This was first published on the now-retired polarcosmology.com website, a companion site for the book North: The Rise & Fall of the Polar Cosmos by Gyrus – an epic, animism-infused history of cosmology. Check out more information, or buy from Strange Attractor Press.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is a giddy Rorschach blot of images and themes. Held together by impeccable artistry, the strangeness of its construction creates an enticing labyrinth of suggestive meanings. There’s enough circular doubling back and cul-de-sacs to frustrate any singular reading. But the film can generously accommodate many fantastical perspectives.
Here I’m going to document my attempt to make this film host to various motifs from the mythic dimensions of the celestial and terrestrial poles. Although these dimensions are never referenced directly in the film — and probably never even crossed the minds of the film’s creators — the effusive welcome which the film lavishes upon them testifies to the fertility of both the film and polar cosmology as open-ended containers of significance.
[Obviously, spoilers abound.]
For me, the connections between Vertigo and the polar cosmos reach right back to the origins of my research in this area. Around 1997 my forays into the history of Wharfedale in West Yorkshire had led me to a Romano-Celtic altar stone, currently preserved in the All Saints Parish Church in Ilkley. The carving shows a female figure apparently holding two serpents. We know it to be a goddess, Verbeia, from an inscription found with it, carved by the ethnically Celtic Roman troops who worshipped her.1
Up on the moors near Ilkley are found many prehistoric rock carvings, dating to long before the Roman fort where Verbeia was worshipped. These are abstract ‘cup-and-rings’. One carving stands apart from the rest: the Swastika Stone, a neat cross of nine cup-marks surrounded by a curvilinear swastika shape. Interestingly, many aspects of Verbeia associate her with the Celtic goddess Brigid — and Brigid, in turn, is associated in Ireland with the swastika-like Brigid’s Crosses, traditionally made of straw.
Now, over the years my research uncovered quite a secure connection between Verbeia and the Swastika Stone. It seems likely that the cult of Verbeia travelled from its origins in Gaul, across the Alps to northern Italy, picking up a connection to this swastika pattern along the way in Valcamonica. Then it seems to have been transplanted to Brigantia — the name of the Yorkshire region during Roman times — where the Ilkley troops set up her altar and carved her symbol on the moor.2 But at the time, all the connections were circumstantial. And for the most part, they revolved around the celestial pole in the north.
The pre-Nazi swastika is heavily associated with the circumpolar stars — the arms may represent the four seasonal positions of either the Ursa Major or Ursa Minor constellations.3 And one of the axes of the Swastika Stone is aligned almost perfectly north-south. Spinning the polar connections off into the tantalising realm of etymological speculation, I started looking through reference works for potential roots of Verbeia’s name. Among a maelstrom of such connections, the cluster of words deriving from the Latin vertere (‘to turn, revolve’) stuck out. Being obsessed with the image of a vortex in the sky which had assailed me during a bad trip a few years before, I was pleasantly spooked to find vortex among them. I didn’t realise that this word was a variant of another, which bound the whole cluster to the celestial pole. Walter Skeat’s etymological dictionary tells us:
VERTEX, the top, summit. (L.) In Phillips, ed. 1706; the adj vertical is in Cotgrave. – L. uertex, the top, properly the turning-point, esp. the pole of the sky (which is the turning-point of the stars), but afterwards applied to the zenith. – L. uertere, to turn; see Verse. An older form of uertex was uortex.
In the premodern geocentric cosmos, the axis of the apparently central world is often imaged as a kind of vertical bond between Heaven and Earth. This phallic centre of everything is an apt imaginal symbol for the socio-cosmic patterns which it usually accompanied: society revolving around an all-powerful divine monarch, uniquely connected to the sources of vitality in the sky. But alongside this axial image of power and stability, when one actually looked up at the pole star, and imagined the entire sky ponderously spinning around it, an image which is a kind of shadow or double of the axis presents itself forcefully: an engulfing vortex, drawing one into the transcendent realms above, enticing one with the promise of union with the divine, and threatening the earth-bound ego with annihilation.
For the masculine ego (personal or cultural) embedded in the polarised, dualistic sense of the cosmos — Heaven and Earth separate and in need of union — the pole ambivalently suggests both the monarchical axis of power and control, and the apparently destructive vortex of surrender (easily imaged by masculinity as an engulfing feminine force). During my research, in the shadows of Verbeia, this minor Celtic goddess, hid flickering suggestions of an archetypal feminine force which persistently destabilised images of polar order.
