Simon Critchley - a brilliant one-of-a-kind mind-game occupying a strange frontier between philosophy, memoir and fiction
Simon Critchley, Memory Theatre, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2014.
A French philosopher dies during a savage summer heat wave. Boxes carrying his unpublished miscellany mysteriously appear in Simon Critchley’s office. Rooting through piles of papers, Critchley discovers a brilliant text on the ancient art of memory and a cache of astrological charts predicting the deaths of various philosophers. Among them is a chart for Critchley himself, laying out in great detail the course of his life and eventual demise. Becoming obsessed with the details of his fate, Critchley receives the missing, final box, which contains a maquette of Giulio Camillo’s sixteenth-century Venetian memory theatre, a space supposed to contain the sum of all knowledge. That’s when the hallucinations begin...
‘Memory Theatre is a brilliant one-of-a-kind mind-game occupying a strange frontier between philosophy, memoir and fiction. Simon Critchley beguiles as he illuminates.’—David Mitchell
‘With a sense of mischief combined with surprising reverie, Simon Critchley has braided together ideas about memory from the past with the latest thinking about unreliable narrative, altered states and the mysteries of consciousness. Memory Theatre is a tantalising, textual Moebius strip – philosophy, autobiography, and fiction twisted together.’ —Marina Warner
‘Simon Critchley is a figure of quite startling brilliance, and I can never guess what he'll do next, only that it is sure to sustain and nourish my appetite for his voice. His overall project may be that of returning philosophical inquiry, and "theory", to a home in literature, yet without surrendering any of its incisive power, or ethical urgency. ... I read Memory Theatre and loved it.' —Jonathan Lethem
‘Novella or essay, science-fiction or memoir? Who cares. Chris Marker, Adolfo Bioy Casares and Frances Yates would all have been proud to have written Memory Theatre.’ —Tom McCarthy
'A strange, affecting and stimulating book that's both a philosophical hiostory and a personal memoir. Sifting through the archives of a dead friend, Critchley takes a fascinating journey through the philosophy and history of memory, and the technologies of remembering dreamed up by thinkers since classical times.'—Hari Kunzru
I was dying. That much was certain. The rest is fiction.The fear of death slept for most of the day and then crept up late at night and grabbed me by the throat, making sleep impos- sible no matter how much alcohol I had drunk that evening. Insomnia had been my clandestine companion for much of my adult life, at least after the accident. But since the discovery of the boxes and the building of the memory theatre, it had in- tensified with the force of an implacable logic: If I was going to die anyway, then why sleep?
Then the bladder game would begin. Teeth brushed and flossed, a confident final piss in the toilet, a few pages of Ulysses perused in the exquisite 1960 cloth-bound Bodley head edition, sleep would softly descend... only to be interrupted by that vague alien-like pressure in the lower abdomen. Do I need to piss or don’t I? Up and down, to and fro, throughout the night until the terrors of darkness disappeared with dawn. Suicidal and sometimes homicidal thoughts would slowly subside. Sleep would come, but too late.
The next day I would walk around with a thousand invis- ible tiny lacerations around the eyes and a painfully acute sensitivity to noise that would make the most humdrum tasks hugely cumbersome. This had gone on for three years, my fear growing stronger ever since the realization. I was exhausted with exhaustion.
Noted philosopher and notorious obsessor Simon Critchley will share his fascination with memory theaters. Ever since reading Frances Yates at a tender age, he has been completely obsessed with the classical arts of memory and in particular with various crazy attempts to build a memory theatre, a kind of machine that would permit total recall of the entire sum of knowledge. Critchley will talk about how the occult and hermetic arts of memory were revived in the Italian Renaissance, in Shakespeare and mobilized in Hegel before turning to his own attempt to build a memory theatre in the Netherlands. It ended in disaster.:
“Death is a type of space, which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit,” the Committee of the International Necronautical Society (INS) says in the first line of their Founding Manifesto, before explaining that the INS intends “to bring death out into the world . . . In the quotidian, to no smaller a degree, death moves . . . Our very bodies are no more that vehicles carrying us ineluctably towards death. We are all necronauts, always, already.” I mention the INS, intriguingly described by the Society’s co-founder Tom McCarthy as a “semi-fictitious organisation,” because Simon Critchley is listed as its “head philosopher.” And “semi-fictitious” applies, too, to Memory Theater, Critchley’s first official, albeit markedly experimental, work of “fiction,” that word being vexed by the text’s disparate elements of autobiography, fantasy, theory, and philosophy.
Critchley teaches philosophy at the New School and at the European Graduate School. He has written extensively on thinkers ranging from Derrida and Beckett to Hegel, Nietzsche, and Blanchot—yet death recurs as a perennial theme within his writing. His early The Book of Dead Philosophers collected quasi-fictional stories regarding the deaths of 190 thinkers, with Critchley considering how these individuals thought about death beyond their own inevitable demise. Now, Notes on Suicide examines the sociological and literary history of the act, before performing an unflinching self-examination of Critchley’s own relationship with the choice between life and death.
Perhaps closest to Memory Theater is the essay anthology Very Little . . . Almost Nothing: Death, Philosophy and Literature, a work of mourning framed by the illness and passing of Critchley’s father; a death he calls “the perhaps ultimately senseless source of the book’s attempted sense-making.” With this in mind, Memory Theater can perhaps be seen as an exercise in sense-making of the author’s own inevitable death, a contemporary entry within a long philosophical and literary tradition.
Critchley begins the book with an arresting statement: “The fear of death slept for most of the day and then crept up late at night and grabbed me by the throat.” His relationship with mortality thus cemented, the tone is set for the novel’s remainder. The trigger for its particular investigation into death is Critchley’s discovery of a mysterious collection of papers belonging to his deceased friend, (also a philosophy professor) Michel Haar. Ranging from correspondence between Lacan and Jean Beaufret about Heidegger’s breakfast habits, to academic manuscripts, superficially these papers appear innocent. Delving further, he finds an odd set of hand-drawn charts, resembling astrological maps, but plotting the lives, times, and (crucially) deaths of philosophers:
These were not standard astrological projections at all. They were memory maps, spatially organised devices like the memory theaters Michel had discovered in Francis Yates’s book. They weren’t so much birth charts as death charts, necronautical rather than genethlialogical.
Ominously, Michel’s chart accurately predicted events in his own life occurring after its completion, including, troublingly, his death in a sanatorium in 2003, with Critchley concluding that, “Knowing his fate, he had simply lost the will to live.” Such composed reflection is rapidly dispelled upon discovery of a chart bearing his own name, comprising intimate and private details of his and his family’s life, and, with alarming exactitude, the time, date, location, and cause of his death.
Initially, this discovery inspires a quiet calm in Critchley. What follows is a brief summary of his professional career, with each publication and appointment apparently fulfilling Michel’s prophecies. However, in 2008 he receives a tiny scale model of Guilio Camillo’s memory theater, setting into motion an entirely more macabre and disturbing sequence of events, with Critchley becoming increasingly reclusive, plagued by hallucinations so vivid they would not be amiss in a horror film: “A cacophony of voices engulfed me and then the furniture in the lecture theater began to elevate. I became convinced that everyone in the room, including myself, was dead. I could smell my own flesh rotting.” While the matter explored here is not particularly unique—what one would do if presented with the precise date and time of one’s death—it is Critchley’s response to this information that forms the fascinating narrative crux, making the novel a singular response to an unremarkable query.
Rather than taking every effort to avoid the place Michel named as his terminal location, he in fact seeks it out. Although the fatal knowledge drives him to the edge of sanity, Critchley feels, in a way, more in control of his life than before. He initiates his obsessive quest to build his own memory theater in which to first preserve his identity, then recount it, and finally die as a “completed” being: “At the instant of my death, I would have recalled the totality of my knowledge. At the moment of termination, I would become God-like, transfigured, radiant, perfectly self-sufficient, alpha and omega.” Such grandiose hopes betray a significant element of narcissism in Critchley’s quest. Not content to die humbly, he longs for transcendence, as if preservation of all his philosophical knowledge, Greek grammar, and critical theory could make him more than a man.
