Vertigo and the quest for self

Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) is one of my all-time favourite films.  It has everything in it: a mysterious enigmatic heroine, a messed-up hero, romance, the American West, a beautiful deserted rose garden in the cemetery of a California Mission, unanswered questions, exploration of the deep embedded patterns of the psyche, archetypes, the quest for self…..I could go on.

‘Vertigo …

a feeling of dizziness …

a swimming in the head …

figuratively a state in which all things seem to be engulfed ….’


The whole film captures this swooning, swimming feeling.  If you haven’t seen it, the plot is worth investigating and this post will allude to only some of its many fascinating facets.

On a psychological level, the film is about a man, John Ferguson (also known as ‘Scottie’), who doesn’t really know himself, and when he looks inside he has a sense of giddiness, panic and vertigo, he feels engulfed.  He is desperately looking for the answers to his own questions, his own enigma, outside himself.  In chasing a woman, or indeed more than one woman, he is actually searching for himself.

A professional involvement becomes deeply personal when John (Scottie) finds himself drawn to his friend’s wife, Madeline, because she embodies the mystery of times past and carries her own mystery within her, as archetypal Woman.  He doesn’t get to know her and she doesn’t let him in.  In fact, she is literally playing a part within the plot of the film.  He is held transfixed on both a narrative and a psychological level.

When Madeline apparently dies by flinging herself from a Mission tower, he is devastated and this reinforces his deep wound from the past.  (Of course, as we later discover, the real Madeline is already dead.) When he then meets her brunette look-alike Judy, he is taken over by the impulse to recreate Judy in the image of Madeline only to discover ultimately that it was actually Madeline who had been created by Judy.  The woman he thought he loved didn’t exist and his love was simply a projection of himself. 

What a great metaphor this is for what happens often in life, and how convoluted experience can be.

John (‘Scottie’) wants to bottom-out the mystery of Madeline-cum-Judy, the mystery of Woman, and get to the core of the spiral deep inside himself which leaves him feeling dizzy and groundless.  He objectifies his personal dilemma, and seeks the solution outside himself.  He is both drawn to Madeline and yet at the same time unable to truly connect with her. 

The reality is that he is unable to connect with himself.  And no one can connect with another person if they are not connected within. 

The phenomenon of vertigo is known to be double-edged.  The sufferer feels an intense fear of falling, yet at the same time is drawn to the depths and feels an overwhelming impulse to fall.  On a psychological level, there is a strong pull to let go and surrender to the fall into the other, into oneself, yet in this is also a fear of death, of the loss of self in the other, even in the finding. 

“Anyone whose goal is ‘something higher’ must expect someday to suffer vertigo. What is vertigo? Fear of falling? No, vertigo is something other than fear of falling. It is the voice of the emptiness below us which tempts and lures us, it is the desire to fall, against which, terrified, we defend ourselves.”

– Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

When Judy dies at the end of the film, John is cured of his vertigo.  He needs exactly the same thing to happen to him again, in precisely the same place, with the same woman who he now sees differently, for his lesson to be learned.  He is freed from his own confusion, his state of being mystified and engulfed just before this moment of her death when he discovers the truth – but at what cost?  He has lost his illusions, has he found his self?

The woman he thought he loved is shown not to have existed.  He re-made Judy in the image of Madeline who he suspected was re-making herself in the image of her great grandmother.  There are multiple layers of deception and illusion here, and at the heart is a sense of archetypal unknowable Woman, Woman as object, not a woman loved for her self.

The objectifying of Woman is a common phenomenon in art and life.  It is a form of collection with an underlying desire for mastery and control, rather like netting butterflies and then sticking pins in them to display in glass cabinets.  Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady is another example where the plucky young American girl Isabel Archer arrives in Britain and is turned into a curio in the collection of the man she marries, Gilbert Osmond. 

In Jungian terms, Scottie is chasing his Anima, the unexplored, unconnected feminine part of himself he fears and yet is deeply drawn to.  The objectified feminine can be found in a number of archetypes – for example the Mother, the Madonna, the Temptress, the Wanton Woman.  In one woman, multiple archetypes can reside. 

When this pattern of objectifying exists, especially across a series of women, a man is living out something unresolved.  When caught in this pattern, it can be endless, with a series of unresolved projections of the one on to the other, without real lasting connections being made.

In Vertigo, Scottie gets catapulted into and, at the end, catapulted out of, his trauma.  In life, we may come across examples where the pattern just gets repeated, unconsciously and even despite the best efforts of the individual to step out and change.  Sometimes, though, through an uncanny repetition such as the one in Vertigo, there can  be an experience of such catapulting out and potential transformation of the self.

Let the buyer beware!  Woe betide anyone who stumbles unawares into someone else’s pattern and gets caught up in it, as a fly in a spiderweb, or sucked into the vortex of a spiral of dread.

Vertigo offers a painful resolution in the precise repetition of events – meeting the same woman, turning her into the previous woman, ending up at the tower of the same Mission, with the same outcome – the woman throwing herself to destruction from the tower.  At least two women are self-sacrificed for John to have a chance to transform himself.  In fact, there is certainly a third in the film, which I won’t go into here.  (Hitchcock’s attitudes to women have been explored elsewhere.)

In real life, people may be victims when they are turned into objects by others.  Yet they are always to some degree self-participating victims, though they may only be aware of this at a very deep unconscious level.  Once their participation is brought to their attention through circumstances or interventions, they have a choice.  The healthy choice is to transform themselves and the relationship and turn it to something else – without the required sacrifice of a life from a tower.

However, it takes two to tango – and this may not be possible; in which case it’s an option of the victim mustering resources to exit from the familiar triangle: Persecutor-Victim-Rescuer.  The Victim resisting the role of Rescuer, since the other cannot be rescued by anyone other than himself.  And the Victim also carefully sidestepping the role of Persecutor.  Even surfacing the other’s pattern can feel like, or be experienced as, a form of persecution.

‘If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”

― Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Compelling as Goethe’s statement is, it isn’t always or simply true.  Even if you can see clearly (which is doubtful) that an individual is not who he ought to be or could be, who are you to decide what that individual ought to be and could be?  You can see what you’d like him to be – but is that truly what he ought to be and could be?  Is that not just your own projected pattern?  And just by treating someone the way you think they ought to be and could be, is no guarantee that they will become that anyway.

Ultimately each of us needs to bottom out our own vertigo, and the risk is that you become an important yet bit player in someone else’s drama, with the risk of self-sacrifice from a tower. 

with thanks to Madhu and Viv

This entry was posted in American character, connections, Jung, special places, yoga. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Vertigo and the quest for self

  1. franburge says:

    Enjoyed reading this a lot Karin – thought provoking and some very strong resonances for me personally! I’m drawn to exploration of what ‘the other’ means to each of us in our lives. There is isolation but also a particular kind of freedom in the position of ‘other’. As you say I think our culture typically objectifies women so there is some consensus about what that process is and so perhaps a clearer sense of what it is like as an individual woman to try and work out who one is within that framework. Or perhaps not! Still mulling – where is Lucy when you need her 🙂 xx

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