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Reframing Persona and adaptation.


The following piece has two aims: one is to recontextualize Ingmar Bergman's Persona (1966), in the first instance by following the trail of one of its explicit intertexts--the classical drama Electra--further than has been done hitherto. This seems worth doing because the split between two of the key characters of that drama Electra and Clytemnestra--can, I would argue, be aligned with the ones within and between Elisabet Vogler, Bergman's mute actress, and Alma, the nurse charged with her care. Such pursuit of an intertext invoked explicitly by a text, however briefly, is, of course, a traditional method for examining literature-film relations, and I only hope the reader will find this particular one illuminating.

More controversial is a related claim: that Persona can be illuminated by juxtaposing it with two texts Bergman may well not have known, and to which no links of any kind are made in his film: Stefan Zweig's Chess Novella (1942) and Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1943). These juxtapositions cast light on some of his work's key procedures and preoccupations, particularly its purposeful use of black-and-white and its concern with the face. The justification for drawing on these texts, irrespective of one's knowledge of Bergman's knowledge or ignorance of them, is in part that any contextualization capable of advancing understanding of his riddling film, however partially, should be assayed. One's mind may well retain its imprint, even when confronting texts of a very disparate nature, such remembrance being either deliberate, a reaction to an unsolved case, or the inevitable consequence of the haunting quality of any work experienced as major. If the classical text with which Persona is cross-referenced here arises through an intertext invoked explicitly by the film, the intertexts considered later enter far less predictably, and with far less obvious justification. Despite this methodological contrast, the two sections are linked by their address of the doubling many critics have deemed central to Persona--most famously, Susan Sontag, who discerned in Persona a series of"variations on the theme of doubling" (Sontag 1969 135). Moreover, and paradoxically, the play Electra, although explicitly cross-referenced by Bergman, in a sense resonates with Persona from a distance even greater than that at which most would locate the texts of Zweig and McCullers.

The least uncontroversial element of this article lies in the methodological consequences of its juxtapositions, which propose a way of doing adaptation studies capable of dispelling some of the derision poured upon them by Robert Ray (Ray 2001): of turning a branch of criticism with a reputation, deserved or not, for stodginess and literalism in the possibly redeeming direction of the surrealism whose Exquisite Corpse game is a touchstone for Ray. Finding the names of McCullers or Zweig on a piece of paper first folded after that of Bergman is indeed unexpected. In this context, even my article's more conventional enlargement of the intertextual significance of Electra might practice an inversion of customary proportions that is as surrealist as it is psychoanalytic, treating textual moments as just as potentially condensed as key, obscure details in dreams.

If this article hosts both a form of traditional adaptation studies and a candidate for the post-modern, surrealist one demanded by Ray, it follows Adorno in denying that two halves necessarily add up to a whole. It draws conclusions from the open diffusion of intertextuality across a field of variable dimensions, pursuing even echoes whose remoteness suggests location near the edges of such a field. In Kieglowskian terms, Polish Weronika may have a double in French Veronique. The relationship need not be one of doubling, but may be as unconscious as that between the two women. The intertextual field responds elastically to the ricochet of connections within it. Moreover, it contains many subordinate force-fields, each arguably linked to a particular identity among the many interlocking ones we all possess. Thus affinity between Bergman and Carson McCullers may be ruled out on grounds of nationality, gender and language, but become plausible when the space is defined differently, though not necessarily more broadly: say, as that of mid-twentieth-century artists influenced by Romanticism and the Gothic. Most radically of all, a Jungian might seek to unify all sub-fields under the aegis of a collective unconscious accessible to all humanity. The balladic mode of the one work might indicate a subsidence into a pre-individualistic form of culture dramatized through doubling in the case of the other one (with Bergman's own earlier interest in the balladic, in The Virgin Spring [1960], possibly relevant). Such a collapse into pre-individualism, in the case of Bergman's work, is one cause of the fruitfulness of its Girardian analysis by Paisley Livingston (1982), for although one strand of Girard's thought posits human progress through the reverberation of the Gospel Word, another declares victimization and scapegoating fearsomely perennial, the result of mimetic processes that liquidate differences in a sacrificial unanimity.

