How To Overcome the War Within: Lessons from Adaptation, Oscar Wilde, and the Sages of the Talmud

Modern films, Victorian literature, and Jewish sages illustrate a religiously grounded, morally mature approach to the classic internal conflict identified by great thinkers from Plato to Freud.

“Until how long will you be jumping back and forth between the two sides?” Elijah berates the Israelites who waver between monotheism and idolatry in I Kings 18:21. “Serve God or Baal!”

The classical identity conflict, as described by the Bible, is between “God and Baal.” On one side is the proper, pure, Godly side of ourselves that seeks to preserve decorum and always seeks to do the right thing. This is our Apollonian side, our inner Dr. Jekyll. In Freudian terms, this is the superego, or—as the rabbis of antiquity put it—our “Yetser HaTov” (“Good Inclination”). This side is at war with the wild, libertine, devilish side of ourselves that seeks licentiousness and lascivious pleasures: our Dionysian side, our inner Mr. Hyde. In Freudian terms, this is the id; for the rabbis, it is our “Yetser HaRa” (“Evil Inclination”). “The flesh lusts against the spirit,” says Galatians 5:17, “and the spirit against the flesh.” Plato posited a conflict between our bodies and our souls—he believed that human beings have divine souls but “titanic” bodies (made from the ashes of the burning Titan corpses and out of blood of the Titans shed in their war against the Olympians). Shakespeare, too, often wrote of this inner conflict; in several of his plays, such as A Midsummer Night’s Dream, lovers flee to The Forest (which represents passion, unbounded liberty, and imagination) in order to escape the unfeeling restrictions of The City (which represents reason, order, and the rule of law).

This innate identity conflict plagues us all. It has been diagnosed by doctors of the soul from Plato to Freud, whose conception of the conflict between the id and the superego—and the attempts of the ego to mediate between them—roughly corresponds to Plato’s tripartite theory of the soul, wherein the appetitive soul contends with the rational soul. Likewise, it has been identified and described by great theologians (Augustine), writers (Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, Robert Louis Stevenson), and films (Fight Club) across the centuries.

We all have identity conflicts. Some of us are torn apart by indecision, riven between the cautious side of ourselves, which craves comfort and familiarity, and the daring side of ourselves, which seeks adventure and excitement. Should we stick to the same unfulfilling but financially secure job we’ve had for years, or should we quit and embark on a risky but exhilarating career change? Should we keep dating the same partner, or should we break things off and try to find someone who understands us better? Some toggle back and forth between religiosity and impiety. And others, like Saint Augustine, “vacillate between dangerous pleasure and healthful exercise.”

The Lessons of Adaptation

One of the greatest movies of the past twenty years, Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, offers an excellent modern exploration of the classic problem of the divided self. Real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman of Being John Malkovich fame (played by a brilliant Nicolas Cage) is struggling to adapt New Yorker writer Susan Orlean’s (Meryl Streep) book The Orchid Thief into a screenplay. Charlie treats screenwriting as an art, and agonizes over his artistic choices like a twenty-first-century Flaubert, forever seeking le mot juste. His fictional twin brother, Donald—also played by Cage—is a hack screenwriter who views the craft as a business, spouting off film-industry words like, well, “industry,” to the eternal exasperation of Charlie. What eats at Charlie even more is that he realizes he needs his suddenly successful dilettante brother’s help in order to adapt Orlean’s seemingly unadaptable book into a screenplay.

Adaptation is a film about doubles. It takes a second viewing to realize just how important the motif of the double in Adaptation is—pun intended, of course, because almost everything in Adaptation exists in a second, mirrored, double realm. Even in Donald’s hackwork of a screenplay, “the Three,” his image-motif of choice is the mirror, and the threadbare story hinges on a madman with a split personality.

Donald, who does not exist in real life but is a persona created by Kaufman in order to dramatize his very real inner conflict, is obviously Charlie’s double. But perhaps less obviously, John Laroche (Chris Cooper) is Susan Orlean’s double. Charlie and Susan are respectable, rational writers. They are quiet, sedate, and non-adventurous by nature. Donald and John represent the ids—the Hydes, the Yetser HaRas, the appetitive sides—of Charlie and Susan. Donald and John are unencumbered by conscience and uninhibited by fear. They take the sorts of wild risks with their crafts that Charlie and Susan would never dare. As Susan says about John, he has the kind of passion for something she wishes she could have for anything. As a bee is attracted to the flower it is programmed by nature to pollinate, she is attracted to the side of herself that contains her untapped potential for passionate commitment; she is at first a bit resistant to this side of herself, calling John a creature with “delusions of grandeur.” But she slowly comes around to see that this other side of herself contains something she must have, at any cost, for reasons that she may or may not understand.

Similarly, Charlie is at first almost repulsed by Donald’s crassness. Yet he slowly comes to realize that Donald’s easy-going, adventurous nature has charms of its own—charms that, at some level, Charlie wishes he had. After a zany, ironically Deus Ex Machina plot twist entangles all four characters in a madcap chase scene in a Florida swamp, Donald dies besides Charlie, and John dies in the arms of Susan. The Hydes are killed off—the Baal is defeated by the Godly side as the rational, Apollonian soul triumphs over the appetitive, Dionysian soul—and the Jekylls survive.

