The upcoming release of the video game VERTIGO reinforces the increasingly obvious link between psychoanalysis and digital learning. This throws a new light on Hitchcock’s unforgettable classic.
VERTIGO is a story about detective Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), who is suffering from acrophobia (fear of heights). The condition was triggered by a work incident. While chasing a criminal, Scottie was left clinging off a rooftop. This causes vertigo whenever Scottie faces heights. During his recovery, Scottie is approached by Gavin Elster, an old friend from school. Gavin hires Scottie to follow his wife Madeleine (Kim Novak). Madeleine has been suffering from a strange malady. She appears possessed by the ghost of her ancestor Carlotta Valdez. Carlotta suffered a tragic fate: her mental illness led to destitution and suicide. Scottie trails Madeleine along the vertiginous avenues of San Francisco. He becomes obsessed with this mysterious blonde. The two meet, and the relationship quickly transforms into a love affair. But then Madeleine succumbs to her suicidal desire. She jumps off a roof top, reminding Scottie of his own work trauma.
In the film’s brilliantly designed opening titles, Hitchcock introduces a spiral, which becomes VERTIGO’s central visual metaphor:
The spiral creates visual and spatial confusion in vertigo. Hitchcock uses it to hypnotize the viewer. But its meaning is really Scottie’s obsession with Madeleine — the unattainable object of romantic desire.
As it turns out, Madeleine was the victim of Gavin Elster’s devious plan. Gavin hired a poor girl named Judy to play the role of his wife. He knew Scottie would fall in love with her. His vertigo would prevent him from climbing up the stairs. Gavin would throw Madeleine off the rooftop and inherit all of her money. In this way, Scottie becomes an ideal alibi.
At this point, VERTIGO introduces its famous plot twist. Scottie sees Judy on the street, recognizing Madeleine in her face. They meet, and the old romance is (literally) brought back from the dead. Acting like a modern Pygmalion, Scottie remakes Judy to look exactly like Madeleine. Tormented by guilt, Judy writes a letter to Scottie explaining Gavin’s criminal plan. She was playing the role of Madeleine to seduce Scottie. Judy admits that she didn’t intend to fall in love. But she is unable to proceed with the letter. She tears it up and continues to playact in Scottie’s obsessive fantasy. Everything seems to work until Scottie accidentally notices Judy’s necklace. It is the same one that Carlotta Valdez wore in her museum portrait. Scottie realizes Judy was playing Madeleine.
The necklace is the symptom of unconscious desire. The Unconscious always speaks as its own negation. This is what we mean with the expression ‘’I couldn’t help myself’’. Judy kept the necklace against her better judgment. She knew it would remind her, in a highly unpleasant way, of the crime she committed. But her desire was stronger than any rationalizations. She kept ‘’a souvenir of the killing’’. The necklace unravels the plot to its inevitably tragic ending. Scottie brings Judy back to the place where Madeleine committed ‘’suicide’’. He confronts her with Gavin’s lies and her betrayal. Judy begs for forgiveness, but in a horrible moment, accidentally slips and falls to her death. Scottie is left on the edge of a vortex. He realizes that his obsession killed two women.
The spiral from the opening credits becomes Scottie’s doom. It is as though he had fallen into bad karma. The same mistake happens over and over again. This is a very cynical version of the Latin phrase, ‘’repetition is the mother of science’’. Yet the logic of desire makes it inevitable. To get what we really desire, we are prepared to gamble with death.
Take this from the realm of romantic drama into the realm of learning. Scottie’s learning goal was to restore his work performance as a detective. To that end, he entered a game with his friend Gavin. In the game, he would use his analytic skill to understand Gavin’s wife. But Scottie’s unconscious desire was to capture the object of his obsession. When he met Madeleine — the ultimate puzzle-he thought he had captured the object. Scottie even went so far as to remake the object according to his own image.
But then the necklace appeared, locking Scottie into repetition. As it turns out, it is impossible to own knowledge. Through a game of doubling, Scottie learns that the necklace doesn’t point to a single answer. The puzzle won’t be solved simply by choosing. For every Madeleine Scottie encounters, there will be another Judy, and the other way round. The learning goal shifts from discovering meaning, to discovering that meaning eludes us by definition. To learn means to give up on your obsession, and open up to ambiguity.