The book’s eponymous vessel, built painstakingly by Critchley in the Dutch town Den Bosch (birthplace of Hieronymous), appears to exemplify the INS’s “ultimate aim”: “the construction of a craft that will convey us into death in such a way that we may, if not live, then at least persist.” A footnote in the manifesto highlights that the term craft “must be understood in the most versatile way possible”; one of these understandings is embodied in both Critchley’s psychological and architectural reactions to his advancing demise. He traces the etymology of the “memory theater,” from the Greek poet Simonides through Italian Renaissance occultism, Hermeticism, and Hegel’s seminal The Phenomenology of Sprit, to nineteenth-century historian Frances Yates, and her influential book The Art of Memory.
Yates, a relatively unknown figure, plays an important role. Her book, published in 1966, is a study of the methods used to store vast quantities of knowledge before printed texts were invented. In it, she traces the “art of memory” from Ancient Greece to the Romans, the Middle Ages, and onwards through the Renaissance and seventeenth century, and Critchley deftly summarizes her findings:
Yates shows how this ancient memory tradition is powerfully reanimated in the classicism and occultism of the Italian Renaissance . . . When the art of memory met the new teachings of the Renaissance with their belief in the divinity of man, then recollection became the via regia for recalling the entirety of knowledge from its first principles. With the mastery of the right techniques of memory, total recall would be possible and the human would become divine. The memory theater was the microcosm of the divine macrocosm of the universe.
Critchley offers a brief but insightful reading into Yates’s text, illuminating humanity’s persistent quest for a kind of divine immortality through the preservation of thought, and uses this as a strong framework for his own concept of artificial memory.
Aside from Yates, the book is studded with a jumble of disparate references, ranging from German philosophers and Greek thinkers to the post-punk band The Fall, and the obscure character Jilted John, created by English comedian and actor Graham Fellows. When juxtaposed with philosophy’s big names, the pop-culture references momentarily distract from the book’s academic leaning, but overall the effect is distancing, and for those of us who enjoy our literature without a side helping of Hegel, somewhat liberating (particularly since the sections concerned with the Phenomenology, while well written, are somewhat dry). This US edition collects Critchley’s references at the back, perhaps in anticipation of future readers who, many decades hence, will find these references superannuated. The intended audience for Memory Theater seems clear; well-read literati, versed in Greek philosophy; Critchley’s academic peers; fans of theories of death and the absurd, and so on. If one is not so inclined, wading through the book’s allusions may prove off-putting.
Although Critchley is no stranger to turning himself––and his life––into texts, his character struggles to establish himself strongly enough to balance Memory Theater’s fiction with its academic tone. Only when he focuses on the human side of this story––a man struggling with his own mortality, and the grief of his friend’s death––does the novel become a novel, not an essay. When he invites us to inhabit his own psyche rather than those of long-dead philosophers, he finally establishes with his readers an intimate, beguiling connection. One particularly evocative section takes the form of a sensory and aesthetically stunning dream sequence, with Critchley floating around a Gothic cathedral:
I floated into the chapter house, with stone carvings of three-headed kings, veiled women, fighting lions, and tumblers, directly over the dean’s throne. There were many, many monkeys and the carving of a vast serpent eating a cat. The angle of a vault entered the cranium of the Green Man and went out through his mouth. There were mouths everywhere. Fiercely oral architecture. Eucharistic gluttony. Eat the bready body of God and wash it down with his sweet blood—like Leopold Bloom with a gorgonzola sandwich and a glass of Burgundy.
The respite offered here is all too short and sweet, and those longing for more of the same may feel disappointed at the scarcity of such beautiful writing. Memory Theater is always interesting and never truly dull, but one cannot help feeling teased by such limited glimpses into Critchley’s imaginative vision.
Another example of such vision being given space to breathe is his personal meditations on death. As is appropriate to this investigation into the “staging” of death, Critchley makes reference to Beckett—a regular figure in his academic research (see Very Little . . . Almost Nothing)—and indeed certain sections of the novel seem directly influenced by the Irishman’s prose:
it’s not death that terrifies me, but life’s continuation, its stretching into a distance that recedes as we try to approach. No purpose, aim or goal. That is the most difficult thing to endure. Not death, but dying. Death will happen. Yes. It is certain. But not now, and life cannot be consumed in the now. The now of nows. It is forever not now.
Now consider Beckett’s Worstward Ho:
Gnawing to be gone. Less no good. Worse no good. Only one good. Gone. Gone for good. Till then gnaw on. All gnaw on. To be gone.
All save void. No. Void too. Unworsenable void. Never less. Never more. Never since first said never unsaid never worse said never not gnawing to be gone.
In this late-career piece, characteristic of Beckett’s increasing obsession with the insufficiency of language to communicate the notion of death and experience of dying, he speaks of an “Unmoreable unlessableunworseable evermost almost void,” of which Critchley’s “now of nows . . . forever not now” epitomizes. Critchley’s failure to capture his own death was inevitable, as the “evermost almost void” will always be just that—unreachable, untouchable, inexplicable.
That the fear of death inspires such prodigious desire for a grain of permanence in the face of a vastly indifferent universe that even Critchey’s staunch atheism wavers is not entirely unsurprising. It is difficult to criticize such a change of tune, and one of the strengths of this novel is how it inspires us to confront our own hypothetical reactions to such life-altering knowledge. And while the obsessive quest laid out in these pages is unlikely to represent the lengths many would go to in order to secure a sense of immortality, Critchley’s revelations following the failure of his plan are far more relatable:
We do not make ourselves. We cannot remake ourselves through memory. Such was the fallacy driving my memory theater. We are not self-constituting beings. We are constituted through the vast movement of history, of which we are the largely quiescent effects.
Memory Theater is a somewhat uneasy mixture of the philosophizing Critchley is best known for, and a fantastical, almost Gothic plot, evocative at times of Poe and Lovecraft in its torturous detail. Beckett, Nietzsche, and Hegel visibly inspire the novel as befits Critchley’s academic background, but these influences frequently overwhelm the narrative and overshadow the far more engaging human story. Despite his lapses into rather dry philosophizing, Critchley is undoubtedly a skilled and inventive writer—as a first novel, this shows promise for what could come in the future, and is, for the most part, an enjoyable meander through well-researched, interesting, and engaging concepts. While doubtful that Critchley will ever find himself shelved in the fiction aisles, it is just as unlikely that his intention here was to cast off the robes of his profession and pursue a best-selling career. Memory Theater fulfills many possible purposes: the entertainment of Critchley’s existing fans, the broadening of his repertoire to include “novelist,” and preservation of the critical thought one would expect from a scholar such as he. - Rosie Clarke
Noted philosopher and notorious obsessor Simon Critchley will share his fascination with memory theaters. Ever since reading Frances Yates at a tender age, he has been completely obsessed with the classical arts of memory and in particular with various crazy attempts to build a memory theatre, a kind of machine that would permit total recall of the entire sum of knowledge. Critchley will talk about how the occult and hermetic arts of memory were revived in the Italian Renaissance, in Shakespeare and mobilized in Hegel before turning to his own attempt to build a memory theatre in the Netherlands. It ended in disaster. - See more at: http://worldvoices.pen.org/event/2013/02/27/obsession-simon-critchley-memory-theater#sthash.rUUWqaAr.dpuf
In the twelve years from 1969 to 1980, David Bowie released a string of fifteen albums (thirteen studio and two live). With each new record, he gave us not only new sounds, but new ideas and new personas. He reinvented himself so that there was no stable Bowie; there was just the amorphous shapeshifter halfway between his last project and his next project. In retrospect, each album seems hinted at in the previous one, but in the moment, no one could have guessed the moves Bowie would make. Everything was revelation.
While Bowie's greatest stretch of prolific genius was in the 70s, we are in the midst of philosopher Simon Critchley's greatest stretch of prolific genius right now. He's released twelve books in the first fourteen years of this millennium, including his meditation on the poetry of Wallace Stevens, Things Merely Are (2005); his hilarious compendium of philosophy viewed through the deaths of various thinkers, The Book of Dead Philosophers (2008); his collection of documents from the Archives of the International Necronautical Society, in collaboration with novelist and fellow necronaut Tom McCarthy, The Mattering of Matter (2012); his rumination on belief for unbelievers, Faith of the Faithless (2012); and his treatise on Shakespeare's Hamlet, through analysis of various outsider interpretations of the famous play, written with his wife Jamieson Webster, Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine (2013). Critchley takes a cue from Bowie's playbook, making what he calls "right turns" with each new project. Like Bowie, he reinvents himself so that there is no stable Critchley; there is just the amorphous shapeshifter halfway between his last project and his next project. Revelation.
