Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Lacan But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock, edited by Slavoj Žižek (Verso)
Hitchcock, piece by piece, by Laurent Bouzereau (Abrams)
Alfred Hitchcock Masters of the Cinema, by Krohn (Phaidon)
Hitchcock 14-Disc Box Set (Universal Pcitures)
Like a biro that leaks into a valued item of dress, some things that look harmless enough leave a stain that persistently refuses to go away despite your best efforts. Repeated washings diminish the mark but an imprint always resides, and wearing something to cover it up works in a half-assed way but you know the hidden blot still lurks there and you’re never sure it won’t somehow expose itself. And it is such a shame because the pen was not a cheapie from a pound shop but a present from your parents, a gift to remember them by. Instead of which, their well-intentioned bequest has ruined a piece of clothing that became you; even when it has been discarded and you present yourself in something new the dull memory of that indelible stain is hard to altogether erase. On a bad day, feeling fateful and fanciful, you think of Lady Macbeth and the bloodstain that dyed itself into her mind.
Oh dear, a Catholic upbringing has a lot to answer for. One moment it’s just an unpleasant memory but before a quick Hail Mary can be recited you’re knee deep in guilt and feeling like you’ve killed something — or maybe you just feel you want to kill something. ‘Out, damn’d spot! out, I say!’
Is there some way of sublimating the stain of a Catholic upbringing, living with it creatively so that it doesn’t become like dog poo you have to avoid stepping on? Hitchcock, whose mother and three of his grandparents were Irish, was brought up as a good Catholic and he certainly managed to put the dogma to good use. “I don’t think I can be labelled a Catholic artist,” he understated, “but it may be that one’s early upbringing influences a man’s life and guides his instinct.” This remark, let’s call it a carefully hedged confession, was made to François Truffaut and it was two other French filmmakers, Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol, (in their Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films, published in French in 1957) who first detected in Hitchcock’s films the pervasive presence of the director’s Catholic upbringing.
Hitchcock’s preoccupation with matters malevolent may have been nurtured by his education, from 1908 onwards, at St. Ignatius College, at Stamford Hill in north London. The Jesuit priests who ran the school dispensed corporal punishment with pious rigor and Hitchcock said, “It wasn’t done casually, you know. It was rather like the execution of a sentence”. Having attended the same school myself, I think I might know what he may have meant by this. Any teacher could punish a pupil for a perceived misdemeanour with two, four or six strokes of the ferula, a whalebone rod sheathed in leather, but the punishment was not carried out on the spot or by the teacher who felt such a caning was due. Instead, the pupil had to write out two copies of a punishment slip, containing the name of the teacher, the pupil and his form, the offence, date and number of strokes to be administered. At the bottom of the form one always added AMDG, the Jesuit motto (ad maiorem dei gloriam/for the greater glory of god), a self-inflicted twist of perversity that seems to more properly belong to the Inquisition. One copy of the slip was given to the teacher who ordered the punishment and its double was handed in at the end of the school day to his proxy, the teacher on duty with the ferula in the punishment room. He would take the slip, execute the order and record it; the originator had his copy of the slip to check whether it accorded with the record of administered canings. It was an ingenious, almost foolproof system: the victim carried the double of the slip around all day, thinking of what was to come and praying that some luck would shake itself out by way of the rota that determined which teacher would be on punishment duty that day. There was a world of difference, measured in palpable degrees of physical pain, between a caning delivered by a ‘soft’ teacher and one inflicted by someone renowned for their rapture in wielding the ferula. But the rota was not in the public domain and knowledge only came at the last moment.
As some of the essays in the collection edited by Slavoj Žižek make clear, such an exquisite balance of fear and suspense, maintained through an exercise of doublings and dualities, is the hallmark of Hitchcock’s films. An essay by Mladen Dolar explores with convincing details the multiple doublings at the heart of Shadow of a Doubt and Strangers on a Train and Pascal Bonitzer’s essay, Hitchcockian Suspense, homes in on the nature of suspense as ‘the erotic prolongation of the trajectory of a coin thrown up into the air, before it falls on one side (tails: yes) or the other (heads: no)’. Well, nothing especially Lacanian there but when the role of the objects that trigger off the suspense comes into the play of analysis the reader is drawn into psychoanalytic territory. Three types of objects emerge in Hitchcock, beginning with the McGuffin, the one he himself made famous as the empty objects that set stories in motion and keeps them moving-the tune with a message in The Lady Vanishes or the bottles of uranium in Notorious, objects important only to the characters in the story as enigmas that need to be explained. This is objet petit a as the void in the chain of being, helping bring into existence a symbolic order that provides structure and meaning. Secondly, there are objects that disrupt the homeostatic state of affairs (Lacan’s imaginary), left-over bits of the Real that the symbolic structure needs for its sustenance, e.g. the pact between the two central characters in Strangers on a Train depends on the existence of the lighter; it embodies the structure of their relationship. Then there are objects like the birds in The Birds, the hulk of the large ship that appears at the end of a street in Marnie or Mount Rushmore in North by Northwest. These are not objects of exchange, their mute material presence signify nothing except the irreducible force of jouissance, giving body to the Real. In his introduction Žižek relates these three categories to different periods of Hitchcock’s work, each period defined by the importance its films give to one of the three types of objects.