For all that, though, the comparison is less one of Bergman and McCullers than of parts and wholes of texts. As one voyages between texts and textual moments, discovering some to be potential intertexts for each other, the possibilities of relationship may be actualized in unexpected places. This article, therefore, seeks ways of fostering the unpredictable flashes of intuition without which reason has nothing to work on, and without which its pre-knowledge of fields is ignorance of their underground ferment. The resultant chance encounters of texts (and chance too is central to the surreal) might just throw up useful slivers of insight, shooting forth sudden light, like a glazed, sun-struck shard whose emergence under a plough discloses other civilizations, other times.

Conscious intertexts

Two literary texts are usually adduced as intertexts of Ingmar Bergman's Persona. One is August Strindberg's one-act play The Stronger (1889), with which Bergman's film has much in common, as it too is one woman's monologue in the presence of a stubbornly silent counterpart, raising questions of the relative power of silence and speech. The other is Electra, in which Elisabet Vogler is performing when suddenly afflicted by the silence that leads her into professional medical care. (The role possibly played by A Hero of Our Time, the short Lermontov novel perused by the boy in the pre-credit sequence, lies beyond the scope of this essay.) If Bergman's indebtedness to Strindberg is usually mentioned only briefly in the most influential or authoritative English-language criticism (Adams Sitney 1990; Johns Blackwell 1997; Livingston 1982; Sontag 1969; Wood 1969), with only a self-identified Swedish "native" likely to make more of it (Steene 30-37), the question of his film's relationship to Electra--even, whether the Electra is Euripidean or Sophoclean--is accorded little attention. Adams Sitney comments: "Bergman does not tell us which Electra Elisabet Vogler was performing when she first broke down. It would hardly have mattered; for the difference between the plays has no relevance for Persona" (Adams Sitney 143). Robin Wood, for his part, bypasses the two dramatic texts in order to concentrate upon the Freudian interpretation of the myth they refract (Wood 1994 61).

Although the work of these critics is indubitably important, their elision of the drama Electra arguably causes their readings to miss both an important dimension of the doubling that reverberates through Persona and the possible depth of the role played by Electra in Elisabet's imagination. Paisley Livingston begins the task of going further, briefly linking that play's thematics to the idea of sacrifice that is central to his Girardian reading of Bergman's work in general. He contends that "[i]t is (...) significant that Vogler's discovery of art's 'falsehood' and her refusal to continue with her role occurs during Electra, a play in which the violences of revenge and sacred purification converge (this is explicit, for example, when the sacrificial blade with which Aegisthus kills a bull is taken up by Orestes to murder him)" (Livingston 218). The following sub-section seeks to document the ferment aroused in Elisabet by the play, arguing that it does indeed matter whether the version was that of Sophocles or Euripides.

Elisabet between Clytemnestra and Electra

If doubling shapes the relationship that unfolds between Alma and Elisabet in Persona, there is also a duality within Elisabet that matches her simultaneous relationship to the two key female figures of the plays entitled Electra: Electra herself and Clytemnestra. In order to determine the nature of that relationship, however, one must ask first whether one or the other of the leading extant versions of Electra is more relevant: that of Sophocles or Euripides? Since Sophocles' work thematizes silence extensively, it becomes the better candidate, regardless of whether it is played more or less frequently than the Euripidean version (Bergman himself never directed either). Thus the Sophoclean Clytemnestra speculates that Electra and Orestes may silence her, with Electra replying, "we are silenced, much less should we silence you" (Sophocles 55); and, a moment later, Clytemnestra comments to the tutor who has reported Orestes' putative death, "Your coming, sir, would deserve large recompense if you had hushed her clamorous tongue" (Sophocles 55). The reader may conclude that if Bergman did indeed intend to suggest that Elisabet's muteness was prompted by a particular Greek drama, the Electra in question is likely to be Sophocles'. Other links between film and play include the attention paid to the face, particularly in Electra's pleas to Orestes not to deprive her of the comfort of his face (Sophocles 67), or her sense that she is "as nothing" and wishes to enter nothingness (Sophocles 64).