Critchley has two books being released this Fall: an examination of the man he claims is the greatest artist of the last forty years, David Bowie, and a narrative involving another of his long-time obsessions, memory theaters. In this, our third annual conversation, we talk about those two new books, Bowie and Memory Theatre, in addition to Prince, Heideggerian deworlding, the failure of Joyce criticism, the problem of suicide, and much, much more.
The other night I was reading a piece on Michael Jackson, which quoted him as having said, "Deep inside I feel that this world we live in is really a big, huge, monumental symphonic orchestra. I believe that in its primordial form, all of creation is sound and that it's not just random sound, that it's music." You seem to fight against this romantic conception of the world and of art. You write, "Music like Bowie's is not a way of somehow recalling human beings affectively to a kind of pre-established harmony with the world[. . .]Rather, Bowie permits a kind of deworlding." Would you say your definition of great art then is, in a sense, art that deworlds?
Yeah, for me, it is. This gets us to a big philosophical claim which I don't really argue properly in the book because I'm not really sure I can argue it.
We're in our heads. We have consciousness and a relationship to objects. We live in a kind of subject-object world. You might say we're theoretical spectators on the world, and philosophy begins from that. We ask questions like: "Does the external world exist?" "Do people out there have minds like me?" One claim about music is that it cuts beneath that to a level of attunement to the world that is deeper than consciousness. It's a very attractive thought. You can find that in Nietzsche. You can find that in Schopenhauer. Music speaks to the will, the unconscious. That's an interesting thought. The nice part of that idea is that music reconnects us with the world.
I want to add a twist on that. It certainly is operating at some deeper level than consciousness. It is speaking to our unconscious at some level, but I think it pulls us out of the world, rather than reconnects us to it. It gives us a breathing space where we're free of the world. I think this is why listening to music in your bedroom is so important. Your bedroom is a place where you can be alone, away from the family, away from all of that. For me, it's this deworlding, pulling you away from the substance of the world, that's interesting about music. It's related to Heidegger in a way.
Yeah, you mention Heidegger either immediately before or immediately after that deworlding quote I pulled out.
Anxiety for Heidegger is the mood that first reveals the self. It's the mood where the self is first precipitated, precipitated against the world. The world as it were drops away, slips away. What's revealed is me, but not me as some substance, rather me as a nothing -- a me that is a kind of mood of anxiety or boredom or a bundle of neurons or whatever it might be. That's the zone that music speaks to. That's the claim I'd like to make, as strange as it seems.
There's this lovely moment in the section titled "Discipline" where you're talking about Bowie in the 80s. You write, "We mustn't forget that there have been awful moments to be a Bowie fan. There have been some illusions I really could have done without." I wonder if you could talk more about the 80s era Bowie, maybe what you were feeling then and what you feel about it now.
I think I overdo it in that sentence. There has to be a fall. I'm constructing a rather convenient narrative: there's the great Bowie of the 70s, the fall in the 80s, and then he slowly crawls his way back in the 90s, and he is resurrected as Christ triumphant with Heathen and Reality in 2002 and 2003. Then he disappears again only to reemerge again, the second coming in 2013. I needed to tell a story about Bowie, and the work of the 80s is the casualty in that. I mean I do think there's bad work in the 80s, terrible work, like Tonight and Never Let Me Down. But there are also things there that are redeemable. There are good tracks by Tin Machine. It's not entirely disastrous. Also, at that time, I wasn't really listening to much of it. I was studying mostly. I was doing philosophy in those years, and I was trying to put my boyish love of Bowie to one side.
In the 80s, I think he just lost interest. He was happier. He was off the cocaine. He was probably living just a regular, healthy life. He had his acting career, which is a disaster. He can't act. I wish he could act, but the only film he's good in is The Man Who Fell to Earth, where he's basically himself. The rest of it just isn't good.
I would say his acting is his music in a way, no?
Exactly, his acting is his music. The paradox of acting, of course, is that great actors don't act. A great actor, whether it's Philip Seymour Hoffman or whoever, isn't pretending. It's them. They're speaking words that are written down for them, but it's them. People that can't act act. And that's Bowie. When he's acting, he's pretending. When he's performing, he's not acting, even when he's acting a role. When he's playing as Ziggy or the Thin White Duke, it's true, he's not pretending.
We've discussed various films and filmmakers in our previous conversations. I'm curious if you'd want to see a great Bowie biopic on screen? Whether a sort of standard biopic or a more experimental play with the mythos of the musician like the Bob Dylan film I'm Not There. And if so, what you'd want from it?
I rewatched Control by Anton Corbijn, the movie about Joy Division. I didn't like it when I first saw it. I had watched it with Jamieson, and I thought maybe it was too much from the wife's perspective. I thought it didn't get it in the way 24 Hour Party People really got what it felt like to be young in those years. But I was at Cornell, bored out of my mind, because the place is a shithole full of vegans, so I rewatched it. The first shot is Ian Curtis walking back from the record store to his dreadful, little, shitty house in Macclesfield with a Bowie album under his arm. He puts it on, and he's smoking cigarettes while listening to it. There's a great shot of him applying mascara. It's the fourteen/fifteen year old Ian Curtis -- that gets it right, what it meant to be a fan.
The other film that gets it right, which Jonathan Lethem put me on to, was Velvet Goldmine by Todd Haynes. It's great because it's completely inaccurate; the details are all wrong. When I watched it years ago, I felt exactly that: that it was all wrong. But actually it's a lovingly crafted evocation of that time and what it felt like to be a fan. All the details about it are kind of half right and half wrong, and that kind of works. In many ways, it's the fakery of Velvet Goldmine that is good.
There are documentaries about Bowie which are pretty good too. There's a BBC documentary called Five Years which is quite interesting. But I worry a biopic would be a mistake. Which actor would play him? It would be so easy to find fault with it.
Let's talk about your other book coming out this month. Your first published work of fiction Memory Theatre.
I don't even know where to start. I write in order to forget. It's gone once it's done, and then I have to upload it to speak about it in a way. So Bowie was gone, and I had forgotten about it. I've been uploading it back in the past month or so to talk about it, with you, and with others. So Bowie has been uploaded, but Memory Theatre has not been uploaded yet. I wrote it and I reread it when I got the first copy about three weeks ago. I read it very slowly checking for typos, the way I tend to do. Then I put it down. I don't know what to make of it. I really don't know what I was thinking.
People have said it reminds them of Tom McCarthy's Remainder. Do you remember the first line of Remainder? Yeah, that's me, first line of Remainder. So it is Tom McCarthy-like. I wasn't writing it to be like Tom, but there are weird echoes. I've got no idea what's going to happen to it. My agent loved it and wanted it out there, so she did everything. I don't really have a view yet. I don't approve of philosophers writing fiction in general. It's a bit lame.
But one of the great things about your work is that it rarely fits a mold. It's never just one thing. While this is fiction, it does retain your philosophical perspective, and it also feels like some new surreal form of thematic memoir. So, to me, it makes sense that you would write something like this. Being skeptical of philosophers writing fiction is probably warranted, but I think this does sort of fit in with your project in general (if you would say you have a project in general).
When I got it back, I was sort of surprised at how essayistic it felt in places when I'm talking about Hegel and Francis Yates. There's a lot of very didactic stuff. On one level it's all made up and on another level it's all true. None of the views I attribute to Michel Haar are views that he held, but I did know him. But it's all me, it's all my ideas. The way I read it is in terms of the descent into psychosis. There's some intensely personal things in the book, which I don't know if people will pick up on or not, but there was something about it that allowed me to say intensely confessional things in this oblique form. But you've read it, I'd be curious to know what you think of it and what associations you had because you're a person of broad learning and reading.
Well, thank you, and once again thank you for letting me be one of the first readers a year ago. I reread it again last week and enjoyed it as much if not more than I had before in its earlier draft. One of the things that I noted a year ago in my comments via email to you was that it reads like a fictional counterpart to The Book of Dead Philosophers. One line in Memory Theatre is "Their purpose was to plot the major events in a philosopher's life and then to use those events to explain their demise." Is this in a way you fleshing out the brief "Exit pursued by bear" entry you gave yourself in that book? Exit pursuing tidal charts, perhaps.
