“It seemed to me that to every creature several other lives were due.” -Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell.
Warning: Serious spoilers for Orphan Black ahead.
Imagine you came face to face with someone who looked just like you. I don’t mean a mere passing resemblance, I mean imagine coming face to face with your own face staring back at you, your very own eyes gazing back into yours. Until that very moment, you would’ve assumed that your face was completely unique to you. From an early age, we’re instilled with the core belief in our unique self. You are uniquely and thoroughly “you”; a singular, coherent and indivisible island of individuality. But what if you discovered that the aspects which make you distinctly you were not totally distinct to you? Furthermore, what if the singular and indivisible “self” that you so strongly identify with was in fact nothing more than an illusive construct, a messy assemblage of diverse and contradictory parts slapped with the vague and misleading label of “I”. What if the all powerful “I” we refer to is not truly who we are? What if “I” is some one else?
These are just some of the questions one might find themselves asking when watching the mind bending series Orphan Black. The show centers around a group of women who discover that they’re genetic identicals cloned by scientists back in the late seventies, raised separately and kept unaware of their unique origins. These clones, referred to as Project Leda, number in the triple digits all around the world, but the ones actually portrayed on the series by the absolutely brilliant and seamlessly shape shifting Tatiana Maslany add up to eleven. Once aware of each others existence, the four main clone “sestras” work tirelessly to expose and escape the sinister forces behind their shadowy creation and continued exploitation.
Before diving headfirst into this brilliantly captivating series, I used to catch random snippets of it on BBC America. What caught my eye during these brief clips was the Rimbaud sign hanging in the window of what I later learned was the aptly named Gallerie Rimbaud, the art studio of Sarah Manning’s foster brother, Felix. I recognized this as the name of Arthur Rimbaud, the visionary 19th century French poet, rebel and seer who scandalized the literary world of his time and dragged poetry kicking and screaming into the modern age with his prophetic, incandescent verse and mythical life. I am, to say the least, quite a fan of Rimbaud’s work and legacy and the show’s allusion to him was like a tantalizing piece of bait dropped into the water.
While perhaps unfamiliar to much of mainstream society today, Rimbaud’s tragically short and haunted life and incendiary poetry (which he abandoned altogether at the age of just nineteen), continue to have a devastatingly liberating impact on countless writers, artists and free thinkers whose ranks include Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison (who’s referred to himself as Rimbaud in a leather jacket), Henry Miller and Patti Smith, to name a few. Rimbaud’s the original L'Enfant-terrible of literature, the quintessential social rebel and subversive troublemaker who experimented with drink, drugs and homosexuality in an almost scientific attempt to alter the nature of reality and consciousness and break through the rigidly imposed confines of the ego-centric self in order to reach the unknown and discover new, strange and wondrous possibilities for mankind.
Born in 1854 in the French town of Charleville, Rimbaud is sort of akin to Mozart in the world of poetry. A natural prodigy, he was writing French and Latin verse by the age of ten. He was the star pupil of every academy he attended, winning one prestigious award after another while antagonizing, intimidating and mocking his teachers and fellow students. In his early teens, he churned out increasingly subversive, experimental and even obscene poems, often attacking cherished institutions and values, much to the shock of his puritanical contemporaries. In dazzlingly evocative and strangely surreal poems which exploded in people’s consciousness like hand grenades, Rimbaud set out to expose society’s many glaring hypocrisies and explore every facet of his own immense being through what he called a “rational derangement of the senses to obtain the unknown.” He believed that by pushing beyond the rigidly imposed boundaries of the self, deeper, more interesting selves may rise to the surface.
Upon finally watching this excellent series and grappling with its explorations of the nature of the self and issues of individual autonomy, I began to see the ghost of Rimbaud influencing more than just the name of Felix’s gallerie. Orphan Black takes us down the dark and twisting rabbit hole of identity, shaking up many of the pre-conceived notions of self to which we cling in our fierce desire to see and present ourselves as singular and internally coherent individuals. Much as Sarah’s discovery of her clone sisters challenges her inherent belief in her singular individuality, so to did Rimbaud’s poetic philosophy strike at the heart of our belief in the total autonomy and singularly of the self.
