“Everything has returned. Sirius, the spider, and thy thoughts at this moment, and this last thought of thine that all things will return.”
“Must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again….”
The chief mythic idea I’d like to look at in relation to Vertigo is Friedrich Nietzsche’s concept of the eternal return of the same, or eternal recurrence. Here, we can only use the term mythic loosely, because ideas relating to eternal recurrence take various forms. Notions of eternal return of a kind predominate in many ancient mythical world-views, as these worldviews were predicated on cyclical rather than linear notions of time. Variations of the idea emerge in the mythio-philosophical speculations of the Greeks, most notably in Heraclitus, Empedocles, and the Pythagoreans. By Nietzsche’s period, cyclical time had largely been replaced in the Western imagination by the linear, narrative time of Christianity, although eternal return was occasionally mooted as a physical cosmological theory, working under the assumption that finite matter in infinite time would inevitably repeat the same configurations ad infinitum. (This idea is expressed, for example, by the poet and essayist Heinrich Heine: “For time is infinite, but the beings in time, the concrete bodies are finite…..Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations that have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again…..”)
What Nietzsche did with this idea, normally expressed in an abstract or general fashion, was to make it immediate, particular, and starkly personal. The notion seems to have first forcibly struck the philosopher while he was hiking in the woods by Lake Silvaplana in 1881, and would thereafter occupy a persistent albeit peculiar significance in his work. Its most famous expression is as a kind of thought experiment in The Gay Science:
“What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: “This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy, and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small and great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence? - even this tiny spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment, and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside again and again, and you with it, a speck of dust.”
Nietzsche and his demon were clearly laying on the reader what was known in quainter times as a mindfuck, possibly even a bummer. The idea of eternal recurrence, stated thus, places a great existential weight on every detail of our lives, on each of our actions, from the tiniest to the most significant. Normally, we whittle a great deal of time away on the basis that we will perform the significant, defining actions of our life in due course; we are, as the school of Gurdjieff assert, habitually asleep, hypnotised by the notion that our real lives are eternally deferred. Nietzsche’s conceit can thus be seen as an attempt to shake the reader out of their lethargic trance, and force them to contemplate the value or worthiness of their existence in its past and most immediate dimensions. In Nietzsche’s time, the value and worthiness of a life was largely regarded as a matter to be judged in the eternity of the afterlife. The idea of post-mortem judgment was of course an anathema to the fiercely atheistic Nietzsche, who thought metaphysical consolations of this type represented an abject devaluation of life in this world: “To talk about ‘another’ world than this is quite pointless, provided the instinct for slandering, disparaging, and accusing life is not strong within us: in the latter case we revenge ourselves on life by means of the phantasmagoria of ‘another’, a ‘better’ life.” (Twilight of the Idols).
Eternal recurrence can then be seen as a conceit by which Nietzsche turned the “phantasmagoria” of post-modern judgement back on itself: a secular eternity whose heavens or hells are made each day and each minute of our lives, because they alone constitute our existence, now and in eternity. This, at any rate, is how the idea is most commonly understood, but there has never really been a consensus: to some, eternal recurrence is to be taken as a literal doctrine, to others, a sign of Nietzsche’s incipient madness. Whatever the case, the idea held a particular glamour over his mind, moving him to a type of poetry occasionally reminiscent of Lord Dunsany and some of the Weird writers:
“Your whole life, like a sandglass, will always be reversed and will ever run out again – a long minute of time will elapse until all those conditions out of which you were evolved return in the wheel of the cosmic process. And then you will find every pain and every pleasure, every friend and every enemy, every hope and every error, every blade of grass and every ray of sunshine once more, and the whole fabric of things which make up your life. And in every one of these cycles of human life there will be one hour where, for the first time one, and then many, will perceive the mighty thought of the eternal recurrence of all things:- and for mankind this is always the hour of Noon.”
