To Be or Knot to Be

Adam Phillips

In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche gives what Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster call a ‘fascinating short interpretation’ of Hamlet, from which they take their title. They don’t think much of the book up to that point: it’s when he gets to Hamlet, they argue, that Nietzsche wakes up. This isn’t a view everyone would share, but it’s of a piece with the many assured judgments they make about Hamlet in the play with the most canonically self-doubting hero. Everyone, it seems, is more certain than Hamlet about what’s wrong with him. Nietzsche, though, uses Hamlet, as people tend to do, to make a larger point. ‘The Dionysian man,’ he writes,

resembles Hamlet; both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and it disgusts them to act, for their action could not change anything in the eternal essence of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion – that is the Hamlet Doctrine.

Knowledge kills action. To be able to do anything we need veils of illusion to conceal the horrifying truth from ourselves; and art, according to Nietzsche, is the best veil (‘We have art,’ he remarked, ‘that we may not perish of the truth’). Fundamentally we are disgusted by life, and we are paralysed by this disgust when and if we acknowledge it. What Nietzsche calls the Dionysian, Critchley and Webster usefully suggest, is ‘the introduction of a kind of lethargy into the organism, a kind of lassitude or languor whereby we leave the everyday behind and fall into a forgetfulness of the world’. The ‘world of spies’, the ‘murderous regime’, as Critchley and Webster refer to Elsinore, is the cause of Hamlet’s wild confoundedness. For Hamlet the world is exactly what he doesn’t want it to be, and he seeks refuge in his mind. This defeatedness makes him cruel and self-obsessed – ‘narcissism’ is the technical term. Critchley and Webster are often appalled by him; ‘What is so heroic about Hamlet’s disgust?’ they ask. ‘Do we even like him?’ Ophelia is the best person in the play, perhaps the only figure ‘with ethical integrity. She stays true to her desire, even in madness.’ Hamlet, they tell us twice, ‘is really not such a nice guy’. He is inauthentic (‘It is Hamlet’s inauthenticity that most intrigues us’), cowardly and solipsistic; and their book, like many books before theirs, wants us to know not merely what’s wrong with him, but why he is like this; and to explain it they turn mostly to Freud and Lacan. What would have to have happened to someone, what would someone have to have done, to turn out like Hamlet?

Hamlet is treated here as though, in the great tradition of A.C. Bradley, he were a real person, the ultimate proof of what Coleridge called Shakespeare’s ‘psychological’ genius (Coleridge had been using the term ‘psychological’ in his lectures since 1800). Coleridge is referred to once by Critchley and Webster – ‘Coleridge sees Hamlet as Coleridge’ – and Bradley isn’t mentioned at all. They place themselves outside one tradition, but fairly and squarely within another. They are, as they say at the outset, perhaps with some bravado, ‘outsiders to the world of Shakespeare criticism’, and so they have allied themselves with what they call ‘a series of outsider interpretations of Hamlet, notably those of Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Hegel, Freud, Lacan and Nietzsche’. As outsiders go, at least in the academic world, these seem fairly mainstream figures. But they have been chosen because what each of their interpretations ‘enables is a bold but sometimes distant and rash take on Hamlet’. They take their cue for this rashness from a wonderful passage in Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘On Being Ill’, which begins: ‘Rashness is one of the properties of illness – outlaws that we are – and it is rashness that we need in reading Shakespeare.’ Critchley and Webster don’t want to write just another book about Hamlet, and they are willing to be rashly provocative.

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