Yeah. When I first met with the publisher in London, we were doing edits, and I decided I should write some acknowledgements. We did it in third person style. At the end, I put that I was interested in this book as a sequel to The Book of Dead Philosophers. I sent that off, and then I thought better of it and deleted that bit. I think it would be making it too obvious. But it is kind of a sequel -- or the books are at least in my mind parallel, and the madness in each is parallel. So yeah, you're right.
What was your experience writing this in comparison with your other work?
There are things I work on for years. I have this really big book on philosophy and tragedy that really is compendious. It's going to be thousands of pages long, but I don't think I'll ever do it. I like having a project like that though. Whereas the other projects seem to be written in short, concentrated bursts. Memory Theatre was written just after Stay, Illusion! It was a kind of pullback from it, given that Stay, Illusion! had been written with my wife and was a book about love. I needed to take a right turn and go in a different direction. So I wrote about a loveless universe, a universe of obsessional neuroses and psychoses, which is really the world of Memory Theatre. Here is someone who is just radically alone. It came out really in one piece, in quite a short period of time. I've revised it a lot though. I got some really good feedback from Dan Frank. Dan is a patient reader of my work. He sees structural issues very clearly. He'll often just say, "It's all good, but it's the wrong way around. You've got to inverse it. Flip this to there." So I worked hard on shaping the ending.
How did the inclusion of the images by Liam Gillick come about?
Again, circumstance. You saw it. And then after you saw it, I don't know where it went next. Maybe nothing happened? My publisher wanted to publish it, and I said, "Okay, I leave it to you." At some point, maybe in January or February, I was just hanging out with Liam. I sent it to him and he read it immediately. He just got it; he got what it was about. He then began to think, "Well, this could be an art book." Things changed, and so it took the form of the images that are in the book now.
In a way, someone like Liam is constantly building memory theaters. It's a constant construction of these kind of weird, deathly palaces. There's something about the sensibility of the book that spoke to his sensibility, and we felt we should collaborate.
I know you've mentioned Borges and Casares as influences on this novella. What other fiction writers would you say have been a big influence on you?
Joyce. Ulysses. For the launch of Faith of the Faithless, I was in Dublin, and I bought a very expensive copy of Ulysses at the Sweny's Pharmacy where Bloom goes at 11 o'clock in the morning to buy items for Molly. I'm actually looking at it right now. It's the copy I refer to in the first paragraph. I read Ulysses promiscuously. I dip into it. I read thirty pages and then go somewhere else. I was looking at the sentence structure in Ulysses and how odd it was, and that was a big inspiration. Not that I'm comparing myself to Joyce, but it was there, with me while I worked.
Another thing that was an inspiration was the work of a French artist Philippe Parreno. I've worked with him for years. He did this artwork called CHZ, continually habitable zones. It was a project in Portugal about a garden, an environment that renewed itself, regenerated itself. The end of the book in a way is a series of allusions to that.
And actually the Casares connection was suggested to me. I hadn't read The Invention of Morel. I think it was Pierre Huyghe actually who was talking about it. The great thing about the Casares book is that it's a conventional Robert Louis Stevenson adventure story on one level, but he uses that form to pull and twist. Memory Theatre is also, I would say, a very conventional narrative, but in that conventional structure, you can then play with the weirdness of it.
But don't think I have the intentions to have a career as a fiction writer. I don't. I was very pleased that people have said nice things about it, but it's a one-off.
We've talked about Joyce a lot in previous conversations. Ulysses, I've said, is the only book that I'm never not reading. I'm always in the middle of a reread, or just dipping in and out, as you say, picking pieces up a la carte. It seems to be the same for you. Could you imagine writing an examination of Ulysses maybe in the same vein as your Hamlet book?
No, I don't think so. Part of my love affair with Tom McCarthy has to do with Joyce. He's the third person in bed, as it were. The first thing Tom and I wrote was about Finnegans Wake. Tom is Stephen Dedalus, which I guess makes me Bloom, or something, I don't know. Tom would just start to quote passages: "Ineluctable modality of the visible . . ." Maybe with him I could write something on Joyce again? It's there, but it just doesn't need to be written about. It's a kind of program Ulysses; it doesn't need to be written about. But who knows? That might change.
I find the Joyce world really boring. If there were a world of scholarship that would be interesting, it'd be the Joyce world, but it's just not. They're just doing conventional criticism of the most archival, historical kind. If Joyce does anything, he allows you to think in a different way. I guess very few people are up to that task.
My criticism of people like Tom, and Hari Kunzru, and Jonathan Lethem, and David Mitchell, and all these people, is that they're great writers and really clever people, but they haven't really taken the form of the novel beyond Joyce. We're still in the kind of Ulysses moment. I wonder about that. I'm happy I'm not a novelist. Maybe Finnegans Wake was a failure, but it's still territory that we haven't really begun to explore yet. It still lies ahead of us.
Before I let you go, I wanted to ask about what you're currently working on. What should I look forward to interviewing you about next time?
The next book is a book on Levinas. I gave these seminars in the Netherlands last summer on him. I got them recorded and transcribed while I was unable to write because of my shoulder. I later rewrote them and the Oxford University Press is going to publish them as a book called The Problem with Levinas. It's an attempt to make sense of my infatuation with Levinas. I've got something new to say, and I try and say it. It uses the conceit of the lecture, the Lacan seminar, that informality of being able to move from one topic to another.
After that I've really got no idea. I'm thinking of writing a philosophical defense of suicide, as a short polemical text. I've got an axe to grind about suicide. It'll be a little comedic as well, but it's a serious point. We have no language for really thinking through the problem of suicide. It's a right that people have, and it should be defended against the current legal framework, which is basically framed by a Christian metaphysics, which is terrible. We need to find a language which will allow us talk about suicide. This connects back The Book of Dead Philosophers, which hopefully provides a vocabulary for thinking about death. - Interview byTyler Malone
Cult Of Memory: Simon Critchley Interviewed
Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster, Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine. Pantheon, 2013.
One of my favorite used bookstore bargain bin finds is a 1960 anthology called Hamlet: Enter Critic. Edited by Edgar Whan and the euphoniously named Claire Sacks, the collection gathers eclectic snippets about Shakespeare’s best play by commenters from Goethe to Rebecca West, orders them alphabetically (thereby jumbling the chronology), provides a student-friendly appendix with bibliography and potted “study questions,” and otherwise gets out of the way.
The book is a greatest hits double-album of brilliant, frequently crankish, Hamlet obsession. Hazlitt and Coleridge are of course here, and Dr. Johnson and J. Dover Wilson. Included is Oliver Goldsmith’s hilariously petulant hatchet job on the “to be or not to be” soliloquy (how, precisely, Goldsmith needles, could Hamlet call death an “undiscovered country, from whose bourne / no traveller returns” if only yesterday his own father returned from it, “piping hot from purgatory”?). There’s John Weiss, who attempts to resolve a tireless debate by arguing that Hamlet is never mad but merely an inveterate jokester and lover of irony. H.D.F. Kitto, pointing out that seven other people apart from the Danish prince die in the play, makes the hard sell that Hamlet is a “religious drama” in which the mass slaughter reflects, in the way of Sophocles’ Electra, the inscrutable will of Heaven.
But surely no essay surpasses that by E. Vale Blake for an 1880 issue of Popular Science Monthly under the title “The Impediment of Adipose.” Blake’s argument is built around Gertrude’s exclamation during the fatal duel with Laertes that Hamlet is “fat and scant of breath.” From this telltale clue he concludes that Hamlet’s tragic inaction is a result of poor physical fitness. Hamlet is “weighted down with a non-executive or lymphatic temperament”; he’s too chubby to avenge his father.
Blake’s master-class of pedantry (“The very expression that Hamlet uses … on parting with the Ghost, ‘While memory holds a seat in this distracted globe,’ is suggestive of a rotund and corpulent person”) is gloriously ludicrous … and then the Hamlet obsession kicks in, and you begin to wonder. What does Hamlet look like, after all? Since he doesn’t seem to do much after his father died, and sleeps poorly and suffers from depression, isn’t is probable he would have put on weight? And what does his sole reference to his father’s funeral consist of but a mention of the baked meats provided for the spread?
This is how Hamlet obsession works. So strange and inexhaustible is the play that there is no idea, however outré, however anachronistic, that it cannot seem to accommodate. Every critic seeks its interpretative skeleton key, the hidden approach by which to pluck out the heart of its mystery. Hamlet rewards such inquiries while handily redirecting them. T.S. Eliot wrote that critics tend to project on the character of Hamlet a “vicarious existence for their own artistic realization,” and the same goes for the play as a whole: you can’t explain it, but you can use it to help explain yourself.