How somebody might respond to the prospect of eternal recurrence would depend to a large extent on how they regarded their own lives, or at what point the demon accosted them; the eternal repetition of a satisfactory life, or an ecstatic moment, is an appealing prospect, just as that of its opposite is not. Nevertheless, although Nietzsche seems to have intended the notion to give a resounding affirmation to life, it carries something of the ambience of a depressive’s persecution fantasy. Eternal return in a general sense – the seasons, the diurnal and cosmic rhythms of the planet – can be an aesthetically pleasing and comforting notion, but in relation to the life of an individual, the idea of an implacably fixed repetition of the same is more apt to engender a sense of despair and impotence. One thinks of the eternal punishments of Tantalus and Sisyphus in the Underworld: the waters always receding beyond our grasp, the boulder tumbling back down to ground, the endless reiteration of futility, and the endless inability to forsake the futile activity; or of St Augustine’s assertion that the path of the sinful man is circular, and Dante’s realization of this idea in the topography of the Inferno; or the repetitious existence of the addict, and the endless circuitous return of the mind enthralled by obsession or guilty conscious.
Interestingly, the idea of eternal return did haunt the modern imagination, but much less in the affirmative sense, “the hour of Noon”, implied by Nietzsche, and much more with the ambience of the hopeless, the absurd, and the inescapable. The return of circular time seemed to haunt the modernist imagination as a kind of subterranean rebuke to the redemptive linear time of Christianity, and its secular derivative in the hope of social improvement and technological progress. A horror of repetition, a sense of the impossibility of real change or progress, seemed to underline the fixed laws of nature, the unyielding routines of the factory and assembly line, and the depersonalized circumlocutions of the bureaucratic world. We find this shadow of eternal Sisyphian return directly invoked by Camus, and colouring the plight of Beckett’s tramps and Kafka’s hapless victims, or implied in Borges’ preoccupation with the maze and the labyrinth, the forked path which brings us ever back to our initial point of departure. In the cinema, we find the purest expression of these ideas – the maze, the labyrinth, eternal return – in Alan Resnais’ modernist classic Last Year at Marienbad (1961), with its purgatorial hotel of arbitrary, unwinnable games and protagonists who are meeting each other for the first time, or perhaps only the latest in an interminable sequence.
From Among the Dead, or There’ll Never be Another You.
Although probably not intended as such by Hitchcock (or the authors of D’entre les morts), eternal return is an intriguing prism through which to view Vertigo. The film is after all the story of a man who is persecuted by return: the acquisition and loss of his beloved, repeated as a pattern, always returning him to his initial emotional state of impotence and guilt, to an emotional state of abjection which intensifies with each reiteration. The idea of inescapable return – of the past, of the obsessed mind to certain events, ideas, and fetishes, of the ghost to certain emotionally resonant locations, of the world of the living to the world of the dead – is intricately woven into the whole fabric of Vertigo. The idea is concretized by the film’s presiding visual motif: the spiral, which we see repeated in the credits and Scottie’s nightmare, Madeleine’s hair, the staircase of the bell-tower, and the film’s famous 360 degree camera pan around Stewart and Novak’s kiss:
As an interesting aside, the most prominent recent appearance of eternal return in popular culture was of course among True Detective’s seething cauldron of decorative philosophical intrigue. This show also adopted the spiral as its presiding visual motif:
The spiral, and the return of the past, also informs Vertigo’s remarkable utilization of its San Francisco location. The city in general makes an ideal physical embodiment of the idea of a temporal maze, of the past haunting the present. Despite their relative antiquity, cities retain always the sense of being the locus of the modern, the new, the present instant. Cities register changes more rapidly, in human time scales, as against the slower rhythms of change in the natural world. But cities are also a physical record of their own histories. They are in a sense their own museums, with the modern facades the glass enclosures through which their prior forms of existence are made visible. Vertigo’s San Francisco is a city defined both by its own history, and the interpenetration of its communal history with the personal histories of its protagonists. Its locations are all steeped in local history: old churches, graveyards, museums, and antiquarian bookstores. Through Scottie and Judy/Madeleine, these old stories are being reincarnated, the locations becoming enmeshed in new emotional complexes and tragedies. In this intervening of personal and communal history, Vertigo’s San Francisco is never a wholly objective, spatial terrain; it is marked out, arranged according the subjective emotional histories and obsessions of its characters. Guy Debord defined the now highly fashionable concept of psychogeography in 1955 as “the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviours of individuals.” Applied to urban areas, psychogeography offers maps for exploring how the fixed spatial organisation of the city becomes randomized and personalized through the individual’s interaction with it; how the experience of the city is always partially objective and communal, and partially a subjective, fluid, mental space.