Like ‘vortex’ and ‘vertex’, ‘vertigo’ is also part of the cluster of vertere-derived words. A mock dictionary definition of it opens the original Vertigo trailer. Immediately, etymological powers locate us in an ancient cosmological complex, in a struggle between control and fearful, whirling chaos. We’re skirting the edges of a mystical surrender to divinity, but profoundly destabilised by neurotic clinging.
VERTIGO: ver’-ti-go— a feeling of dizziness … a swimming in the head … figuratively a state in which all things seem to be engulfed in a whirlpool of terror.
The Emerald Vision
The green ghostly light seems suddenly to spring to life with rosy blushes. There is infinite suggestion in this phenomenon, and in that lies its charm; the suggestion of life, form, colour and movement never less than evanescent, mysterious – no reality. It is the language of mystic signs and portents — the inspiration of the gods — wholly spiritual – divine signalling. Remindful of superstition, provocative of imagination.4
These words are from the journal of Robert Falcon Scott, camped with his men in the now-famous hut on Ross Island in the Antarctic, during the fateful Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-1912. He’s describing the aurora australis, the ‘southern lights’: the Antarctic instance of the planet’s polar crowns, billowing decorations which are the result of violent particle clashes between solar emissions and Earth’s magnetic field.
The northern and southern lights are of course seen in many different ways by different cultures. But Scott’s perceptions tap into an extremely popular and seductive take on them, as sensuous curtains at the portal between Earth and the beyond. Philip Pullman’s book The Northern Lights also taps into this idea of a polar threshold:
The sight filled the northern sky; the immensity of it was scarcely conceivable. As if from Heaven itself, great curtains of light hung and trembled. Pale green and rose-pink, as as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skilful dancer. Lyra … was moved by it; it was so beautiful it was almost holy … And as she gazed the image of a city seemed to form itself behind the veils and streams of translucent colour: towers and domes, honey-coloured temples and colonnades, broad boulevards and sunlit parkland. Looking at it gave her a sense of vertigo, as if she were looking not up but down, and across a gulf so wide that nothing could ever pass over it. It was a whole universe away.5
In this sense of the aurora as a place of strange proximity to an almost unbridgeable gulf between this world and another, Pullman is drawing on a wide tradition among indigenous northern cultures. For the Inuit, this gulf is that between the world of the living and the world of ancestral spirits. There are hints that the celestial pole is seen as an orifice in the sky into a sepulchral post-mortem realm:
The ends of the land and sea are bounded by an immense abyss, over which a narrow and dangerous pathway lead to the heavenly regions. The sky is a great dome of hard material arched over the earth; there is a hole in it through which the spirits pass to the true heavens. Only the spirits of those who have died a voluntary or violent death, and the raven, have been over this pathway. The spirits who live there light torches to guide the feet of the new arrivals. This is the light of the aurora.6
Very early on in Vertigo‘s labyrinthine plot, it’s signalled that we’ll be dealing with some kind of overlap between this world and the world of the dead. Scottie’s old pal Gavin Elster offers him a mysterious assignment to trail Elster’s apparently disturbed wife Madeleine. ‘Scottie,’ asks Elster, ‘do you believe that someone out of the past, someone dead, can enter and take possession of a living being?’ Hard-headed Scottie scoffs, of course, but Elster goes on to elaborate on his conviction. He talks of her fading into a kind of trance, wandering about the city, and returning without knowledge of her trip. Once he followed her, and found her sitting by a lake in Golden Gate Park, ‘staring across the water at the pillars that stand on the far shore — you know, Portals of the Past.’
Of course we find out in the course of the film that Elster is fabricating all this, in order to set Scottie up and get away with murdering his wife. But Elster’s fake cover sets up the film’s truth: Scottie is about to plunge into a confrontation with his backward-looking fixations, his morbid attachments to spirits and images of a dead past.
Elster arranges for Scottie to see Madeleine, in order to follow her and see what she’s getting up to. He asks him to come to a restaurant where he’ll be with Madeleine. We see Scottie at the bar, leaning to get a glimpse of the couple. The camera floats across the dining area, and picks Madeleine out from the crowd. We see her striking white bare back, framed by the lush silken folds of her green dress. It’s set against the deep red damask walls of the restaurant. Thus the rich symbolic colour dynamic of the film is established: green (verdant life, but also death and decay) against red (passion and romance, but also danger).
These two colours, together with the curtain-like swathes of Madeleine’s dress, subtly evoke the shimmering polar lights. For Scott of the Antarctic, these lights were mysterious portents of divine presence. For Scottie in Vertigo, the whole aura around Madeleine also acts to arouse something more than curiosity, more than lust — a near-transcendent passion for something mysterious and unattainable.