In their action-packed book, Stay, Illusion!, co-authors Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster attempt to illuminate the play’s darker corners, and in the process provide useful glosses on some of the more rebarbative thinkers of the modern era. The pair, who cop to a “shared obsession” with the play, are forthright about their influences: “We are outsiders to the world of Shakespeare criticism,” they declare in their introduction, “and have chosen as a way into the play a series of outsider interpretations of Hamlet, notably those of Carl Schmitt, Walter Benjamin, Hegel, Lacan, and Nietzsche.”
Caveat emptor: if you are incurably allergic to those thinkers, you may want to stick to your battered paperback of A.C. Bradley. But that would be a pity, as Critchley (a philosophy professor) and Webster (a practicing psychoanalyst) bring an invigorating spirit of play to the out-there proceedings. Not many other Shakespeare critics would commend the Bard for his “admirable anal imagery,” or refer to Hamlet and Laertes’s relationship as a case of “frenmity,” or quote the “melancholic Danish heir to Hamlet,” filmmaker Lars von Trier. The authors’ reading of the play is notably bleak and despairing, yet their writing thrills in the sport of the analytic hunt.
Their Hamlet is a figure you might expect to find muttering to himself and tinkering with prescription drug cocktails within the pages of David Foster Wallace’s (aptly-titled) Infinite Jest. He is a kind of postmodern anti-hero, trapped by “the curse of self-consciousness” within a state of “infinite self-reflexivity.” His studies in philosophy at Wittenberg must have been extraordinarily foresighted, as he sees through the constructs of the Real to a paralyzing nothingness. Denmark is a prison without (quoting Walter Benjamin) “the faintest glimmer of any spiritualization”; its rottenness is merely a reminder of the way of all flesh: “Men without God are beasts in a putrefying world.”
What is it like to exist void of any meaning beyond the horror of gaping emptiness? With their customary agility and breadth of study, the authors find their analogy within the play’s dramatis personae:
[Walter] Benjamin writes, “The whole of nature is personalized, not so as to be made more [emphasis ours] inward, but, on the contrary—so as to be deprived of soul.” The appearance of the perturbed spirit of Hamlet’s father, trapped in a prison-house between mortal and immortal life, finds its resonance here. In the end, it is perhaps no different for Hamlet’s father than it is for Hamlet—they live, as noted by Stephen Greenblatt, in a medieval purgatory. Their melancholic tale is one that cannot but must be told, a story at the limits of what is human. If his father could “a tale unfold whose lightest word would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,” then this “eternal blazon must not be to ears of flesh and blood.” Hamlet also dies urging the ever-faithful Horatio not to die with him but to live to tell his tale.The authors make an ingenious extrapolation from that last point. Hamlet ends with Horatio—like Moby-Dick’s Ishmael, the lone surviving witness to the story—promising to tell Fortinbras all of what has taken place. Critchley and Webster thus suggest that the play we have just seen is the enactment of Horatio’s embellished version of events. That makes The Tragical History of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark a Borgesian Möbius strip, a meta-drama in which Hamlet is oppressed by the apprehension that he is character bound within a fiction.
That is to say, Hamlet recognizes that he is himself merely a player, a stage performer. When, with a deep self-loathing, he accepts this realization and papers over his inaction with acting, he acquires temporary purpose and direction. He skillfully assumes an antic disposition to bewilder the numerous spies at Elsinore. He arranges the Mousetrap stunt with the itinerant theater troupe, demonstrating more genuine ebullience than at any other time in the drama. If reality is nothingness, the authors suggest, the falseness of the theater speaks truth, and it’s among avowed actors that Hamlet can most be himself.
But mummery can only offer momentary distraction from the stench of mortality. Critchley and Webster, drawing on Benjamin and Jacques Lacan, perceptively centralize the importance of mourning within the play. Foremost among the many things that Hamlet’s stewing inaction prevents him from doing is to properly mourn his father and find relief from grief’s anguish. Instead, his mourning fills him with a ceaseless thirst for some spectral salvation, like Tantalus before the receding lake. It is always with him, “an obsessive contemplation of death in life, and life after death.”
It is to Hegel (“the philosopher of the tragic”) that the authors turn to pinpoint the fatal consequence of perpetual mourning. It brings about, Hegel comments, an “inner disgust,” which destines Hamlet to hesitancy and flailing confusion:
It is our contention that what is caught sight of by Hegel is a Hamlet Doctrine that turns on the corrosive dialectic of knowledge and action, where the former disables the latter and insight into the truth induces a disgust with existence. He cannot, or will not, imagine anything more in the gap that opens up.Hegel finds Hamlet’s disgust noble; it is a great soul who will look plainly, for even an instant, at the barren squalor of existence. The man who recognizes the fraudulence of his illusions is touchingly liberated, if only into the honorable downfall of tragedy.
On this point, however, the authors fascinatingly diverge from Hegel. Hamlet’s alienation is true and imponderable, but it renders him too passive to function as a classical tragic hero. A man who lacks all willpower can only react when prodded. The first victim of his estrangement is Ophelia, whose love he rejects, whose father he kills, and whose sanity he destroys: “Unlike Hamlet’s feigned antics, Ophelia’s psychosis is real; where Hamlet grieves, cannot act but simply acts out, Ophelia’s grief produces her acts of madness, and she follows her desire all the way to her death.” The authors portray Elsinore as a rat’s nest of liars and cynics, among whom Ophelia’s fatal flaw is sincerity. She is, they argue, the play’s true tragic hero, its pure virginal offering.
Though the authors disagree with their favored critics on a few crucial matters, they are nevertheless merrily sympathetic and faithful readers. But one of the few that they take to task, in a long diversion on psychoanalysis in the book’s middle section, is Sigmund Freud. This is because Freud is guilty of hubris, the cardinal sin in Hamlet studies. He treats Hamlet as a neurotic analysand whose dysfunctions can be riddled out, diagnosed, and treated. Yet as Critchley and Webster write, echoing Eliot, “the spying of a defect … always says more about the voyeur than the observed.”
With becoming humility, the authors instead explore a fascinating “causal reversal”:
It is not a question of putting Hamlet on the couch, which in any case would be weirdly anachronistic [perhaps a tongue-in-cheek qualification; much of this book’s charm derives from its weird anachronisms], but rather to hear something in Hamlet that allows us to put psychoanalysis on the couch and to the test. The mad trajectory of the play holds a message for the psychoanalyst, not vice versa. We do not need a theory of sexuality to understand the play; we need the play to tell us about sexuality. Give Hamlet a little more credit than this, dear psychoanalysts! Hamlet’s powerful reflexivity, like a patient’s, will always be ten steps ahead of any banal game of interpretation.Stay, Illusion! argues that Hamlet contains archetypal examples of both bad and good psychoanalysts. The bad kind of headshrinker is Polonius, with his pop psychology and facile moralizing. Again the fault is arrogance—bromide-spouting Polonius sermonizes as though he himself had transcended human suffering. The “Truepenny psychoanalyst” is the person who does not pretend to hold a remedy for the patient’s torment, but simply holds a mirror before it, allowing him to view it at a distance from himself and so come to grips with it. The authors are developing Lacan’s idea that the way Hamlet can begin to reconstruct himself after his backslide into narcissism and melancholy is to positively recognize his desires, whatever they may be, by seeing the desires of some convincing double. The few occasions when Hamlet evinces any self-knowledge are when he is able to look upon his likeness—or the ideal of whom he would wish to be—in the forms of Horatio and Laertes:
Like the play within the play, we access something as intimate as desire in a moment outside of ourselves—in a flash of identification with the other’s desire. As Hamlet says later to Laertes, “to know a man well were to know himself.” This is also the very structure of theater, both the theatricality of drama and the mise-en-scène of psychoanalysis.Hamlet’s best psychoanalyst, the authors contend, is the ghost. Shackled in purgatory and yearning, perhaps eternally, for the satisfaction of revenge, the ghost cannot fix Hamlet’s unhappiness—he can only provide him a startling mirror image of what he has become. By viewing the ghost, Hamlet may begin to grasp his tragic circumstances; by viewing the play, we may begin to grasp our own. That, Critchley and Webster write, is the most that psychoanalysis can hope to replicate:
The modesty of analysts is such that they only issue a call. This is what you are! It is not in their power to set any human defect, if there is such a thing, right. They can only help to bring you toward a gap in yourself, a place of radical loss in the abyss of desire.There are undoubtedly some far-flung tangents in Stay, Illusion! But the book is surely right in suggesting that the durable strangeness of Hamlet is due to its refusal to round off its ending with any clear meaning. If the true tragic hero is Ophelia, who is dead by Act IV, then the play as a whole resists the traditional arc of tragedy. There is no catharsis in Hamlet’s death (or Gertrude’s, or Laertes’s, or even Claudius’s, which should have broken the spell of Hamlet’s irresolution, but somehow does not). As we have seen, the play ends by returning to the start, as Horatio is on the cusp of narrating everything that has just happened. It’s a closed circle, its own contained universe of meaning, and once in it, there seems no way to get out; it engulfs you.
