Aspiring to the Impossible: The Inextricability of the Self-Other Relation
In Persona, Ingmar Bergman explores the inextricability of self from the other through the story of two women who become entwined in one another. In portraying and examining their shifting relations, Bergman suggests that it is fundamentally impossible for a self to portray itself authentically, both as the result of the failure of representation as a mode for authenticity and the self’s inability to exist in a vacuum, without the presence of the other to recognize it. Everything a self does, it does in performance for the other, limiting its ability to express its authenticity to the degree that representation allows. As such, the self and the other are forever entangled and the authenticity of the self is always compromised. However, the fact of this entanglement does not prevent the self from aspiring towards authenticity and its attempts to achieve it—though ultimately futile—should be encouraged and applauded, rather than condemned.
The second rendition of Alma’s monologue; Elisabet in profile in front of Alma for the first few moments
Perhaps the most rich scene to examine in terms of this question of the self and the other is the climactic doubled scene in which Sister Alma, in an uncharacteristic display of aggressive assertion, describes Elisabet’s fraught and guilt-ridden (non)relationship with her son to her, despite Elisabet’s never having told such a story herself. This accusatory monologue is first delivered while the camera concentrates entirely on Elisabet’s face—as if from Alma’s perspective—and then is repeated, nearly verbatim, from the opposite perspective, the camera focused on Alma’s face. Following the second rendition, there is a moment in which the two women’s faces briefly merge to form an imperfect whole—a moment which is broken by the protestations of Alma that she is not Elisabet, while Elisabet remains passive.
Bergman examines the relationship of the self to the other (as well as the relationship between Alma and Elisabet) through the lens of motherhood and the relation of the mother to the child, which becomes the focal point of identification between the two women. In motherhood, the struggle with the other is simultaneously externalized and internalized. In pregnancy, the other—the child—is very literally a part of the self as it is contained in the mother’s body and so, for the mother, the struggle with the other becomes a struggle with the self. For Bergman, this paradoxical state of the other at once distinct from and inextricably bound up in the self provides a symbol around which to focus his examinations and it is introduced to the film without hesitation; after all, it can hardly be a coincidence that Bergman chooses for Elisabet to fall silent in the middle of a production of Electra, a play about the complex relations between children and their mother—a play, in fact, about matricide. This, though, can only be realized in retrospect, after one has come to understand that Elisabet has a young son with whom she has a fraught relationship—the facts of which we can never be certain of. Early in the film, while still in hospital, she gazes upon a photograph of her son before tearing it in two. However, aside from this, we know nothing more about Elisabet’s feelings towards her son from her.
Liv Ullmann as Elisabet playing Electra
The climactic scene of the film is saturated by the subject of motherhood. It begins with two hands—Elisabet’s—covering something on a table. Moments later, Alma’s hand enters the frame and covers Elisabet’s (immediately calling to mind the earlier scene on the beach in which Elisabet instigates a comparison of her hands to Alma’s and Alma asks “Don’t you know it’s bad luck to compare hands?” (00:23.02)) as she asks Elisabet what she’s covering. It turns out to be the two halves of the photograph of her son, torn straight down the center and placed together so that they look almost like a single whole. Alma says that they “have to talk about this” (1:06.39), leaves the frame, and sits down opposite Elisabet, so that we can only see the back of her head in the foreground of the frame. She demands that Elisabet tell her about her son and, when Elisabet remains silent, Alma proceeds assertively: “Then I will” (1:06.57). So begins the first rendition of Alma’s monologue, in which she accuses Elisabet of having allowed herself to get pregnant as a result of social pressure and then, once pregnant, of having immediately regretted it and unsuccessfully attempted abortions.
