BRUGES-la-MORTE: Life, death and The Male Gaze
My first regular summer job was at the peatbog in Hästveda. The bog is situated a few miles north of my hometown Hässleholm and early in the morning I went there alone on my second-hand moped. Most of my comrades had bought mopeds of the Austrian brand Puch. The toughest among them had trimmed them to make them go faster, though the operation could be discerned by the loud engine noise and some of them were caught by the police. For sure, those guys and their mopeds were quite snappier than my blue-and-white moped scooter, but it did not hinder me from being quite happy with my vehicle. My scooter was actually pretty fast, without being trimmed at all, though the float of the fuel feed occasionally caused me some problems, but it was a nuisance that was quite easily fixed.
In the morning the bog was usually swept in thin veils of mist. One morning, I saw the silhouette of an elk bull majestically moving through a sea of mist, as cut out from grey paper against the slightly lighter haze. An unforgettable sight. There are plenty of elk in my native county, but I seldom come across the magnificent beasts.
That summer was unusually hot. Most dikes had dried up, making mosquitos and flies less abundant than they used to be. We worked on chords piling up rectangular cut peat blocks in pyramid-shaped “hives”, to be dried during the summer months and "harvested" in the autumn.
For lunch I drank my coffee from a thermos with coffee and ate sandwiches I had brought with me to a leaky wooden shed. There I also joined my class mates and friends when the rain poured down so hard that it made work impossible. We were me, Stefan Tell, Dan Forsberg and Johan Nordåker. The first two of them have remained my loyal pals for the forty years that have followed upon our summer job, though I lost contact with Johan long ago. The following year, Johan and got tired of the bog and began to work as waiters at a seaside hotel, after that I spent some summers as a waiter on train and ferries.
Nevertheless, during my first summer at the bog I had enjoyed the job, especially since it was the first time I got a regularly pay. I bought an easy chair for boy's room and some LP records; Let it Be, Stones´ Exile on Main Street, which was rather fresh and In the Court of the Crimson King, who already had been in the record store for some years.
I bought the last one since I liked the cover, though it was just the first track 21st Century Schizoid Man met my expectations of something weird and heavy. I also bought my first art book, Dikt och Bild, Fiction and Images, written by Gunnar Tideström, a respected Swedish professor of History of Literature. That book has over the years meant a lot to me. It is now after my mother's death, while I stay alone in my parents´ empty and quite house awaiting the funeral, as I after many years have started to browse Dikt and Bild again and thus I remembered my summer at the peat bog.
In Tideström´s book there is a picture of Georges Rodenbach and a short text about his novel The Dead Bruges from 1892:
... a suggestive depiction of the almost untouched but sadly decayed Middle Age town, which "personality" was so strong that it could take power over the soul of modern people.
I was during my youth an enthusiastic consumer of horror and supernatural fiction, which I found both in the library and the bookstalls where I bought the books of a pulp fiction series called Kalla Kårar, The Creeps. With masters of the genre like Richard Matheson, John Wyndham, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber and William Hope Hodgeson, Kalla Kårar could not be designated as pure pulp fiction.
My literary taste was as confusing as my music predilections. A few years after I had had bought it I gave away the Crimson King disc to my somewhat crazy and unusually ingenious comrade Claes Toft, who was a Genesis fan, a group I found to be overly mellow. Genesis reminded me of some of the Crimson King songs, especially Epitaph and Moon Child. Nevertheless, after a while I regretted that I had given the record to Claes. It disappeared when he died in a car accident in 1984, far too young. With him Crimson King came to end up with the dead.
Rodenbach's novel also dwells in the realm of the dead. I found The Dead Bruges to be a captivating book title – a book about a medieval ghost town, it seemed to be captivating. Actually, the novel was called Bruges-la-Morte, Bruges-the-Dead. All I knew about the action was that a single man in desperation after ten happy years together with a woman, who had died when she was almost thirty years old, had moved to Bruges since "a dead wife must be equalled by a dead city." When the novel begins, the widower has lived for five years in the medieval Belgian city, which gloomy streets, canals with stagnant dark water, old-fashioned houses, churches and monasteries generally are wrapped in drizzle or fog. The melancholic character of the city consoled the unhappy man, who stated that it was the town´s "infinite silence and monotonous existence" which was able to make his miserable, solitary life bearable. I did not know what the novel's "macabre end" signified, or what kind of "obsession" that eventually drove the novel´s protagonist into madness. However, the fragmentary hints I had come across were sufficient to speed up my morbid imagination.
I deliberated about the weird languor that apparently engulfed the old town of Bruges. Already at the Hästveda peatbog I thought about Bruges, the dead city. During early, opaque mornings the sight of the watery dikes, with their stagnant, brown bog water made them reminiscent of Bruges´s canals. Unfortunately, I could not get hold of the novel. Hässleholm´s excellent library could not find the Swedish translation from 1904 and when I later searched for Bruges-la-Morte in Paris, it was nowhere to be found. It was not until 2009 that a modern, English translation became available and I have not read it yet. On the other hand, throughout the years I became increasingly familiar with the Belgian Symbolist movement, of which Rodenbach´s novel constituted an important part.