Perhaps that essential unknowability is why the most vivid protagonist of Stay, Illusion! is not a character from the play (and not Shakespeare, who is if anything even harder to fathom) but Friedrich Nietzsche, the writer who, through sheer manic intensity, seized on Hamlet’s despair and disgust and transformed it into an exuberant aesthetic. Nietzsche is the originator of the Hamlet Doctrine that the authors reference in their subtitle, which simply proclaims that “knowledge kills action, and to action there has to belong illusion.” He is, to the authors, Hamlet incarnated upon the precipice of godless modernity. He rants, he cavorts to Dionysian excess, he plays the fool. “Can he be serious?” Critchley and Webster ask while examining the farcical egomania of Ecce Homo. “Perhaps the only thing to do when one has looked into the abyss of suffering is to become a buffoon. We all fear the truth.”
Hamlet played as a half-crazed Nietzsche, or perhaps as an aspiring Ubermensch, is not a performance I have ever seen, or considered before reading Stay, Illusion! In fact, one of the things I was regularly reminded of while reading this antic, thought-provoking study was how few available productions of Hamlet exist in relation to how many interpretations of it there are from critics. Yet written analysis, however trenchant, is deprived of much of its latent power if it doesn’t inform performance. The play’s multiplicity demands not only new readings but new stagings.
So it is bittersweet to find on Youtube a clip of Orson Welles and Peter O’Toole discussing the play and their respective performances (Welles claims that the ghost is the most difficult role to act, a wonderful bit of crackpottery to quicken the pulse of any Hamlet obsessive). Why do today’s leads seem to fear the part? Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Ryan Gosling have been playing Hamlet-esque characters throughout their careers, but won’t risk the real McCoy? Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t dream of competing with Burton and Olivier? Or what about a heavyset star, to dramatize the impediment of adipose? Hamlet critics are holding up their end of the bargain. Now we need some actors to convert thought to action and give us a show. - Sam Sacks
I returned for round two of drinking with Simon Critchley fatigued from the previous night’s Breaking Bad finale celebration and armed with two pages worth of typed-out questions. I also brought my copy of the new book he wrote on Hamlet with his wife, Jamieson Webster, entitled Stay, Illusion!: The Hamlet Doctrine.
Round one had taken place over a few too many glasses of scotch in his Brooklyn home a year and a half earlier, while he and his wife were writing the book in question. For this second conversation we were meeting at a bar. Upon arriving, I was blindsided by the fact that he wouldn’t be imbibing with me this time. I had to drink for us both, but as I soon found out, this was for good reason.
We talked for over two hours about everything from the previous night’s must-see finale to Harmony Korine’s “Malick without all the bullshit” style in Spring Breakers, as well as, of course, spending considerable time on his and Webster’s take on Shakespeare and Hamlet.
Tyler Malone: So I know there’s been a lot going on since our last interview for Full Stop. Stay, Illusion! came out over the summer, and it’s such a great read. It really opens up Hamlet in all sorts of exciting ways. And then, a surprise to me, even though we’re here at a bar meeting for our conversation, you’re not drinking.
Simon Critchley: Yeah, it’s a strange turn of events for me. I’m not drinking because I fell down the stairs in the third week of June. I was on vacation with my wife. I had just come back from an exhausting three-week trip. We were at a house at the end of Long Island that was unfamiliar to me. After a great night out, at 4:30 in the morning, I went looking for a bathroom. There were two doors at the end of the large bedroom, one to the bathroom and one to the basement. I chose the wrong door and fell down fifteen stairs, fracturing my proximal humerus. I had surgery. It’s been a world of pain, the worst pain I’ve ever had in my life.
I’m so sorry to hear. And Stay, Illusion! must have come out in the midst of all that?
Yes, it came out a week after that happened, and we had a number of gigs lined up. There was only one we didn’t do, but the whole time I was in this painkiller-induced haze. I couldn’t drink on the painkillers, so I thought, “Okay, I’ll stop.” So I’ve stopped. I’ve had a few drinks since then, but as a rule I’m basically not doing it. I’ve never not drank in my whole life. Most people take some sort of hiatus, but I never did that. I just carried on. Since I’ve stopped, I’ve lost some weight. And for my mind, it’s been oddly good. I feel sharper strangely. Pain is quite an interesting thing to think with.
What was the impetus for Stay, Illusion!? Was it that you wanted to write a book with your wife? Was it that you wanted to write a book on Hamlet?
There are different answers to that. I could give a boring answer of who was working on what at what time. I think the more interesting answer is that we wanted to make something together that was ours, where we could not be ourselves, where we could become some other kind of creature.
And what was that process like?
Well, writing with someone else is an act of mutual ventriloquism. After a little while, I tried not to write with my usual voice. Jamieson too. There was this other voice that sort of emerged. For us, it’s a very difficult book to imagine anybody reading because it feels very intimate. It feels like a diary — something that would make sense to us, but no one else — a kind of love letter. Even the fact that it was published . . .
And by a big publisher, at that.
Yeah, we thought it would be a sort of small art press thing. And we would have been happy with that. But I have this editor, Dan Frank, who was trying to get a book out of me on Greek tragedy. We had a contract signed for that with Pantheon. Then this sort of emerged. I thought we’d do this Hamlet thing for a couple months, and then I’d do the big book on Greek tragedy. It just didn’t work out like that. Because we didn’t think it would be anything, there was this freedom in the way we wrote it, so it just sort of happened. We didn’t write with too much super ego, in a way. Dan looked at it and said, “This could work for Pantheon.” And he actually wanted it to be weirder than it already was, so we made it weirder.
How did you two divvy up of the duties of writing?
It began in separate places. Jamieson’s part begins with the bit on psychoanalysis. My bit begins really with the material on Carl Schmitt. Those bits were written separately. Afterwards, we began to sort of fold the voices into those parts. Then, as it developed into the third part, it became much more of a two-headed beast. The conclusion was written on the floor of my study in an almost psychotic state over a whole day period. Really, the conclusion was just words being kind of picked out, culled out, and pulled together. It was an odd experience. Where the book finishes, on shame and love, that whole thing was really almost improvised, like songwriting, in a way.
Perfect, you mentioning that, because I wanted to talk about you ending on love. One thing we spoke about last time, in discussing Faith of the Faithless, was that love was a new entity in your oeuvre. Did you two come to Hamlet from this love angle, as a sort of continuation of your last book? Or did that just come out because that was what was on you and your wife’s minds?
It just sort of came out. The trunk of the book was finished, and maybe the head, the arms, and the legs, but there weren’t really fingers and toes. We were going to finish the book off on the subject of shame, on the idea that tragedy provides lessons on shame in a world that is shameless, for a world that is shameless. But, then, I guess we wanted to push it on, one more twist into love. The play then becomes this camera obscura, it’s an inversion. To put it more accurately: the lesson of the play is the opposite of what you see in the play, the play is about the absence of love, or the way in which love can lead you to suicide. So we tried to read the play negatively, looking at what it doesn’t show, through inversion. So we pulled love out to be the upbeat side to what we were doing. Theater is an illusion, the world is an illusion, everything is an illusion. Love is also an illusion, but an illusion that can allow us to conquer the kind of dreadful melancholy that Hamlet exists within. It’s a good illusion. Love is the illusion that we want to stay, as it were.
Going to that idea you mention of theater as an illusion, one thing that pops up early in your book is the Gorgiastic paradox. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that truth is better told in fiction. What are your personal thoughts on that premise?
