We’ve all hallucinated during sex, haven’t we? Or…is it just me?! Well I have anyway, on a couple of occasions. Once was back in 1996. I had just left university, and broken up with my girlfriend in the clumsiest and most insensitive way imaginable. I moved to Seville to try and write a novel, but instead fell into a ditch of guilt, depression and self-loathing. Plus it was really hot, like 40 degrees. One evening, I met an English girl in a bar and we ended up going to bed. As I was making love to her, she transformed before my eyes into my ex-girlfriend. I stared at her in wonder, tried to blink the hallucination away but for a few seconds my ex remained, like a mirage in a desert.
I think the hallucination, or waking dream, was what psychologists call a ‘projection’. Fears or desires from our past can be so strong within us that we see the world through them. If our consciousness is like a bright white light, then our habitual fears and desires are like a magic lantern, projecting shadows from the past onto the wall of the present. This doesn’t usually involve a full-on hallucination – we might be attracted to or repelled by someone partly because they remind us of a key figure from our past. The emotional traces of the past push and pull us towards or away from certain people or experiences. All of us are wandering around in a dream: at work, on the Tube, in the pub, we’re actually sleep-walking and projecting our dreams of the past onto the present.
We’re like tyrannical film directors, who cast everyone as actors in our grand psycho-dramas and force them to play dream-roles from the past. We don’t see them for who they are. We are attracted to a girl because they remind us of a previous girl who reminded us of a previous girl, who reminded us of our mother, who in turn reminded us of…how many girls before? And so on, back in time, ad nauseam.
I thought of this when watching Vertigo, Hitchcock’s classic psychodrama, which was on TV last week. What a strange film Vertigo is. For one thing, the plot is utterly bizarre. A cop called Scottie suffers from vertigo. He leaves the force when his vertigo leads to another policeman’s death. He gets hired as a private detective by an old school friend, to follow the friend’s wife around, Madeline. She has become possessed by the spirit of a crazy Spanish noblewoman from the 19th century. Scottie falls in love with the beautiful, tragic Madeline, but fails to stop her from apparently throwing herself off a bell-tower and killing herself. He’s unable to stop her because his vertigo prevents him following her up the bell-tower.
Scottie is shattered by Madeline’s suicide and his impotence to stop it. He is a broken man. After a spell in a mental health home, he wanders the street aimlessly (there is a lot of aimless wandering in Vertigo), drawn to girls and things which remind him of Madeline. Then he comes across a girl called Judy in the street, who looks just like Madeline, except with red hair rather than blonde. He follows her, meets her, and invites her to dinner. He becomes obsessed with her, but – like a tyrannical film director – he wants her to play the role of Madeline. He makes her dye her hair blonde and wear clothes exactly like Madeline’s. He doesn’t love Judy for being Judy, he only loves her when she is Madeline. And poor Judy is prepared to become the role and negate herself, to try and win Scottie’s love. “If I become her, will you love me?” she asks. When Scottie finally succeeds in turning Judy into his dream archetype, he kisses her, the camera circles around them, and the music turns into the mad organ-grinding of a whirligig. Scottie looks up, and he has a hallucination that he is in the 19th century, kissing the ghost of the Spanish noblewoman.
Then the plot gets ridiculous. It turns out that Judy is Madeline, or rather, she’s a girl that Madeline’s husband hired to pretend to be Madeline as part of a murder-plot – the plan was that Scottie falls in love with her, believes she is possessed and then fails to stop her from killing herself. In fact, the body that fell from the bell-tower wasn’t really Judy / Madeline – it was the real Madeline, killed by her husband. It was all a plot by Madeline’s husband to use Scottie as cover for the murder of his wife. I know – what the fuck? It must be the most convoluted murder-plan ever.
Vertigo is a prime example of a film whose ‘objective correlative’ (ie the external facts of the story) don’t quite synch with what the film-director is really trying to get at. What Hitchcock is trying to get at is how we’re all haunted by the ghosts of our past. We’re all like Hitchcock himself – tyrannical directors forcing everyone to fit into their dream archetypes. In Hitchcock’s case, he had a very strong dream archetype of the platinum blonde, which he endlessly and compulsively searched for in his actresses (Grace Kelly, Tippi Hendren, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh, Eva Marie Saint) and fetishistically reproduced in his films. He knew he was obsessed with this archetype, and Vertigo was his way of exploring that obsession and the pathology and cruelty of it.