When I in 1974 went travelling on Inter Rail with Claes, who for some reason jumped train outside of Innsbruck, I one day found myself at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels where I was confronted with Ferdinand Knoppff's huge pastel painting Memories, on which seven elegantly dressed ladies are standing in a meadow. Five of them carry rackets, but their long dresses seem to indicate that they do not intend to engage themselves in any tennis game. Another strange circumstance is that all seven of them seem to be the same person and they do not appear to have any contact with each other, but are seemingly obsessed by their own thoughts. Later on I found that Knoppff had illustrated Bruges-la-Morte.
It was my first encounter with Belgian symbolism, an art form what appeared to have been soaked in what the French call spleen, in reality the black bile produced by that organ and supposed to be the origin of melancholy. It was assumed that a melancholic could find some relief during the blue hour that arrives when dusk passes into night. In of his poems Rodenbach described the feeling:
Doceaur du soir! Douceur de la chambre sans lampe!
Le crépuscule est doux comme une bonne mort
Et l´ombre lentement qui s´insinue et rampe
Se déroule en fumée au plafond. Tout s´endort.
Sweetness of the evening! Appeal of a room without a lamp!
The twilight is gentle as a good death
And the slowly creeping, mounting shadow
Raising like smoke towards the ceiling. Everything falls asleep.
A mood that apparently was familiar to several talented Belgian symbolists, whose work was not always mellow, but could easily pass into horror, as is the case with León Spillaert (1881-1946), who suffering from insomnia drifted along Oostende's nightly streets and squares, its deserted quays and beaches. His paintings are characterized by a strange, dark and grey atmosphere, where stylized landscapes reflect a state of mind characterized by loneliness, mysteries, hallucinations and despair.
At the same time Xavier Mellery (1845-1921) and Georges Le Brun (1873-1914) depicted silence in almost empty rooms,
while William Degouve de Nuncques (1867-1935) strolled along Brussels's nightly streets or under the trees of its deserted parks. Like the protagonist in Bruges-la-Morte, Degouve de Nuncques had been driven into melancholy and insomnia by the death of his wife.
In Brussels, Fèlicien Rops (1833-1898) also took his nightly rounds, though his thoughts were far from being as pious as those of Degouve de Nuncques´s, mostly circling around pornography and Satanism, though Rops also regarded himself to be a loner and an anxious man.
Some years later we meet Paul Delvaux (1897 - 1994) on Brussels´s nightly streets, depicting deserted railway stations and ghostly ladies moving along empty avenues and alleys. For several years we had a reproduction of the lady with the paraffin lamp hanging on the wall.
There we also had Joop Moesman´s (1909 - 1998) Rumour. Moesman was a Dutchman, but his art reminded of the work of Belgium's great surrealist René Magritte, also a habitual night walker.
Magritte´s paintings radiate a chilly loneliness. A loneliness sometimes shared with death, like James Ensor (1860-1949), who populated Oostende with skeletons and masked ghosts.
In Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad called Brussels The Sepulchre City and when modern poetry´s prominent initiator, Charles Baudelaire, spent his last years in the same city, he portrayed it as Death´s waiting room. In 1864, Baudelaire left Paris for Brussels as a hopelessly indebted, alcoholic junky, hoping to sell the rights to his collectedworks and be hired as a lecturer. However, he soon realized he had come there to die.
Baudelaire embodied the French concept of flâneur; loafer, free-liver, observer. A lonely, cynical man, an urban explorer and connoisseur who free from illusions observes his surroundings, as he is stroll along full-packed, or desolate streets, alleys and parks. Baudelaire depicted modern life against a backdrop of death and perversity, and thus found a fellow artist in Fèlicien Rops, who became his friend and confidant during his last years in Brussels. Rops made the following sketch of his French friend, who claimed he was utterly disgusted by both Brussels and the Belgians.
Baudelaire´s last writings are dithyrambs over the Belgians and their capital:
The countryside around Brussels: fat, buxom, moist, like the Flemish female — murky, like the Flemish male. No insects, no birds. A ghost town, a mummy of a town, it smells of death, the Middle Ages, and tombs. Belgium is a snivelling little ragamuffin who throws himself around the neck of a fine gentleman and says to him: “Adopt me, be my father!” There are already enough morons in France.
Baudelaire shared his cynic mindset and contempt with Fèlicien Rops. During their strolls through Brussels they spoke about common interests; art, death and perversions. To Eduard Manet, Baudelaire wrote:
Rops is the only real artist – in the sense in which I myself and perhaps only I mean by the word artist – a meaning I have found in Belgium.
Baudelaire gave Rops the assignment to make the cover for a Belgian edition of the six immoral poems he, through a court decision, had been prohibited to publish in France. The year before the poet's death the poems were published with the title Les Épaves, The Wrecks. After two years in the Belgian capital, Baudelaire was struck by paralysis and taken to Paris to receive The Last Rites.
Baudelaire´s steadily increasing popularity among Belgian avant-garde writers and artists certainly influenced the death- and flâneur cult that seized their prime representatives by the turn of the last century. By Rodenbach we find the entire Baudelaire catalogue of fascination with women's hair, voyeurism, decadence, art and decay, as well as a strange blend of attraction to and repudiation of Catholic piety. But, with Rodenbach the passions are more subdued. Generally speaking, the Flemish dampness and fog appear to have siphoned into Belgian novels, works of art and poetry, relieving them from the Frenchmen´s more uninhibited passions.
