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  • A Duplicated Life:On Virtuality in John Banville's Mefisto
  • Ruben Borg (bio)

From its title page, Mefisto announces itself as a parable about the limits of scientific knowledge. The book's Faustian premise takes up themes and materials already explored by John Banville in Doctor Copernicus, Kepler, and The Newton Letter. Common to all four volumes is a basic plot structure in which, as Brendan McNamee observes, "hubristic intellect [is] humbled by the ineluctable presence of the chaotic world" (209). Within this broad framework, Mefisto's specific focus is on the struggles of Gabriel Swan, a young scientist attempting to bring contingency under the rule of mathematics. Gabriel's project betrays an obsession with the nature of truth—with a correct delineation of the concept of truth as against factual or empirical exactitude and the weight carried by this distinction in his endeavor to make sense of the dramatic changes taking place in his life. Deeply woven in the book's thematic fabric, this distinction opens a rift between life and mathematics, and sets up the co-ordinates for the unfolding of Banville's Faustian plot.1 Gabriel's tragedy is precisely his inability to accept the separateness of life and mathematics despite his realization that the knowledge yielded by the latter and the understanding required by the former remain incommensurable.2

Accordingly Gabriel's Faustian quest is interwoven with another narrative strand, one that, though directly associated with the theme of scientific limits, has not received adequate critical attention. While [End Page 765] Gabriel's pursuit of an extraordinary knowledge is ostensibly fuelled by his dream of working out a formula in which the infinite variety of human experience can be brought to order, moments of true understanding in the novel follow a very different path to that of systematic mathematical thought. Genuine insight for Gabriel always comes in the form of a sudden intuition, an instantaneous glimpse into another world existing beyond or behind the actual world:

More than once I was convinced I had seen a shadow of movement, the fading after-image of a figure darting into the doorway, or skipping behind the trunk of a tree. Then for an instant, before I had time to tell myself I had imagined it, I sensed with a shiver the outlines of another, darker, more dangerous world intermingled invisibly with this one of sky and green leaves and faded brick.

(Banville 186)

It is worth stressing here that the instantaneous, preconscious quality of Gabriel's insight tells us something about the structure of truth itself. There is, in other words, a clear, structural correspondence between moments of intuition—the very shape of truth, the logic by which it manifests itself—and this strange dual existence of things. Intuition happens before Gabriel has had time to realize it (or to tell himself he has imagined it) because truth is split between two realms: the living present and an invisible double intermingled with it—a double we may associate with a pre-conscious, pre-phenomenal past. A few pages later, a different epiphany confirms the pattern:

When I turned my head a magnified eye, my own, loomed at me in a shaving mirror. I looked at things around me, that tap, an old razor, a mug with a toothbrush standing in it, their textures blurred and thickened in the ivory light of the morning, and I felt for a second I was being shown something, it flashed out at me slyly and then was gone, like a coin disappearing in a conjuror's palm.


Each one of these episodes leaves Gabriel with an uncanny, unshakeable sense of a shadow world and a shadow life coexisting with the world and the life available to his experience. In this context the grand quest for truth, the overreaching investigation worthy of Gabriel's Faustian credentials, takes the form of a sustained engagement with the paradoxes of a duplicated life, of a world dually constituted. Indeed, whenever Gabriel is forced to confront the limits of his mathematical method, whenever he is made aware of the disjuncture between his knowledge of numbers and his understanding of life, the reader can intuit the need...


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pp. 765-784
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