Photo by: Isabel Asha Penzlien
WRITING in mid-19th-century France, literary critic Charles Augustine Sainte-Beuve concluded that a classical work of art was simultaneously “new and old, easily contemporary with all time.” This definition, now itself a classic, needs to be updated. Sainte-Beuve should have rather said that a classic lives in a time out of joint, often more in synchrony with the past and the future than with its own present.
In Stay, Illusion! Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster read Shakespeare’s Hamlet in such a way that its homonymous character becomes more contemporary with us, 21st-century brooding and melancholic urbanites, than with its original audience. Approaching the play through a double philosophical and psychoanalytic lens, the authors foreground what is most vibrant in it: the power of powerlessness, meaninglessness, and death. Reams of hairsplitting Shakespeare scholarship and criticism aside, Hamlet is in the first instance about the unbridgeable gap between theory and praxis, thoughts and deeds. Sounds familiar?
Hamlet’s predicament, so crucial to the understanding of our own age, teaches us “the Hamlet doctrine,” or Hamletlehre, a term Critchley and Webster borrow from Friedrich Nietzsche. The German philosopher realized that knowledge, the face-to-face encounter with reality and its hopeless indifference to human pursuits, “kills action” and any form of desire. We can only act under “veils of illusion,” the fictions that make our lives bearable by leading us to believe in the relevance and potency of our hopes, dreams, and desires. Hamlet cannot act because he knows too much.
Stay, Illusion! sifts through various occasional commentators of Shakespeare who, like Nietzsche, offer an outsider reading of Hamlet. Hegel, Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, James Joyce, Sigmund Freud, and Jacques Lacan, among others, have all tried their hand at diagnosing the play’s malaise. Each added his own twist, recognizing in Hamlet a mirror of the modern human condition: a melancholic, un-sovereign, lethargic, slothful young man, incapable of desire and disgusted with action. What hides beneath these theoretical-theatrical masks, however, is Nothing, Hamlet’s nihilistic core. It is precisely here that we find Critchley and Webster’s original contribution to “the Hamlet doctrine.”
According to the two authors, the tragedy of Hamlet (and that of the modern subject) is that he is trapped in an unsustainable situation. On the one hand, “Hamlet does not accept what is,” including the death of his father, his mother’s likely betrayal, and his uncle’s usurpation of the throne. On the other hand, he is unwilling to act in order to change the rotten state of things. In a nihilistic dead-end, he loses his foothold in the present and forfeits a different future. That is why he announces his death thrice before he actually joins the “pile of corpses.” The entire play, then, unfolds in the delay between a de jure death of the subject and the body’s de facto transformation into a corpse.
Before going any further, we ought to ask, “Why Hamlet?” Why not, for instance, add an “Oedipus doctrine” to the Oedipus complex? The key difference between ancient and modern tragedies is that in the former tragic heroes recognize the catastrophic nature of their condition belatedly, while in the latter anagnorisis (or recognition) is present from the beginning. In contrast to ancient tragedies, where action unfolds — whether consciously or not — in pursuit of knowledge, modern drama evinces the paralysis of action by an excess of knowledge. The more one knows the worse off one fares, realizing one’s impotence to change the current state of things. Knowledge and its pursuit are devoid of meaning because they do not lead anywhere, or better, they lead to a nihilistic Nowhere.
Nihilism is the outcome of Hamlet’s collision with the unadorned, raw reality of his father’s murder, which provokes an intense feeling of disgust in the son. As in Lacanian psychoanalysis, the Real harbors a traumatic core, unmediated by subjective representations. If Hamlet is the typical (or prototypical) modern subject, then his nihilistic disgust cannot be explained away by an individual pathology. Even assuming that his violence, his response in kind to his clash with reality, is “the violence of failed mourning,” the failure must be one we all share with the tragic character. What would successful mourning look like in a place where the very possibility of working through trauma is precluded by a sober view of history as a pile of corpses? (Just think of Benjamin’s Angel of History, who sees “one single catastrophe that keeps piling ruin upon ruin” instead of a mere succession of events.) What can we do before we are swept into the pile? How to respond to nihilism?
At first blush, one may think that art — the mechanism of sublimation par excellence — should be ruled out in the exploration of escape routs from the nihilist impasse. Why would beauty survive the collapse of all previously esteemed values brought about by nihilism? And yet Critchley and Webster find a use for art. For them the saving grace of contemporary aesthetics lies in its tendency toward a de-sublimation “that attempts to adumbrate the monstrous, the uncontainable, the unreconciled, that which is unbearable in our experience of reality.” The violence of (de-sublimated) art brings the mirror to the violence of the Real. In the era of nihilism, when there is no desire left to speak of, disgust, along with the entire aesthetics of indignation, may work as its substitute. Instead of the Lacanian “Do not give up on your desire,” the authors seem to urge us, “Do not give up on your disgust.”