We find a Flemish restrained, soothing tone by Rodenbach's contemporary and good friend - Émile Verhaeren (1855-1916), who with the Frenchman Mallarmé, often is regarded as the main representative of symbolist poetry. Verhaeren has, for example, in an atmospheric poem Au passant d'un soir, An Evening's Demise, gathered emotions and motifs from the many impressions that artists and writers created around the flâneur. Poems describing and moving along roads where people have travelled throughout the ages - pilgrims, loving couples, seekers - whose lives inexorably end with one final step. The poem´s refrain is:
Dites, quel est le pas
Des mille pas qui vont et passent
Sur les grand’routes de l’espace,
Dites, quel est le pas
Qui doucement, un soir, devant ma porte basse
Say, which is the step,
Among thousands which come and go
Along the highways of Universe,
Say, which is the step,
Which carefully, one evening, in front of my low door,
For Hugues in Bruges-la-Morte, Bruges became the end station of his life´s journey. An out-of-the way place, far beyond the bustle and noise of the rest of the world. However, that had not always been the case. In the 12th century, wool had made Bruges one of Europe's wealthiest and most important cities, in this bustling town the wool had been processed and woven into precious fabrics.
The city's entrepreneurs developed an increasingly intensive trade. The Cogs, sailing ships of the Hanseatic League, brought English and Scottish wool, cereal from Normandy and wine from Gascogne. Later, Portuguese ships came with spices from India, while goods from the Silk Road were brought by Venetians and Genovese. From Bruges, exquisite fabrics and other luxury goods were shipped, not the least altar cabinets and oil paintings by masters like Van Eyck and Memling.
Wealthy traders founded banks and lent money. However, the natural Zwin Canal, the town's connection with the sea, slowly silted. Soon, large ships could not dock by the ports of Bruges and in the latter part of the 16th century, the city began losing its significance and wealth and its commerce was steadily taken over by the ever-expanding port of Antwerp. Bruges turned inwards and became a conservative place, safeguarding ancient Catholic rituals and exquisite art treasures. However, the town aged with grace and avoided becoming a modern, perverted sepulchre city like Brussels, which by the early twentieth century increasingly had become associated with unjustly begotten riches, amassed through a predatory exploitation of the defenceless inhabitants of the Congo.
Even if I have visited Brussels several times, especially during the time I lived in Paris and could take the train to visit one of my sister-daughters who lives there, I never came to Bruges, which lies nine miles to the west. Bruges has thus remained a chimera, the same enticing, mysterious place as I imagined it to be while working on the peatbog in Hästveda.
After I began writing this blog post I have travelled to Prague to visit my oldest daughter's family and watch over my little grandchild, with whom I daily venture on discovery expedition within this mysterious city, which also conceals medieval secrets, dark alleys, alchemist cellars and treasure chambers. At this time of the year, however, Prague is far from being a deserted, melancholy place, crowded as it is by tourists from all over the world.
Today it is my birthday and while I am writing this in the evening I remember how I when I turned sixty-one spent a weekend with my wife at a nice beach hotel by Sperlonga in Italy. As is often the case with hotels, there were bookshelves with left behind books, among them I found a small volume with red covers - Bruges-la-Morte! The novel had finally appeared, though in Italian. I devoured it at once and probably due to the fact that my Italian still leaves a lot to be desired it was as if the inner core of the story concealed itself and the novel thus appeared to be even more enigmatic than it really is.
Bruges-la-Morte was only 90 pages long and lacked the thirty-five photographs included in the original edition. Today this lack of photographs appear as even stranger than when I read the novel two years ago. As a birthday present my daughter gave me today W. G. Sebald's novel Austerlitz, in which black and white photographs, play an important role, forming part of the action. As a matter of fact Rodenbach's Bruges-la-Morte was the first novel to use photographs as a comment to the text.
The coincidences between the two novels are even stranger than that. The German author's novel deals with a lonely man with an uncertain past. Death and memories of the dead are constantly present in Sebald´s multifaceted and suggestive book – strangely enough, with its detours and sudden incursions it makes me think of my blog, though Sebald´s novel is of course far superior to my scribblings.
Like Hugues in Rodenbach´s novel, who feels that the departed are alive in Bruges, Jacques Austerlitz perceives their presence in the concentration camp of Terezin (Thersienstadt). Their glances seem to follow him through windows of empty barracks. He imagines how the dead throng within the old citadel, hears their steps between the houses and gets an unsettling sensation of how they invisibly gather at the camp´s Apellplatz.