In The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism, Henry Corbin sketches a complex of polar symbolism emerging from Sufi traditions which foregrounds the significance of the colour green. Green is the traditional colour of Islam. The name of al-Khidr, a mysterious immortal who initiates those without a master, who in legend accompanies Alexander the Great in a quest for the Fountain of Life in the north, means ‘the Green One’. Where he leaves footprints, lush plants spring forth. Green is the colour of the heart, seen in Sufism as the subtle organ out of which visionary consciousness flows.7 The mythic cosmic mountain of Qaf has at its summit, the cosmic north, a great Emerald Rock.8 And Najmoddin Kobra, a thirteenth-century Persian Sufi, describes the climax of the mystical ascent through seven levels of being thus:
… lo and behold, the Heaven of the sovereign condition and its power are revealed to you. Its atmosphere is a green light whose greenness is that of a vital light through which flow waves eternally in movement towards one another. This green color is so intense that human spirits are not strong enough to bear it, though it does not prevent them from falling into mystic love with it. And on the surface of this heaven are to be seen points more intensely red than fire, ruby or cornelian … . On seeing them, the mystic experiences nostalgia and a burning desire; he aspires to unite with them.9
Not strong enough to bear it, but nevertheless falling into the rapture of love — an entirely apt description of Scottie’s predicament.
After apparently losing Madeleine to the fall from the tower, Scottie collapses inwards, catatonic and despondent. His tormented sleep is invaded by a vision of a bunch of flowers, an echo of the bouquet held by Madeleine’s ancestor Carlotta Valdes in her portrait. Its colours cycle giddily, including a vivid flash of green.
The flowers burst apart, ushering Scottie into his nightmare. We see Carlotta Valdes… her ruby necklace… her grave, open amid the cemetery cypresses… We plunge into the grave, into a vortex, and finish with Scottie’s own figure suffering the fall from the tower which he believes killed Madeleine. At the point where it would have hit the roof below, the roof vanishes, replaced by a white void, and the fall never stops…
Like the verdant visions of Sufi saints, which are endlessly enriched by multi-levelled interpretations, Scottie’s visionary world is green with fertility of meaning. His own figure switches place with Madeleine’s, evoking his feminine self, and the inner reverberations of his relationship with Madeleine. But unlike a Sufi saint, Scottie’s psyche is unbalanced by morbidity. Fatally undermining the richness of this world of visions which feminine beauty opens up for him is his fixation on a particular image. When he meets Judy (the woman Elster had paid to impersonate his wife Madeleine), he can’t appreciate her living presence. He’s obsessed with the (faked) image of a woman he believes is now dead, a soul-image which he cannot see as such. He’s horrified that a feminine image may have a real place in his psyche, so he pursues it as a form in the outside world, and tries to control it.
When he finally forces Judy back into the ‘Madeleine’ image, she emerges from the bathroom in a haze of luminous green, radiating from the neon hotel sign outside, embracing Judy-as-Madeleine like an auroral shroud. The red-and-green of his first sighting of Madeleine in the restaurant is replayed, but all washed out and ghostly. A radiant but deathly viridian, a riot of morbid meanings that express the blossoming of Scottie’s fantasy, but which also affirm the macabre, almost necrophiliac manner in which he has realised this fantasy.
They embrace, and are encircled by the camera, which reveals the phantasmal backdrop of the livery stables at the San Juan Bautista mission, where he last kissed Madeleine. ‘No one possesses you,’ he told her then, trying to free her from her supposed ancestor. ‘I possess you now,’ is the unspoken line haunting this spectral, green-saturated climax.
The Divine Polar Feminine
The bouquet held by Carlotta in the portrait, and the many recurrences of flowers in the film — especially the bouquet which heralds Scottie’s fantastical nightmare — reminds us of the ‘White Rose’ which is formed by the angelic hosts around the pole-star-like empyreal point of light as Dante approaches God at the end of his Divine Comedy. References to Ursa Major10 and Ursa Minor,11 and the appearance of the four beasts12 from Ezekiel’s vision of God in the northern sky,13 all underline Dante’s association between access to celestial divinity and the polar hub of the night sky.