In his famous “Seer Letter”, Rimbaud distilled the essence of his poetic philosophy down to his legendary phrase “I is someone else.” In the same letter, he writes that it is incorrect to say “I think. One should say I am thought”. Here he eludes to the act of observing one’s own mind at work, of actually watching thoughts hatch, which he describes through the beautiful metaphor of listening to a rising symphony as both conductor and audience. Through this, Rimbaud hints at the idea that the self we refer to as “I” , the one so slavishly identified with our recurring thoughts, doesn’t truly represent the totality of who we might be. More interesting versions of us might manifest once we let go of the illusion of a coherent self which we try to hold up to the world. In one of his poems, Rimbaud writes “It seemed to me that to every creature several other lives were due.” He’s eluding to the potential for other, diverse selves to emerge under different circumstances.
This concept of other “selves” is literal in Orphan Black. Sarah and her sestras are genetic identicals, yet through variations in their separate embryonic development and diverse upbringings, each Leda clone is unique in their accents, style, mannerisms, preferences and beliefs. Sarah is a street wise English hustler with a shady and rootless past; Cosima is a hip and brilliant dread-locked science geek with a huge heart; Helena starts out as a merciless Ukrainian assassin who eats and kills like a feral animal. Allison is a suburban soccer mom stretched tighter than her perfect ponytail and color coordinated Lulu-lemons. At first glance, they appear to have nothing in common except an eerily similar face, but as the situations become increasingly dire, the sestras find more common ground as they grapple with complex feelings and terrible choices, forcing them to reexamine who they are at their core. Between them, they demonstrate the wide range of human possibilities and show how we are all mixed bags of messy and often contradictory features; the good and bad, beautiful and ugly, strong and petty, etc.
As far as experiential overlap goes, Allison and Helena begin the series about as far apart as two people can be, but in a relatively short time the domesticated Allison sleeps with her best friend’s husband, commits manslaughter, helps her lovably goofy husband Donnie bury (and later dig up) the body of a man he accidentally murders, and sells prescription drugs for the Portuguese mob. Meanwhile the initially merciless Helena, despite still utilizing her deadly skills from time to time, gradually shifts into a more domestic and maternal yet fierce protector of her sestras and her extended family.
At the start of the series, Sarah’s a selfish hustler who abandoned her daughter for nearly a year while off on a crime bender with her thuggish boyfriend Vic, but in the course of the series, she frequently risks her life to protect her daughter and her sestras from the powerful and shadowy forces threatening them. Cosima, despite her easy going West Coast vibe and an infectious enthusiasm for science, is nevertheless tough and not afraid to stand up to her enemies and fight for what she believes in and those she loves. Even Rachael, the cold and calculating self-aware clone who spends most of the series ruthlessly persecuting and exploiting her sestras in her mission to control the future of human evolution, eventually helps them bring down the sinister forces pulling the strings. In the midst of dire circumstances, the sestras discover their previously unknown potential to change things for the better, both as individuals with distinct characteristics and as a collective supporting and strengthening each other’s abilities.
Much like Rimbaud’s assertion that we are more than just the sum of our thoughts, the Leda clones discover that they are much more than the sum of their genetically identical parts. Pushing through the pre-established boundaries of the self in which they had previously been trapped, each uncovers hidden depths, hidden complexities, hidden capacities. Helena discovers she’s much more than just a weapon; Allison discovered she’s much more than a bored housewife shuttling the kids to and from soccer practice; Cosima learns to guard her heart a bit, yet never loses her essential optimism in the betterment of life through science with conscience and heart; Sarah learns that, despite her past tendencies, she can stay in one place, stand her ground and fight, not merely for herself but for those she loves.
All the sestras, even ones like Rachael who might seem to be simply evil, represent the vast and complex spectrum of potential within all people, potential to do great or terrible things given the right circumstances. Orphan Black shows us that we needn’t be just slaves to our nature. It also shows that there is decidedly more to us beyond the confluence of conditions which shape us into the cohesive and singular individuals we prefer to identify as. It’s tempting to think of ourselves as always uniquely “ourselves”, set in our preferred roles, maintaining that nice internal continuity, but perhaps this is just a shallow construct, a thin raft to which we cling in the storm wracked ocean of uncertainty. By clinging so desperately to this cherished image, do we perhaps rob ourselves of the possibility of uncovering better qualities, deeper beliefs, greater resolve, like the sestras did? Might there exist other versions of ourselves for other occasions like Rimbaud’s poetry suggests? What’s clear in both Rimbaud’s work and the legacy of Orphan Black is that there’s no telling what possibilities might lay in store when we gaze into that deep, dark mirror of the self.