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.

They are also willing to be personal – and perhaps less knowingly provocative – in their insistence that they are married and that this book comes from that fact. The book isn’t a portrait of a marriage, but their marriage is one of the many marriages they involve us in. So they introduce their book by telling us that it is ‘the late-flowering fruit of a shared obsession … we are married and Shakespeare’s play, its interpretation, and philosophical interpreters have been a goodly share of our connubial back and forth over the last couple of years.’ We can sort of imagine what that might be like. Later on, by way of qualification, they make it as clear as they can that even though, in their view, Goethe and Coleridge saw themselves as Hamlet, ‘We do not see any aspect of ourselves or each other in Hamlet.’ Any? This is not, I think, quite as clear as they might want it to be. By the very end of the book they have something to confess, and as in all confessions something is claimed and something apparently regretted. ‘We write as outsiders, for shame, about Shakespeare, with the added shame of doing so as husband and wife with the implicit intent of writing about love. Perhaps we have completely betrayed ourselves. Perhaps this book will be the undoing of our marriage.’ ‘Completely’? ‘Perhaps’? The outsider thing can be a bit wearing; real outsiders don’t keep telling you that they are outsiders: they just do something unusual and other people call them outsiders. Shame, by contrast, is something the book is unusually interesting about (‘At its deepest,’ they write, ‘this is a play about shame, the nothing that is the experience of shame’). Still, we are left wondering, as perhaps we are supposed to be, what this marriage, their marriage, really has to do with the Hamlet Doctrine.

Wondering about marriages is, of course, one of Hamlet’s occupations and preoccupations in the play. He is obsessed by his mother’s two marriages, and in a sense, with the marriage he will never have with Ophelia. Hamlet, it could be said, is also then a play about marriage, or about a son’s imagining of marriage through imagining his parents’ marriage. It is not obvious what such imaginings as we might have of Critchley and Webster’s marriage will add to our reading of the book. We do need to know, though, that Critchley teaches philosophy at the New School and Webster is a psychoanalyst in private practice in New York City. The Hamlet Doctrine, to be less personal, clearly comes out of an intriguing marriage of German philosophy and political theory, and the German and French psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan.

The first outsider interpretation of Hamlet we are given, after a brief excursus on philosophy and theatricality, is Carl Schmitt’s. Critchley and Webster are lucid expositors of Schmitt as ‘the great theorist of the decision’, famous for his definition of sovereignty as the freedom to suspend the law: to decide what constitutes an exceptional situation, and then to decide what to do outside the strictures of the law. The sovereign is the only person who can ever get away with being a law unto himself. For Schmitt there are two puzzles in Hamlet: why is he so indecisive and unable to avenge his father, and why is it so unclear whether Gertrude is guilty or innocent? His answer is historical: Hamlet is James I, his mother Mary, Queen of Scots, whose husband, Lord Darnley, was murdered eight months after James’s birth in 1566. Three months after Henry’s death she married the man suspected of being his murderer, James Hepburn. The play was a success because, Critchley and Webster suggest, everyone knew it was the new king’s story, and no one could say this openly. Schmitt’s interpretation vindicates the line that Critchley and Webster are committed to: we can only tell the truth through fiction and lies. But more original is their suggestion that ‘Schmitt’s meditation on Hamlet might be read as a kind of critique of his earlier decisionistic conceptions of politics and sovereignty.’ This makes Hamlet into a character who is not failing at something but trying to do something else, something new. Either we say, following on from Critchley and Webster’s suggestion, that Hamlet is deciding to be indecisive, or that decisiveness is no longer what he wants, what he’s after. In some ways it is strange that Hamlet’s indecision has been so bewitching; he is, after all, endlessly decisive, acting (in both senses) throughout the play. He doesn’t kill Claudius, but that is something he would understandably have misgivings about. ‘What is certain is that Hamlet cannot decide,’ Critchley and Webster write. ‘For whatever reason he’s lost his mojo of sovereign potency.’ But as they intimate, ‘sovereign potency’ may no longer, in Hamlet’s eyes, be all that it’s cracked up to be.

Reading him through Schmitt, Benjamin and Hegel, Hamlet is given the benefit of the doubt by Critchley and Webster. He may not be an appealing character, but he is an intelligible one; and inordinately useful for thinking about so many modern preoccupations. The Zelig of critical theory, he can all too easily be many things to many people; the character who felt he didn’t fit in has been made to fit so many competing explanations. For Walter Benjamin, as Critchley and Webster explain, he is a Lutheran, an exemplary melancholic man, devastated and desolated by the world as he finds it, and by the original sin of being himself. ‘The only desire that Hamlet expresses in the play,’ Critchley and Webster remark, ‘the only desire that is genuinely his and not that of the ghost, say, is to return to Wittenberg.’ This is not strictly speaking true: Hamlet desires many things in the play – and who can be in a position to know which are his (or anyone’s) ‘genuine’ desires? But his desire to go to Wittenberg of all places, at the time the play is being performed, is even so of some significance. (Hamlet’s supposed indecisiveness has the effect of making us alert to anything he does seem to want.) Critchley and Webster have a relatively light touch when it comes to placing Hamlet historically and politically, and one learns a lot about the ways in which he is and is not our contemporary.