But more than that, it’s also an exploration of our fetishism, the voyeur-audience sitting in our cave watching the shadows on the wall. Our tyrannical desires draw poor homely girls like Marilyn Pauline Novak or Norma Jean Mortensen to Hollywood, to become the artificial vessels of our dream-longing. As Kim/Marilyn Novak says in the interview below: “Judy was in a sense me, trying to become the Hollywood person, needing to be loved, and willing to be made over.” We are not interested in our icons as flesh-and-blood human beings, only in the dream-archetype. That’s a very unfortunate thing for a human to become. It fucks you up, becoming the dream-vessel for millions of lonely people. Hollywood, the Dream Factory, turn you into a wax-work madonna to attract the desire of strangers. You sacrifice real love for movie love.
At an even deeper level, Vertigo asks where our dream-longing stops. How long has it gone on for? How many lives have we been pursuing the illusion of the dream-girl? There’s a particularly dreamy scene where Madeline and Scotty go into a forest of redwood pines. They look at a cross-section of one of the trees that’s been cut down, which shows the period each part of the tree dates back to, all the way back to the Battle of Hastings. It induces a spell of vertigo in Madeline, as she wonders what eras she’s lived in before. Scottie’s vertigo is likewise a metaphor for this dizzying sense of endless reincarnations through eternity. Madeline may be Scottie’s ‘dream-girl’, but who was the archetype? His mother? How many loves were there before that, stretching through the ages? How long has he wandered, pulled along by the emotions of the past?
Bernard Hermann’s score increases this sense of vertigo and nausea. The score, which the New Yorker’s Alex Ross suggests is the greatest film score ever, combines falling violin scales with crescendo horns and harsh atonal chords suggesting panic, danger, perversity. It’s both lyrically beautiful, and also somehow feverish and insalubrious. The score makes reference to the famous prelude of Wanger’s Tristan und Isolde, which is also about the relentless, obsessive and pathological quality of desire. Wagner’s opera was inspired by his reading of Schopenhauer, whose philosophy was in turn inspired by his reading of Buddhism and its theory of desire as the root cause of an endless cycle of death, re-birth and suffering.
The Buddhists believe we are reincarnated through our desire for our parents. Like Hitchcockian voyeurs, the souls of the dead peer down into the bedrooms of the world, and our desire and loneliness draws us into the zygote of our parents and back into the cycle of Samsara. And so the whirligig of death and re-birth goes round again. Occasionally we wake briefly from the dream, look down through the cycles of death and re-birth, and feel a sickening sense of vertigo. How many times have we been around already, searching for our soul-mate? As Schopenhauer wrote: “Deceptive images of a vague happiness hover before us in our dreams, and we search in vain for their original.” Vertigo is the evil doppleganger of Groundhog Day. It also suggests that we are going round and round in endless cycles, but it tells us that we will never escape. We will never get the dream-girl, because the dream-girl is an illusion. Not very consolatory, but then, that’s Hitchcock for you.
In other news:
Tuesday of this week was University Mental Health Day. Today, the Guardian had a good online chat about student well-being – go to the comments in this article.
Michael Lewis wrote a review of John Lanchester’s Capital, in which he considered the UK’s embrace and, now, rejection of American financial capitalism.
David Brooks wrote a good column on the things that data can’t tell us, and how there’s no such thing as ‘raw’ data.
Interesting article on the possibility that temporary tattoos will be developed that can act as interfaces between the brain and machines.
The London Philosophy Club has just become the biggest philosophy club in the world! Overtaking our friends in NYC. Come and celebrate with us next Wednesday, when we’re hosting Claire Carlisle for a talk by her on Kierkegaard.
Alternately, if ancient philosophy is more your thing, check out Christopher Gill of Exeter University, who runs the Stoicism project I’m involved with. He’s giving a talk in London on ancient philosophy and modern well-being, also on Wednesday.
Thomas Dixon of the Centre for the History of the Emotions wonders why we cry, in this piece for Aeon.
John Gray has a new book out, developing some of his favourite themes. Here’s an interview with him.
There is no QMUL philosophy workshop this coming Tuesday – I am off to see the Book of Mormon. Classes resume the following Tuesday evening (March 5th).
See you next week