There is some evidence that Dante’s epic was inspired — especially in its ascent up a cosmic mountain and through the heavenly spheres — by the ‘Night Journey’ of Muhammad. When Dante was writing in the late Middle Ages, there was a great influx into Europe of Islamic learning, which had preserved and developed much classical knowledge lost to Christendom. Some have argued that Dante’s work also bears the imprint of influence from the great Andalusian mystic Ibn ‘Arabi, who lived a century before Dante.14 Certainly there are profound overlaps — especially in Dante’s attachment to the figure of Beatrice. She is pictured in Gustav Doré’s engraving above as Dante’s companion as they approach the divine light. But her role in Dante’s poetic world seems to spill past the simple function of the guide; she seems to manifest some aspect of the divine goal itself.
Like many gnostic visionaries, Ibn ‘Arabi discovered in his experiences a profound reverence for the disclosure of divinity in feminine beauty. During his early years in Andalucia (then, under Muslim rule, Al-Andalus) he was the pupil of two female Sufis, Yasmin of Marchena and Fatima of Cordova. Of the latter, Henry Corbin notes that she ‘was a spiritual mother to him … An extraordinary aura surrounds their relations.’15 But the pinnacle of his engagement with the divine feminine came during his pilgrimage to Mecca, at the omphalic Kaaba — which is understandably held by some medieval Islamic scholars to be located directly below the pole star.16 Seized by ecstasy while circumambulating the Kaaba at night, spontaneously composing poetry out loud, he felt on his shoulder ‘the touch of a hand softer than silk’, and turned around to behold a young woman. ‘Never have I witnessed a face that was more graceful, or speech that was so pleasant, intelligent, subtle and spiritual. She surpassed the people of her age in her discernment, her erudition, her beauty and her knowledge.’ This was Nizam, who was to become for Ibn ‘Arabi what Beatrice was for Dante, a living manifestation of ‘the Beloved’, God as a personal object of love and utter surrender, ‘a real woman transfigured by a celestial aura.’17
Scottie, his hard-headedness briefly softened to liquidity, even vapourised, by his rapturous love for Madeleine (he ‘loses his head’), would recognise this description. Madeleine is already implicitly touched by divinity in her name, a form of Magdalene; Saint Mary Magdalene; the Aramaic Magdala meaning ‘elegant’, ‘great’, or — evoking Madeleine’s elevated, axial place of death in the Spanish mission — ‘tower’.
Perhaps Scottie would also wince in recognition at the line of poetry that Ibn ‘Arabi spoke just before his Beloved tapped him on the shoulder: ‘The fedeli d’amore18 remain perplexed in love, exposed to every peril.’19
The face without a nape
Slavoj Žižek has commented on the strangeness of Scottie’s first sighting of Madeleine in the restaurant. Not just the wonderfully intense, haunting quality of the scene itself, but the weird misperception it seems to have induced in many critics. The crucial moment here is when Elster and Madeleine go to leave, and Madeleine pauses behind Scottie, who is sat at the bar. We see Madeleine’s face poised in elegant profile against the red wall. The music swells, and Scottie almost looks back over his shoulder…
But — probably in part wary of betraying his mission to follow her, in part containing his rising desire for her — he never looks all the way around. We, however, see Madeleine again, the damask wallpaper framing her with uncanny vibrancy.
Žižek comments that ‘the large majority of interpreters … strangely insist’ that this shot ‘renders Scottie’s point-of-view’20 — even though he clearly never turns fully round.
Now, Hitchcock is indeed fascinated with the power of the masculine gaze. But here, something else is happening. Scottie would have barely registered Madeleine’s face behind him with his tentative actual glance. The framed, burning perfection that we see is the transformed — and transforming — vision of a disembodied visionary eye. This is the cinematic eye of the camera, of course. But at the same time, it’s the inner human eye that peers into the imaginal world, beyond the ego’s domain. Hitchcock reveals much in forming an equivalence between the two. Žižek remarks:
Precisely insofar as Madeleine’s profile is not Scottie’s point-of-view, the shot of her profile is totally subjectivized, depicting, in a way, not what Scottie effectively sees but what he imagines, that is, his hallucinatory inner vision … What we encounter in this excess is the gaze as object, free from the strings that attach it to a particular subject …21
Strangely, this single-eyed vision echoes an important episode in the life of Ibn ‘Arabi. After he had moved from his native Al-Andalus to Fez in Morocco, in around 1196 CE, he was conducting prayer in the al-Azhar mosque. He was facing the mihrab (the niche in the mosque wall which indicates the qibla, the direction of the Kaaba in Mecca) when all of a sudden, an experience opened up in him of which he said:
… my entire essence became one single eye; I could see from every side of myself in just the same way that I could see my qibla. Nobody escaped my view: neither the person who was entering nor the person who was leaving, and not even those who were performing the prayer behind me … [T]he status of the direction ‘behind’ … ceased for me. I no longer had a back or the nape of the neck, and while the vision lasted I could no longer distinguish between different sides of myself. I was like a sphere …22
Ibn ‘Arabi took this phenomenon, referred to in Sufi literature as becoming ‘a face without a nape’, as an important landmark in his spiritual journey, an inheritance of a ‘station’ from the Prophet, who is recorded as saying numerous times, ‘I see you from behind my back.’23 Significantly — in light of Scottie’s later obsession with controlling Judy, with the ‘correct’ details in his remaking her as Madeleine — whenever Muhammad became ‘a face without a nape’, it was to admonish those praying to ‘perform the bowing properly’ and to ‘straighten your rows’. The singular eye of surveillance and control — manifested by CCTV, or by God peering through the polar keyhole — is evoked by this miraculous ability to see in all directions.