Following this loose definition, Vertigo is one of the great expressions of psychogeography in the cinema. We spend a great of deal of the first half of the movie simply moving around San Francisco, tailing Kim Novak on-foot and in Jimmy Stewart’s DeSoto, being lulled into a dreamlike state by Hitchcock’s silent, POV camera, and Bernard Hermann’s haunting score. The city we enter into is as much a state of mind as a place: it is the historical San Francisco, and a cross-section which traces the specific history of Carlotta Valdes, her opulent marriage, her abandonment, madness, and eventual suicide. It is also the locus in which new tragedies are being woven over the old: the deepening of Scottie’s erotic infatuation with Madeleine, and the murder of the real Madeleine Elster, which, as we will see, is a reiteration and retelling of the Carlotta Valdes tragedy. When Scottie and Judy/Madeleine finally become acquainted, each tells the other that what they are doing in San Francisco is simply wandering.
It’s a lie on both their parts, of course, but wandering becomes another of Vertigo’s poetic motifs. To wander without a fixed destination is a crucial component of the idea of psychogeography; it rejects the utilitarian fixity of the urban space, opening it up to an underlying logic of mental journeying, of unexpected juxtaposition, coincidence, and adventure. Scottie suggests that he and Madeleine should wander together, to which she demurs that two can never wander, that two together always implies a destination, people going somewhere. Nevertheless, for the brief period that that they do wander together, Vertigo attains its happy oasis, its brief and tremulous escape from time, from eternal return. Both are never far from them, though. History is always impinging on the landscape, just as Carlotta continues to re-emerge in Madeleine. The couple visit Muir Wood National Monument, and beneath towering, ancient redwoods, we are presented once again with the spiral, this time taking the form of the tree rings on a cross section cutaway of one of the old trees. “Somewhere in here, I was born”, Judy/Madeleine/Carlotta intones, pointing, “and there I died. It was only a moment to you, you took no notice.” These sequences in the film, though fraught as any of it with morbidity, melodrama, and tension, are nevertheless the happiest in it. Scottie has fallen in love, first with the image of Madeleine, and then with the mystery of her, with the quest to solve the mystery, and save the mystery woman. Judy, also, is falling in love with Scottie, her performance in this regard unexpectedly becoming a reality (as the performance of her death will become a reality in the film’s conclusion.) For both Scottie and the audience, this is the period of suspension, where the mystery is yet unresolved, and it still appears possible to elude the story’s grim cycle of inevitability and return.
This, of course, is impossible. Scottie and Madeleine are moving towards a fixed destination (the bell-tower of the Mission San Juan Bautisa), and they were never really wandering to begin with. Madeleine (at the behest of Gavin Elster) was following in the historical footsteps of Carlotta Valdes. After losing Madeleine, the grief-stricken Scottie of the second half becomes a wanderer after another fixed pattern; he is following in the footsteps of his own personal history, following himself following Madeleine (following Carlotta) in the first half. In this fashion, everything in Vertigo repeats, is mirrored in another, prior iteration of itself, and destined to repeat again in a another, later incarnation. The two halves of Vertigo hinge on the idea of a tragic story from the past repeating itself in the present: the suicide of Carlotta Valdes in the first, and Scottie’s discovery and loss of Madeleine in the second. To appreciate how intricately these stories are woven into one another, consider Carlotta Valdes. We find out about Carlotta through the antiquarian bookseller Pop Leibel (beautifully played by Konstantin Shayne):
“She came from somewhere small to the south of the city. Some say from a mission settlement. Young, yes, very young. And she was found dancing and singing in cabaret by that man. And he took her and built for her the great house in the Western Addition. And, uh, there was, there was a child, yes, that’s it, a child, a child. I cannot tell you exactly how much time passed or how much happiness there was, but then he threw her away. He had no other children. He wife had no children. So he kept the child and threw her away. You know, a man could to that in those days. They had the power and the freedom.”
