from Madeleine E.

scottie suspended

[INT. Scottie’s Bedroom (NIGHT)]

There is no dead matter. Lifelessness is only a disguise behind which hide unknown forms of life.
(Bruno Schulz, “Treatise on Tailors’ Dummies, or The Second Book of Genesis”)

Vertigo Vertigo Vertigo
In this book, a man goes through a painful divorce. He believes his wife has cheated on him, and she maintains her innocence. They scream at each other about every little thing. Any time she’s late, even by a minute, any time she has to leave the house early or unexpectedly. He starts checking her computer, her cell phone. The whole thing goes on in the only way it can until the two finally decide they can’t live with each other anymore. We never learn whether the wife really was cheating on the husband. She takes a job in another city, and the man grieves. He loved his wife, but he couldn’t stand the thought of her cheating on him. It is, he thinks, the thought that she didn’t love him as much as he did her, that in some way, she had the better end of the deal, because she could just walk away. He gets upset thinking about it. He thinks that this thought is itself a sign of some sort of instability. He starts seeing a therapist.

This man is an instructor at the university. One of his students looks almost exactly like his ex-wife, though he does not see the resemblance. The whole thing is related to us by a third-person narrator, not the man, who tells us that the student looks like the ex-wife, and tells us the man doesn’t realize it: The student is a brunette and his wife was a blonde, but in other ways, the two are nearly identical. The student graduates and takes a job in publishing. The man sells his next book, a study of the film Vertigo, to the publishing company she now works for. The two reconnect at a party and begin seeing each other. The man’s friends mistake this former student for the man’s ex-wife. They comment on how young she looks, how much they like her hair, how good it is to see the two of them together—all these innocuous comments that are just vague enough they don’t tip off the man or his student that the man’s friends think that she is really his ex-wife. The student has never met the ex-wife, and the man doesn’t have any pictures of her—too painful; he has thrown them away—so she has no idea that she looks so much like the ex-wife.

The man and his former student decide to get married. They go to visit the former student’s parents. It is an awkward visit. The parents are polite, but it is clear they do not approve—there is the difference in their ages to consider, and the fact that she is his former student. On the last night of the visit, the father asks the man to accompany him on his nightly walk. While they walk, the father tells the man a story.

The former student was adopted; when she was a child, the father says, she was homeless for a year, the year before they adopted her. Her birth mother, who had been raising her on her own, was a schizophrenic. The father had been in construction, and had fallen to his death from the fifth floor of a building he was working on. He died on their anniversary. That morning, after he left for work, she had looked around the house for her present. She could be childish like that. There was a box, hidden high up in the closet, with an old dress in it; old, but very beautiful, and very fragile. Thinking it was a present for her, she put it on, called the babysitter, and went to the job site with a picnic lunch. She talked the foreman into giving her a ride up on the construction elevator. When she stepped out of the cage of the lift, she said, her husband backpedalled. It looked like he had seen a ghost, she said. She saw him go over the edge. She saw him hit the ground. She never forgot.

Mostly her schizophrenia had been controllable with medication before, but now, she forgot to take the medication or the doses were not strong enough to compensate for her missed doses. In either case, she began seeing the dead husband. She went into screaming fits, shouting incoherently. She had a superhuman strength when she was having one of her fits, and no one could get near her without bruises or blood. Her child, the former student, was neglected, and sometimes, mistaking her for the dead father, the mother would scream at her and strike her. The former student was frightened. She ran away from home. She was safer on the streets.

The former student’s adoptive father is telling the man all this because he wants him to know that she—the former student—is predisposed to the disorder, and has shown signs of disorganization in her thinking and even possible hallucinations. He wants the man to be prepared. He asks the man, point blank, whether he would be willing to care for her if it turns out she does have schizophrenia, whether he has that kind of patience. The man tells his future father-in-law that he will stand by her no matter what, but after that he falls silent, remembering the time that she asked him what he was doing at the mall that day, on a day he hadn’t gone near the mall. No matter what he said, she would not believe it, until finally she got so angry she walked out. She hadn’t answered her phone or her door for days. At the time, he hadn’t understood why she was so upset. He is not so sure he can care for her, if it turns out she is schizophrenic. He isn’t a doctor, or not a medical one, anyway, and, well, he’s not sure about his own mental stability.