Sufi tradition holds that at any one time, four ‘pillars’, representatives or manifestations of Idris, Jesus, Elijah and Khidr, operate secretly among humanity to spiritually sustain and balance the cosmos. Sometimes one of these pillars is taken to be al-qutb, ‘the Pole’, the supreme master.24 Some say the Pole is a fifth figure.25 Ibn ‘Arabi claimed to have met Khidr three times. He even occasionally made veiled references to being one of these ‘pillars’ — perhaps even al-qutb, the hidden pivot of the world. Discussing the episode at the mosque in Fez, his biographer Claude Abbas remarks, ‘It must also be emphasized here that according to Ibn ‘Arabi one of the characteristics of the Pole — although not necessarily a characteristic unique to him — is precisely the quality of being a “face without a nape”.’26
An even stranger evocation of the world of Sufi mysticism can be found pervading the scene in the form of the passion-saturated redness framing Madeleine — which is furnished by the restaurant’s damask wallpaper. Damask is a florid woven pattern that originated in early Islam, taking its name from Damascus, a major terminus of the Silk Road, and the final home and last resting place of Ibn ‘Arabi himself. The Andalusian mystic suffuses this scene with tantalizing serendipity. This moment is certainly one of almost religious breakthrough, the rapture of beauty and love suddenly bursting into Scottie’s disconsolate life. It is as if, not able to look directly without betraying his mission, his fiery passion conjures a vision that makes the distinction between inner vision and occult ability irrelevant. He sees Madeleine as a transfigured portrait of holy beauty.
But alongside this radiance are the shadows conjured by the desire to control. The ‘face without a nape’, as experienced by Muhammad and Ibn ‘Arabi, seems to function to monitor the rectitude of those at prayer. Scottie’s monstrous manipulation of Judy’s image is hinted at here, in his first tentative but searing encounter with Madeleine. The poise and artifice that this incandescent shot of Madeleine exudes will eventually mesh with a disastrously single-minded, fixated component of Scottie’s relationship to the image of femininity he carries within.
Death and the Ancestors
When Scottie first trails Madeleine, her green car winding down and around the San Francisco streets, he sees her buy a small bouquet of flowers. Then she drives to the Mission Dolores, the oldest building in the city and one of the earliest Spanish missions. It’s here that she visits the grave of Carlotta Valdes, who died in 1857 at the age of twenty-six. Whereas the lush red damask framed Madeleine in the restaurant, Scottie now sees her embraced by the cemetery’s green foliage, most prominent of which are the cypresses.
Going back to classical times, across the Mediterranean and the Middle East, the cypress is the principal cemetery tree — a tradition which was evidently transplanted by colonists to the Mediterranean latitudes of California. A symbol of grief and mourning, like all evergreens it also bears connotations of eternal life.
Perhaps it was this duality, alongside the striking formal properties of this tree, which so fascinated Vincent van Gogh. Writing to his brother Theo, he once remarked:
The cypresses are always occupying my thoughts, I should like to make something of them like the sunflowers, because it astonishes me that they have not yet been done as I see them. It is as beautiful of line and proportion as an Egyptian obelisk.27
In another letter to Theo he wrote:
Perhaps death is not the hardest thing in a painter’s life. Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star.28
Such transcendent ruminations clearly underpin his famed Starry Night.
The only other vertical form in the composition is the spire of the town church. The church is dwarfed by the natural magnificence of the tree and the sky, but its presence colours the role of the cypress. Alongside Van Gogh’s evocation of the Egyptian obelisk — that enduring symbol of an ancient culture obsessed with immortality and ascent to the heavens — the church spire underlines the association of the towering cypress with cemeteries and transcendence. Note also the way both the stars and the cypress foliage bear the increasing emphasis in this period of Van Gogh’s work on vortical, swirling patterns.