Yes, absolutely. I do believe that truth is better told in fiction. “People like stories” is the banal version of that. But there’s something deeper, when you really begin to press the question, and this does carry over from Faith of the Faithless, the idea of the supreme fiction or the politics of the supreme fiction. You think, “Well, what is not fiction?” If a fiction is something made, then what is not made up? All human activity is fiction. Even the fictions of science are fictions which are “verified,” but that’s a bag of worms when you begin to look at it. In a sense, our story is always some lie that we tell ourselves. It’s an obvious lie, it’s a fiction, the story we tell about our lives. Somehow, though, we can only get to the truth of things through someone else’s fiction. That’s the peculiar thing about human beings. It’s not that we need to have our own stories, or make up stories about ourselves, but somehow it’s only through stories about a character or a constellations of characters that the world becomes accessible to us. For example, last night was the season finale of Breaking Bad . . .
Did you watch it?
Yeah, I watched it. I’ve watched every episode.
What’d you think of it?
I rather liked it. And we can talk about that. But it bears out my point. Not that we identify with Walter White or Jesse Pinkman, or whatever, but somehow that world has the force of something like myth for us. We know it’s not true, we know it’s made up. These people aren’t real, but we’re able to examine all sorts of things about who we are through that light. A teacher of mine used to say, “If you want truth, read a phone book.” It’s true, the phone book is full of truth, facts: numbers with addresses and names. But that won’t do. That’s not what we’re about.
What was it like writing with your wife compared to, say, Tom McCarthy?
She’s much better looking than Tom. And he and I never had sex. Just love, no sex.
When I interviewed you last time you spoke of how Tom thinks laterally, sort of moving horizontally to make connections, whereas you, and these are your words, are “sort of a castrated academic with a PhD, thinking in terms of argument structures and vertical developments.” Was there this same dichotomy with Jamieson?
Yeah, okay, it’s very similar, actually. Jamieson works through association, because she’s a psychoanalyst. So with that, you hear a word, and rather than thinking of the obvious meaning of the word, you think of what it might sound like, or how that word might suggest another word, which perhaps that patient actually means. If you begin from the idea of manifest and latent content, in Freud, the latent content, which is the unconscious, is where our desire is being organized, and we can’t address it directly. Therefore, forms of lateral association work in that way, it’s the Freudian method, using those associations to burrow down and get at the core of things. Jamieson does think, in that way, more like how Tom thinks than how I think. So to that extent, it was, well . . .
Similar, but with sex?
Yes, similar, but with sex. And, well, the other difference would be that the things I’ve written with Tom always had a sort of purpose, whereas Stay, Illusion! was written with only the expectation that this would be ours. There was really no idea that anyone else would even look at it.
What was it like to take on Shakespeare in this book?
There are over two hundred neologisms in the English language just in this one play. It’s as if you’re going over the origins of the language that you happen to still be speaking. Shakespeare is like a ghost that speaks through us. Shakespeare haunts the language that we’re speaking. So to work on the text is particularly strange because it’s as if you’re working on what has haunted the language for hundreds of years.
Which is a nice image in and of itself, but also dovetails nicely with the idea of him playing the ghost himself.
And I think it makes a lot of sense to think of Shakespeare as the ghost. You see a play called Hamlet, and there’s a character called Hamlet, and people assume that the play is about that young man onstage. But one of the most important innovations that Shakespeare introduces into the source material is to give the father and the son the same name. The play is called Hamlet, but it could be named after the father as easily as it could be named after the son. Fortinbras, who emerges as the victor of the play, also, remember, has the same name as his father. So you have this strange business of naming. The central character in the play, sure, it’s Hamlet, he has the most lines and all that, but why not the ghost? And the idea that Shakespeare played the ghost, I find very interesting.
Also, speaking of the central character of the play, one thing you and Jamieson explore in the book is looking at Ophelia as the hero of the book.
Yeah, we do. She’s the casualty, she’s the Antigone within Hamlet. Hamlet’s desire is massively inhibited, whereas Antigone is that creature who just has desire, the desire to see justice done for her dead brother, and Ophelia is like that. The death of her father unleashes a genuine madness. What is voiced in that language isn’t the kind of intelligent dissembling of Hamlet, it’s a kind of raw madness that actually bypasses language. Hamlet has words, words, words–the boy can speak–and Ophelia can speak too, but when she goes mad, she starts to speak with songs and flowers. In many ways, the play is about the emptiness of language. What are these things called words? What are we doing? Is language just a way of hiding the truth? Ophelia, when she’s giving out her flowers and her herbs, is using a different language. She then dies surrounded by flowers. We’ve got this whole discussion of the language of flowers, which is a great part of the book, because Freud described The Interpretation of Dreams as a “botanical monograph.” So then we start to think: “Well, what are flowers?” There’s this fantastic quote from Bataille that says that flowers are unlike us because they have all their sexual organs on the outside. When you’re giving flowers to someone, what you’re doing is giving them a naked sexual organ. It’s the most bizarre thing to do. It’s like hardcore pornography. Flowers are dead, sex organs. So the language of flowers is, to me, an interesting part of the play and an interesting part of our book, but the bit that I really like in the book is the discussion of “I want to be a woman.”
Yes, I wanted to ask you about that.
I don’t know how we wrote it. I may have written it first. We found Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine, and just loved quoting this material. The line is, “I want to be that woman. And so do I.” At that point, the “we” of the book splits apart into the two “Is”, and it’s revealed that maybe Jamieson is that woman, and I want to be that woman too. So part of the weirdness of the book is my desire to be a woman, whatever that means, and there’s a whole sexual politics in the play that we talk about.
For me, the problem with philosophical discourse is a problem of the kind of obsessional character that we find in Hamlet. You can have all this intelligence, all this reflexive awareness, and keep things in neat little boxes, your concepts, and your papers, and your books, yet love nothing, and appreciate nothing. The worst thing about philosophy, for me, is exactly that. So there’s a kind of attempt on my part to become hysterical, in a way, to become capable of an act of love in writing. That means letting a lot of things go, letting things slide, and that’s hard to do. There are sentences in the book, and I look at them, and I have no particular sense of what they might mean. That’s quite interesting, and quite new for me. But why should I have to account for everything? It makes a certain kind of sense. There’s a force to it, which isn’t necessarily intelligible, or its intelligibility is not one that you can kind of summarize. When you’re working with Shakespeare though, it’s like that. You’re aware of a force to the language, even if you have no idea of what was just said. That kind of communication really interests me a lot.
One of my favorite parts of the book was to read what you wrote about Ulysses and Stephen Dedalus’ (and James Joyce’s) outsider interpretation of Hamlet. How’d you enjoy going back and reading those sections of Ulysses?
It’s great. It’s fantastic. It’s still there. I didn’t take it to Dublin with me because I didn’t want to pack it. But I’ve had it with me over the last year, and I keep reading bits. It’s a joy. I’d love to write something in the future on Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. Yeah, there’s a few pages in our book on Stephen’s interpretation of Hamlet. I think we hit something there, the Earth kind of moved at that point. I like those bits.
The book uses a number of these sort of outsider interpretations of Hamlet. Were there any interesting interpretations of Hamlet that you found, and wanted to use, but couldn’t fit in for one reason or another?
We had this discussion of Adorno and the Hamlet syndrome, and then there’s this whole discussion of Schiller that Dan just thought was too much, too many German philosophers.
Do you consider the book itself to be an “outsider interpretation” of a sort?
Yes, in a way, as it’s certainly not your normal book on Hamlet. What people want in their Shakespeare books is for someone to give them a clear answer, because people are terrified by the fact that they’re not sure what this means and what to do with it. This is what it means, it’s about the invention of the human, as Harold Bloom says. Or it wasn’t written by Shakespeare at all, it was written by the Earl of Oxford, or a writing collective. People want that. There are 46 Amazon reviews of our book, and a lot of them are deeply hostile. You don’t mess with people’s Shakespeare. You don’t mess with people’s certainty. But the play isn’t about certainty, it’s this forest of rich ambiguity.
That’s what I love about your book. You open up the ambiguity rather than closing it down into this means this and that means that. What would the point of that be?
Well, the point is that people generally are not actually interested in art, we’re interested in fixing meanings to things, and being told why we like something, or, particularly with Shakespeare, why something is good for us. There’s this idea that Shakespeare is good for you, that it will make you some sort of moral, decent person. But, of course, Shakespeare is weird, and terrifying. We think of him as a writer in the modern sense, like Salinger, or Philip Roth. We want to get at the hidden man, so we can find the motivation. That wasn’t his world, and it just makes no sense.