The loss of desire is indeed a big part of the nihilistic attitude, perfectly epitomized by Hamlet. The Prince of Denmark “is searching for desire, in the name of king and country, of virtue and beauty; we might say, in the name-of-the-father.” Hamlet’s world (and time) is unhinged because the articulations of desire — that magic pivot between knowledge and action — are missing from it. Still, one neither loses nor finds one’s desire as if it were some misplaced artifact. Its absence is tantamount to the loss of meaning attached to objects (be they persons, things, or ideas) that used to make life worth living. The problem is that Hamlet is searching in all the wrong places, in all the signifiers that have become obsolete with the advent of nihilism. If anything good comes out of the nihilistic attitude, it is precisely the deflation of hierarchical, metaphysical, or patriotic values, in the name of which desire could previously be legitimized.
Given that Hamlet is “the drama of surveillance in a police state, rather like the Elizabethan police state of England in the late sixteenth century or the multitude of surveillance cameras that track citizens as they cross London in the current second late-Elizabethan age,” desire cannot be reanimated through an affirmation of its ties to the king (or queen) and country. Wouldn’t a politics of disgust, not unrelated to aesthetic de-sublimation, be much more opportune than a nostalgic resurrection of national sovereignty?
After all, in the so-called liberal democracies, we are all like Hamlet, bereft of even a shred of sovereignty to decide the fate of our polities. For us, nihilism dons the appearance of the good old motivational deficit that has haunted democratic theory for quite a while. Although they do not touch upon this topic, Critchley and Webster would explain waning motivations, political or otherwise, with reference to the excess of knowledge that disables action. Like Hamlet, we know from the outset the ugly truth of “democracy”; it is this thoroughly modern excess that lies at the heart of the “corrosive dialectic of knowledge and action.” In turn, the politics of disgust would de-sublimate bitter discontents with the present, coupled with resignation in the face of the future, in movements such as that of the Spanish Indignants. A starry-eyed politics of hope is appropriate to the subjects of desire; the politics of indignation and disgust befits the lot of nihilists.
Nihilism can be, of course, painted in different shades. Its lighter version is not political but ethical; it is the stance encapsulated in the words “Let be.” Preferring to interpret these words as a response to the question “To be, or not to be?”, Critchley and Webster inscribe them in “the refusal of any ability on our part to predict the future, to claim the power to foresee the course of events.” Whereas ethically “Let be” spells out Levinasian radical passivity and openness to the Other, politically it capitulates before the rise of technocracy. Sanctioned by the indifference of the many, critical instances of decision-making pass into the hands of the least representative unelected officials. On the political arena “Let be” means “Let someone else decide for me”; it delegates responsibility to others, most often gray-suited men, intent on running the state like a business.
The question Hamlet confronts us with is an either/or choice between being and nonbeing. But our relation to the future can be mapped on a continuum extending between absolute control and sheer resignation, with some futures more desirable (or more disgusting) than others. When it comes to our incapacity to discern among these heterogeneous possibilities without resorting to outmoded metaphysical systems of value, nihilism is not an excuse.
The title of Critchley and Webster’s book is a passionate appeal. It is also a citation from Hamlet where, in the first scene of Act 1, the protagonist enjoins the ghost to not leave with these very words, “Stay, illusion!” How does the fate of illusions pan out in nihilism? After all, a purely nihilistic worldview is a completely disenchanted one, obstinately refusing to place any protective, symbolic screens between the subject and the “mute rock of reality.” When illusions abide, nihilism is far from being all-pervasive; we may still escape into the small pockets of belief that prevent us from being squished by the unbearable weight of the Real. But which illusions should be allowed to stand and which should be let go? What are the grounds upon which such choices may be made and justified? Hinting at the potentialities of de-sublimated art, the authors wish for this particular illusion to stay. Perhaps the aesthetics of disgust could provide us with a model of “desirable” illusions: stripped of excessive symbolism, disenchanted, conscious of their own limitations. This, however, is only the beginning of a search for ways of moderating nihilism without losing its radical edge. Stay, Illusion! will remain a milestone in this ongoing quest.
Patrícia Vieira is the author, most recently, of Portuguese Film 1930-1960. The Staging of the New State Regime. Michael Marder has written most recently, both for LARB and in book form, about plant-thinking.