Madeleine eventually leaves the cemetery, and Scottie follows her to the art gallery at the Palace of the Legion of Honour. He gazes at Madeleine, who sits gazing at a portrait on the wall. Her bouquet echoes that held by the woman in the painting. We zoom in to the swirl in Madeleine’s hair; it, too, matches that in the portrait. (We guess, before Scottie later confirms the fact, that the portrait is of Carlotta, whose spectre seems to have invaded Madeleine.)
Scottie’s rapture in the restaurant, his luminous vision of perfectly framed femininity suffused with scarlet desire, is deepened and complexified here. Madeleine’s contemplation of Carlotta’s image reveals a darker stratum in Scottie’s contemplation of the image that Madeleine provoked his inner vision into seeing. This is underlined later, as he looks again at the portrait of Carlotta in the gallery catalogue, and the scarlet restaurant vision is briefly superimposed. It’s fleeting this time, the inflamed damask all washed out. But while his pristine revelation of beauty is fading in the face of the morbid enigma of Carlotta, his obsession is deepening. Something perverse is at work. His is not the unadulterated passion of Ibn ‘Arabi, who had dedicated his entire life to purging his soul of corruption before encountering his Beloved, and for whom young Nizam’s erudition and subtle grasp of spiritual matters was as much part of her beauty as her outward appearance. Scottie’s ultimately superficial vision bears death; the disruptions threatened by the buried past, and the necrophilia of the passion to control.
We learned earlier of the cluster of words — including ‘vertigo’ — derived from the Latin vertere, ‘to turn’. ‘Vortex’ is a variant of ‘vertex’, which, in geometry, is the highest point of something — originally referring to the celestial pole, the turning point of the sky. ‘Vertex’ also refers to the crown of the head — the point formed by the curious spiralling pattern of the hair’s growth. Many traditions and threads of evidence expand on the affinity between the celestial vertex, a portal in the centre of the concentric heavens, and the human vertex.29 In Vertigo we find a curl in Madeleine’s hair over her vertex implicated in her being possessed by a dead soul. Possessed by an ancestor, in fact, as we soon learn from Gavin Elster. Carlotta was (supposedly unbeknownst to ‘Madeleine’) her great-grandmother, a young beauty who was the mistress of a rich, powerful man, who then threw her away after fathering a child with her. He kept the child (Madeleine’s grandmother), and Carlotta lost her mind, and committed suicide.
Bizarre but resonant echoes of this fetishistic detail of the curled hair bounce across the Pacific, between the coastal gallery where Carlotta’s portrait is shown and the Hawaiian islands. Here, hills of solidified lava (such as that at Pu’u Loa) bear collections of petroglyphs carved by indigenous people. One reason for these dense arrays of rock carvings (which bear a strong resemblance to European cup-and-ring marks) is that when a baby was born, people would go to the hill and carve a new cup mark. They placed the baby’s piko — which means ‘umbilical stump’ or ‘umbilical cord’ — in it as a means of divining the length of the child’s life.30 But piko is a word with multiple, intertwined meanings:
According to Hawaiian theory each individual has three piko. These are, in addition to the umbilical cord or naval proper, ‘the crown of the head (located by the whorl of hair or ‘cowlick’),’ and the genitals … . The first piko unites the individual to all his consanguineous kin; the second unites him with his divinized ancestors, who may enter him by the head, the third unites him with his descendants … [my emphasis]31
Madeleine is possessed by an ancestor through her swirling vertex as Hawaiians may be united with their ancestors through their uppermost piko. 32 (It’s this precise detail — the curl of hair on the vertex — which, later on, makes the crucial difference in Scottie’s re-creation of Madeleine’s image. The clothes, the make-up, the peroxide blonde hair, all are in place. But when she arrives, all Scottie can say is: ‘It should be back from your face and pinned at the neck … I told you that.’ Nothing is right until the hair is styled just so. This naturally speaks of the rigidity of Scottie’s obsession. But, in the mythical trajectories that pass through this film, its significance is even richer. Before, the curl signified Madeleine’s contact with her dead ancestor. Here, Scottie is trying to contact the supposedly dead Madeleine, and this occult cranial portal must be opened to perfect the phantasmal image.)
Scottie accompanies Madeleine as she seems to sink deeper into her ancestral possession, the line between his desire to rescue her and his desire to control her blurring more and more. They go ‘wandering’ together, and end up in the dimness of a forest of old growth redwoods. Madeleine dwells on the sad shadow that the vast age of these trees casts on tiny human lives.