Equally telling is her statement to Clytemnestra, "Do not blame my voice, for I shall speak no more" (Sophocles 52), which describes exactly what Elisabet has done (indeed, going further than Electra herself, who does not fall silent, whose word does not predict her deeds, whose continued speech precludes silence). This line presents an Electra with whom Elisabet appears strongly to have identified, anticipating her future carer's intensity of identification with her. In similar mood, Electra will later speak ironically of her sister Chrysothemis's desire to deliver good news: "Speak on then, if you find pleasure in speaking" (Sophocles 58). Elisabet's apparent determination to enter silence may even accompany a death-wish, as Electra informs the chorus that she would happily be immured; and the grave is, of course, proverbially taciturn. However, a few pages after Electra's comment to Clytemnestra, one may be startled to read the following one by Clytemnestra herself: "There is a strange power in motherhood; a mother may be wronged but she never learns to hate her child." (Sophocles 55) This statement suggests that Elisabet nourishes an equal, or possibly primary, identification with Clytemnestra: after all, the question of her relations with children, both real and represented, pervades the film. She tears up the photograph of her son; Alma accuses her of wishing his death (rather as Clytemnestra may view the death of Orestes as the precondition of her own safety); and she dwells on (in a sense, "in," her gaze moving around inside) the famous picture of a boy with hands raised in the Warsaw Ghetto. (Richard Raskin enumerates some of the many contexts into which this image has been inserted, but notes that Bergman did not respond to his question concerning his reason for using it [Raskin, 2004]). As her eyes move among the different protagonists of the Warsaw Ghetto photograph of a child surrounded by other Jewish deportees and lifting his hands in surrender to Wehrmacht soldiers--an image of heart-breaking irony, as the "war against the Jews" is unlike those other, "normal" ones in which surrender would ensure prisoner-of-war treatment it is as if to transform the fragmentation of "tearing up" into an editing process that restores at least the shadow of life to the "dead" image that is the photograph by granting it the status of an interplay of looks, restoring in skeletal form the continuity system of life itself. It then becomes possible to see the real tearing up of the other photograph as an implicit form of editing, and as paradoxically creative as well as destructive, resembling also a director's distribution of roles. Elisabet's shifting look also tries out each figure as a possible object of identification, briefly acting out such roles as "persecutor" and "victim." Within that image, she is everywhere and nowhere, her ghostly embodiment of"everything" entailing the possibility of being nothing.

Some comments on this image by Susan Sontag may be relevant here, especially since her essay on Persona is one of the key ones. In Regarding the Pain of Others she remarks: "Certain photographs--emblems of suffering, such as the snapshot of the little boy in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, his hands raised, being herded to the transport to a death camp--can be used like memento mori, as objects of contemplation to deepen one's sense of reality; as secular icons, if you will. But that would seem to demand the equivalent of a sacred or meditative space in which to look at them" (119). However, she adds, "there seems no way to guarantee contemplative or inhibiting space for anything now" (121). But insofar as sacred space is by definition "holy," i.e. "set apart," it may be represented by a space outside normal life. The unconscious Freudian "gain" in illness for Elisabeth Vogler, whose contemplation of this image Sontag might have mentioned here, may be its usefulness as a way into such a space amidst an unremitting desacralization, Bergman's own Winter Light having exhausted his interest in entering the space of a church, perhaps because it limits the infinity represented more concretely in the human face, and more abstractly in the chessboard to be discussed in the next section.

The face in an icon confronts one directly; in this respect the Warsaw Ghetto photograph's image of a boy looking vaguely in our direction, rather than directly at us, becomes the crucial dilution of iconic frontality that creates the secular icon. It is as if frontality harbored the monstrous, a machine-like symmetry that devolves all-too-easily into such inhuman manifestations as the Spider-God of Through a Glass Darkly (1961) or the fusion of two "torn" photographs that yields the deformed face of Alma-Elisabet. Usually the face classified as sacred is placed above one, while one at one's own level, or lower, is framed in documentary fashion. Bergman, however, appears to locate himself in the tradition exemplified by Dreyer's representation of the face of Joan in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), which is often shot from above, its placement suggesting a humility and a suffering that both sacralize. That face placed below is related to that of the communicant at the rail in Winter Light (1963). (In each case, both that of Dreyer's film and Winter Light, it is as if the face that looks down the official face of religion--in fact belittles, abusing its authority, a notion that would chime with Bergman's view of the imbrication of Lutheran Protestantism with patriarchy.) In Persona the belittling face is maternal, the mythically enlarged one created by and as cinema in the pre-credit sequence. Bergman's self-reflexive interest in the photograph links his examination of cinema to one of the image of the mother, while also anticipating his short meditation upon a passport photograph of his own mother in Karin's Face (1984).