At this point, the book breaks off the story of the man. We follow a new narrator, a first-person narrator who is obviously a young child. It isn’t faux-naïf, but the diction is simple and the words aren’t especially complex or erudite. This narrator is running around a house, hiding. The hiding spots are described meticulously, one after the other, each a little better, a little smaller and more out-of-the-way than the one before. We can’t be sure whether this is a game or not, but the narrator doesn’t seem frightened. Just when we begin to lose patience with these descriptions of hiding places, the child’s father finds the child. Through dialogue, we find out that the child’s name is the same as the ex-wife’s name, from the first story. The child is a girl. At first—because we are still seeing things from the girl’s viewpoint—we think that the game is over and the father has won, but then we begin to think that something else is going on, that maybe there is something sinister happening, because of what the father says to the child. He is pretending it is a game, but he is clearly nervous and repeatedly tells the girl to be as quiet as she can possibly be. The two of them haven’t left the girl’s hiding place, and it is uncomfortable for both of them to be hiding there. The father proposes a new game—let’s see who can be quietest while walking to the car. The girl doesn’t understand the point of the game, and she doesn’t like games like this one—her father has played them with her before—but she goes along with it. When they get to the car, the father leans over and buckles the girl in, putting the car into reverse and backing out of the driveway just as the child’s mother comes out of the house, screaming the child’s name. Where are you taking her, the woman shouts. Where are taking my child? The woman bangs on the hood of the car and smashes the rear window with a brick.

Now we return to the first story, but it is before the events that we’ve already read. The instructor and his wife are still together. They are up late, lying next to each other in bed. They are talking about having kids, about what the rest of their life together will be like. They make a list of things they think they’ll need to have before they can have a child: they should each have insurance coverage the other can be on, so that the bills won’t be astronomical, they should have a house in a quieter neighborhood, near a good school, she should have a job that will allow her a decent amount of maternity leave, he should have a job that is a little more stable, so on and so on. She tells him these are all good things. He tells her he worries some of these things may just be a way of putting off having a kid, making it so that things will never be right so that they never end up having a kid. She asks him which things it is he’s talking about. Her cell phone buzzes on the nightstand, but she just looks at him. He wonders who would be calling now, almost midnight. He wonders why she wouldn’t be curious, too, why she won’t answer or at least look at the number.

Midway through Vertigo, after Madeleine has fallen to her death and her husband, Elster, has left San Francisco, Scottie has a dream. Critic Tania Modleski points out that in that dream, Scottie plays out precisely the hallucination of which he has, in the first half of the film, tried to cure Madeleine. He even dies Madeleine’s death. Scottie has become Madeleine, but, because the Madeleine he knows does not exist (it is Judy playing Madeleine), he has thus become someone who never existed—Judy-as-Madeleine. He is committed to an institution. What would it be like to live out the life of something without life?

Or does a fiction have a kind of life?

In his quest for his lost Madeleine, Scottie becomes like “the mad Carlotta,” who accosted strangers in the street in desperation, seeking the child that had been taken from her: after the dream, we see Scottie wandering the city, repeatedly mistaking other women for Madeleine, stopping them in the street only to be bitterly disappointed at his error.
(Tania Modleski, The Women Who Knew Too Much)

Does Elster, too, suffer Carlotta’s madness? Had the cameras been rolling prior to the movie’s start, might we have seen Elster accosting potential Madeleines in the street, attempting to convince them that he is not mad, that, even though his plan sounds reprehensible, he’ll make it up to them, until finally he comes upon Judy? “Have you seen my lost child? Have you seen the child of Carlotta?”

François Truffaut writes, “Alfred Hitchcock achieved a real tour de force in inducing the public to identify with the attractive leading man, whereas Hitchcock himself almost always identified with the supporting role—the man who is cuckolded and disappointed, the killer or a monster, the man rejected by others, the man who has no right to love, the man who looks on without being able to participate.” (Truffaut, Hitchcock, 346-347) In Vertigo, the attractive leading man is the man rejected by others, the man who has no right to love, the man who looks on without being able to participate. Or is he? Would Truffaut go against the overwhelming opinion of critics and say that Hitchcock, in Vertigo, identifies not with Scottie, but with Elster? Would he be right in doing so?

But if both Scottie and Judy play out the roles assigned them by Elster, if Madeleine has been dead throughout the movie and Elster’s actions have been forced upon him by his murder of Madeleine, then Midge is the only character who truly acts out of her own free will. And she disappears before the second half of the film even really begins.

