Hamlet’s Nothing: Berfrois Interviews Simon Critchley
by Russell Bennetts and Daniel Tutt
Simon Critchley is the Hans Jonas Professor of Philosophy at the New School for Social Research. He wrote The Hamlet Doctrine: Knowing Too Much, Doing Nothing with his wife, Jamieson Webster. They see Hamlet as a play about nothing. We think they may have something there.
You’re a philosopher and Webster is a psychoanalyst. You have both written extensively on Freud and Lacan, and you bring psychoanalysis into your writing on Hamlet. The psychoanalytic reading of Hamlet has been a really important part of Hamlet studies. Ernest Jones, Freud himself, everyone comments on it. The philosophical reading of Hamlet is also very significant. You get the “Hamlet Doctrine” phrase from Nietzsche. You write that the Hamlet Doctrine turns on the corrosive dialectic of knowledge and action, where the former disables the latter and the insight into truth produces a disgust with existence. This was most concise.
It’s a pretty strange idea.
Moving onto Shakespeare – we often get hung up on relying more on the commentators than on Shakespeare himself. Your book strikes a good balance between the two, with a particular emphasis on the long history of philosophical commentary on Hamlet. To what extent was Shakespeare a philosopher?
He wasn’t, I think in just about every important sense. If a philosopher is someone who is trying, through the use of reason, to find a kind of intelligibility which grounds our experience of that which there is, that very general sense of philosophy as a project that is trying to uncover the true nature of reality, a metaphysical project, then Shakespeare isn’t a philosopher. Shakespeare is someone who leaves us in the dark as to what that reality might be. What we get instead is an experience of ambiguity and opacity. We look at these plays and we are left – not confused – but having been presented with a conflict between different positions where we are not told what to think. Whereas with philosophy, we’re generally told what to think. Any commentators too, they tell you what to think, the dead philosophers as well. Drama or theatre – in many ways this is the virtue of theatre – doesn’t do that. It presents us with a situation, which is complex. Reason is on display, arguments are happening back and forth, but it’s not clear what you should think at the end of the play – I think at the end of any of Shakespeare’s plays. And that’s what audiences find intolerable about Shakespeare, about theatre in general, that’s why they won’t comment on it. They want to be told what it means. The Hamlet Doctrine, amongst many other things, is an attempt to do that – to refuse to say what this is ultimately about. It’s something like that. When we talk about skepticism, that’s kind of what we have in mind.
You present Carl Schmitt’s reading of Hamlet and discuss the politics of Hamlet, what you call “Hamletization”. It’s probably the most important reading of the political implications of Hamlet. Based on his reading of Hamlet, Schmitt argues that all politics happens in a radical decision to establish sovereignty. This strikes a similar chord to Badiou’s theory of the truth event, and even Žižek’s idea of the act – a sort of radical, earth-shattering moment to break us out of what’s rotten in Denmark. To what extent is that a plague of modernity, this “Hamletization”? One could also apply Foucault’s biopolitics as a kind of impossibility of real politics, where we lack the capacity for real change to take place. Countless political theorists since Schmitt present a theory of an act or an event to break out of this deadlock of the political. Are we doomed to a Schmittian politics? How is this connected to what Hamlet tells us about the modern condition, politically speaking?
The first thing is that it’s not clear what the ‘modern condition’ is. One of the axes that we’re grinding in this book and in my own current work on ancient tragedy is to try and destabilise the distinction between ancient and modern tragedy and, by implication, antiquity and modernity. I don’t believe in modernity. I don’t believe there is such a thing as modernity. And you get a kind of modernity fundamentalism in all kinds of areas of inquiry.
If you look at a play like Hamlet, it’s more like there’s some relationship between a world that is passing away and a world that is coming into existence. The play seems to be taking place at a kind of end between those two moments – the old and the new. The old is still there, though it’s in crisis – the king has been murdered – so the order of sovereignty based on kings has been destabilised with the murder of Hamlet’s father. And the new world is coming into being, which looks like a world of crime and opportunism, and that’s what’s wrong. The play is kind of juxtaposed between the two domains. It’s as if what most philosophers want to say of Shakespeare is that he’s the philosopher of modernity – that’s what you get with Hegel, Schelling, everyone. And we’re not so sure about that. And if you look at antiquity, it’s not clear what’s ancient about antiquity.