The tearing up of the photograph of the Warsaw Ghetto child matches a duality of identification pervading the film. The doubling many critics have discerned in the Elisabet-Alma relationship culminates in a vertical "tearing" of their faces into two halves fused in one deformed image. This duality does indeed appear to appear to match a restaging within Elisabet of the animosity-laden encounter of Electra and Clytemnestra. It is as if Elisabet fell silent because her ability to perform a role collapsed in consequence of her inability to identify fully with the one assigned her, perhaps both in life and on the stage, as the words of both Electra and Clytemnestra chime with her own experience, tearing her apart. The reversibility of her identity between those of Electra and Clytemnestra suggests the one ascribed by Freud to the murderous impulse itself, which one can see replicated in Electra: the death-wish grows with the demise of her hopes for vengeance on her father's murderers, but is redirected towards killing with the reappearance of Orestes. Bringing Bergman's film into conjunction with Sophocles' play puts flesh on the bones of Paisley Livingston's fine distillation of the film's dynamic: "the artist turns upon her role but discovers, in her inwardness, only another scene where the same violence is repeated" (Livingston 221).

Because Adorno's notion of negative dialectic, of constitutive non-resolution, may be even more relevant than his aesthetics (Adorno 1966), which Livingston has applied to Persona, it is worth reverting briefly here to the film's other prototype, Strindberg's chamber drama The Stronger. Strindberg's title is ironic, as his play dramatizes the impossibility of determining whether a silent unmarried woman or her garrulous married friend is the more powerful within the relationship; whether strength lies in speech, as is usually assumed to be the case, or in the silence which can seem mocking and resistant. If Electra is unafraid of death, identifying with its silence, might she be "the stronger"? And yet she is an outcast at the court of Aegisthus, and rational calculation would attribute greater strength to Clytemnestra. In the context of Sophocles' play, the exiling and desired death of Orestes rhyme with the placement outside the main body of the film of the boy of the pre-credit sequence. "Inside" Persona, meanwhile, the Electra-Clytemnestra split may be said to run both between and through both protagonists, as Alma too participates in a pathology of failed maternity.

Incalculable reverberations: the unconscious of the text

Robert Ray's strictures on adaptation studies, mentioned at the start of this article, propose a remedy: an awareness of intertextuality (Ray 124-6). For Ray, however, a concern with intertextuality is rather one with word-image relations than with individual texts; with theory rather than criticism. Robert Stam brings one closer to the materiality of texts, arguing, like Dudley Andrew (Andrew 96-106), that adaptation should be central to Film Studies: as Stam puts it, because "virtually all films, not only adaptations (...) are mediated through intertextuality" (Stam and Raengo 45). Nevertheless, Stam remains vulnerable to Ray's critique, as his reference to "source-model hypotexts" (Stam and Raengo 45), although far more theoretically sophisticated than adaptation studies' long-standing prioritization of a fidelity that is in one, possibly key, sense unattainable (due to the semiotic difference between the two media), displays an intertextuality that is less thoroughgoing than the "polycentric universal history" he lauds elsewhere (Stam 15), for it retains the "original-copy" distinction criticized by Ray (127). Although the emphases of traditional adaptation studies are attenuated, they remain in place: that single hypotext is a model and primary point of reference reflected or refracted in a later text of texts. The second half of this article seeks to break that emphasis by conjoining texts in a double or multiple exposure. In each case, the works paired with one another should cast light upon one another, like facing mirrors. Under this model, Bergman's work itself illuminates, or forms a significant constellation with, another work, with which traffic is two-way. While recognizing the validity of the tradition Stam continues and imaginatively renews, it insists on that tradition's limitations, which it marks by overstepping them.

Nothingness, black-and-white, and doubling

"The more one limits oneself, the more--conversely--one approaches the infinite" (Zweig 292): thus the narrator of Stefan Zweig's Chess Novella, commenting on chess and the degree to which monomaniacal devotion to it can narrow commitment to more usual human concerns, while also implicitly suggesting a source of the aura of the metaphysical often associated with it. With this quotation as a leitmotif, Bergman's turn to chamber drama in the early 1960s becomes understandable as possibly just such a self-limitation pointing in the direction of the infinite, rendering unsurprising its address of the question of the existence of God, or the way the separation of face from the body in its frequent close-ups evokes a material form of transcendence. It also becomes the logical next step from the death-delaying, Scheherazade-like chess of The Seventh Seal and the brief opening appearance of a chess-set in the mise-en-scene of Wild Strawberries.

