Delay

Michael Neve

  • Hamlet Closely Observed by Martin Dodsworth
    Athlone, 316 pp, £18.00, July 1985, ISBN 0 485 11283 3
  • Hamlet edited by Philip Edwards
    Cambridge, 245 pp, £15.00, June 1985, ISBN 0 521 22151 X
  • The Renaissance Hamlet: Issues and Responses in 1600 by Roland Mushat Frye
    Princeton, 398 pp, £23.75, December 1983, ISBN 0 691 06579 9

Delay, the reasons for delay, the question as to what kind of behaviour is going on in the business – indeed, the industry – of delaying, is worth some time. For one kind of modern mind, there’s no problem: delay is simply the tedious exterior of the lazy sod, the sod beneath the skin. Delaying isn’t an activity, with hidden meanings that may be of interest: here, it’s a gap in nature, or a sign of complete inactivity. This seems an increasingly unattractive line to take, usually emanating from people unable to grasp that some kinds of ‘work’ are pathological, and that a life that cannot work at a number of things besides ‘work’ is not always a good life. There are certainly new kinds of manager around, unable to stop ‘working’ (or face the weekend void), who see delay as a nuisance, and who seem quite happy to confer a universe of delay, and unemployment, on others, partly as a form of self-protection. Here the possibility – as with so many so-called neuroses – that delay is a struggle for health, or at the very least a way of stalling disease, is not permitted. You’re late. You’re out.

Hamlet, no less, sees into another area where the uses of delay have even more sinister pay-offs: ‘the law’s delay’. In his justly celebrated Arden Shakespeare edition of the play, published in 1982, Harold Jenkins looks at the vast literature that has already appeared on the subject of ‘delay’ in Hamlet, and reminds the reader that many critics have found it an exhausted subject that should be put aside. Ruth Nevo, for example, in 1972 dismissed the question as ‘misconceived’. Jenkins isn’t so dismissive, but he does say one very odd thing, which I imagine others have pointed out: in the second footnote on page 137, he says that the word delay is ‘never used by or of Hamlet in the play’. This must be wrong, since Hamlet certainly does use it, seeing how it pays the professions, content in their monopoly, to keep you waiting. The sentence to be passed, or the damages to be awarded, go into a permanent suspension, and, as in Bleak House, entire lives can pass as Time attempts to utter those three words: ‘the law’s delay’ becomes part of the menace of bureaucratic life, linking Hamlet to Kafka, the latter being someone who would certainly have acknowledged the connection through Dickens. Delay is what the Americans would call a ‘double-header’, even a ‘double-whammy’: you delay, you’re for it; they delay, you’re for it. Hamlet, the play, affiliates delay with death, not as dying, but as what comes up next, and one can see what terrors Shakespeare was speaking of.

Delaying has rightly received the attention of psychoanalysis, with interesting results. Often discussed as ‘deferred action’ (nachträglichkeit), Freud posits deferral as a stratagem by which the self can incorporate, under later and altered conditions, traumatic events from the past that could not be borne at the time they might be said to have happened. Within the non-linear, fractured, uneven development of the self, traumas are repressed, and then readmitted into the later life of a ‘maturer self’, now able to deal with them. The catch, of course – or, for the inimitable Jacques Lacan, the joke – is that the version that the later self will allow into consciousness cannot be anything other than a translation, an alteration, even a new story. The history of maturation depends upon deferred action, upon the deferred rather than divided self, and yet the glorious moment when the repressed material emerges is also a moment in fiction, bringing both psychical effectiveness and, wonderfully, altered meaning. Delaying, in this deeply humane account, is inevitable, and of enormous benefit. What has to be jettisoned, à la Hume, is too much anxiety about being a consistently transparent continuous self, since health itself, wrapped in the Fabergé egg of delay, depends upon healing fictions. As with ‘lying fallow’, or ‘being lazy’, the psychoanalytic view of delay, not for the first time (if you see what I mean), reminds one of the great capacity for human insight that curious discipline still offers. And one of the reasons this needs stressing is that this whole possibility, the possibility that one might wake up, having dreamt the past into the future, is forbidden and rendered impossible for Hamlet, who instead lives in a prison of sexual fruitlessness, disgust and stasis. In Ophelia’s words: ‘By Cock, they are to blame.’

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