Ancient drama is as modern as modern drama. In exactly the same way, if you look at ancient tragedies, you find a world that has passed away – a world of myth – and the world that’s coming into existence – the world of law. And there’s a crisis. The play seems to be articulating between those two. The enigma of Schmitt’s reading is that he’s the theorist of the decision, the decision on the exception, and this constitutes sovereignty. And sovereignty is what politics is all about. He writes on Hamlet, where the sovereign, Hamlet, is not sovereign, and where a decision cannot be made. And where the sovereign is undergoing this “Hamletization”, the indecision. And so on the first level, Hamlet seems to throw into question Schmitt’s theory of the decision. Which is indeed how he criticizes Benjamin in the second section of his book on Hamlet.
If there’s something about the modern condition in Hamlet, with all the provisos I’ve put around that, it’s something about the instability of sovereignty. Or the fact that all we see in a play like Hamlet is the problems of sovereignty. To push that even further, we could say that in a lot of the great Shakespearean tragedies – this is also true of most Greek tragedies – there’s a drama which seems to be tracing the lines by which sovereignty is constituted and deconstituted at the same time. So it’s politically much more ambivalent. It’s more interesting. And this sort of desperate attempt to base politics upon some radical act, this decision, seems to be placing a question behind the field. Theatre doesn’t do that. That at least gives us pause.
The other book that’s important in The Hamlet Doctrine is Walter Benjamin’s The Origin of German Tragic Drama, which presents us with a Baroque world, a world of fragments, a world where all meaning has been evacuated. And Benjamin makes a connection, an analogy between the world of the 17th century, the Trauerspiel, and the world of Weimar Germany. And we are making a further analogy with our world. So there’s something about the Baroque character of political life at the present moment. One symptom of that is the kind of desperation to find some ideal of a decision or a radical act or an event which could completely change things. That might or might not be a good thing, but theatre doesn’t seem to be about that. Certainly there are versions of theatre which seem to be about that, like Brecht, but I think they’re weak for that reason. So in a sense this is very politically pessimistic – and pessimistic is the right word – in the sense in which all optimism is gone, it’s totally evacuated. We’re looking to the really unpleasant nature of political power and the way it functions through mechanisms of surveillance, control and espionage. We spend a lot of time analysing that in part of the book. You could say that’s kind of where we are. And in this book we’re not offering a kind of political exit from that. We’re staying with that level of analysis. I could make various kinds of political noises, but it wouldn’t be what’s going on in the book. Here is a line I read last week by Susan Sontag, a little after she wrote The Death of Tragedy, she says, “tragedy is a vision of nihilism, an ennobling and heroic vision of nihilism.” And that’s kind of right, I think. We’re kind of starting with that thought and looking for what we can do with it.
Turning to the work of Jacques Lacan in your reading of Hamlet, it’s clear that he is probably the most significant commentator that you turn to in the book. Why is this? Why Lacan? Why was Hamlet so important not only to the institution of psychoanalysis, which you try to make an argument around, but also to Lacan’s own project?
On one level, it’s a kind of value judgment that we’re making. It’s a superbly interesting reading of Hamlet. The book began in a couple of different places: it began with me doing a course on tragedy with Judith Butler in 2011, and the last session of that was on Hamlet, which I did with Jamieson. She had been working on Lacan’s reading of it. So I was thinking that through and she was writing that through. Then we became aware of other treatments that we could line up – Schmitt, Benjamin, Hegel, Schelling, all that stuff. So Lacan was going to be the intellectual glue of the book. Then things began to really come together around that.