So Carlotta Valdes was a beautiful young woman taken as a mistress by a rich, powerful man. They have a child together; he tires of her, keeps the child, and abandons her to despair and eventual suicide. It’s the story of a powerful man who uses and abuses a woman with impunity. For Pop Leibel, elderly, sanguine, and steeped in history, this is a familiar story, a piece of folklore, something common enough in the past. “There are many such stories” he says. However, by means of two subtle verbal clues, Vertigo brilliantly links the old Carlotta Valdes story to the film’s present events, and specifically to Gavin Elster and his wife, the real Madeleine Elster, whom we never really see in the movie. Gavin Elster is also a powerful, wealthy man who has used a woman, and wishes to get rid of her. Leibel refers to Carlotta’s cruel lover throwing her away twice. This is literally what Gavin Elster does with his wife: throws her to her death from the bell-tower. Leibel says that men could do this in the past because then they had the “power and the freedom.” These are the very terms which Gavin Elster evokes when expressing his nostalgia for the older San Francisco in an earlier conversation with Scottie: “The things that spell San Francisco to me are disappearing fast….I should have liked to have lived here then – colour, excitement, power, freedom…” Here, we find another of Vertigo’s many ironies: the idea that Madeleine is being possessed by Carlotta Valdes is a story made up by Gavin Elster; but in reality, the ultimate fate of Carlotta, her status as the victim of a powerful, heartless man, is being reiterated through the real Madeleine Elster. Even Scottie, a sympathetic victim for the most part, is drawn into this sequence: he has Judy, but ultimately throws her away through his obsessive desire to reincarnate Madeleine. This is another of the film’s ironies, rooted in myth and tragedy: he wishes to bring Madeleine back in every last detail, and gets his wish, even to losing her once again on the bell tower.
What happens to Scottie after the end of Vertigo? If we are to take the film on a literal level, he is wracked, destroyed, catatonic, probably suicidal. Although it seems somewhat less plausible, some viewers have suggested that he is finally free of the Madeleine illusion and its cycle of guilt and obsession. If we are to follow Vertigo’s deeper dream logic, however, we feel that the story must begin again, and recur infinitely, as it does through our endless re-watching of the movie itself. The sequence where Scottie sees Madeleine for the first time at Ernie’s Restaurant has a peculiar tone. Stewart’s facial expression suggests an incalculable melancholy, and Hermann’s score a sorrow for something past, an old wound reopened, even though the story is just beginning. In reality, Scottie’s expression probably just indicates the pain of falling in love with somebody who he believes is utterly unattainable, but to our excitable imagination, it is as though he is dimly aware that he has already loved and lost her, many times over. Later, after he has saved her from her fall in the Bay, Scottie follows Madeleine back to his apartment, where she is passing a thank you note through the slot. Reading the note silently in Madeleine’s presence, Scottie says “I hope we do.”
“What?” she inquires.
“We have”, Madeleine counters, dryly.
