The Vertigos in Vertigo

February 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

Just finished: Vertigo; 20 Lines a Day.

Reading next: The Encantadas, by Herman Melville.

There are physical and metaphysical kinds of vertigo in Vertigo.  Sebald also incorporates the themes of the better-known text entitled Vertigo, the Hitchcock film, into his text. He makes his meditative, memoiristic work a kind of thriller, too.  A tongue-in-cheek reference to this aspect of the work occurs when he says to the manager of the hotel he stays at in Limone that he’s writing what may be “a crime story” that “revolved around a series of unsolved murders and the reappearance of a person who had long been missing.”  And indeed, the serial murders perpetrated by the “Organizzazione Ludwig” do appear as a subplot in the work.

A motif of vertiginous seasickness appears throughout, as does vertigo inspired by standing at the edge of high places; people are often standing at the edge of a cliff, abyss, or void, and trips in a boat or ship also appear throughout the text (sometimes in dreams or paintings).  These two kinds of vertigo inspired by physical conditions both refer to one of Sebald’s touchstones, Kafka’s story “The Hunter Gracchus.”  The hunter falls to his doom from a high cliff in the forest after chasing a chamois; he then sails the seas in a state of living death.

The more metaphysical vertigo, the feeling of standing at the edge of the cliff of life, of existence itself, afflicts Sebald and others in the book.  Marie-Henri Beyle (aka Stendhal) experiences “a vertiginous sense of confusion” at “The difference between the images of the battle which he had in his head and what he now saw before him as evidence that the battle had in fact taken place.”  Earlier, Sebald tells us that “Beyle’s advice is not to purchase engravings of fine views and prospects seen on one’s travels, since before very long they will displace our memories completely, indeed one might say destroy them.”  In Sebald’s telling of tales, it is difficult to untangle art from reality, especially given the presence of photographs as “evidence.”  Art, in memory, can take the place of reality, as lines from “The Hunter Gracchus” infiltrate the apparent reality of Sebald’s travelogue.  In Vertigo the film, art also infiltrates reality and memory, as in the portrait that Madeleine adores (of Madeleine’s ancestor, whom she resembles — and of course, Sebald’s narrator is also gazing obsessively at art throughout his Vertigo) and the reenactment of her suicide (both in staged artifice and then in accidental reality).

Kim Novak in Vertigo; note the spiral. Also resembles the profile in Pisanello's fresco inspected by Sebald in Verona.

Kim Novak in Vertigo; note the spiral. Also resembles the profile in Pisanello’s fresco inspected by Sebald in Verona.

When else does Vertigo strike?  It hits Sebald when he wanders the streets of Vienna, following (as Jimmy Stewart’s detective, Scottie, follows) a series of ghostly figures from his past; people long missing, either from the world or from his memory.  It recurs when he returns to his hotel after his epic, compulsive walks, and sees that his shoes are in tatters.  An association occurs to another episode of vertigo earlier that day, hearing children singing Christian songs in a Jewish community center.  A series of murders.  Missing persons. 

Later, twin boys who look just like young Kafka on a bus provoke another bout of vertigo, and the doppelganger theme so important in both Vertigos is introduced: the uncanny return of the dead, and/or the remaking of the living in the image of the dead.  (Sebald’s imagining of Kafka himself will also encounter twins and doppelgangers in the third section of the book.)

Finally, there are a number of references to vertigo symptoms from contact with others, from an encounter with the reality of other people.  Kafka, Sebald writes, feels “the terrors of love” to be “foremost among all the terrors of the earth.”  Stendhal suffers from “giddiness… roaring in his ears… shaking” due to his syphilis and the attempts to treat it.  (He also idealizes past lovers, and returns to woo his Beatrice, who he calls “Lady Simonetta,” eleven years after first conceiving his love for her.)  Sebald’s vision goes blurry when lightly touched by women he barely knows: a landlady, an optometrist.

The book is structured around returns and reenactments of the past, and the final section of the book “Il ritorno in patria,” acts something like the final act of the film Vertigo, as Sebald returns to his childhood villages and encounters as much of his life there as remains, just as Scottie convinces Judy/Madeleine to reenact the scene of the earlier, staged suicide.  And here, too, a “real” death, that of Schlag the hunter, is narrated, after (through chronologically earlier, in Sebald’s telling, creating a complex labyrinth of memory) the earlier “staged” deaths of the hunter Gracchus in Kafka’s stories, in the mannequin in the attic, dressed as a gray hunter, that has been haunting Sebald’s dreams for decades.

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