(Fredric March in the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde)
A change had come over me. It was no longer the fear of the gallows, it was the horror of being Hyde that racked me. – Dr. Henry Jekyll (from Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).
How many people are you? When you get up in the morning and you're putting on your pants, how many people are with you as pull on your jeans one leg at a time? Sure, physically, there's just the one waist to button up; but, metaphysically, how many folks are you stuffing into those denims?
Should we begin to count? First, there's the “Presently-Conscious You” that's only semi-aware of putting on those pants because Presently-Conscious You can put on the pants without wasting too many awareness-sucking brain cells on such a mundane task. If you are like most people – that is to say, most other people (I'm not yet including all the people you are going to turn out to be by the end of this essay because so far I've only listed the first) – Presently-Conscious You is spending those few moments it takes to get to the second leg of the trousers to commune with “Future You.” Future You is who Presently-Conscious You is worried about first thing in the morning because there's all those things that could happen to Future You if Future You forgets even one of all those things that needs to get done today, and Presently-Conscious You wants nothing more than to keep Future You out of trouble if Presently-Consciously You can help it.
Just ten minutes or so before finding the pants to begin the day, both Future You and Presently-Conscious You were nowhere to be found because “Fast-Asleep You” was busily clearing out the memory space in your brain from all the “Dream Yous” that your mind spent being throughout the night. Of course, by the time you've moved past the pants to put your shirt on, Presently-Conscious You has no recollection of the Dream Yous that you were the night before; however, Presently-Conscious You may have a fleeting pang of disgruntlement for “Night-Before You” who stayed up too late (once again), and now Presently-Conscious You is tired and grumpy from not getting enough rest.
For many people, Presently-Conscious You doesn't become “Entirely-Conscious You” until it's had time for a cup of coffee to drag it from “Wishing-You-Could-Stay-Home You” to “I-Guess-I'm-Leaving-For-Work-Now You.” Once out of the house, “Now-I-Have-To-Deal-With-Other-People You” begins quietly rehearsing the personas you will need to have on hand as you move across the spectrum from the “Gosh-You're-Nice-Why-Can't-More-People-Be-Like-You You” to the “Please-Go-Away-Before-Your-Annoying-Presence-Sucks-The-Soul-Out-Of-Me You.”
Throughout the course of your day, the “You-At-The-Moment You” has much to do with the people you have to become in order to deal with the people you happen to be with. Get stuck in line at a store behind someone with little patience and less intelligence and you might become “I'm-Clearly-Not-With-This-Person You.” Get a chance to have lunch with a sympathetic friend and you might become “Glad-I-Can-Talk-With-Someone-About-My-Life You.” Get caught between two arguing co-workers and you might become either “I'm-Not-Taking-Sides-On-This-One You” or “I-Need-You-Two-To-Get-Along You.” Get a phone call from a family member, and you will need to become “Somebody's (Spouse, Mom, Dad, Sister, Brother, Son, Daughter, Cousin, Aunt, Uncle, Nephew, Niece, etc.) You.” Who are you when you get the house to yourself because family/roommates/friends are all occupied elsewhere? “I-Get-To-(Watch, Read, or Play)-Whatever-I-Want You.”
How many is that so far? Furthermore, you are not just those people you become as a reaction to others or circumstance, you are also the “Person-Who-Used-To-(Drink, Smoke, Chew, Swear, Gamble, Overeat) You” and the “Person-Who-Needs-To-(Exercise More, Eat Right, Catch Up on the Bills, Mow the Grass, Finish Homework, or Feed the Cat) You.” You are also both the “I-Survived-My-Childhood You” and the “I-Fear-Getting-Older You.” You are both the “I'm-Tired-Of-The-Same-Routine You” and the “Change-Makes-Me-Nervous You.” You are both the “I-Need-To-Watch-What-I-Eat You” and the “I'm-Going-To-Regret-It-Later-But-Bring-Me-The-Cheesecake-Anyway You.” Of course, you understand why both the “I-Need-To-Diet” and “Bring-It-Anyway” Yous can sit side by side at the same table, right? It's because the “I-Need-To-Get-On-The-Scales You” doesn't have a doctor's appointment for another three months and won't manifest with it's conjoined twin “What's-My-Excuse-This-Time You” until they are trapped in the doctor's waiting room.
Now, put all those people you are aside for moment, and imagine there's only two of you. Who are you now? Who is the other person? When Robert Louis Stevenson first published Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1886, the book was an immediate and spectacular hit with its Victorian Age audience. A massive bestseller in both England and the US, the novel sold more than a quarter million copies by the turn of the 20th century, and within a year of its initial publication, the story had been adapted by more than a dozen theatrical groups for performance on the stage. Many early readers recognized the tale as a metaphor for their contemporary society's desire for the prurient struggling to emerge from a stifling sense of social propriety.
In the decades since, the frightening story of a virtuous and respectable doctor who transforms himself into a vile and murderous misanthrope through the miracles of modern chemistry has become a perennial cultural icon. The story has resurfaced in more than 120 film versions so far; the first was released in 1908 while movie production was still in its infancy. In 1931, the version featuring Fredric March became the first horror film to receive an Academy Award. Over the years, cinematic adaptions have included versions featuring Tom and Jerry, Abbott and Costello, Jerry Lewis, and Eddie Murphy. The stylistic range of the filmed versions has stretched from the bright simplicity of Japanese Anime to the gritty shadows of B-grade American horror to the flamboyant extravagance of Indian Bollywood musicals.
What is it about this story of one person who can become an entirely different person that resonates so deeply within the universal human psyche? Is it the fear of becoming someone we're not or the inevitable recognition that time holds the potential to do to us what Jekyll's potion does to him? If you imagine who you were ten years ago, how have you changed? When you imagine yourself ten years from now, who will you become? What, we may ask “ourselves” in the presence of inevitable change, can we keep essential and inert as we move from one age to the next or even, perhaps, as we move from one room to the next? Before trying to answer the question who we want to be ten years from now, we might want to decide who we want to be later this afternoon.
What may be the most morally intriguing mystery of Stevenson's story is the question of why someone would make the conscious choice to become someone vile or sinister. If we could choose to be someone else, why wouldn't we choose to be someone better than who we are now? In the original story, this was precisely Jekyll's intention. At first, the experiments Jekyll makes with his personality-splitting potion are an attempt to expel the evil within him; unfortunately, after feeling the dark freedom of Hyde's inhibitions, the good doctor eventually loses his ability to return to the person he wants to be and finds the temptation to become a monster overwhelming. Eventually, Jekyll ends his transformations once and for all by killing them both.
The implications of all of this, in regards to our ability to communicate with others and, perhaps, to negotiate with ourselves, is that time and place has great deal of influence on who we are and how we need to express ourselves. An awareness of who we need to be at any particular time can help guide us in how we talk to others; this awareness not only can be fruitful in helping others understanding us, but can also produce benefits in how we understand ourselves. Perhaps you can get “I'm-Trying-To-Fall-Asleep-Now You” to ruminate over this later tonight as you are drifting off to become all those other strange people in your dreams.
Keep thinking rhetorically, and one of the cast of all the people I am will be back next week.