What we want to get to the heart of with Hitchcock is the why and wherefore of that sense of malignancy and menace inhabiting his films, creeping around and lying in wait for the innocent and not-so-innocent. It connects with Lacan’s register of the Real and the abiding feeling that there is something out of kilter in our own subjectivity, something puzzling and unbanishable at the heart of our self-consciousness which cannot be put into words. As an affect, the Real can play a part in sustaining a sense of stability by providing ‘an answer of the real’ to what may otherwise be experienced as an unnerving instability in our everyday life. If, though, the Real gets too close then the promised security becomes a nightmare, a traumatic excess that threatens to engulf the symbolic-imaginary realm which provides us with our sense of who we are. This is what happens, or threatens to happen, in the Hitchcock universe when objects of desire lose their innocence and become laced with poison, lethal objects presaging a raw materiality that can eat into the fabric of our fragile existence. Such objects beckon the Thing-’das Ding’-that which occupies the place of the Real, a threatening presence of what might lurk there on the other side of the limits imposed by the symbolic order. Sublimation in classical Freudian theory is a channelling process, a defensive mechanism that directs the libido to find expression in socially acceptable forms like art but in Lacanian parlance sublimation occurs when an ordinary object, as Žižek puts it in Metastases of Enjoyment, ‘finds itself at the place of the impossible Thing’. The real itself is not a ‘thing’ but a cause of which the effects appear in a displaced way, its pressure sensed in the objet petit a.
Another way of coming at the Hitchcock universe, employed by Žižek in the essay that rounds off ‘Everything You Wanted to Know About Lacan But Were Afraid to Ask Hitchcock‘, is by way of the gaze in his films. We start off as if gazing upon the screen from an abstract, neutral position but, insidiously, we are forced to confront the desire at work in the ‘objective’ gaze. In Psycho, for example, when Norman Bates watches the car containing Marion’s body submerging in the swamp there comes a moment when the sinking is momentarily suspended and the anxiety in Norman is felt by the viewer:
At this moment, his/her gaze is de-idealised, its purity blemished by a pathological stain, and what comes forth is the desire that maintains it: the viewer is compelled to assume that the scene he witnesses is staged for his eyes, that his/her gaze was included in it from the very beginning.
This is all well and good but doesn’t something like this happen at moments in any good thriller? The difference, though, is that identification is occurring here with a transgression of the law and the viewer’s guilty gaze is in solidarity with an illicit form of enjoyment. In Psycho, identification is pushed to an extreme and the viewer is drawn into a nightmarish, pathological world of psychotic drive. The first third of the film allows us to identify with Marion by seeing the story from her point of view but after her murder there is the kind of shift that occurs by following one surface of a Moebius band-you find yourself on its reverse. Marion is in the register of desire, searching for the elusive objet a which will never be found but the search provides its own justification and satisfaction; Norman, though, never left the mother’s desire, never submitted to the Name-of-the-Father, and he is trapped outside the symbolic order. In Norman, jouissance-akin to the relentless excess of the death drive, overriding any dynamic stability of the body, disturbing subjectivity by its insistent demands- reveals its ghastly and nauseating dimension, rooted in something primordial, the ideal of the infant realizing a primal and complete oneness with its mother, an ideal that brings loss when the mother’s desire becomes problematic but which is never abandoned, forever holding out the promise of an embodied and full jouissance. Norman’s gaze is our gaze, it attends to a soiled spot of the Real that protrudes from symbolic reality and is the source of trauma. It is the gaze of the birds that enters the cinematic frame in The Birds from somewhere behind the camera and looks down on Bodega Bay.
Trauma, fear, guilty enjoyment brings us back to St Ignatius. Hitchcock’s remark about his time with the Jesuits- ‘I was scared to hell the whole time I was there. Maybe that’s how I learned fear’-comes from Hitchcock: piece by piece, a very stylish book with the tactile luxury of removable facsimile memorabilia (documents, letters, memos). The anodyne text is thematically arranged along familiar lines like ‘the Hitchcock women’ and ‘psychos and frenzies’ but what distinguishes this book and makes it an object of desire in its own right is the wealth of superbly reproduced photographs: a close up of James Stewart hanging from a rooftop in Vertigo, Hitchcock’s cameo in Strangers in a Train, with Paul Newman on the set of Torn Curtain, with Ingrid Bergman in Spellbound, with Kim Novak in Vertigo, with a smiling Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) in Psycho. At under €18 from Amazon or The Book Depository this is good value and so too is Alfred Hitchcock from the Masters of Cinema series at under €6 and, again, worth it for the memorable photographs not the text. The Hitchcock aficionado needs one more item on the bookshelf, the 14-DVD set from Universal Pictures which at €18 is hard to beat.
As Hitchcock’s death drew near he could not forget his time with the Jesuits, the stain was always there, and according to biographer Donald Spoto, he turned down the idea of a priest’s visit or an informal service in the comfort of his house. In the last year of his life he had told his staff, ‘Don’t let any priests on the [studio] lot. They’re all after me; they all hate me.’ Hatred, not explicitly stated as such, is the stain in his films and the blot on your shirt; it veins its way through Hitchcock’s films and it was injected into him by the Jesuits.
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