A pointless pile of corpses

The Hamlet Doctrine, Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, Verso

In The Western Canon, that iconic work that is both equally loved and hated (it seems) for his bombastic but, let’s face it, learned pronouncements on who’s in and who’s out, Harold Bloom says that Shakespeare invented the psyche before Freud invented psychoanalysis. The point is that a figure like Hamlet can seem so real in all his psychology, that it is no wonder that he can be psychoanalysed as he is.

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In The Hamlet Doctrine Critchley and Webster (husband and wife team, which they say is significant, but it’s not always clear exactly in relation to the book why this is significant) don’t so much psychoanalyse Hamlet, but at least draw lessons from Hamlet for psychoanalysis. Their contention is that in the middle of Hamlet is a great void, primarily a lack of action, due to the “Hamlet doctrine”: when we know too much we can’t act. Hamlet indeed stands for a modern predicament – that we are swamped with information, and rather than spur us to action, this often paralyses us. How, for example, do we explain all those thumping four wheel drives on the road when we are swamped with information about how petrol-guzzling is ruining the planet? Some it seems can only shrug the shoulders, ignore the fast-approaching future, and keep up with the joneses.

Back to Hamlet – Jamieson and Webster fly the flag for psychoanalysis, but I can’t help but think of John Carroll’s intriguingly dark and wonderfully scathing book The Wreck of Western Culture (nice parallel with the Harold Bloom title), which criticises Western culture’s humanist philosophy and which takes some time picking apart Hamlet, the key modernist work of Shakespeare (for Carroll), and decides that psychoanalysis is a major culprit – it catches us in a whirlpool of self-obsession, and make the dubious offer that self-knowledge will cure what ails us. Carroll suggests that therapy mistakenly elevates the psychological to the realm of the metaphysical, and that psychoanalysis will therefore never get to the heart of modern angst. Does Hamlet, ending as it does in a pointless pile of corpses, make some sort of prediction about modern society? Carroll’s verdict is that the arc of humanism ends with “Hamlet, Hamlet, and more Hamlet”.

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