The film Vertigo (1958) by Alfred Hitchcock is a great representation of the different definitions that the term vertigo can embody. It plays with the perception of truth and reality through the physical perception of space, that is, through heights and addresses:
1. fear of heights and fear of falling
2. giddiness of falling in love
3. reversal of truth and perception of reality
Vertigo is therefore a very ambivalent term that can refer to both experiences of pleasure and discomfort, and experiences that we sense very concretely in our body, whether that is in our stomach, in our head, in the pounding of our heart, in the weakening of our knees, etc.
I came to this idea of Vertigo through a pattern that I noticed in some important colonial and postcolonial literature, where this major shocking experiences are accompanied by a physical sense of vertigo. In a text called Mirages of Paris (Ousmane Diop Socé, 1937), a Black man travels to France and in the metro, he is called out by a young white boy. The boy says to his mother, “Look, a Black man!” In response, the mother of course, extremely embarrassed, tells her son, “Shush don’t say that! Say hello to him instead!” In this identification, and the dismissal of it, the narrator of the text immediately feels dizzy, suffocating, and a sense of imbalance. There is something ungenuine about the whole situation. This metro encounter is very similar to something Frantz Fanon mentions in the fifth chapter of Black Skin White Masks (trans. 1967) about the Black man being recognized as such, and the Black man seeing himself for the first time as he is ‘interpolated,’ if you will. And of course, if you’ve read Césaire’s Cahier du retour au pays natal (1939), you know that Césaire documents almost exactly the same experience.
These intertextual references to imbalance and vertigo really struck me, and I found this conference an excellent opportunity to explore this further through a panel. The panel I organized focuses firstly on reversal and disruption and then how that disruption is localized onto and through the body. It’s as if the body has more to say than we can know ourselves. I wrote about nausea, and traced colonial travel in Pham Quynh’s 1922 voyage to France and in Albert de Teneuille/ Truong Dinh Tri’s Ba Dam (1930) that incites this physical and ethical nausea.
In the occasion of the Asian Dynamics Initiative’s (at the University of Copenhagen) tenth annual conference this past June, on the Transitions and Disruptions in Asia, vertigo seems to be a very appropriate discussion starter for its chosen thematics.
See our ADI Conference pamphlet for an idea of the discussions held in our panel.
P.S. To cap the conference off serendipitously, I was able to take a thirty minute train to see writer and poet duo Nhã Ca and Trần Dạ Từ in Malmö, Sweden. Sometimes I ask myself how I am so lucky to find myself in the right place at the right times.