Forsaken Identities: Brujes-la-Morte

Still from Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo.

Our cities have finally shut up after two hundred years of noisy chatter. Appearances are less deceptive: isolated people shuffle off to work, the tollway precedes the road, and our old city centers have become new museums of debt. Does anyone really expect recovery? What is there to recover? We are all gothic protagonists now, smugly alone with our soft power traumas. So the pandemic era would seem just the right time to revisit George Rodenbach’s 1892 Brujes-la-Morte, a short novel set in a city populated by the dead.

The plot is simple: Hughes Viane has lost his wife. He settles in the old city of Bruges, the place he associates most strongly with her absence. He passes the long days brooding and pacing around a room left unchanged since her passing. At sunset, he wanders the gray streets alone. One evening, he spots a double of his wife and followers her to the theater where she dances. Soon he becomes her lover and begins to mold her into an exact duplicate of the dead woman. But he finally realizes that her outward resemblance to his beloved is a deceptive and cruel accident of fate. She is in fact nothing like his idealized image. As his illusions dissolve, the whole affair escalates toward its inevitable conclusion.

If this sounds familiar, it is because Rodenbach’s book influenced Boilea-Narcejac’s novel The Living and the Dead, upon which Hitchcock’s Vertigo is based. The same phantoms of identity haunt all three works in the form of a doppelgänger, the inauthentic double of an object of love whose apparition brings tragedy and death. In the early modern period, false appearances and general uncertainty preoccupied the sciences, arts, and popular imagination. The advent of photography and cinema seemed to propel dusty phantoms into material existence, and old folk tales of dead ringers took on new forms with new technologies (spirit pictures, films like The Student of Prague and Der Januskopf, the compulsions of psychoanalysis and early sociology). The human double was a blurry byproduct of the paranoias of anonymity and social relations, a bad conscience of mass production become flesh and mirror. As Freud put it: The double has become an image of terror, just as, after the collapse of their religion, the gods turned into demons.

These frightening forms take on the visage of the familiar, sewing displacement and creating rootlessness, the lifelike images of an exhausted century staring out without modesty like Manet’s Olympia. The emotional plague constructs mental character armor—to use a concept from Wilhelm Reich—and breeds sleeping monsters who emerge whenever propitious chaos erupts. The Right recognized this, with its signature nostalgia for a simpler past and its acute apperception of middle-class agony: It was only the vast fatigue which was experienced by the generation on which the multitudes of discoveries and innovations burst abruptly, imposing on it organic exigencies greatly surpassing its strength, which created favorable conditions under which these maladies could gain ground enormously, and become a danger to civilization. (Max Nordau)

The double and other shapeshifters were recognized by others, too. Marx’s Das Kapital is full of doppelgangers, metamorphic entities, werewolves and vampires, devious substitutions and all-seeing eyes. Capital conceals by gnostic emanations, changes form and hides behind other forms in apparently endless mystifications; it passes through constant states of transformation, competing with time in a magical project to master time. Poe placed the doppelganger firmly in the crowd in his 1839 story, William Wilson. The whispering counterfeit image of Wilson, first encountered in boarding school, leads the narrator ever more down the drain until any distinction between master and puppet is lost. Wilson’s last words, “In me didst thou exist—and in my death, see… how utterly thou hast murdered thyself” are the words of another.  Poe hints at something even more uncanny than a divided soul, that we might be worse than beings who are split in half—we might be someone else entirely.

But the apparition of a double is essentially a comical situation, usually leading to love trouble. Doubles appear back in Plautus, in Shakespeare and Gogol; in vaudeville, in the works of Chaplin, Keaton, and the Marx Brothers. This double is always encountered by chance or by some infernal design, and it uses repetition of images and events to drive us mad. With its roots in childhood terrors of changelings and bodysnatchers, the doppelganger has had great staying power. It is still following us in modish conspiracies of crisis actors, men in black, and remote drivers. Social media has produced doubles ad infinitum. But don’t mourn the authentic. It was itself only a shell and no AI can put it back together again. Face it, our copies bore us instantaneously. Unlike Poe’s Wilson 2, they don’t even mean us any harm directly. Hence the seductive hope, arising out of a photocopied boredom, that clones and replicants will take on autonomous life. But a double is never the same, nor is it the same come again.