“You began to hate the baby and hoped it would be still born,” Alma accuses before clarifying the exact implication of her accusation with the repetition: “You hoped the baby would be dead. You wanted a dead baby” (1:08.09). In reaction to this, Elisabet closes her eyes, apparently in pain. She no longer shakes her head in attempts to deny what she is hearing but instead seems to accept what Alma is saying and to confirm that she did indeed wish for the death of her son. Alma’s repeated emphasis of the word “dead,” substituting it for the gentle euphemism of “still born,” makes apparent the violence of Elisabet’s supposed feelings for her son and unmistakably calls to mind infanticide. In Alma’s accusation, wishing the baby dead is equated to wishing to kill the baby. Infanticide calls to mind once again the point of departure for Elisabet’s silence: the production of Electra, a play whose background is infanticide and whose subject is matricide. Perhaps this is what was so funny to Elisabet up on that stage: not only does she realize the ridiculousness of being an actor in a world in which we are all inescapably actors, but the irony of the fact that she is acting in a play about matricide, when she herself, a mother, can think only of infanticide. We do not know whether she plays Electra herself or Clytemnestra, but the irony works both ways: as Electra she would be plotting the death of her mother, the role (no matter how unwilling) Elisabet occupies herself; as Clytemnestra she would be mourning the death of her child Iphigenia and attempting to make Electra understand that everything she’s done she’s done for the love of her children—sentiments of which Elisabet herself knows nothing.
Liv Ullmann’s Elisabet at the start of the confrontation
The crux of this mother-child relationship, though, is revealed in Alma’s description of the way in which Elisabet was forced into motherhood by an assault on her identity by the other. Alma describes how, at a party, someone tells her that she has everything except that she “lack[s] motherliness” (1:07.35) and this criticism works its way into Elisabet’s psyche and leads her to believe that she wants to be a mother as she seeks the approval and recognition of the nebulous other that is society. However, the moment she becomes pregnant, she regrets it, but “[she] play[s] the part the whole time, the part of the young, happy, expectant mother” (1:08.04) because she does not want to risk exposing her fear and losing the approval of society. This role of the mother is a performance—just like all the many performances she has made before, on and off the stage—however this one is different in that it is the first part she has been given which she does not want to play, and yet she has no option to turn it down. For Elisabet, motherhood is an identity forced upon her by society, by her husband, by her own child (“the boy was seized by a vast and unfathomable love for his mother” (1:09.20)). She sees her son—the other—as an imposition on and a threat to her own identity. She feels that her obligation to perform for him as the other falsely represents her self. So then, her hatred for her son is misplaced. It is not he that she hates her son, but rather that he is the symbol of the fact of her obligation to play the role of loving mother—of the constraints placed on her self by the obligation to perform for the other.
It is this—the fact of her unwanted role of mother and the self-hatred which arises from it—that awakens Elisabet to the falsity of the world, to the way in which everything she does, everything anybody does, is a performance for the other and not an authentic representation of the self simply because of the inability of any representation to be anything but a representation. By nature, representation is not what it represents and so the self cannot be communicated in its authenticity without translation by representation. Elisabet’s silence is in an attempt to reject the persona of motherhood which has been forced upon her and to protest the inauthenticity of all representation—particularly in the face of the other. And yet, as the doctor points out at the start of the film, her silence itself is an act, a performance designed to demonstrate to the other her protest. Authentic representation is, for Elisabet and perhaps for Bergman, an impossibility in the face of the fundamental truth that everything we do is a representation of ourselves in a performance for the other and that authentic communication of our self can never truly be achieved.
This point of motherhood is not only the catalyst for Elisabet’s epiphany regarding the self and the other (at least according to Alma’s interpretation), but one of the main bases for her identification with Alma. Alma, as we learn during her confessional monologue, has also been pregnant and she, like Elisabet, attempted an abortion, though hers was successful while Elisabet’s was not. And yet both women are controlled by their identification with motherhood: Elisabet in its omnipresence, Alma in its absence. We do not know whether Alma is correct in her assertion that Elisabet’s inability to love her son authentically is the cause of her disenchantment with the falsity of social roles and the limits of self-representation in general (though Elisabet’s facial reactions would appear to confirm at least some grain of truth in her accusations) or whether we should think that Alma is projecting her own guilt onto Elisabet, forcing onto the other woman a reciprocal confession to the one Alma herself made that night in the bedroom, since Elisabet herself refuses to speak, let alone interpret herself for Alma. Whatever the true case of Elisabet’s feelings, it is clear that Alma takes their pregnancies and the complicated feelings each woman has about them as a point both of identification and difference between them.
Throughout the film, Alma, more than Elisabet, has come to be more like the other woman. Elisabet remains steadfast in her character as in her silence, while Alma is steadily bent to resemble Elisabet, partly because she admires the actress so much and initially wants to be like her as a result of a fascination with her lifestyle. This scene of accusation is the peak of that resemblance: it is Alma’s strongest and most assertive moment, where her conviction in describing to Elisabet her own feelings mirrors Elisabet’s own conviction in her silence. In accusing Elisabet, Alma is conflicted: she hopes to simultaneously underline a point of identification between the two women and become like Elisabet, while at the same time she torments her in highlighting her guilt, resenting her for having and not appreciating precisely what Alma lost.
