his wife to “put [it] together” and thereby end his misery.
The second dream he describes is more recent. In a fever in Sydney (all four dreams in this letter involve illness) Stevenson dreams he is repeating a nonsense word, as I mentioned, in the style of Lewis Carroll. However, in his dream logic he is not himself, but, rather, Jonathan Swift, who lies dying, and this nonsense word is the dying word of Swift. The dream, Stevenson tells us, is inspired by his reading at the time, a biography of Swift. We have a few different divisions here. First, in repeating Swift’s dying words, Stevenson himself becomes confused with Swift. This doesn’t seem surprising in that he was quite ill, and he may have had a sense that he, like Swift, was dying. But then, he tells us, there is the familiar split between the self and the other fellow. Stevenson himself tries to commit the Swift’s dying word to memory, feeling it is beautiful and important. The “other fellow” feels that it can be easily found in the biography. Here, as the Oedipal dream, we have Stevenson split between reader and writer, but this time with roles reversed: the self with which he identifies believes he is the writer, Jonathan Swift, but the alternate self believes he is a reader of Swift’s biography.
That Stevenson thought he was saying the dying words of Jonathan Swift is noteworthy for another reason. Swift, at the end of his life suffered from aphasia. There were no last words, and if Stevenson was reading his biography he surely knew this. Both of these dreams, as well as the other two described in the letter, are a struggle between words spoken and unspoken: the other fellow wishes to tell Fanny about the wisp of words, Stevenson wishes to withhold it; Stevenson wishes to repeat the dying word of Swift, the other fellow says it is “the invention of a lunatic.” But in fact it is Swift himself, paralyzed, probably insane, who cannot speak at the end of his life, suggesting that to Stevenson’s imagination this may be the dying internal monologue of Swift—in other words, not Swift’s speech, but Swift’s dream. For Stevenson, the common experience of realizing that an idea from a dream does not make any sense reveals deeper anxieties about the self as writer, failing to make connection with other makers of meaning.
So, in conclusion I return to the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Shortly after writing Jekyll and Hyde Stevenson absolves himself of responsibility for its reception in a prophetically Barthesian move: he writes in a letter “First, as to a key, I conceive I could not make my allegory better, nay, that I could not fail to weaken it, if I tried. I have said my say as I was best able: others must look for what was meant; the allegorist is one, the commentator is another; I conceive they are two parts” (Letters, 5, 211, also quoted in Dury, xxvi). The split that Stevenson imagines in the Oedipal dream (himself as writer, and himself as reader) here gets replicated in the relation between reader and writer as co-creators of meaning. The reader becomes another part of the writer, as Stevenson disavows himself as authority over his text. Glenda Norquay’s discussion of Stevenson as reader maintains this same sense of duality: she says his “awareness of a duality of role, consumer and producer, dominates Stevenson’s critical writing and shapes his fiction” (1). And similarly, Stiles points out that in Jekyll and Hyde, Stevenson subverts the doctor/patient hierarchy of the traditional case study by making the doctor both the subject and the object of the study. And just as every doctor will eventually (like Jekyll) become a patient, every writer is also a reader. In each of these dreams we see a different version of the doubling of reader/writer, internalized. In “A Chapter on Dreams” Stevenson shares the fantasy of the author who can read his own work with the pleasure that an outside reader might take. In the second dream, we have the frustrating reader, Fanny Stevenson, maddeningly unable to connect the coil of her husband’s words and make meaning out of them, and finally for the writer, the worst nightmare of all, the aphasia of Jonathan Swift, dying with that last word unspoken and unheard.
Audrey Murfin is an Assistant Professor of English at Sam Houston State University, where she teaches Victorian, Early English, and World Literature. She has published articles on Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell and Robert Louis Stevenson, and is currently working on a book entitled Robert Louis Stevenson, Collaboration, and the Construction of the Late-Victorian Author.
Works Cited
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Foucault, Michel. “What is an Author?” Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews by Michel Foucault. Ed. Donald F. Bouchard.     Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1977. Print.
Gay, Peter, ed. The Freud Reader. New York: Norton, 1989. Print.
Norquay, Glenda. Robert Louis Stevenson and Theories of Reading. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2007. Print.
Stevenson, Robert Louis. “The Body-Snatcher.” Selected Short Stories of R. L. Stevenson. Ed. Ian Campbell. 2nd edition. Glasgow: Kennedy and Boyd, 2012.     Print.
----. “A Chapter on Dreams.” Across the Plains. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892. Reprinted at Lit2Go. Educational Technology Clearinghouse: Florida     Center for Instructional Technology, College of Education, University of South Florida, 2006-2013. Web. 20 November 2013.
---- and W. E. Henley. Deacon Brodie. Plays. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925. Print.
----. The Letters of Robert Louis Stevenson. Eds. Bradford Booth and Ernest Mehew. Vol. 5 and Vol. 7. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994-95. Print.
----. Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Ed. Richard Dury. The Collected Works of Robert Louis Stevenson. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2004. Print.
Stiles, Anne. Popular Fiction and Brain Science in the Late Nineteenth Century. New York: Cambridge UP, 2012. Print.
Walkowitz, Judith R. City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1992. Print.