‘Their true name is Sequoia sempervirens,’ offers Scottie. ‘Always-green, ever-living.’ The evergreen redwood, member of the cypress family (big cousin of the Cupressus sempervirens which Van Gogh painted), the tallest tree on Earth. This towering creature, embodying the film’s entwined red-green colour dynamic and adding to its allusions to axial polar imagery, dwells impassively at the heart of Vertigo.
An encounter with a display of a cross-section of a felled tree completes the complex of polar images it offers: a vortex enfolded within a solid vertical axis, a vortex of historical depth, its rings radiating out from its medieval birth from seed over a thousand years ago.
As it happens, the zero-point of germination, around the turn of the first millennium, was when Islam was at a cultural zenith and Sufi traditions were arising. ‘In the voices and dialogue there rings something medieval’, one critic has written of this scene.33 ‘Here I was born,’ says Madeleine, overtaken by Carlotta at the sight of the vortex, gesturing closer to the 1776 Declaration of Independence mark than the tree’s death in 1930. Then, gesturing to another ring, ‘and there I died.’ She speaks to the tree itself: ‘It was only a moment for you. You took no notice.’
The legacy of Carlotta intensifies as Madeleine begins to recall a dream of a tower with a bell in an old Spanish village. Scottie pegs it as the Spanish mission of San Juan Bautista, the largest mission established in California, a hundred miles south of the city. While their redwood cross-section came into the world at the height of Islam — when Al-Andalus, the Moorish Iberian state that was the native land of Ibn ‘Arabi, was in its flourishing youth — this Spanish mission in some way memorialises the death of Islamic Spain. Although missions were not established in California until the late eighteenth century, the Spanish conquest of the New World that eventually led to their arrival began, of course, with the 1492 voyage of Christopher Columbus. And this voyage was commissioned by Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, mere months after they had completed the Reconquista by securing the surrender of the last Muslim ruler of Granada. The conquest of the New World and the rejection of Islam are thus intimately entwined in history.
Corbin scholar Tom Cheetham takes this annexation of Al-Andalus as symbolizing a severance of European contact with the layered imaginal cosmos that Islam had inherited from ancient Persia and Classical Greece. He laments the expulsion of Islam’s rich mystical heritage from Europe, and marks the conjunction of the Reconquista and Columbus’ voyage to the Americas as a milestone in the modern descent toward the flat plains of secularism, and the sublimated desire for escape this engendered:
The unbearable constriction of the Real that accompanies the loss of the hierarchical cosmos and the realms of the Imagination is impossible to underestimate. The Western world has been vainly struggling to escape the terror of that claustrophobia ever since. This goes a long way towards explaining our drive towards the Future and towards the New World, whether that is America, the Moon, or the virtual realities of the Internet. We can never after such a loss have enough space.34
On the westernmost shore of the New World, unable to push any further, Scottie stands in some way as the pragmatic, ambitious colonial settler whose frailties unravel as he struggles with being haunted by the imaginal worlds which imperial Europe overran. First Islam, ousted from Iberia; then the Native Americans, decimated in their ancestral lands. One critic, piecing together the clues given about the mysterious Carlotta, speculates that she ‘would most likely have been of partial Native American descent’.35 Certainly, she is no simple ghost. She acts as a vector for the suppressed but ever-living revenants from the landscapes of the soul that both the medieval Sufis and the indigenous cultures of the New World so carefully tended — and which Scottie, as the inheritor of the colonial legacy of the conquistadors, is bewildered and unbalanced by. The Frontier long gone, the Space Race barely started, late 1950s California ruptures. Fault lines shift, and the ghosts of a lost cosmos leak out.
Convinced that he can ‘destroy’ Madeleine’s dream of the Spanish mission with the tower by taking her there to demonstrate its actuality, and hence break her out of her ancestral trance, Scottie drives them to San Juan Bautista. In the livery stable, he pushes her further into her memories, at each step trying to demystify them with the realities surrounding them. They declare their love for each other in a desperate embrace, a love that for Scottie heralds the end of both their woes.
But Madeleine is compelled to enter the mission and ascend its bell tower. Scottie follows, but his vertigo paralyses him before he reaches the top of the spiralling stairs. Implicit here (and later, when the ‘fake’ death of Madeleine happens for real to Judy) is the fact that hard-headed Scottie, bereft of the spiritual traditions of mystical ascent that were cast out of Europe by the Spanish, cannot bear the climb to the heights where his desire has placed his image of divine femininity.