In relationship to psychoanalysis, the story that we’re telling is really a story of its origins – a Hamlet complex rather than an Oedipus complex. Then there are further complications that we look at, such as why Hamlet was so important to Freud, these correspondences with Wilhelm Fleiss etc. But also the fact that Oedipus gets to kill his father and sleep with his mother and, well, good luck to him. That’s Joe Biden for you! That’s the comparison to ancient tragedy. Hamlet does nothing, but arguably wants to do both. So what it reveals is the fundamental character of inhibition. What it reveals about desire is not acting on desire, but being inhibited from action on desire. That, for Lacan, is where we are. This is the tragedy for the inhibition. We’ve got thoughts on that and the sense in which it is peculiar wherever we are, whatever millennium we’re in.
After the sexual revolution, one would imagine that we would be less inhibited. But it’s exactly the opposite. There’s a massive increase of inhibition. Not inhibition in terms of going into a coffee bar and asking for a latte or checking a website and finding out who you’re going to hook up with, it’s inhibition in terms of deep subjectivity in an act. Hamlet’s inhibition – which is the word that we keep coming back to in the book – is a terrifying thing. It’s not as if there’s some easy way out of it. The flipside to Lacan’s reading of Hamlet is the reading of Antigone, and where Hamlet is inhibited and Antigone isn’t and goes all the way with her desire. She’s kind of the heroine of psychoanalysis and Hamlet is maybe the reality of psychoanalysis, or the anti-hero of psychoanalysis. Lacan wanted people to act in relationship to desire, but it’s a very hard thing to do.
Mignon Nevada as Ophelia, 1910
The Hamlet Doctrine concludes with a chapter on love (“The Most Monstrous Contradiction of Love”). Lacan has a very interesting statement on love and the end of analysis where he says that one of the problems with the end of analysis is that the love for the analyst disappears, and the problem turns on how to make love – as an affect – more dignified. One of Lacan’s formulations for this is that “only love sublimation can humanise jouissance.” In other words, love is that affect that allows for rapport to be made with monstrous desire or jouissance. In Hamlet, we find that he suffers from a delayed transference. There’s no passageway through, and everything is always an impasse. Can you speak about love in relationship to psychoanalysis and what you wanted to achieve in that concluding chapter?
Hamlet’s desire is inhibited on the one hand and he tries to track the others’ desire. The only desire that he articulates in the play is the desire to go back to resume his life as a graduate student, which is always quite interesting. The play in that sense, in relation to the question of love, is like a camera obscura. We see things upside down. It is a play where love is evacuated, or, insofar as it exists, it exists in the form of the refused and debased Ophelia, where it manifests itself as psychosis. Love lets us imagine that she loves him in some way that drives him mad. The play’s lesson in many ways is negative. It’s about how not to love. So at the end of the book we kind of switch that around and talk about love and the ambition for both of those would be in complete agreement with what you said. A more dignified conception of love is what this is all about.
Love is also linked to some activity of humanisation, that this is what humanises us, turns us into something other than little monsters. But love itself is not substantial, and the theme that we tracked throughout the play is the theme of nothing and we look at every occasion that that word appears in the play. Love is also an exchange of nothings. Love is to give what you do not have to someone who doesn’t want it. It’s about an experience of negation and being able to sustain that, not in the assurance of payback or even in the experience of trust, it’s something more fragile and more dramatic. Love is that activity that we have that can enable us to become something other than what we are. To become something other than what we are through a sudden affirmation of nothing. That’s what we’re trying to track towards the end of the book, and obviously that is something that reflects on the book itself as an act of love between two people. Hopefully it’s not complacent and too self-regarding. It’s a kind of risk. Love is where we end up and it’s this activity that Hamlet doesn’t possess.
If there was a psychoanalysis of Hamlet, if he were on the couch, he would be trying to break down that inhibition, knowingness, reflexivity, reason, in order to try to make him genuinely want something, and to be prepared to give that up in relation to someone else. That would be a start. He can’t do that. The others are either dead, like his father, or enigmatic like his mother, and the person with whom one imagines he’s in love with at some level, Ophelia, once he gets the news from the ghost that his father was murdered, well, she is dropped. She is debased and left. Then this madness erupts later on. So love is what it’s all about, and the question of sublimation, absolutely.