Bibi Andersson’s Alma early on in the film
As the film has progressed, Alma has transferred her initial fascination for Elisabet’s actress lifestyle to fascination for her motherhood. In having her abortion, Alma was not only denied her child and a chance at being a mother, but she was denied the closest thing the film gives us to authentic self-representation: spontaneous action in harmony with the other, as opposed to action in performance for the other. Bergman suggests that the thoughtless, spontaneous sex Alma had that day on the beach with the young boys is the most authentic thing Alma has ever done because it flies in the face of all of the performative roles she normally plays, whether for the benefit of society or her fiancé or anyone else. She is left reeling afterwards, feeling as if she is two people, split between the Alma of spontaneous action—represented by the aborted pregnancy and the lost potential of her motherhood—and the Alma of planned future roles—an Alma also represented by motherhood, but a motherhood which is contrasted to the potential of her earlier accidental motherhood and made to seem inauthentic for its planning and lack of spontaneity. Alma does not look forward to this second motherhood; she looks back regretfully at the lost and irrecoverable feeling of something akin to authenticity in spontaneous motherhood.
Two faces become one imperfect whole
That in accusing Elisabet, Alma sought to earn Elisabet’s recognition in pointing out that they have been through similar experiences, becomes apparent at the end of the second monologue when their faces join for a moment in imperfect synthesis. It is no mistake the the joining of their faces occurs directly after the rendition of the monologue in which the camera focuses on Alma’s face, not Elisabet’s. Alma gets her moment of identification, but it is not the one of perfect unity she might have hoped for, akin to the unity she felt the night of her confession. What is highlighted in the union is not the positive fact of pregnancy, but their mutual guilt as Alma’s accusation is turned back on her. The union imposed by the film on their faces is, itself, imperfect, artificial, and harsh. Similar as they are, they do not fit together seamlessly. Rather, they recall the two halves of the photograph of Elisabet’s son: two halves belonging to the same whole, but which can never be fit together perfectly. If they are to represent each both the self and the other, then they represent a self and an other which are inextricably bound up in one another, which are cut from the same cloth, just as a child is cut from the same cloth as its mother, but which can never be perfectly joined in harmony. They are Bergman’s symbol of the impossibility of escaping the other and truly achieving authentic communication of the self, while also representing the constant desire to escape that relation with the other, to escape the performance, and to find a way to represent oneself as authentically as one can—whether through self-imposed silence, sexual spontaneity, or anything else.
Ultimately, Bergman is suggesting that though the performative aspect of the relation between the self and the other is inescapable, though it is impossible to represent oneself wholly authentically, it is commendable to try to do so. Bergman admires and applauds the two women’s fights to reach authenticity, unsuccessful though they may be as both women are unceremoniously returned to the real world of total inauthenticity at the film’s end—inauthenticity which is underscored by a pointed reminder to the film’s audience that we have been watching nothing more than a performance. In breaking the fourth wall by having his actresses speak directly to and look directly at the camera and in drawing attention to the medium of film itself by shooting an arc lamp, shooting the camera crew filming Bibi Andersson, burning the negative, showing the perforations, Bergman reminds us of the inauthenticity of the performance we have just seen. Persona, the film, has engaged in the taking on of personae, the playing out of performance and in so doing has rendered us, the audience, the other. We have been drawn into Bergman’s dialectic and made to understand the inextricability of self and other by participation in it: he insists on our presence in the film, placing us in the position of the silent spectator, the other being performed to, complicit in the inauthenticity, just as Liv Ullmann’s silent Elisabet is. But in highlighting the inauthenticity, making his audience aware of its complicity in the self-other relation, Bergman helps us to become aware of our own authenticity, just as he condemns his protagonists for doing. It is not the fact of achieving perfect self-representation that is essential, but the fact of recognizing that there is a disconnect between the true self and the self as inevitably performed for the other. In highlighting the performative aspect of the relation both within and without his film, Bergman encourages the questioning and challenging of our inauthentic mode, even if it be in vain.