A look at the concept of identity

When Elizabeth Rossouw buried her husband, Dawid “Mossie” Rossouw, she assumed that the next time they will meet would be in heaven. She was therefore mightily surprised to see her ‘dead husband’ begging at a shopping centre in Pretoria’s East Lynne. In a complex case of mistaken identity, Ms Rossouw gave a ‘decent burial’ to one Jacobus Willem Dreyer.

Reading this story I thought, OK, time to take a look at the concept of identity — what is identity all about? Mistaken identities gave Shakespeare ample opportunities to exercise his comic writing skills — The Merchant of Venice (who, according to Wikipedia,  was classified by the Bard as a comedy), As You Like It, Twelfth Night, and Measure for Measure. Each of these plays includes a case of mistaken identity that is central to the plot.

Mistaken identities can be serious business, too. In his book “I’m Not Stiller“, Swiss writer Max Frisch hero, Stiller, says: “How the devil am I to prove to my counsel that I don’t know my murderous impulses through C.G. Jung, jealousy through Marcel Proust, Spain through Hemingway … “, in Kafka’s “The Trial”,  Joseph K. is arrested for crimes he did not commit “Someone must have been telling lies about Joseph K, for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one fine morning.” In Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece ‘Brazil‘ (1985), a warrant of arrest for subversive mechanic Archibald “Harry” Tuttle (Robert De Niro) brings the downfall of innocent Mr. Buttle (Brian Miller) when a (living) bug causes the machine to replace B for T.

Identity can be confused on purpose – the following advert appeared in the Richmond Whig, on 6 January 1836: “100 DOLLARS REWARD. Will be given for the apprehension of my negro Edmund Kenney. He has straight hair, and complexion so nearly white that it is believed a stranger would suppose there was no African blood in him. He was with my boy Dick a short time since in Norfolk, and offered for sale…, but escaped under the pretence of being a white man.” (Passing and the Fictions of Identity, Ginsberg (ed.), 1996, p1.) And of course, the mysterious cloak-and-dagger men and women who ignite our imagination, for example – The Scarlet Pimpernel

They seek him here, they seek him there
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere
Is he in heaven or is he in hell?
That demned elusive Pimpernel

(From a musical based on The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy, Music by Frank Wildhorn, Book and lyrics by Nan Knighton.)

The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fictitious character, but we learned about the identities and (published or clandestine) activities of real people like WW1 pilot “The Red Baron” (aka Manfred von Richthofen), “Deep Throat” (aka Mark Felt, former deputy FBI chief) — the mysterious person who provided Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein with vital information that helped them explore – and explode – the Watergate scandal in the early 1970s and bring to the downfall of US president Richard Nixon.

Finally, there is the question of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nicholaevna, daughter of Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, and his wife Alexandra. Was Anastasia murdered together with her family, or did she manage to escape? The question that launched a thousand books, movies and urban legends, may be resolved later this year.

But, it seems, there are many people who wish to change their identities (some famous actors were born with totally different names). A recent Sky News story reports an increase in the number of people who changed their names, for example: London-based glamour model Jet Black (Formerly Natalie Springer), Mouth O’Mighty (formerly Chris Gray) and London-based Samantha Holloway who asked for her name to be changed to HMP to match the famous women’s prison. The passport office, she says, was not forthcoming – “they said HMP wasn’t a real name. Instead, there’s a bit at the back of my passport saying ‘also known as HMP’. I was really annoyed about that.”

“I began wearing hats as a young lawyer because it helped me to establish my professional identity. Before that, whenever I was at a meeting, someone would ask me to get coffee.” Bella Abzug.

Afternote: I will devote some time in the near future to the concept of avatars, or online (virtual) identities.