Loads of Learned Lumber

Monday, June 16, 2014

Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, _Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine_

CRITCHLEY IS A philosopher and Webster a psychoanalyst, and their book on Hamlet scants the ponderously large amount of work done on the play by professional literary scholars, as C. & W. acknowledge in an apology-cum-vaunt in their closing paragraph:

It is not without bucketfuls of shame that we write about Hamlet. The Shakespeare Industry is heavy with cultural gravitas, to say nothing of the mountainous literature that exists on Hamlet alone. It should take a scholar a lifetime to master it. We are but inauthentic amateurs, like some of those we have undertaken to work with in this book. [...] 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.

Do you get the feeling they actually think rather highly of themselves, in spite of all the shame, etc.? After all, the fellow "inauthentic amateurs" that they "work with in this book" include Hegel, Freud, Nietzsche, Lacan, Walter Benjamin, and Carl Schmitt, with cameos by Bataille, Schopenhauer, Mallarm√©, Adorno... that kind of amateur. In short, C. & W. are way too in with the cool kids to be hanging out with a bunch of dryasdust Shakespeare scholars.  I mean... euuuh.

Which is too bad, because one can think of literary critics who would have gotten them a lot farther along in their arguments than does, say, Schmitt, whose speculations about the play as a political allegory are as dazzling as soap bubbles and about as sturdy. Janet Adelman. Marjorie Garber. Stephen Greenblatt.  (Greenblatt does get a participial phrase on p. 66.  One wonders if their editor insisted.)

Still, though somewhat grudgingly, I have to admit the book is worth reading, for they draw heavily on a new and apparently unpublished translation, by Cormac Gallagher, of Lacan's seminar "Desire and its Interpretation"--significantly different, they say, from the version that appeared in Yale French Studies in the 1970s. I tend to think of Lacan as someone who has passed his sell-by date, but the chapters in which Critchley & Webster engage Lacan on the play (basically, a latter half of Part Two) are enlightening.

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