For Lacan, it’s interesting to note that the signifier precedes affect, so the logic of the signifier dominates over affect. Affect for Lacan is actually not central; however, you bring in the affect of shame, and frame it as the affect that the Hamlet Doctrine presents to the subject. Shame is the primary exposure to the nothingness of existence. As you write, “shame does not define an interior in revolt but limits the infinity that haunts any interiorisation. Shame is experienced when a law is seen from the outside and not when it is felt as a violation of an internal law or principal.” This is where psychoanalysis comes in because the law is both exterior and interior.
If shame is experienced when a law is seen from the outside and not when it is felt as a violation of an internal law or principle, this means that shame is that affect the subject can never quite get out of. It is, therefore, no shock that it is the most accurate affect of ‘Hamletization’, of being rotten in the state of Denmark, of this kind of atonal political experience. So where do you end up with shame? Do you want to follow shame all the way through to the end and make of it an ethical project?
There is that moment in Lacan from The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. We were also thinking of Lévinas, who valorises shame and the rest we essentially make up on our own. And we try and make a distinction between shame and guilt. So guilt is the experience of my indebtedness in relationship to the law that I give myself, the internal principle that I have, which when I break with that principle – when I act sinfully – I feel guilt in relationship to the law. If that’s the usual way in which the moral subject is constituted, which is kind of what Nietzsche argues in the second essay of the Genealogy of Morals, so the history of morality is also the history of interiorisation. For Luther, conscience is the work of God in the mind of man. For us, conscience is our inner voice, where we speak to ourselves and chastise ourselves, but which does not quite with us and we feel guilt when we realise we’ve acted poorly or badly. So trying to de-valorise guilt and put more emphasis on shame as something which befalls us or literally falls over us.
Shame is something which occurs when I see myself in the truth and not just a reflection of my narcissistic delusions. “Shame lies on the eyelids”, a line we borrowed from Anne Carson, and the head goes down. Shame is something that we feel externally, like in the phenomenon of blushing, on the surface of the skin, or in the feeling of being looked at. Obviously the location of shame is biblical; shame is the affect that accompanies the Fall. It’s what the angel brings to Adam and Eve before the expulsion from Eden and it’s a kind of an exterior affect, something which befalls us from the outside. That interests us and it interests us ethically. I think also what it means to be an ethical subject or self is to proceed from a kind of basic shame. It opens up the subject in a really interesting way. Makes the subject exposed, vulnerable and weak, in a sense. It’s a subject that laments, that mourns, all those things. There’s a strong moral dimension implicit in shame, though we would really have to draw that out a great deal. It’s very important to us.
So is the effort to create an ethics that would enable the subject to move past shame?
No, we use shame. This could be seen to correspond to the kind of ethics that I tried to develop in Infinitely Demanding, which is based on this idea of ‘heteroaffectivity’, trying to get away from the idea of the subject as self-constituting in relationship to the law or principle, namely the subject of autonomy, but thinking about the subject as affectively constituted in relationship to something that comes from outside. Shame would have that structure. Shame wouldn’t be something we get beyond. It’s something that we could forget. It can be forgotten in various ways. In can be forgotten by acting as if you are a god, acting the way Oedipus acts, or acting in the way a tyrant acts, the way Vladimir Putin acts. Or it can be forgotten by experiencing oneself as a victim, as a subject of oppression, as blameless and shameless. That’s another way in which you can lose a sense of shame. Shame is something which befalls us from outside and points us towards others. The fundamental characteristic of the characters in Hamlet is their shamelessness. What we’re trying to do is to show the shame that the machine of theatre produces and that could be a preparation for something like love. Shame and love would be linked in that way, as they’re linked in the last pages of the book.
You write that “shame is foreclosed in the humanist readings of Hamlet” and the anti-humanist discourse of Lacan brings us to a different understanding of tragedy itself.
Tragedy gives us lessons in shame by showing us people that are shameless, and showing those people who are shameless torn apart and destroyed. Then some of them – Oedipus, Creon and others – seem to experience some kind of shame. The anti-humanism is kind of linked to the fetish for authenticity, the fetish that we can be true to ourselves. This is a line given to Polonius, the windbag in the play, “to thine own self be true.” And the one thing that seems to be true of Hamlet is that you can’t be true to your own self, whatever that means. The self is internally divided; it’s hemorrhaging. It’s a kind of half-being that’s splintered between different kinds of experiences of desire. It’s a conflictual mechanism. Using Hamlet as a basis for celebrations of humanist individualism is based on an inaccurate reading of the play.