Zweig's meditation on the effects of limitation assumes another form later in his novella, which recounts the experiences of Dr. B., an Austrian loyalist subjected to the "soft torture" of prolonged incarceration in a single hotel room by National Socialists eager to extract from him the details of secret, pre-Anschluss state transactions. The restriction to a single room may recall the situation of Bergman's chamber dramas. Even more relevant is the expedient to which the Doctor resorts in an effort to maintain his sanity, and the way he frames it: as a battle against Nothingness, the "Nichts" haunting the pages describing his situation. The battle seems to be lost - until he discovers a book of grand master chess games, which he begins to replay, alternately assuming the roles of black and white. Juxtaposition of this situation with Bergman's Persona allows one to see it as transposing into another key the chess match of The Seventh Seal, while the hotel room suggests that of The Silence (1963), that visceral prologue to Persona. Zweig's doctor remarks--in a sentence worth quoting in German for reasons that will soon become apparent--: "ich musste versuchen, mit mir selbst oder vielmehr gegen mich selbst zu spielen" (I had to attempt to play with, or rather against, myself) (Zweig 291). The double formulation is the formula of a doubling that is also a splitting, as the differing personal pronouns indicate the difference within doubling's repetition: between the softer, dative "mir" and the more aggressive accusative, "mich." The splitting spirals towards the pathological once the Doctor, excessively familiar with all the games in the book, is compelled to devise new ones to combat mental numbness. Alternating between the moves of black and white, he splits himself. In the end, the void against which he had fought could be said to reassert itself in the effects of this splitting. The overcoming of nothingness by a splitting into black and white, an echo of many creation stories and their step out of chaos through a separation of dark and light, is not permanent. Indeed, Persona may make one wonder whether a film genuinely conscious of the power of such nothingness requires shooting in the black-and-white that borders upon it, and whether it thereby in a sense keeps the negativity that is its predecessor and adversary permanently both at bay and in play, as both black and white can represent death and the void, the Nietzschean abyss that stares back at one as one stares at it, pondering one's next move. After all, Persona begins in the primal chaos of a pre-credit sequence whose continual shadowing of the subsequent narrative is underlined when the film "bums out" and part of that sequence recurs.

Zweig's Doctor describes his state of mind as involving a need both to know and not to know, both to act consciously and to be unconscious of one's own action in order to treat the other's moves as genuinely those of another player. This is surely very close to the "double-think" of Persona, Sontag's "variations on the theme of doubling," which similarly participates simultaneously in consciousness and the unconscious. The Doctor describes this double state of mind as an absurdity: as in Bergman, the void conduces a theatre of the absurd. It is the paradoxicality rightly associated with masking--that phenomenon invoked by Bergman's title--by David Napier (Napier 1-29). The consequence is a mutation of the initial situation that may be inexplicable: no wonder that the Doctor doubts his ability clearly to depict what followed (Zweig 292). The movement into self-splitting is described as one "ins Bodenlose" (into the bottomless) (Zweig 293): the ground gives way beneath one's feet. In the end, the Doctor comes close to madness, as Bergman's film itself might be said to do. Bergman himself may well have seen it as going dangerously far, as never again would he broach quite such dense thickets of enigma.

The uncanny face and the shadow

The lover craves any possible relationship with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain. (McCullers 1977 27)

If a connection between Sophocles' Electra and Persona is signaled by the film itself, and a comparison with Zweig's novella is justified by a common concern with splitting, self-doubling, and the interface of black and white, a comparison with Carson McCullers' The Ballad of the Sad Cafe may seem plausible on grounds of the relationship between that splitting and Bergman's "face-work." The comparison is particularly illuminating in relation to McCullers' text (and oeuvre, as uncanny experiences of the face dot her other stories also, as when we learn of one figure in The Member of the Wedding [ 1946] that "there was a brightness where his face should be" [McCullers 1973 2]). The complex of interrelated elements partially buried under, and underpinning, these stories, is blasted closer to the surface in Bergman's attack upon linear narrative. Those elements' capacity to destroy narrative becomes apparent in Persona's attempt to dam them up in its pre-credit sequence, and in the effects of that dam's collapse when the film "burns out" following Alma's setting of a trap for Elisabet. These elements resemble Miss Amelia's treatment of her first marriage in The Ballad of the Sad Cain, which she never mentions and which becomes a "troubling undertone" (34), almost as if her ex-husband's penitentiary cell is located below the cafe. He is as it were the "hidden message" (11) mentioned by the narrator, written in invisible ink and brought out by fire, that symbol of the sexuality Miss Amelia denies, even though her whisky elicits the secrets of the souls of its drinkers (10) (does "fire-water" replace the fire applied to the invisible message or encountered in Persona through the simulated ignition of its celluloid mid-way?). Such elements might be described as representing the chaos, the undifferentiated prima materia, discussed above in connection with Zweig's work. It swirls around faces deemed "exceptional" (c.f. McCullers, 20 and Alma's view of Elisabet): faces perhaps rendered so by separation from a body that acts within time.