According to Sebald, the dead are at our mercy, we can chose to remember or forget them. They leave their silent belongings behind, but our memories of their departed owners can nevertheless give a kind of life to such objects. Something I strongly feel when I live in my departed parents´ home in Hässleholm. I stayed there before I went to Prague and will return in a few days to prepare my mother´s funeral and the emptying out of the house. My mother´s presence is still strong in the house, all of her belongings are still there. Like houses filled with memories from their lost owners, photographs of past times also speak by themselves. As a matter of fact, at the exact moment when a photograph is taken, the image is transformed to history. Sebald's novel is filled with photographs of people and objects, the protagonist seems to get lost among all this paraphernalia. Jacques Austerlitz states that he:
… never shook off the feeling that something very obvious, very manifest in itself, was hidden from me. Sometimes it was as if I were in a dream and trying to perceive reality; then again I felt as if an invisible twin brother were walking beside me …
When Austerlitz searches among his memories, he is caught by a feeling that when he moves back in history he ends up in a circular movement. While he at a specific moment is looking for his missing parents, tracing them through photographs, texts and meetings with people and things, it seems that time is curving and he dissolves in an endless time-space continuum.
Something similar happens to Hugues at the beginning of Bruges-la-Morte. He has filled his home with memorabilia after his deceased and passionately beloved wife. A strong, long braid of her golden-blonde hair, which he cut from her at her death bed, is kept in an oblong glass box. A full-length portrait of his wife adorns a wall in the salon, flanked by her lute. The wardrobes on the upper floor are filled with her clothes. But, his intensely missed wife is nowhere to be found, only the objects that indicate a kind of abstract presence. The deceased is not there in person, but her presence remains. Hugues has turned her into an impersonal existence, kept alive by his idealized veneration of a constructed memory. Likewise, he considers Bruges to be a “dead” town, though it is nevertheless filled with the presence of times gone by. Bruges retains a great amount of memories, but these were not Hugues´s memories. He did not know the city before he moved there five years earlier. He was now living in Bruges, but did not belong. Every day Hugues visited churches and monasteries, even if he did not consider himself to be a believer:
The town has essentially a believer's face. A demand for piety and self-denial flows from it, from the walls of hospitals and monasteries, from the many churches, which genuflect in robes of stone. Once again it began to rule over Hugues, forcing him into obedience. It once again became a person, a confidant who persuaded, dissuaded and commanded. He orientated himself in accordance with it and allowed it to control its actions.
Hugues was present, but not involved, a feeling that relieved his sadness and lament. He could no longer be close to his beloved wife, he did not believe in God - but the signs of a divine presence were conspicuous in Bruges; the churches, the holy objects, its exquisite religious art. All of this had a soothing influence on the lonely, futilely yearning man. In a similar manner the town's glowing Catholic piety was kept alive by holy relics, rituals and processions. Around himself Hugues had gathered the possessions of his dead wife and his devotion towards them reminded of religious worship. He assumed that he through his commitment to preserving her things and in keeping his memory of her alive could create a feeling of perpetuity, which could not be disturbed by longing or passion. Nevertheless, when Hugues least could suspect it, reality it broke into his morbid sanctuary and overturned his melodramatic worship. His dreamy obsession with the past became his curse and ruin.
During one of Hugue's lonely walks through the misty town, a young woman passed him by:
When he saw her, he stopped dead, it was as if he had been destroyed. The young lady who passed him in the opposite direction swept close by. It was like a shock, a revelation. For a moment Hugues seemed to be falling over. He placed his hand over the eyes, as if trying to chase away a dream.
The passing woman seemed to be a perfect double of Hughes dead wife. The pastel hue of her skin, the widened jet black pupils in the mother-of-pearl gleam of her eyes, the hair's tint of ambra and raw silk. The figure of the unknown woman, the rhythm of her body movement, facial expression, an inward dreaminess of the eyes, bore witness about a mysterious inner life, about the stirrings of her soul. The resemblance to the deceased wife was overwhelming. A scary miracle!
Hugues followed the woman, who did not fail to notice the taciturn and well-dressed gentleman's attention. During the following days the women gave Hugues small hints of her interest. Even if Hugues lacked acquaintances in the town, he was nevertheless known as a discreet, wealthy and elegant widower. The woman who had captivated his mind was originally from England. Hugues found out that her name was named Jane Scott and that she was a member of an opera company visiting Bruges, where they performed Giacomo Meyerbeer's opera Robert le Diable. Hugues attended the performances and finally made himself known to the lady, soon they were engaged in an intensive romance.
Hugues installed the attractive Jane in a cosy apartment, where he visited her daily. The wealthy widower tried to appear as prudent and tactful as possible, though soon his relationship with the actress had become the talk of the town.
Hugue's joy of finding a lady who so perfectly corresponded to his ideal image of the deceased wife, blinded him to all dissonances, or rather he tried to hide them both from himself and others. In his effort to turn Jane into a perfect image of his deceased wife Hugues strived for total control by governing every single detail of Jane´s appearance and behaviour. He tried to isolate her, turn her into his own personal property, an object for his desire and worship, similar to the blonde braid he kept locked into a glass box. In order to succeed, Hugues was forced to make some concessions. He overlooked Jane´s excessive expenditure on clothes, jewellery and beauty products and refused to admit that the blonde colouring of her soft, voluminous and wavy hair was achieved through artificial means. That her gentleness and obedience were not based on love, but more on the need for the financial security and comfort that the wealthy and impassioned Hugues provided.