Go Down into the Depths

The machinations that enmesh these four characters together are inconsequential. The zigzagging intrigues of the story about the orchids and the frenzied chase at the movie’s climax serve to illustrate the twists and turns occurring within the conflict-ridden consciousness of Charlie Kaufman’s—and our—minds. And what is it that Kaufman’s universalized consciousness is trying to tell us?

The message is this: you must choose God over Baal. Your superego, your rational soul—your Yetser HaTov—must defeat your id, your appetitive soul—your Yetser HaRa. But if you want to become a complete, fully actualized person, you must go down into the depths with your id. You must harness the wild, passionate, unbounded parts of your inner double and assimilate them into your own being. By doing so—by imbibing the lifeblood of your inner Dionysus without letting your Dionysus control you—you kill your double. And you must kill your double or risk being killed by it. You cannot keep jumping back and forth between God and Baal. You must learn all you can from your inner Dionysus, understand what useful traits it has to offer you, harness its powers of passion for the good, and, by draining your inner Hyde of its positive forces and assimilating them into your rational soul, kill it.

The Jewish sages teach that the Evil Inclination possesses positive character traits that we need in order to survive: the Evil Inclination is called “very good” (tov me’od), because “were it not for the Evil Inclination, man would not build a house, marry a woman, reproduce, or pursue commerce” (Genesis Rabbah 9:7, Vilna edition; my translation). Similarly, the early Christian theologian Origen of Alexandria (an “Orthodox Gnostic” whose teachings later became very influential in Eastern Orthodoxy) claimed that evil has a hidden good buried within it: even Satan will eventually repent. Our “Satanic,” Dionysian ids are our doubles who have to be defeated—but not ignored. We must learn from them, take what we can from them without being corrupted by them, and use their powers for the good.

The Warning of Dorian Gray

Oscar Wilde’s only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, illustrates in lurid, macabre fashion what happens when the reverse happens. In Wilde’s wonderful, surprisingly moral tale (surprising because it was written by an author who famously proclaimed that art should not be moral), the eponymous protagonist makes an implicit deal with the devil in order to preserve his beautiful, Adonis-like youthful countenance. But while Dorian ceases to age, his portrait—painted by his fawning admirer, Basil Hallward—does.

Dorian gives in to the wiles of his id and proceeds to live a life of debauchery, shielded against remembrances of his mortality by his perpetually perfect physique. But his conscience, in the form of his portrait—which, in the novel, functions as his double, his superego—begins to haunt him, much as Raskolnikov’s consciousness does in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment and as the narrator’s consciousness does in Edgar Allan Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart. Every time Dorian commits an immoral deed, his picture becomes uglier. Like the Jewish mystics who could tell what sins people committed by examining their faces, Dorian’s sin are reflected in his portrait.

When Dorian can no longer stand the silent rebukes of his portrait—his rational, moral self—he takes a knife and slashes his portrait. But instead of causing his portrait’s demise, Dorian causes his own. Dorian, and not his portrait, is the one who dies, because while attempting to kill his double, Dorian killed his Apollonian side, his rational soul—his Yetser HaTov. He thought he was killing his Dionysian side, his Yetser HaRa—his appetitive soul—but he in fact killed his Jekyll, not his Hyde. And when you kill your Jekyll instead of your Hyde, you, and not your double, are the one who dies.

Overcoming the Divided Self

Your true self is your Yetser HaTov, not your Yetser HaRa. As the sages of the Talmud put it, we all have an inner voice that proclaims to God, “it is our will to perform Your will, but the yeast in the dough [the Evil Inclination] is holding us back” (Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 17a). This is why, in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jekyll slowly dies after Hyde takes over Jekyll’s body. When you let your double—your Hyde, your id, your Yetser HaRa—subsume you and kill you instead of harnessing it and killing it, you are the one who dies. This is what happens to Dorian Gray and to the unfortunate Dr. Jekyll. But it is not what happens to Charlie Kaufman and Susan Orlean.

We would all do well to remember the lesson of Adaptation—that in order to adapt, we must harness the Dionysian part of ourselves in a positive way. We must discover the good that our evil sides have to offer us. After we do so, we must kill that part of ourselves. But it is only by first assimilating our evil sides’ hidden powers of good that we become our whole, unitary selves.

The Jewish sages teach that in the end of days, God will finally bring peace not only to the outer, war-torn world but to the inner worlds of our split-selves. He will kill all of our doubles—He will slaughter the Yetser HaRa (the Evil Inclination) and make a feast out of it for the righteous. When the righteous will see the slaughtered Yetser HaRa, they will cry, because it will appear to them like an unscalable mountain, and they will wonder how they ever managed to overcome it. The wicked will also cry—but they will cry because it will appear to them like a tiny hair thread, and they will agonize over why they were never able to quash it (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 52a).

Each of us can choose to go the way of Dorian Gray and Mr. Hyde, or the way of Charlie Kaufman and Susan Orlean. As Maimonides teaches, “each of us has the ability to become as righteous as Moses, or as wicked as Jeroboam” (Laws of Repentance 5:2). The power to harness our doubles is in our hands; it is the easiest and the most difficult thing to do all at once. But when we finally succeed, we will at last create unity within our fractured selves and bring peace to our divided beings.

Keep up with the conversation! Subscribe to Public Discourse today.