One haunting passage offers the first gateway into the space within which the texts of McCullers and Bergman resonate uncannily with one another. The face that splits into a composite of those of Alma and Elisabet at the end of the former's monologic projection of Elisabet's experience of childbirth suggests a dreamlike extrapolation from McCullers' enigmatic initial characterization of the face of the protagonist of the story-to-be, Miss Amelia, looking out of a window: "on the second floor there is one window which is not boarded; sometimes in the late afternoon when the heat is at its worst a hand will slowly open the shutter and a face will look down on the town. It is a face like the terrible dim faces known in dreams sexless and white, with two gray crossed eyes which are turned inward so sharply that they seem to be exchanging with each other one long and secret gaze of grief' (McCullers 1977 3-4).

In the light of the shot-counter shot shaping Alma's monologic reimagination of Elisabet's experience, which is presented twice (once from Alma's side, once from Elisabet's), the idea of an exchange of looks between two faces, when juxtaposed with Amelia's crossed eyes, suggests a co-existence of two faces within one, collapsing any possibility of suture. This collapse also affects the distinction between face and mirror, those key elements of filmic and film-theoretical vocabulary presented as linked, yet separate, by Thomas Elsaesser and Malte Hagener (2010 55-81). Uncannily, and somewhat as in the post-Cubist work of Picasso, the face becomes both face-in-itself and its own mirror, its fusion of self and other sterilizing encounter with the outer world to yield sexlessness. This synthesis might be compared with the "face-work" of Erving Goffman, which is the "line" represented by the individual: "that person's face clearly is something that is not lodged in or on his body, but rather something that is diffusely located in the flow of events" (Goffman 7). Elisabet's rejection of the "lines" constituted by her lines, of the persona they impose, becomes a rejection of flow itself. Her dislocation resembles the absent-minded condition entered by McCullers' Miss Amelia when, unsure how to react, she starts acting self-contradictorily (53-4). The initial description of her cross-eyed face suggests a self-contradiction extending further, into self-splitting. In the context both of Persona and McCullers' Ballad of the Sad Cafe, Goffman's term "face-work" happily echoes those Freudian neologisms, "dream-work" and "mourning-work," the dream and the mourning involving the shame so central both to Bergman's oeuvre and to McCullers' story, where Miss Amelia's catastrophic loss of status arguably begins with her body's linkage to that of a hunchback who climbs upon her back in actuality after having fused with her already as a shadow. Unlike Goffman, however, both Bergman and McCullers discern a potential contradiction between "face" and "line," focusing on the face precisely because of its potential separation, by frames, from the body that acts and the (time)-line of its action.

The motif of the uncanny face involves a lack of face that is also a loss of face. Moreover, it summons forth other elements of McCullers' work, prompting, for instance, the appearance of twins, those entities often deemed uncanny in the folklore represented by the ballad mode. The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, like Persona, offers a set of variations on doubling. (The twins themselves are doubled in a detail whose momentariness a psychoanalyst would deem significant, the later appearance of an old couple who "had lived together so long (...) that they looked as similar as twins" [42].) Moreover, like Persona, McCullers' story is interested in the photograph: the mention of the twins is followed closely by that of a photograph of two children of near-equal age whose faces seem to be indeterminate, "tiny white blurs" (8). That blurring perversely facilitates the establishment of a relationship between the apparently solitary Miss Amelia, all the more solitary inasmuch as her femininity bears many of the hallmarks of stereotypical masculinity, and a woman in another town. This blurring of identities resembles that of the faces of Elisabet and Alma, as perceived by the boy in the pre-credit sequence, before whom one melts into the other and back again. Is the triangle formed by the boy and the two women, that afterimage of The Silence, a transformation of the differently-gendered triangle of McCullers' work, one woman and two men, with each outsider the baffled witness to a homosexual relationship they cannot decode as such? Does Miss Amelia's sexlessness render her like that child, not comprehending what she sees and so unable to defend herself against it?