Just as Hamlet, for Schmitt, was worn down by the disturbing historical reality he represented, for Benjamin, in Critchley and Webster’s spry commentary, ‘mourning, lethargy, sloth, ruin, deathly contemplation, and becoming stone are all that is left to him’ once he fully realises his predicament. Something is too much for Hamlet, there is something he cannot bear which undoes him, and this makes Critchley and Webster more sympathetic to him, and more abstractly theoretical, even melodramatic, in their commentary. ‘What mourning and historical reality share [for Benjamin and Schmitt] is something on the level of facticity, force and fate … One smashes against and breaks upon this Real, or, to turn it around, one is broken into, subjected to, veritably raped by this excess.’ The hypostasised Real is the Lacanian Real, whatever cannot be changed by redescription, whatever is virtually (and traumatically) beyond description. Both Schmitt and Benjamin agree that Hamlet cannot bear very much of his reality; his character is violated and deformed by it – or perhaps, more realistically, his character is fashioned through all this fate and force. As Critchley and Webster put it, ‘Hamlet cannot face this force of fate, that he always flees it means he is condemned to mirror it.’ You become what you cannot face: or, if you absent yourself from your fate, you are nowhere present; and if you always flee your fate, you lose any originality you may have once had. Yet it can’t really be said that Hamlet does any of this; speaking in a way that no one had ever quite spoken before, he is exceptionally vivid, palpably and distinctively present and himself. Whether or not he is one of the ‘veritably raped’ (how does that work?) he gives an extraordinary account of himself. What it is to face one’s fate may not be quite as clear as Critchley and Webster want it to be. There may be many ways of facing one’s so-called fate and Hamlet’s is a remarkable, and remarkably modern one.

In a chapter entitled ‘Unbearable Contingency – Hegel’s Hamlet’, Critchley and Webster propose that ‘what is misguided in the multiple iterations of “the philosophy of tragedy” is its universalistic ahistoricism, usually based on a series of metaphysical assumptions about a purported human nature.’ This is something they want to avoid, though in their embrace of psychoanalysis they come close to a series of such assumptions, as always happens with psychoanalysis (and it isn’t obvious what the alternative is to metaphysical assumptions about human nature). Anyway, as the champion of their preferred historicism, Hegel won’t let us get away with this now, so words like ‘fate’ and ‘destiny’ and ‘human nature’ and even perhaps ‘facticity’ need to be used with care. As their title suggests, for Hegel it was the very contingency of Hamlet’s life, what he called having to ‘endure the fate of finitude’, that is unbearable to him and to us. So, figuratively, as Critchley and Webster put it, ‘we want Hamlet’s death not simply to be the effect of chance, owing to the accidental switch of poisoned rapiers.’

Benjamin wants Hamlet to be a providential Christian tragedy and Schmitt wants it to be prompted by contemporary Christian history because neither of them, in Critchley and Webster’s view, can bear the fact, acknowledged by Hegel, that it is not ‘a redemptive artwork that would both reveal our modern, alienated condition and heal it’. This ‘yearning’, they tell us, ‘for reconciliation between the individual and the cosmic order … one finds all over Shakespeare criticism’. It is the drawback to the otherwise refreshing possibilities of being outsiders to the world of Shakespeare criticism that, however rash one aspires to be, one will be prone to say things that don’t have enough truth in them, or are not true. This yearning has not been all over Shakespeare criticism for some time. For many readers and critics of Shakespeare redemption is not what it used to be.

Rescued from the culture of redemption, Hamlet is, for Hegel as for Nietzsche, ‘full of disgust with the world and life’ and ‘eventually perishes owing to his own hesitation and a complication of external circumstances’. It is not a riveting formulation but it leads Critchley and Webster to what they call their ‘contention’. The Hamlet Doctrine, they write, ‘turns on the corrosive dialectic of knowledge and action, where the former disables the latter and insight into the truth induces a disgust with existence’. Hamlet ‘cannot, or will not, imagine anything more in the gap that opens up. Rubbernecking the chaos and wreckage of the world that surrounds him while chattering and punning endlessly, Hamlet finally finds himself fatally struck.’