Brujes-la-Motre’s dour protagonist knows well that the double cannot be his wife returned. His unfaithfulness to the dead lies a fatal admission that he will accept a substitute, a rival whose likeness may enthrall him until he believes her to be more than the original. The dead woman would then be a likeness to her own replacement. She has lent her image to the woman to come, reversing the roles of the double and its model, substituting herself for her second apparition. Such a substitution is the violence of the Same forced on Similarity, and with it comes another infernal proposition: Are not the Similar and the Same really in total opposition? Similitude only opens the vast gulf between two appearances whose resemblance lies in the secret relation between a precious form and its fetish—or in this case, the outward resemblance of a rival to its replacement. Deception in appearances relies on the similarity of the difference (Dissimilarity cannot ‘remind’ us of a person or a thing. One cannot say “You are so different from her that you are almost exactly alike” and be understood). But that which is similar is known only through dissimilarity, otherwise it would be that which it is not: something else entirely. Or conversely, it would be exactly the same.

At the end of Brujes-la-Morte, the doppelganger proves to be a loud, uncouth Bohemian. She rightly denounces the lonely man’s devotions as the passion of a fool who confuses two ghosts, both of whom are his own invention. After all, we have only his word that the two women look alike, taken at face value with a few minor details cited for argument. Hadn’t Arthur Schnitzler written that you never so much want to be happy with a woman as when you know that you’re ceasing to care for her? Viane’s marriage to his wife is now revealed to be an utterly middle-class contract, complete with genuine affection and suburban ritual, which only becomes a theatrically grand passion when she dies. Grief must be public for it to be worth anything. It must be a public confession or it is seen as inauthentic. Gossip plagues Viane, who is good because he grieves and then becomes a coward when he settles for a working girl to assuage his suffering. To be a good bourgeois is to hold a monopoly on grief, to attach oneself to the world only through capitals of individual pain and so, to think oneself honest and sincere because one is pained. And when seeking a double to expiate these wholly personal sins, the base ressentiment of the middle class always kills when the surrogate disappoints.

Will Stone’s brilliant new translation, published by Wakefield Press, crucially restores the photographs accompanying the text. These banal industrial shots show a depopulated Bruges, except for three plates: a lively street scene with vendors and horses; a group of nuns in front of their convent; a solitary figure standing in a square (the latter resembles a survivor of some nuclear apocalypse). Many of the plates, carefully chosen by the author himself, show Bruges’ canals reflecting its buildings and overcast skies in a strange, petrified Rorschach. The element water appears throughout the book, from descriptions of the dripping gutters to references to drowned Ophelia. The city floats in soggy suspension, daydreams of the deluge and the grave and the Last Man:

More than once he had felt thus encompassed. He has heard the slow persuasion of the stones and had truly surprised the order of things by not surviving the death all around.

In the madness of Bruges’ near twilight, doubles roam, summoned out of habit by the old bells of the Liturgy of the Hours. Under the monumental lights of Worlds’ Fairs, the polluted gauze over the new light-cities, the lights of the great freight systems and the first skyscrapers, the sentient architecture of extinct saints and dried out statues tracks its quarry in the radically similar lines of boulevards, locks and channels, accusations and collapsible memories.

Every city is a state of the soul, and one hardly need stay there for long before this state communicates itself, spreads into us like a fluid which infects, and which one incorporates with the nuances of the air… It was becoming an individual, the principal interlocutor of his life, impressing on him, dissuading, commanding…

Final rule of modern mistaken identity: The penalty for confusing the Similar with the Same is death. And always a ridiculous death where the copy erases the original, which in turn destroys the third party. In Vertigo, Kim Novack is surprised by a nun at the top of the Mission Dolores tower and falls to her death (ironically curing Jimmy Stewart of his vertigo). In Brujes-al-Morte, Viane murders the doppelganger in a preposterous climax involving a long braid of his dead wife’s hair. Every move has been a mistake based on a chance encounter or a fleeting glimpse. Each similarity leads to not to the Same but to the completely different, which is the mistake of the mistake. Each conclusion leads farther away from the initial assumption. Every city offers 1001 ways to meet your appointment, but only one single meeting is possible in Bruges or Samarkand or Venice. Yet another rule: the double must operate through chance, which registers as a parody of second sight. This chance meeting must be a matter of life and death for the observer but an occasion of total indifference for the observed.

Like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Ulysses, Bruges-la-Morte became a popular city guide. Though the author’s pro-French politics was anathema to patriotic Belgians of the time, his book brought the city notoriety and tourism. Korngold based an opera on it in 1920, and it has been filmed at least four times to date; its echoes can be found in the cinema of Alain Resnais and the books of WG Sebald and in a hundred contemporary entertainments. Bruges did not suffer aerial bombardment in either world wars. None of its buildings were ruined during the Nazi occupation. So the devoted reader can still follow Monsieur Viane street by street, looking at the very same buildings and feeling a similar duplicity. Seven years after Rodenbach’s book was published, the Congo Free State was established in the duality of a colonial enterprise under the private ownership of King Leopold II.

Martin Billheimer is the author of Mother Chicago: Truant Dreams and Specters of the Gilded Age. He lives in Chicago.