Is that something disappointing in contemporary society? That we know too much about our writers?
Yeah, it’s true. But we know quite a lot about Shakespeare. One of the myths is that we know nothing. We know much more about Shakespeare than we know about a great number of people who lived in that same time.
But we don’t have his Collected Emails.
Yeah, we don’t have his emails. He didn’t do press; he didn’t do interviews. We cannot bear the not knowing, but that is what art is about. It’s about not knowing, it’s about complexity, it’s about ambiguity. It’s why we imagine that actors are not stupid. They are stupid. They can remember words. They’ve developed techniques for remembering words and performing them in particularly powerful ways, but they often have no understanding of what they’re doing. And we can’t bear that. We have to imagine that, if you watch Breaking Bad, the actor playing Jesse Pinkman gets it. You want to believe that. Of course, he’s just another actor. They never get anything, they’re all imbeciles, with some exceptions. You watch the last episode of Breaking Bad, and then there’s this talk show about it with the actors. Of course, they’re all imbeciles. And the writer, you listen to him, and you think, “Oh jeez, that’s the guy that wrote it?”
It’s funny you mention that because I watched the finale with a friend last night, and we watched that episode of Talking Bad afterwards, and then we talked about it for a bit. He was somewhat disappointed that I wasn’t as enthused with the episode. It took me until this afternoon to realize that my disappointment had nothing to do with the finale itself, but with Vince Gilligan discussing the finale afterwards on Talking Bad. He mentioned something about it always being a show about certainty, whereas I see the show as about ambiguity.
Yeah, if Shakespeare was making an HBO series, we’d watch the version on Amazon or Netflix with the five to ten minute spin where the director explains the motivation. There has to be an explanation, a backstory, and all that. Thank god we don’t have that with Shakespeare. And that’s even more true for Greek drama, which is why I love it so much, because we know so much less. We just have these texts that we can breathe life into. A classic text is one that can withstand that. But for some reason, we cannot stand interpretation.
One interpretation in your book that I wanted to ask you about was the sort of wacky interpretation of Horatio as possibly a spy for Fortinbras. I really liked that idea. Was that something that came from elsewhere or did you and your wife come up with that yourselves?
That was me, if I recall. He’s just sort of too good to be true. And you can put Hamlet alongside Othello, where Horatio’s role would be Iago, who is the duplicitous plotter of Othello’s downfall. You introduce that assumption, and we found that you can run a long way with it.
Why do you think Hamlet is the most popular play of all time? Or at least one of the most popular plays, if not the most popular play?
Maybe Romeo & Juliet has been a more popular play, or at least as popular, but Hamlet is always seen as the superior play.
Hamlet is sort of that confluence of the popular and the critically acclaimed.
Yeah, the popular and the brilliant. Though, admittedly, there’s been a shift in the last few generations toward Lear as the great play. I think that’s partly about the more explicit political themes in Lear, and also it’s become a vehicle for senior actors to play at the end of their career. But I think what keeps Hamlet there is the sense of confusion, the sense of dejection, the dressing in black, “what on Earth does my mother want?,” “is she a whore?,” “did she really love my dad?,” “was she in on his murder?,” but really the question of, “what on Earth is a son’s relationship to a mother?” is really haunting. I think about the Hamlet doctrine in relationship to Adam Lanza and the Newtown massacre, and a lot of other young men like that. The first person he killed was his mother. What on Earth is going on between the son and the mother? Hamlet gets really close to that. Then there’s the Kurt Cobain Hamlet. I don’t know if we deal with anything in the book about that. That may be something else that didn’t make it in.
One thing that happened during the writing of the book was that we became friends with Courtney Love. Courtney stayed round our place during Superstorm Sandy. We’d finished the book by then, but we talked a lot with her. She identified very much with Hamlet around the question of suicide. In one of Kurt Cobain’s suicide notes, sounding like Hamlet, he says if I have to choose between life and death, I choose death. Also, remember, Hamlet is 28, and all these people kill themselves when they’re 27, like Hendrix, Morrison, Cobain, so there’s a lot of Hamlets out there. The play speaks to that kind of despair and nihilism.
How did you become friends with Courtney Love? That seems like a lame, tabloid-y question to ask, but I feel like there must be an interesting story there.
We got to know her through another friend. I was doing this event for the Guggenheim. They had this show by Maurizio Cattelan. With that show, Cattelan announced his retirement from the art world. Nancy Spector asked me to help her in organizing an event. It was to be the closing of the exhibition, and it would be about the idea of the end, and what that means: retirement, stopping, dying. So we had nine hours of talks. I wanted Courtney to be a part of it, and she ended up being the closing part, closing the closing. She wrote this text on the idea that the only good artist is a dead artist, and why an artist’s capital is bound up with their lives. If Cobain had lived, he wouldn’t have mattered in the same way. We want our artists dead. She talked about all that, and it was great. We’ve hung out a number of times since then. We had a party at BAM when the book was released, and she did three songs. Our event made it into Page Six of the New York Post, and the story was that Courtney Love turned up to a book launch sober, performed three songs well, and nothing happened. The story was that there was no story. People expected the opposite to happen. She’s misunderstood. What people always get wrong is that she’s so intelligent, and she understands rock ‘n’ roll like few people I’ve met. There’s a kind of ferocious intelligence with Courtney. It’s a pity more people don’t appreciate it.
Last time I interviewed you, while you were writing Stay, Illusion!, we spoke about the directors Von Trier and Malick. I was surprised to find you mention both of them in the book. As in our conversation, in the book, you sort of give Von Trier a pat on the back, and slightly trash Malick. Who are some other filmmakers you enjoy besides Von Trier?
That’s right, I remember talking about Von Trier and Malick with you. Well, I don’t get out to movies as often as I’d like. Also, I have a nine year old kid, and with kids you tend to go see what they want to see. So I catch up on films a lot on flights, and watch a lot on Netflix. But in terms of directors, I guess Paul Thomas Anderson is a director that comes to mind. Like Hamlet, he’s obsessed with father-son relations, ghosts, and delusions. There are these titanic delusional characters like Daniel Plainview, and the Master in The Master. I love Harmony Korine too. I thought Spring Breakers was absolutely fantastic. It was the kind of movie that Terrence Malick should be making.
I wrote a review of Spring Breakers and actually mentioned that, the similarity to Malick. I said something like that it was “Malick through the looking glass.” It’s like a dark, bizarro Malick.
Or Malick without all the bullshit. I thought it was beautiful in the way it used lines of dialogue. The way in which certain lines would end and be picked up again, there was a nice repetitive structure to it. I like a lot of his other films as well, a lot of the short things he’s done. I watch all sorts of stuff, but those are two people who jump out.
If you could have a debate with anyone in history, who would you want to debate with?
I don’t like debate. I’m not a debate person. Santayana said that philosophers are not interested in truth, they’re interested in victory. Debates are always about victory. I don’t that.
You seem to at least like conversation. You’ve done various Brooklyn Book Fest talks, and you’ve had public conversations with people like Cornel West at places like BAM and NYPL. So, I guess, who would you like to converse with, living or dead?
Well, living would be David Bowie. I’ve just written the beginning of a small book on Bowie. I wrote it in a frenzy at the end of August. After the accident, I finally had my hands back, so I just went for it. I’ve been obsessed with Bowie since I was twelve years old. It’s a kind of ambiguous thing, because I know I’d be disappointed. You’re always going to be disappointed. In some ways, I’d rather just retain the myth.
It’s the Shakespeare thing, it’s better to not know too much.
It’s rare that you meet someone who is more than the sum of what they do. They’re usually a disappointment. Even philosophers, who are supposed to be able to think out loud. Often, you meet them and you think, “Really?” There are some exceptions to that, but . . . who I would converse with [who is] dead? I really don’t know where I’d start with historical figures. I get those conversations in the act of reading. The thing about reading is that in reading, we become ghosts. In reading, we can leave the Earth and, as it were, inhabit a different realm, and see the realm from the standpoint of someone that’s dead. Not all authors are dead, but most of them are. For me, that’s one of the things that’s extraordinary about reading, that you can communicate with the dead. You become their medium. You become the medium in a séance, who is spoken through by the spirits of the dead. - Interview by Tyler Malone