Jane was a skilled actress, also in the sense that she enjoyed her ability to manipulate the dazzled Hugues. He was spellbound by her resemblance to his dead wife and made a conscious effort to preserve a dream state that ignored the surroundings and the fact that Jane's extravagant needs and desire threatened not only his previously stable economy, but also his mental and physical health. Hugues refused to realize his pathetic compliancy and the sad figure he made in the eyes of the bigoted majority of the small town.
Since Hugues did not find the same intellectual stimuli with Jane as he had encountered with his deceased wife, he let his erotic desires subdue all other feelings. As the opera singer she was, Jane could entice her hapless lover with song and music, like Hugues´s dead wife she could play the lute and her love making was refined.
Storm clouds were gathering. The pious Barbe, Hugues's caring housekeeper, lived in a world that was completely alien to from his passionate bliss. She belonged to the ancient, devotional and trustworthy Bruges, and had a close relationship with the town´s ancient congregation of Beguine sisters. In fact, Bruges was one of the few places where, by the beginning of the last century, still existed a dynamic Beguine community.
Beginues were nun-like associations where women lived in a monastery-like communites. The communities arose during the latter part of the twelfth century, especially in cities like Bruges, where several unmarried, self-sufficient women had settled, being engaged in sewing, weaving and other market-oriented activities. Within the Church's sphere of piety and community work, such independent women were able to create relationships that not only gave them protection and some security, but also opportunities for exchanging knowledge and experience, unique to women's positions and functions within an often alienating and excluding society. Beguine communities were supported economically by donations, while the sisters devoted themselves to artisanal labour and health care. The Beguines who chose to live within a cloistered community were committed to chastity and swore obedience to their prioress, though they controlled their own possessions and income. Beguines were also free to leave the monastery community and marry whenever they wanted. The Beguines who had chosen to live within a monastery were visited and supported by a larger community of women, both married and unmarried, and they also supported and helped groups of vulnerable women such as widows, prostitutes and orphans.
Barbe had a sister who was a cloistered Beguine and visited her every weekend. In the cloister Barbe came to know what the whole of Bruges seemed to talk about - that her employer, whom she both admired and cared for, lived in sin and kept a foreign mistress of doubtful morals. Despite his erotic obsession, Hugues had forbidden Jane to visit his home, partly because he knew that Barbe would not be able to accept her and treat her with due respect, partly because he was ashamed of the pitiable cult of his dead wife of which his entire home bore witness.
A turning point in the novel occurs when Hugues gave way to his nagging desire to see Jane dressed in his dead wife's clothes. Jane was reluctant and with good reason interpreted Hugues´s urge as some kind of necrophilous perversion. But, when Hugues brought the dress that his deceased wife wore on the portrait in his living room, Jane gave in to his pleading. As she put on the precious but old fashioned dress, Jane at first complained how ridiculously outmoded it was, but she soon adapted herself to the role and began to swagger in a manner that Hugues found unbearably vulgar and offensive. For sure, Jane was like a copy of his wife, but her sensual tangibility tore Hugue's dream world to shreds. He realized that he no longer had to filter his passion and desire for Jane through any reverence for the dead wife. His refined longing for the deceased had gradually been transformed into an unwarranted, earth-bound desire. After that crucial event Hugues accepted Jane's wish to finally come to his house. However, before the ostentatious lady showed up, the abhorred Barbe sad and upset quit her job:
- Oh, Lord Jesus! My poor gentleman! And for such a woman, a bad woman ... who is deceiving you.
As she swept into Hugues´s abode, Jane laughed heartily at his ridiculous collection of memorabilia and relics from his dead wife. Hugues felt exposed, mocked and humiliated. Meanwhile, Bruges´s venerable crystal rock phial containing The Precious Blood of Our Saviour was brought out from the Cathedral in a traditional and highly respected procession. The bells chimed and hymns rose to the darkened skies. Hugues was moved by the mystery that engulfed the entire town, by the piety reflected in all these faces, by the humble faith demonstrated by all those who gathered in the streets, just under his windows and further away, all the way to the end of the ancient, devout town. He lowered his head in respect when he witnessed how all these people throw themselves on their knees when the relic passed, collapsing like under a storm wind while the hymns swept over them.
In the midst of all this commotion, Hugues tried to prevent a mocking Jane from appearing in the open window, fully visible to all pious participants in the solemn procession. Jane became violently upset by what she perceived as yet another proof of Hugues's over-anxious double morals and when he in traditional Catholic deference wanted to light candles in the windows while the procession passed, Jane accused him of being hypocritical. At the sight of the scornful Jane dressed up in his deceased wife´s clothes, Hugues lost his temper. He rushed towards her, but Jane was unable to perceive the seriousness of his frenzied madness and ran mischievously into the salon, where she took the braid out of its glass box and impishly waved it in front of the furious Hugues, who tore the twinned hair from Jane and strangled her with it. When she suffocated fell to the floor Hughes took a step back and looked in horror at what he had done. However, he soon he calmed down, sat down in an armchair and intensively watched the deceased woman:
Jane lay extended on the floor; the dead was even more dead ... Hugues mulled over it all without understanding, without knowing anything anymore. The two women had become one. So alike in life, they resembled one another even more in death, which gave them the same pallor. Hugues could no longer distinguish one from the other - it was the same beloved face. Jane was the ghost of the dead, visible only to him. Hugues's soul had returned to the past. He remembered nothing more than very distant things.
