The Ekphrasis of the Second Self 

by Alia Soliman

Brighton at sunset speaks of languid emotions. The fading hues and swirling seagulls evoke a nostalgia for something I never lived.

I stroll the length of the embankment, savouring fresh seafood, watching strangers pass me by, contemplating the pebbly beach that I’ve seen numerous times on screen. It is a warm July day, pleasant enough not to be stifling, the seaside walk buzzing with contained energy. 

I had commuted from London for the day to attend a conference which was forgettable; I struggle now to remember its theme. (I smile as I search through my files, looking for the conference call, seeing that concepts of remembrance defined the theme of that day.)

Luckily, the walk from the venue to the seaside was mere minutes. I reach the lower level of the promenade. An image of the Brighton beach at sunset grabs my attention. The photo in black and white is of a group of young people, two males and two females, who appear from their body postures to be in their twenties, confident, nonchalant, and on the threshold of life. This image and numerous others are displayed outside a beach shack. The photo was taken from a low angle, the pebbles shinning dimly in the monochromic reproduction. The four figures are dressed in heavy dark attire, their silhouettes shadowed against the fading hues of the sun. The beach, as a meeting place, is glamourised through the artistic manipulation of light, darkness, and shapes. 

I stand still, the light breeze flirting with my hair tendrils and caressing my cheeks. I stare at the image and its inhabitants, as if willing it to spill its secrets.

Photograph by Robert Leighton. Image courtesy of the author.

“Do you like it?” It is the voice of a man in shorts as he emerges from the shack. 

“Hmm, who is the photographer?”

“I am.”

“And the models?”

“Oh, those are not models. They are regular folks. Waiting around for hours for a decent shot pays off in the end.”

The idea that the youngsters were not posing, that this is a candid shot of a group of twenty somethings just hanging out in camaraderie, friendship, or leisure makes the image even more valuable. I wonder about the young group and their stories, lamenting a missed chance that I was never offered to get to know them. 

I chat with the artist for a few more minutes and pay the asking price. I walk away from the shack and in the general direction of the train station, hugging the image possessively.

Back at my hotel in Bloomsbury, I position the image so I can look at it comfortably while I lie on the bed. I stare at it for so long that the distance between us diminishes, the chiaroscuro conflating and expanding time and space. It isn’t the first time in which I’ve indulged in thoughts of alterity, imagining an alternate scenario in which I knew other people and lived in a different land from the one of my reality. It isn’t dissatisfaction, it is greed: a desire to witness more and feel more than my current life and the people in it can afford me. 

The punctum of the image, as Roland Barthes relays, lies in its subjective connection to the viewer, the personal link between the photograph and the onlooker, a connection that is often instinctive and uncurated. My visual reverie and my mental process of free association conjure Walter Benjamin’s fragmentary story, “The Second Self” from The Storyteller: Tales Out of Loneliness, a favourite, and the ideal caption. The Brighton image becomes the yielded visual for what Benjamin describes as “the pressure of your second self on the handle of the door that leads to your life”:

The path that you wanted to take

The letter that you wanted to write

The man that you wanted to rescue

The set that you wanted to occupy

The woman that you wanted to follow

The word that you wanted to hear

The door that you wanted to open

The costume that you wanted to wear

The question that you wanted to pose

The hotel room that you wanted to have

The opportunity that you wanted to seize

“The Second Self” is part of the book’s “Dreamworlds” section, and my fantasies seem to find the perfect description in Benjamin’s thoughts on missed encounters. As a highly visual writer and one who created new structures of meaning around Paul Klee’s Angelous Novus, Benjamin has given me words that seem to fit the punctuation for my image. 

I caress the image with my fingers, my yearnings unquelled, as the edges of my waking consciousness become hazy, flirting with the idea of the desires of the second self, once more, before I drift off. 


Alia Soliman is a researcher, writer, and academic. She holds a PhD in Cultural Studies from University College London, UK. Her monograph titled Alterity and the New Double: The Doppelgänger Persona in Postmodern and Contemporary Culture is forthcoming from Peter Lang Publishing in 2022. She is lecturer of visual and cultural Studies.

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