The Hamlet Doctrine

In over 400 years of literary criticism, Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, must hold a position among the most analyzed. And beyond the gamut of academic fields from which many scholars have shared their perspectives, it would surprise me to discover if an article or book had not been written by a fishmonger about the relevance of the play to their profession. You may rest easy and release your breath. At this time I have no plans to add my own thoughts on Hamlet. Compiling an unabridged edition of the play for performance next year and directing the production has me busy enough.

Now in the course of preproduction, I try to read a different book on the subject each week and this week’s encounter was Stay Illusion: The Hamlet Doctrine by Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, respectively a philosopher and psychoanalyst, husband and wife team who published the book in 2013. It was an intellectual romp, both stimulating and stupefying because of the analytical depth explored in both of the authors fields. At least it was so for me. My familiarity with Freud is limited: while myths are useful as analogies in analysis, I pretty much reject the Oedipus Complex as a strong model of human behavior. Besides, I’m much more Jungian. Yet, there seems to be some threads of value in the arras which Freud has weaved regarding Hamlet, at least insofar as the authors have presented. So, clearly I must re-read and absorb more Freud, particularly regarding Hamlet. Similarly, my studies of the classics are more than rusty – they are ancient in themselves. I can recall large portions of Hamlet’s soliloquies which I memorized in 1981, but none of the concepts of Euripides or Socrates which I read in college in 1984. So, I had to access the encyclopedia as I tried to figure out why I identified so much more with the Dionysian man than the Apollonian man. Again, the authors intrigued me; I was captivated but confused. The book is an invitation for me to go further into the philosophical and psychological aspects of Hamlet, far beyond what is essentially needed to direct my vision of the play. And by this, I mean this book has the potential to help me with further personal growth.

Stay Illusion: The Hamlet Doctrine was one of the dozen or so books I’ve borrowed this month from the public library via the interlibrary loan program. Unfortunately this copy must be returned, but not before I write down all the references, quotes and revelations indicated by the sticky note page markers you can see in the above photo. I want to reread it again later this year, but I will definitely have to obtain a copy for my home library.

I have so much to say about the portions of Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy which these authors have included in the book; it deserves an essay in itself. However, I must first study Nietzsche’s work in its complete form. With only two semesters of German and so many years ago, I think I will read it in English. (But not until after the OISS all-female production of Hamlet next year. No more distractions, please!)

Nietzsche wrote:

“In this sense the Dionysian man resembles Hamlet: both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and nausea inhibits action; for their action could not change anything in the eternal nature 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 doctrine of Hamlet, not that cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer who reflects too much and, as it were, from an excess of possibilities does not get around to action. Not reflection, no–true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet and in the Dionysian man.”

And in me! Finally, someone can define a fragment of my existential angst in terms that resonate. Who would have thought that it would be Nietzsche? Alan Watts, of course. But, Nietzsche? Noted. Onward.

“Here, when the danger to his will is greatest, art approaches as a saving sorceress, expert at healing. She alone knows how to turn these nauseous thoughts about the horror or absurdity of existence into notions with which one can live: these are the sublime as the artistic taming of the horrible, and the comic as the artistic discharge of the nausea of absurdity.

Yes! Art is my salvation, the muses – all of them – my saviors. (Don’t get me started on saviors: I am my only savior. While rejecting solipsism, I believe all of reality — all that is within the realm of my psychical existence — is but my fantasy. That means I’m the only alchemist who can transform my disgust into an Epicurean delight. The infinite and eternal unity — be it the Brahma of the Hindus, the monism of the neoplatonists, the God of Bruno and Spinoza with all the trappings and the suits they don — is filtered through the only singular psychical experience that may said to exist objectively, revealing the finite and temporal multitudes of psychical experiences which our egos call our subjective realities . And in this is Dionysus and Apollo, two different sides of the same coin which is, ultimately, an illusion that we beg to “stay” for fear of our identity being equated to nothing. As usual, I wax a digression.) Suffice it to say, while I have been only in recent years able to see the sublime through the banal, it is only through art that I can overcome this existential crisis. The dots are connecting. The veil is dropping for me, but to relate it I must erect a curtain and bring my reality to the stage; don the sock & buskin, cleave the general ear with horrid speech, make mad the guilty, appall the free, confound the ignorant and amaze indeed the very faculties of eyes and ears.

Stay Illusion: The Hamlet Doctrine is an analytical tool I plan to use now and again, to explore Hamlet and better find my voice. After Hamlet, I will continue with OISS and Shakespeare to my bitter end. But, I will return immediately to my magnum opus, the epic Renaissance historical drama with Bruno as a protagonist. And the relationship between Shakespeare and my play are so striking, I can hardly contain my passion.