Without a doubt, Hugues suffered from scopohilia, a psychiatric term denoting expressions of sexual pleasure based on contemplation, on visual stimuli. The diagnosis is primarily applied to men who become intensely excited by watching women, or images and films presenting female bodies, or anything that may be associated with femininity, such as hair, specific garments, and the like. Within the realms of art, scopophilia has naturally been very prominent and in recent years an extensive literature has grown up around the phenomenon. Especially from a feminist point of view it has been emphasized that women through scopohilia are being deprived of their unique human worth and transformed into objects. A scopophiliac attaches itself, often exclusively, to the exterior aspects of women. His ideal woman thus becomes an ideal in the original meaning of the word - the Greek ἰδεῖν, idein, "to see". Thus, scopohilia turns into a mentality that obstructs a clear comprehension of how reality looks like and functions. Estimates and conceptions based solely on what can be seen become a serious mental constraint.
In order to grasp reality, our consciousness requires significantly more information than mere visual impressions. Something that the seventy-three-year-old Goethe realized after making a fool of himself in Marienbad after having fallen passionately in love with the seventeen-year-old Ulrika von Levetsow: "Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing, a confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished."
In Rodenbach´s novel visual impressions dominate the entire story telling. Love becomes an abstraction, a mere façade, the reader is provided with detailed descriptions of the deceased wife's and Janes appearances, but their inner feelings, their individuality, remain unknown. It was certainly the novel´s often impressive descriptions, its unique mood, which captivated so many artists.
A more recent work of scopohilia is Alfred Hitchock's Vertigo, considered as such especially after the English film theorist Laura Mulvey in 1979 made an in-depth analysis of the film from a feminist perspective, thus popularizing the now-common concept of The Male Gaze:
… fetishistic scopophilia, builds up the physical beauty of the object, transforming it into something satisfying in itself. […] The power to subject another person to the will sadistically or to the gaze voyeuristically is turned to the woman as the object of both. Power is backed by a certainty of legal right and the established guilt of the command.
Among others, has Hitchcock's daughter Patricia observed that Vertigo was the movie closest to her father. Long before he initiated the shooting of the film, Hitchcock had elaborated an extremely detailed plan:
… he’d already made that movie. He knew what that movie was going to look like. He took a finished script, then drew every shot. So that when he stepped on that set, he knew exactly what that was going to look like. He never looked through a camera.
The action is complicated and I do not know if the following summary makes it understandable:
Scottie, a lawyer who has become a policeman, witnesses how a colleague falls to his death something that results in a paralyzing fear of heights that makes him leave the police force. A former fellow soldier, Elster, hires Scottie to spy on and watch over his wife, Madelaine, who Elder says is psychotic and suicidal. Every day, Madelaine goes to a museum to look at a painting depicting a certain Carlotta Valdez, who committed suicide a hundred years earlier due to an unhappy love affair. Madelaine apparently imitates the looks of the lady on the painting. She has for example the same hairdo.
After the museum visit Madelaine goes to a hotel where Carlotta once lived and where Madelaine now is renting a room. Apparently Madelaine suffers from a morbid identification with Carlotta and she does eventually go to the church tower from which the unfortunate lady threw herself a hundred years ago. Scottie suspects that Madelaine intends to repeat that suicide, but his fear of heights prevents him from rushing after her when she enters the tower and is thus forced to stay behind and helplessly witness how Madelaine throws herself to her death.
Scottie becomes devastated by Madelaine´s death and after being released from a mental institution where he has undergone treatment, Scottie visits the places where he previously had spied on Madelaine, whom he by then already had fallen desperately in love with. One day he notices a woman who reminds him of Madeleine. Scottie follows her until he dares to make an approach. The woman is reluctantly fascinated by Scottie, telling him that her name is Judy Barton and that she works in a department store.
In a central scene of the film, Scottie persuades Judy to dress in exactly the same grey dress that Madelaine wore at the time of her death and to fashion her platinum blond hair in the same manner as Madelaine had done. Judy turns into Madelaine and Scottie makes love to her, just as he would have liked to have done with the "real" Madelaine. The moviegoers, but not Scottie, learn from a letter that Judy writes, but never sends, that she was involved in a murder plot staged by Elser in order to kill his wife. Elser had paid Judy for acting the role as Madelaine, who Scottie never had seen. When Judy ran up in the tower, both she and Elser knew that Scottie would not be able to follow her. Elser had with his real wife been waiting up in the tower and when Judy appeared he had thrown the real Madelaine to her death.
During the investigation into Madelaine´s death Scottie had explained how he had been hired by Elser to watch over Madelaine to detain her from committing suicide, thereby he freed Elser from all murder suspicions. Judy, afflicted by her love for Scottie and plagued by her guilt for the death of Madelaine´s death, decides to commit the suicide that Scottie believed he had witnessed. Followed by Scottie, she rushes up in the tower. However, Scottie´s concern for Judy makes him overcome his fear of heights and he succeeds in preventing Judy from throwing herself out of the tower. At that same moment a nun appears, saying: "I thought I heard voices". Her unexpected appearance frightens Judy, she staggers and falls to her death.