At the same time, the relationship between Miss Amelia and the hunchback who claims kinship with her (and whom she addresses as Cousin Lymon), being one of love, resembles that between Singer and the deaf-mute Antonopoulos in McCullers' debut novel The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940): it is as if, by an immanent thematic logic, mutism and physical deformity are translatable into one another across the novels, and within the imagination in general; as if they could be superimposed upon one another to yield Persona, which places on its surface the signifiers of speechlessness and deformity, as the splitting of Alma's face into a lopsided composite in which neither Liv Ullman nor Bibi Andersson recognized herself destroys Alma's capacity for articulate speech, in a sense muting her too. The appearance of that monstrous face may even be seen as a traumatically delayed revelation of the cause of Elisabet's silence (much as the initial appearance in McCullers' text of the uncanny face of Miss Amelia at the window is a consequence of the earlier fact revealed later in the text, that "As a rule, Miss Amelia was a silent woman" [36]).

When the hunchback first followed Amelia up the stairs of her dwelling he "hovered so close behind her that the swinging light made on the staircase wall one great, twisted shadow of the two of them" (12): the fusion of the faces of Alma and Elisabet is just such a distorted shadow. Similarly, at one point readers are enjoined to "see Miss Amelia bend down to let Cousin Lymon scramble on her back" (25), as if he himself is a hump she has adopted in order to be like him. A Jungian would term him her shadow indeed, born perhaps of the self-splitting linked here, as if in a folk ballad, to the crossed eyes. Is the crossing of eyes the result of a fissuring of the visual field? Can it be correlated with the self-contradictoriness of action into which Miss Amelia falls, unsurprisingly, as McCullers' narrator has stated very early on that a cross-eyed person, when thinking deeply, has "a look that appears both to be very wise and very crazy" (11)? As in much of Persona, in which Alma adulates Elisabet at first and seeks to resemble her, McCullers' concern is with the relationship between liking and becoming like, and its capacity to feed vampirism and the Bakhtininan double body of the grotesque (Gleeson-White 96-118). The image is echoed fatally when in the end Lymon leaps on Amelia's back to save her ex-husband from defeat in his wrestling match with her, after which the two men plunder her belongings and leave her as the devastated face encountered at the story's beginning, hanging uncannily outside the narrative, in the timelessness of a dream (or a ballad, whose date of composition is not clear, whose lines recur in circular fashion...), like the face in Persona. And, much as in Bergman's film, we end more or less where we began.


To take seriously the intertextual method is to rule out preset limits on the comparability and compatibility of texts. One cannot predetermine where sparks will leap from one text to another, be it between part and part or part and whole. There are no obvious roadmaps or formulae. Thus, for example, although someone interested in Bergman's work may, if also a passionate reader, light upon McCullers' work sooner or later (for instance, after reading The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, whose focus on mutism suggests possible relevance to Elisabet Vogler's silence, or on the basis of the correspondence between the title of her late novel Clock Without Hands [1961] and a key dream image from Wild Strawberries), equally well they may not (I do not know of anyone having done so hitherto). All the same, using keywords might increase the likelihood of positive juxtaposition (Strindberg's The Stronger might lead to a combination of woman and strength, and so to McCullers' Ballad of the Sad Cafe, which concerns a woman who is deemed strong by her neighbors and wrestles men successfully, but is finally defeated by trickery, arguably as patriarchy allegorically becomes the monkey literally on her back, or because she unwittingly surrenders the strength that distinguishes her, rubbing the hunchback in an effort to make him stronger (24)). One's best recommendation therefore might be a negative one: a taboo on the disciplinary compartmentalizations which dull awareness of the intertextuality (the increasing, hyperlinked connectedness) of culture, as its words, fed into real or imaginary search engines, all become potentially subject to reclassification as keywords: a taboo, in other words, on the habitual separations that close the mind.

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Author:Coates, Paul
Publication:Film Criticism
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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