In the Eye of a Wasp

I’ve recognized that when I’m reading my mind occasionally leaps ahead of my eyes to anticipate what words may follow. Am I alone in this? Is it impatience? I don’t know. It’s clearly possible to read something and misinterpret the intended meaning. I also find that the results can be fairly creative if not provocative.

Knowing the Orcas Island Shakespeare Society would be reading William Shakespeare’s play, The Comedy of Errors, I was re-familiarizing myself with the text beforehand when I came across an interesting metaphor.

In Act II, scene ii, lines 216-217, the character Adriana speaks with the man she believes to be her husband: I read,

Come, come, no longer will I be a fool, 
To put the finger in the eye of a wasp

I stopped reading, looked up from the page and attempted to bridge the context of Adriana’s speech with what Shakespeare might have meant. I thought by “in the eye of a wasp” he might mean something akin to “poking or stirring a hornet’s nest”, but even more particular, with cleverly adding the hue of futility one would find in actually trying to poke or point to something so small as a wasp’s eye. It seemed a fool’s errand to me. Shakespeare never ceases to amaze me! But, then I thought, “Let me read this again more slowly.” And so I did.

Come,   come,   no   longer   will   I   be   a   fool,
To   put   the   finger   in   the   eye   and   weep

To put the finger in the eye AND WEEP!

Where in hell did the WASP go?

‘Twas ne’er in mine eye’s sight,
And e’er in my mind’s eye.

Revisiting Rothko

For many years I never cared for the works of Mark Rothko ( 1903-1970). While I have a strong affinity for abstract art, I never considered his work to qualify as art anymore than fabric swatches or Pantone color cards. Granted – art is subjective and its value can only be assigned by the observer. But, I balked for reading that someone paid $86.9 million dollars in 2012 for a few shades of orange paint on canvas (Rothko’s 1961 painting, “Orange, red, yellow”)

Google “Rothko” and the results show the images that come to mind when I hear his name. Over the years, I would walk briskly through museum rooms in which his work hung. I admit it is possible to look at an egg yolk and see a chicken. However, my imagination is enough; I do not need to look at the yolk with my eyes and certainly cannot conceive of paying more money for one than would be necessary to save a small country from bankruptcy after a natural disaster.

But I never studied Rothko from the perspective of art history, and never considered the fact that, like most artists, he went through various periods – perhaps crucibles. Furthermore I cannot blame a single artist for what collectors are willing to pay for their work.

Today, for the second time this year, I discovered an early Rothko work that I found arresting, beautiful and full of something extraordinary – I could study it for hours. Both times it happened to be the same painting, the “Rites of Lilith” created in 1945, and that is why I’ve decided that it is important enough to document it now.

Rites of Lilith, 1945 by Mark Rothko

It seems one has to become an art historian to appreciate the genius often dulled or obscured by an artist’s exposure to life’s tribulations and the passage of time. The first time I saw this image, it was accompanied by a quote of Rothko’s which I will include here:

"In art, as in biology, there is a phenomenon that can be described as mutation, in which appearances radically change at a tempo much more rapid than that at which they normally proceed. As in the case of biology, we have no means to determine the process by which this radical change occurs. Yet we do know that it is a reaction to a form of congestion. It is a desperate change due to the arrival at a point where the corollaries to a situation are exhausted, when the stimulus to additional growth is sluggish and a rapid rejuvenation is needed so that art, through disuse, does not atrophy in much the same way as an unused human organ. Here art must attain a new start if it is to survive. Then, assiduously, it renews its traditions by marriage with alien traditions, by the reexamination of its own processes, and by those means reestablishes contact again with its own roots. It is in this way that new plastic worlds are born. For art, like a race, cannot inbreed very long without losing its incentives to continue; it needs the rejuvenation of new experiences and new blood. These mutations, it must be clear, however, do not constitute a change in properties, or mean that art has discarded its past. On the contrary, mutation involves a more conscious evaluation of art’s inheritance and the redirection of that inheritance into channels where it can be continued with greater force.”
― Mark Rothko, The Artist's Reality: Philosophies of Art

It is hard for me to envisage the chain of mutations leading one from works like “Rites of Lilith” to those like “Orange, red, yellow”, which appear to be a banishment of dynamic geometry in favor of plain and vibrant color textures that seem to carry a much simpler message. The later work of Rothko seems to be no longer a complex product of alchemical processing, but a mere question: “what is it that you think you see here?” It’s hard to imagine the progression, but the National Gallery of Art gives us a brief look at the brilliance of Rothko’s early years.

[See https://www.nga.gov/features/mark-rothko-introduction/mark-rothko-early-years.html]

I suppose I am now a Rothko fan.