Though only an aside, this exchange recalls the temporal displacements of Last Year at Marienbad, a film which feels in some respects like a more surreal sequel to Vertigo – we can view the couple in Marienbad (the nameless man and woman, labelled “X” and “A” in Robbe-Grillet’s dense script) as a later version of Scottie and Judy who have been through so many cycles of encounter and separation that their whole spacetime is unravelling into vertiginous confusion. Like all of Hitchcock, the influence of Vertigo on subsequent films is pervasive, ranging from subtle allusions to the more blatant, as in the case of Brian de Palma’s virtual remake/commentary Obsession. In the late works of David Lynch, we find arguably the most sustained yet creative channelling (or re-dreaming) of Vertigo. It’s difficult, almost impossible, to imagine Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive without the structural blueprint laid down by Vertigo. Consider the similarity. Vertigo breaks down into two parts: one which might be regarded as a dream or fantasy section (the possession of Madeleine Elster fantasy which allows Scottie to be the detective/hero), and the second in which the reality of the situation is laid bare ( Scottie as a controlling bully, ultimately played for a chump by Gavin Elster and Judy in the first). The overall story is that of a man who finds, but can never retain, his beloved, with the suggestion of being trapped in an eternal, purgatorial loop. This is, in essence, what we find in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive (although I think the demarcation between dream and reality in those films is less clear-cut than many commentators suggest.)
With Mulholland Drive, for example, we can map Jimmy Stewart’s Scottie onto Naomi Watt’s Betty Elms persona, and Kim Novak’s Judy/Madeleine onto Laura Harring’s Rita. In the first half of Drive, Betty gets to play the role of the infatuated detective/hero, with Harring’s voluptuous amnesiac as the mystery woman, the object of unattainable desire. Betty is separated from Rita, and in the second, vastly more despairing section of the film, becomes a less sympathetic figure and ultimately kills Rita (now Camilla Rhodes), just as Scottie’s actions in the second part of Vertigo lead to the death of Madeleine (now Judy Barton). In Lost Highway we see something like the same scenario in reverse: Bill Pullman’s saxophonist murders (maybe) his brunette wife Renee, and then, seemingly reborn with a different, younger identity, rediscovers her as the blonde Alice. “I want you” he whispers.
“You’ll never have me” Alice replies, sauntering into the desert, and back to the unattainable. Everything returns….and is lost again.
This is not to downplay the considerable originality of these films, or their differences to Hitchcock’s source, only to suggest that Vertigo is the grandfather of the oneiric puzzle film. It is notable that Vertigo, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive have all been interpreted by some critics as being possible variations of the conceit established by Ambrose Bierce’s story “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”: stories whose main narratives are fantasies existing in the imagination of a protagonist on the brink of death. Critic James F. Mayfield argued that the main events of Vertigo might be taking place in Scottie’s mind as he hangs from the rooftop at the end of the first sequence. This always seemed like an unlikely scenario to me, but it actually finds some support in the fact that the original draft of the script (by Samuel A. Taylor) was called “From Among the Dead, or There’ll Never be Another You, by Samuel Taylor and Ambrose Bierce.” Regardless of how far you take this interpretation, Vertigo can be regarded as the first tentative expression of the type of film whose reality is false or ambiguous, what Thomas Beltzer (in his essay Last Year at Marienbad: An IntertexualMeditation) labels, without directly invoking Hitchcock, “the ontological vertigo film.”
To conclude: we started out considering Vertigo’s canonisation as the “Greatest Film of all Time” by Sight and Sound, and the common criticism that the resolution of its mystery strains credibility and logic. This, in one sense, shouldn’t be so surprizing: even the most satisfying resolution of a mystery carries with it some sense of loss and depletion, because the mystery by its nature has its full ecstatic being only when in a suspended state of irresolution. The state of excitement or rapture engendered by the mystery draws us to the solution, which is ultimately the annulment of that rapture and excitement. This speaks to Scottie’s predicament: in trying to recreate Madeleine he is trying to recapture the ecstasy of the mystery, of the moment of its suspension and irresolution, of the wandering rather than the destination; but precisely in doing so, he hastens the resolution of the mystery, and kills the woman forever. Whether or not Vertigo is a “perfect” film seems irrelevant, because it achieves something more lingering than perfection: it is the most haunted of all films.
I found the quotation from Heinrich Heine here: Nietzsche-Eternal Recurrence.
The Twilight of the Idols, Frederick Nietzsche, translated by RJ Hollingdale, Penguin Classics.