It is no exaggeration to say that Masoch [from whom the word masochism is derived] was the first novelist to make use of suspense as an essential ingredient of romantic fiction. This is partly because the masochistic rites of torture and suffering imply actual physical suspension (the hero is hung up, crucified, or suspended), but also because the woman torturer freezes into postures that identify her with a statue, a painting, or a photograph.
(Gilles Deleuze, Masochism: An Interpretation of Coldness and Cruelty)

[T]he lover’s dream is to identify the beloved object with himself and still preserve for it its own individuality; let the Other become me without ceasing to be the other. To know [the body of the other] is to devour it yet without consuming it.
(Jean Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes)

A mimetic relation is one of similarity, not identity, and similarity implies difference—the difference between the original object and its reflection, between the real world and the fictional heterocosm.
(Brian McHale, Postmodernist Fiction)

Jean Corbett, Kim Novak’s stunt double for Vertigo, died just two weeks after I was born. She appeared in at least 17 films, but her name isn’t in the credits of a single one (her name does not appear in the credits of Vertigo). Jean had a sister, Joan Corbett, who was in several movies with her sister, always also uncredited. It could be a joke, but it isn’t.

Hitchock: “The majority of actors are stupid children. Think of Kim Novak. In the second part of Vertigo, when she’s dark-haired and looks less like Kim Novak, I even managed to get her to act. But the only reason I took her was because Vera Miles was pregnant.”
(Oriana Fallaci, The Egotists: Sixteen Surprising Interviews (trans. Pamela Swinglehurst))

The psychologist Martin Conway believes that what he calls the “reminiscence bump”—the period between the ages of 15 and 25 when the experiences that will become our most vivid memories occur (also when more of our experiences are recorded as memories than at any other time in our lives; as we get older, fewer and fewer events get recorded)—is the thing that makes identity possible. Conway believes the reason memories of this time are so plentiful and so powerful is that this bump is when we create ourselves, and, in order to maintain a more or less consistent self through the rest of our lives, we call upon those memories again and again, as though they were a kind of script, reinforcing and deepening the significance of the experiences they represent. It’s a chicken or egg thing, though, isn’t it? Maybe we remember the things that happened during the period our memories worked well more frequently because, no matter what else happens, we won’t remember it as vividly, or maybe our brains are by nature nostalgic and they just naturally return to that period whenever some question about who we are comes up. The surprising thing is that, either way, the memories themselves, our identities, are arbitrary: they are neither more nor less significant on their own than memories made later (or earlier). It is only the age at which they were formed that makes them so important to us.

Carlotta commits suicide at 26. Madeleine is murdered at 26. We do not know Judy’s age (it would be on that driver’s license she shows Scottie; if only we could see, if only we could know), but she might as well be 26 (it’s unlikely Elster, so concerned with appearances, would have chosen someone much older or much younger than his wife to play her). These three women, then, are all 26 years of age or nearly so. If Conway’s theory is correct, then, they have each only just finished creating an identity. Not one of them has yet had time to inhabit it. Though they are all indisputably themselves, they have not yet had much opportunity to be themselves, to know what that means. Carlotta was driven insane during this all-important period—it is precisely the fact that she has had the identity she thought she had (mistress, mother) taken away from her that drove her insane. Madeleine is supposed to be living Carlotta’s creation, her set of memories, though one assumes she didn’t actually do so in life—as far as the audience is concerned, Madeleine has no identity; we never see her alive. And Judy is living Elster’s creation, which is supposed to be Madeleine’s identity, which, in turn, is supposed to have been taken from Carlotta’s memories. None of the three has been allowed to live as herself, if living as oneself means to draw upon the memories of the period during which one has decided who one is. The richness of self-hood, the very consistency that is the most important hallmark of identity, is that one can call upon past decisions and act in consonance with them when presented with new problems, that one have some sort of coherent memory of—and connection to—the past. The real psychic violence committed in Vertigo is that neither Elster nor Scottie nor Carlotta’s “rich . . . powerful man” have allowed the women they profess to love access to their own memories, their own identities. It would drive anyone mad.

[INT. Sanitarium Bedroom (DAY)]

In the breakdown sequence, it is Carlotta in Elster’s arms, Carlotta missing from Carlotta‘s grave. Why does my mind always insist that it is Madeleine? Or rather, Judy?

Midge: “You don’t even know I’m here, do you? I’m here.”
(01:27:13)

In Boileau and Narcejac’s novel, D’Entre les Morts, there is no Midge. As of 01:29:00, there is no Midge in Vertigo, either.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.
(1 Corinthians)

Here I come to view a voiceless ghost . . .
Yes, I have re-entered your olden haunts at last;
Through the years, through the dead scenes, I have tracked you.
(Thomas Hardy, “After a Journey”)

Stranger still, my wife is a woman I have never actually seen.
(Dick, VALIS)

My girlfriend and I watched a documentary called The Woman Who Wasn’t There, about Tania Head, a woman who claimed to have been on the 78th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Center on September 11th. For years, she maintained that she had escaped the tower that day with the help of Welles Crowther and an unidentified fireman. Her husband, a man named “Dave,” was, she said, in the North Tower; he did not live.