Vertigo is one of my favourite movies and I have seen it several times, always equally impressed by Hitchcock's skilled artistry - camera angles, colouring and the coolly balanced story. It is a very personal movie. The viewer perceives the course of events from Scottie's point of view. We enter a scopophiliac´s brain and follow him during his pursuit of the dead Madeleine's double through a San Francisco that seems to be as secretive and mysterious as the Bruges through which Hugues followed his deceased wife's double.
Both stories deal with loneliness, desire, obsession and death. Hitchcock stated that: "I made the film to present the dreamlike nature of man," while placing himself under the skin of a character created by him. Like Rodenbach, Hitchcock was an observer, a voyeur. He instructed Kim Novak that in her roles as Madelaine and Judith she would merely "be", meaning she was supposed to be seen, acting more like a representation of beauty and distance than a human being of flesh and blood: "You have a lot of expression in your face. I do not want any of that" he told her. Kim Novak later stated:
Of course, in a way, that was how Hollywood treated its women in those days. I could really identify with Judy, being pushed and pulled this way and that, being told what dresses to wear, how to walk, how to behave. I think there was a little edge in my performance that I was trying to suggest that I would not allow myself to be pushed beyond a certain point - that I was there, I was me, I insisted on myself. Working with Hitchcock was strange because I don't know if he ever liked me. I never sat down with him for dinner or tea or anything, except one cast dinner, and I was late to that. It wasn't my fault, but I think he thought I had delayed to make a star entrance, and he held that against me. During the shooting, he never really told me what he was thinking.
Hitchcock was well aware of the difference between the cool blondes he liked to depict in his movies and other women who appear as comrades and intellectual sparring partners to his movie heroes. If Judy/Madelaine are male projections of a dream woman, Scottie's former girlfriend, Midge, corresponds to the intellectual comrade woman. When Scottie tries to transform Judith into the perfect object of his desires, she pleads: "Could you not like me, just as me?" Through Scottie's gaze we may assume his inner thought: "I do not like you. I like Midge, but I could love you."
With Midge, it is just the opposite, Scottie likes her, but cannot love her, something that becomes apparent in the scene where Midge has painted her face into Carlotta's portrait. The image Madelaine tried to imitate. It is obviously Midge's attempt to break down Scottie's scopophiliac fixation on the outer aspect of a woman. Midge fails completely. Scottie looks at Midge´s portrait, leaves her studio and a desperately crying Midge.
Something similar unfolds after Scottie's encounter with a Judy transformed into Madelaine. Hitchcock's camera lingers at the back of Judy's head, with its hairdo shaped like a whirl, probably a symbol of Scottie's cheating of himself and Judy, the bizarre maelstrom he is being dragged into. Judy turns slowly and finally looks straight at us, who perceive her pain of being apprised and considered as an another human being by the man she desires, then the film turns red.
The fact that much of Hitchcock´s personality was apparent in the dichotomy between the reality-based Midge and the dreamed-up Madelaine is confirmed by Tippi Hedren, another of Hitchcock's blonde and cool actresses, who played the leading role in The Birds and Marnie. Hedren had difficulties in fighting off the master director's sexual innuendos, his dominance and control needs. Hedren claims that Hitchcock actively opposed her continued film career after she openly had expressed her aversion to his sexual provocations. Hedren assumed that Hitchcock, under the guise of his metier, felt free to exert his scopophiliac addiction by directing his desire towards the blonde beauties who were his erotic ideal. His wife Alma, like Scottie´s Midge, did not correspond to his sexual ideal. Alma stated that their marriage was quite sexless. Instead of a lover, Alma played the role of Hitchcock´s counsellor and confidant.
In her despair, Hedren turned to Alma and asked her to try to make Hitchcock put an end to his sexual harassment:
She knew full well what was going on. I said: “It would just take one word from you to stop this,” and she just walked away, with a glazed look in her eyes. I felt helpless to stop what was going on, thought it pointless to try and tell anybody else about it, but unable to get away from the situation I was in.
Like few other directors, Hitchcock succeeded in portraying the predicament of women who have become victims of the scopophilic gaze. Rodenbach is unable to do it in Bruges-la-Morte, where Jane remains a cliché. However, similarities between Bruges-la-Morte and Vertigo are occasionally quite amazing - the importance of women´s hair, the attempts to transform a living woman into the image of a deceased and desired other, the aesthetics in descriptions of colours and atmosphere, the importance of the scenery - Bruges and San Francisco, the religious background with death and monasteries, the lonely man who plagued by his desire pursues a woman within in a dreamlike setting.
However, Hitchcock denied all knowledge of Bruges-la-Mort. Vertigo was based on a novel D'entre les morts, Among the Dead, by the French author duo Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, who located their story to Paris after World War II. Despite several crucial differences, Vertigo basically follows the action of that novel, and it is known that Boileau and Narcejac were familar by Bruges-la-Mort. That Hitchcock also new about Rodenbach´s novel is actually most likely. One of his early films Waltzes from Vienna was based on a musical with Strauss waltzes adapted and rewritten by Erich Korngold. The composer Bernard Herrmann, who Hitchcock appreciated and who wrote the music to several of Hirchcock´s most notable movies, was also familiar with Erich Korngold's film music, which had won two Oscars.