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‘Cannot, or will not’, like ‘chattering and punning endlessly’, clearly casts aspersions on Hamlet’s character, aspersions that psychoanalysis helps Critchley and Webster to formulate in the second part of their book. ‘Chattering and punning endlessly’ seems an unduly limited account of Hamlet’s extraordinary eloquence (in the same vein they refer to him as ‘the Danish punster’). But then there is no acknowledgment in The Hamlet Doctrine that the language of the play is in any sense difficult, or that it might not be quite so hospitable to interpretation as they assume.

It is in the psychoanalytic interpretations of the play that Hamlet tends to get his comeuppance. Freud and Ernest Jones straightforwardly told us what Hamlet’s problem was – an unresolved Oedipus Complex – and that they had finally solved it: ‘The conflict of Hamlet is so effectively concealed,’ Freud wrote, ‘that it was left to me to unearth it.’ The reaction to this has often been more of the same, but hedged in by endlessly reiterated disclaimers about how little anyone can know about anyone, or anything; about how modest psychoanalysts have become after having been so arrogant. So Critchley and Webster do a certain amount of playing to the gallery; in a chapter archly entitled ‘Hamletising Psychoanalysis’ we are told that ‘we do not need a theory of sexuality to understand the play: we need the play to tell us about sexuality.’ But then they proceed to give us, depending on one’s taste, an intriguing or rebarbative but more or less straightforwardly Freudian/Lacanian reading of Hamlet; and, alas, no (non-psychoanalytic) news about sexuality.

‘To understand the violence at the heart of Hamlet,’ they write, apparently without irony, ‘we will have to wait for Lacan.’ The wait, of course, is over. And Hamlet turns out to be an uncanny vindication of Lacan’s version of psychoanalysis. Critchley and Webster even go on to suggest that the play itself is akin to a Lacanian psychoanalysis: ‘The play,’ they write, ‘is like an attempt at reknotting anew the strings of one’s being that have come undone, which is essentially the task of psychoanalysis itself. Desire must be resurrected in Hamlet.’ This is, to say the least, a partisan view of the essential task of psychoanalysis, the essential task of psychoanalysis being one of many things that very few people can agree on, inside or outside the profession. And there isn’t universal agreement about whether it is useful or true to describe ourselves as being knotted or unknotted strings. Lacan uses this analogy as part of his often grandiose claims for psychoanalysis: ‘Psychoanalysis alone,’ he writes, ‘recognises the knot of imaginary servitude that love must always untie anew or sever.’ This is obviously pertinent to Hamlet, and Critchley and Webster are very good at showing just how illuminating Lacan can be about him. But unless you are a Lacanian it is easy to feel that they are rather too taken with their favourite Freudian, and that their book would have gained a great deal from a little less imaginary servitude to Lacan.

Out of a good deal of sophisticated theory they leave us with something plainly psychoanalytic: in their view Hamlet can’t speak truthfully. He can’t speak because he can’t desire because he can’t mourn. He has, in the Lacanian way, abjured his own personal truth by betraying his desire; he is incapable of what Lacan calls ‘full speech’. He cannot acknowledge what and whom he has loved and lost (the play, it should be said, is much more interested in people’s inability to speak than in their inability to speak truthfully). They seem to suggest that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have lost at all. So after much informed commentary on Lacan’s reading of Hamlet, Critchley and Webster end the psychoanalytic section of their book with a rallying cry: for psychoanalysis through an understanding of Hamlet. Which makes you feel that psychoanalysis is what they have been leading up to all along: that The Hamlet Doctrine is a way of spelling out a psychoanalytic doctrine to which they are wedded. Psychoanalysis is about what Hamlet didn’t realise he was about. ‘The modesty of analysts,’ Critchley and Webster write, ‘is such that they only issue a call. This is what you are! It is not in their power to set any human defect, if there even is such a thing, right. They can only help to bring you toward a gap in yourself, a place of radical loss in the abyss of desire. Give yourself to it.’ How different is this from believing that there is a sense in which the psychoanalyst always already knows everything about us, however apparently open her knowledge is? As modest calls go this seems dauntingly confident.

Critchley and Webster have one other ‘modest proposal’, which Hamlet has helped them articulate: that ‘the heart of any artistic response to the present should perhaps be the cultivation of the monstrous and its concomitant affect – disgust.’ This disgust, they believe ‘might not simply repulse or repel us. It might also wake us up.’ They want what they call a kind of ‘anti-art’, as ‘violence against the violence of reality’. Only this meeting of violence with violence can dispel our ‘shallow shadow world’ of ‘passivity’ and ‘narcissism’. Hamlet must have been suffering from the wrong kind of disgust. Or the right kind of disgust in the wrong world, the world that was waiting for Lacan.