Head claimed that she had been badly burnt in the attack, and that her right arm had been nearly severed. After a lengthy recovery, she joined a group named World Trade Center Survivors’ Network and even acted as its public face for several years, giving speeches about her experience to other support groups and leading tours around Ground Zero. In 2007, however, a reporter for the New York Times discovered that Head had not been married to “Dave”—had probably never even met him—had not been injured in the World Trade Center attacks, and had almost certainly been in Barcelona, Spain on September 11th, 2001. Yet she had recounted her gruesome story again and again, in great detail—severed limbs, dead bodies, the stuff of nightmares. She would have been one of only 19 people on or above the 78th floor that day to have survived had her story been true.

The documentary was directed by Angelo J. Gugliemo, Jr., a member of the World Trade Center Survivors’ Network who had known Head for several years. Though I expected talking heads moralizing about the horrible fraud Head had perpetrated, there weren’t any. Even among the survivors interviewed, there wasn’t much outrage at this woman for taking the spotlight the way she had. This was not a story of someone desperately seeking attention, though it easily could have been. Instead, the way that it was told asked a much more interesting question. Not How could someone do this? but Why would someone want to do this? Why would someone want to put herself in this position, a position that required her to act out and relive memories of terrible suffering over and over? Not only had she chosen to pretend to have been at the World Trade Center that day and to have barely escaped with her life, having seen and experienced things that had scarred her forever, but she had then also chosen to become someone who had lost her husband in those same attacks, someone who had then become someone who was called upon to talk about those experiences again and again, and to try to comfort those who had also (really, actually) suffered.

Yes, she was calling attention to herself. The film might have focused on that aspect of the story: the filmmakers could have shown us one of Tania Head’s moving speeches about 9/11 and then cut to the reporter who had found out the truth, telling us where she had been (Barcelona) and what she had been doing (she was on vacation from an MBA program). Instead, the only speeches Head gives that are shown in the film have had their audio taken out or overlaid with other audio. Sometimes, we see her about to speak and then cut away just before she begins speaking. Most of her story is told by other survivors, her former friends in the Survivors’ Network. When we cut to Spain, it is to hear from Tania’s childhood friends, not those who would have known her in 2001. The question “Why would someone do this?” in the mouths of the people interviewed, is less an accusation than it is an honest expression of puzzlement—why? Why would Tania Head—or Alicia Esteve, her real name—why would this woman want to be in my position, they seem to ask. Why would she want to go through something so awful—and then go through it again, and again, and again—if she didn’t have to? The acting out of suffering can be—must be—a real suffering; why not spare oneself the pain?

There’s a deeper truth in fiction, because memory is faulty.
(Priest, The Affirmation)

Indeed I am convinced that the most erroneous assumptions are precisely the most indispensable for us, that without granting the validity of the logical fiction, without measuring reality by the invented world of the unconditioned, the self-identical, man could not live; and that a negation of this fiction . . . is equivalent to a negation of life itself.
(Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil)

What if the whole first half of Vertigo is just the fantasy Scottie has while in the sanitarium? Scottie, in pajamas, grieving for the death of the policeman or shocked by his near-death experience, sits in his chair (Midge hovering over him—a cousin? a sister?) daydreaming he’d met a woman named Madeleine, and then that woman had died. What if there is no acrophobia, no vertigo, no Madeleine? What if, from hanging from the gutter to waking in the sanitarium, nothing that happens is “real” and everything we see is something Scottie has made up to explain to himself how he has come to be here, in this sanitarium? He feels responsible for the death of a man: the policeman, a colleague, perhaps a friend. It must be a difficult thing to come to terms with. Judy’s letter may seem to close off this possibility, but Judy’s letter is itself a fantasy. When Scottie meets Judy on the street, she might as well be anyone—any woman can stand in for the woman of a man’s fantasy. There would be no coincidence in their meeting, no accident of fate bringing them together, only a madman on the streets and a woman who finds she can’t get away from him.

One thought on “from Madeleine E.

  1. Pingback: Vol. 1 Brooklyn | Weekend Bites: Literary Valentines, Alexander Chee on Researching, Waxahatchee Covers Bottomless Pit, Gabriel Blackwell, and More

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