Erich Korngold? He was born in Vienna as the son of an influential music critic, close friend with greats like Gustav Mahler, Hugo Wolf and Alexander von Zemlinsky. As a musical prodigy the thirteen-year-old Erich Korngold had written a piano sonata that the well-known piano virtuoso Artur Schnabel performed during his world tours. Before he became twenty years old, Korngold had written two operas that Bruno Walter directed for full houses in Vienna and when he was twenty-two years old Erich Korngold wrote the opera Die tote Stadt, The Dead City, which built on the novel of Rodenbach. It was praised by Puccini and became a big success at several of Europe's most significant opera houses. In 1934, Korngold moved to Hollywood to write film music, due to his Jewish ancestry he chose to stay in the U.S. to escape the increasing and violent anti-Semitism in Austria.
I have long known about Die tote Stadt, without having been able to see or hear it. Just as I created my own imagery about Rodenbach's novel, I fantasized about Die tote Stadt imagining it to be powerful work with horror-romantic elements, something like Alban Berg´s Wozzeck and Lulu, which I have seen and become impressed by. When I was working at UNESCO in Paris, the employees were offered subsidized tickets to the Paris Opera, and thus I saw several outstanding performances, often together with a young colleague of mine, Keiko Nowacka.
This is once again one of those strange coincidences that seem to characterize my relationship with Bruges-la-Morte. Keiko is namely an expert in medieval women's history, a subject she studied at Cambridge University. She gave me a paper she had written about Beguins and thus I became somewhat knowledgeable about an for me hitherto unknown Catholic world that plays such a significant role in the Rodenbach´s novel.
Together with Keiko I saw Debussy's opera Pelléas et Mélisande, which premiered in 1902 and was based on a tale by Maurice Maeterlinck, who received a Nobel Prize in 1911. Maeterlinck was often mentioned together with his compatriots Verhaeren and Rodenbach. The latter were born seven years before Maeterlinck. All three had studied at Ghent University, were Flemish but wrote in French and their texts had a meditative and serene character.
I was impressed by Pellás and Melisande, a contributing reason was probably Robert Wilson's abstract scenery, dominated by a circle that could symbolize a source, the sun or the moon. The music ran like an unperturbed stream. Without arias and recitals a continuous musical flow was created that contained a story where people and actions coincided and created an abstract, dreamy entirety. When I listened to Pellás and Melisande I imagined that an opera based on Bruges-la-Mort would probably sound something like that while it described the dark canals and their white swans in an ancient, withering Bruges.
My surprise was therefore quite great when I a couple of years later finally obtained a CD with Korngold's opera and encountered a dazzling, dynamic music reminiscent of his highly dramatic music to movies like Captain Blood and Robin Hood, which I already had on a CD. The story in Korngold's opera had also been changed, the characters were given new names and the list of protagonists was amplified with several new characters. The centre of the drama had also changed and more emphasis had been placed on Jane´s artistic background. Her lively, bohemian lifestyle was contrasted to Hugue's reticent obsessions. The opera contained a variety of characters and several mass scenes contrasting to the meditative mood of the novel. I admit that I in spite of the almost operetta like dynamism of Die tote Stadt it occasionally expressed more contemplative moods, though to me it was far removed from the calm melancholy I had expected after experiencing Pelleás et Melisande.
One final feature of my life trip in company with Bruges-la-Morte would be that after I returned to Hässleholm after my trip to Prague at the library came across an excellent Swedish translation from 2004. I have now read it in the solitude of my departed parents´ house, where I am alone but still feel their presence. I realize that writing on my blog is a way to keep my feeling of emptiness after my mother´s demise away from me.
Life involves a constant flow of memories and impressions, eventually it forms a story that I do not know if it is created by myself, or what we might call “fate”. Pieces of a complicated puzzle appear and disappear, though I anticipate some kind of comprehensive image of my existence - who I am, who I was, though I do not have the slightest idea if the picture will turn out to be “true” or “false”. To pass a judgement about the shape and meaning of it all is far beyond my mental capacity. I think about Hitchcock´s statement that he with Vertigo wanted to "present the dreamlike nature of man" - La vida es un sueño. Life is but a dream. It probably is, at least for me.
Ackroyd, Peter (2016) Hitchcock: A Brief Life. New York: Nan A.Talese/Random House. Ebert, Roger (1996) Kim Novak Looks Back at Vertigo http://www.rogerebert.com/interviews/kim-novak-looks-back-at-vertigo Heldren, Tippi (2016) Tippi: A Memoir. New York: William Morrow/HarperCollins. Mulvey, Laura (1999) “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Braudy Leo and Marshall Cohen Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. New York: Oxford University Press. Nowacka, Keiko (2004) Pastoral Care of Beguines and Prostitutes in 13th-Century Paris, paper presented at the Institute for Medieval Studies, University of Leeds. Pichois, Claude (1989) Baudelaire. London: Hamish Hamilton. Rodenbach, Georges (2009) Bruges-la-Morte. Sawtry: Dedalus Ltd. Sebald, W. G. (2011) Austerlitz. London: Penguin Books. Verhaeren, Émile (2013) Les Flammes Hautes. Paris: Hachette Livre BNF.