One is reminded of a sort of elementary Kierkegaardian reading of existential authenticity.
We know what Heidegger says about Antigone, which was highly influential for Lacan. But it seems Hamlet was not of interest to Heidegger. The play does not feature at all in his major writings. You’re a Lévinasian scholar and you said he tries to valorise shame. What does a valorisation of shame mean for Levinas?
It would be, very crudely, that Heidegger’s philosophy and his political commitment are both shameless. And if you’re working from within that Heideggerian landscape, that map, as Lévinas was, it has certain basic truths. Lévinas said in 1948 that the essential thing was to leave the climate of Heidegger’s philosophy, but we cannot leave it for a philosophy that would be pre-Heideggarian. That’s the trick. There’s no way back to Kant or Hegel or whatever; Heidegger is a kind of conceptual map wherein we have to move. It’s a paradigm shift in philosophy for Lévinas, but it’s a paradigm shift which did lead to these moral and political commitments, which for someone like Lévinas were disastrous. How then could one then rethink that paradigm in ways that didn’t entail those outcomes?
The way I read Lévinas is that he’s trying to give us a different vision of the ethical subject, a vision which is posited around what I call an originary authenticity. So what’s wrong with Heidegger in this sense is the emphasis upon authenticity, which is there in his reading of tragedy, in his reading of Antigone. What Heidegger picks up on is Greek, which is defined by uncanniness, and which launches out heroically into a confrontation with what he calls “the overpowering power” and does violence with the overpowering power and it results in death. Heidegger there has a heroic idea of the subject which I see someone like Lévinas undermining, in the name of a different ethical orientation. Though it is indeed true, as you said, that Lacan’s reading of Antigone seems to owe a lot to Heidegger’s reading of Antigone, that is somewhat problematic for me. I think there are other elements in Lacan’s work which can point you more in that kind of Lévinasian direction. I tried to argue that in my writings on Lacan and Lévinas in the late ‘90s. I’m not suggesting that they’re saying the same thing, but there are echoes back and forth that are really interesting. It’s the idea of the ethical subject as heteroaffectively constituted, open, vulnerable, capable of something like love.
Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, Pieter Claesz, 1628
It links, of course, to Lévinas’s primary ethical reversal of Heidegger by placing dependence on the other as the sort of prior position and how shame is something that has to be worked through. On the psychoanalytic couch, in that setting, shame is the indication that you’ve started to develop what is called ‘subject supposed to know’, and shame is what ushers in the transference. Transference is like an abandonment of shame and commitment to love where the analyst occupies that position. You give that to them. It’s a strange exchange. It’s sort of a different kind of exchange. And the position of knowledge is so central there. There’s so much. It’s so rich.
It has to begin through shame to love. Psychoanalysis has to begin with accepting that you’re an asshole. That’s where we begin.
That’s the core of psychoanalysis. That’s why people today don’t want to do psychoanalysis, at least in the Lacanian form. Jamieson has written on this – borderline personalities and various inabilities to situate what Lacan called ‘master signifiers’ – both in the field of politics and in the field of mental health. Psychoanalysis is an impossible confrontation with shame that we’re not ready to encounter.
It’s really bad news. They want to be told, “I’m okay, you’re okay, we can thrive and grow through the cultivation of the right practices” and all the rest. Go with Arianna Huffington or whoever it might be. And that’s just going to make the whole thing worse. Psychoanalysis is an impossible profession not because of what it does in terms of the clinical situation; it’s impossible to bear the truth that finding out about yourself is not going to make you feel better.
Psychoanalysis might make you feel something. The problem for Hamlet is that he doesn’t really feel very much, other than revulsion for existence and that leaves him imprisoned.
This interview is based upon a video conversation between Critchley and Tutt. It was transcribed by Austin Carder.
Cover image by Tommaso Galli