Madeleine jumps, and plunges to her death. Scottie, overwhelmed by his worst fears and his compounded guilt, sneaks out in catastrophic shame.
His celestial vision of beauty is shattered, broken on the sacred grounds of the domineering, control-obsessed religious power which expelled the Sufi dream from Europe, and crushed the indigenous New World animists all the way to the Pacific coast.
‘They had the power…’
While Vertigo certainly resonates as a depiction of the perversion of the quest for the divine feminine, perhaps it is too much to draw a rigid line clearly between Scottie and the Sufis. And we should be careful when we mix the latter casually together with the Native American cultures which the Spanish Empire also overpowered. There seems to be little, if anything, in the ethnography of tribal peoples — especially more egalitarian hunter-gatherers — which tallies with the personalised, asocial mystical urges which found such a rich expression in the poetry and religious life of Persia and Muslim Spain. Indigenous spiritual expressions are usually deeply social, and less fixated on the kind of singular focus that monarch-ruled, monotheistic societies evince — even in their more enlightened undercurrents.
And while the genesis and history of the spiritualisation of the female object of desire is undoubtedly complex, and sometimes rich in profundity, it seems that a significant function of this submerged current is as a compensatory counterbalance for the masculine monotheisms. From the Song of Songs to Gnostic reverence for the wisdom of Sophia, from the chivalry of medieval courtly love (probably influenced by Islamic precedents) to the poetic influence of Dante’s love for Beatrice, the religions of the male God have trailed micro-traditions of reverence for the feminine that belie the disastrous general bias. Can there be any absolute separation between enlightened esoteric currents and corrupt mainstreams? From a certain wide-angle perspective, it could even be said that the great elevation of the female image — in love and in mysticism — is of a piece with its great denigration in social and political life.
In Laura: A Journey into the Crystal (1864) by George Sand (real name Aurore Dupin), the polar tradition of divine femininity which Dante and Ibn ‘Arabi exemplified, the confused modern dregs of which are explored in Vertigo, is deftly subverted. The protagonist, after getting lost in a delusory world of Arctic questing for subterranean crystals, in which he saw his beloved Laura as a gloriously radiant being, is rescued and confronted by the real-life Laura, for whom his affections have been lacklustre. She says to him:
Viewed through your magic prism, I am too much; through your disillusioned, tired eyes, I am not enough. You turn me into an angel of light, a pure spirit, and yet I am only a good little woman without pretensions. Think: I would be very unhappy if you forever consigned me either to the firmament or the kitchen. Is there not some boundary possible between these two extremes?36
While I don’t doubt the piety of Dante and Ibn ‘Arabi, if Vertigo teaches us anything, it’s that the legacy of unbalanced religious and sexual culture bears shadows that warp relationships terribly, and colour even our highest aspirations. Vertigo seems to document the dangerous death throes of a patriarchal culture that has jettisoned its compensatory spiritual traditions — traditions which perhaps supplied just enough balance to keep the unbalanced mainstream staggering along.
Alongside the vertical dynamics of love and death in this endlessly fascinating film — the elevation of passion, the plunge into the void, and falling in love — more mundane, but equally important vertical dynamics of class and status are at work. Alongside the vortex of obsession, the polar hierarchies of social power. ‘You were the bright young lawyer who decided he was going to be chief of police some day,’ Scottie’s friend Midge reminds him when he quits his police job at the start of the film. One might say that in the perilous personal drift that his vertigo casts him into, sliding down and off the social ladder, Scottie replaces his high hopes for his career with the towering pedestal on which he places Madeleine. Let’s not forget that the woman he falls for is, to him, the wife of his old college chum Elster, who seems to be everything Scottie is not: married, successful, and in control.
But even Elster laments what he feels he lacks. His office is adorned with images of San Francisco’s past. ‘I should have liked to have lived here then. The colour, excitement… power… freedom.’ Looking back, we know he regrets the lengths he has to go to (the convoluted murder plot) in this world of liberal state power and women’s rights, to do exactly as he pleases. Perhaps, as he looks wistfully upwards as he says ‘freedom’, he is thinking of his wife’s great-grandfather, who freely took Carlotta as a mistress, then freely abandoned her to madness and suicide. As ever in America, ‘freedom’ is a word whose bland apparent virtue needs careful examination.
When Midge and Scottie go to see Pop Liebel in the second-hand bookshop to find out what he knows of the local history connected to Carlotta, he says her lover was ‘a rich man, a powerful man … He kept the child and threw her away.’ He almost looks wistful himself, fingering the spine of a book, as he adds, ‘You know, men could do that in those days. They had the power …’