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Carl Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba: An Exchange with David Pan

Carl Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba: The Intrusion of the Time into the Play is now available in English translation from Telos Press. Nicole Burgoyne recently discussed some of the book’s central arguments with translator David Pan.

Nicole Burgoyne: Hamlet or Hecuba: The Intrusion of the Time into the Play represents a bit of a departure from Schmitt’s usual juristic theoretical work. At the beginning of the book he makes quite clear that he means to appeal to the literary lover of Shakespeare and to provide a new understanding of the text. How important was literature to Schmitt? Is literature simply another vehicle to explore Schmitt’s other key concepts, such as his definition of the sovereign, the exception, the friend/enemy dichotomy, etc.?

David Pan: Literature was important to Schmitt from very early in his career; one of his first publications was a book of literary criticism on the Expressionist poem Nordlicht, by Theodor Däubler. This interest was linked to his political theory to the extent that this theory began with the assumption that politics was based in theology. Though his Roman Catholicism and Political Form theorizes this link in terms of the Catholic Church, his nationalist attitudes brought his interest in theology back to an engagement with the kinds of literary texts, such as Hamlet for England, that make up a national culture.

Burgoyne: Schmitt goes to great lengths to clear what he sees as King James I of England’s undeservedly tarnished image. What does Schmitt value in this particular sovereign? Could he be a historical example of Schmitt’s theories on sovereignty?

Pan: Though Schmitt does want to rehabilitate his image, he also insists that James’s defense of the divine right of kings was in some sense anachronistic and doomed to failure. Here, it is important to note the relative importance of Hamlet for Schmitt’s notion of political representation as compared with King James. Even though the argument is that James provides the hidden model for Hamlet, it is actually Hamlet and not James that then attains a mythic status in English culture. This focus on the literary rather than the political figures indicates how important the issue of representation is for Schmitt’s notion of sovereignty.

Burgoyne: Three of Schmitt’s basic points concern the ambiguities left open in Hamlet. Schmitt claims that these ambiguities are a consequence of the political taboos created by Shakespeare’s historical context. The ambiguities left open are the guilt of the mother, whether Hamlet only feigns madness or is, in fact, insane, and Hamlet’s ambiguous religion. One traditional approach to these ambiguities is to ascribe them to artistry, thereby neglecting the historical context: “To relate a great work of art to the actual politics of the time in which it was created would presumably obscure its purely aesthetic beauty and debase the intrinsic worth of artistic form. The source of the tragic then lies in the free and sovereign creative power of the poet” (33). Might one see Schmitt’s argument for politically imposed taboos as an attempt to quash the view of the artist as a sovereign in his own created world?

Pan: This question goes to the heart of Schmitt’s unique view of the relationship between art and politics. While he is opposed to the exclusion of historical and political considerations from literary analysis, he also does not see the artist as simply following a particular political line. Instead, the focus on the spaces of ambiguity in the text indicates a concern for the ways in which a literary text should, on the one hand, respond to real concerns on the part of the audience and thereby heighten its political significance and, on the other hand, approach these concerns in such a way that the decisions are not pre-judged but are in fact left up to the audience for a final determination. This ceding of final meanings to the audience does limit the sovereignty of the artist, but not in a way that gives this sovereignty to a political ruler but rather to a politicized audience. This desire to emphasize popular sovereignty is perhaps one of the most consistently recurring themes in Schmitt’s work. This focus is one of the main reasons for continuing to engage with it today, even though this same focus was perhaps what made Schmitt so susceptible to joining in the nationalist enthusiasm that greeted the initial rise of the Nazis to power.

Burgoyne: One of the first issues that Schmitt addresses, despite having sworn off Freud and psychological approaches, is the taboo of the mother. How does Schmitt’s discussion of gender relations here differ from or amplify his work in other places?

Pan: The discussion of the taboo of the mother is anti-Freudian to the extent to which it rejects psychological explanations of this relationship in order to provide one that reflects political exigencies that seem to exist independently of their gender-political implications. In fact, this approach to gender relations is consistent with the way in which they play a remarkably small role in Schmitt’s work in general, and his subjects tend not to be marked by any obvious gender identifications.

Burgoyne: This book, published in 1956, has a decisively German outlook, by which I mean that Schmitt spends a great deal of time outlining the importance of Hamlet to German literary and political tradition, and even associates himself with a German mindset. Aside from the rationale that the text originated as a lecture for a local audience, are there any hints of Schmitt’s outlook on the contemporary political situation in Germany in this text?

Pan: There are hardly any references to contemporary German politics in the book. The most direct polemic is against different approaches in literary criticism at the time, most notably the trend towards “immanent” text criticism that leaves all political considerations out of the analysis. The implicit critique of contemporary politics is that West Germany was acceding too quickly to an unpolitical role in which it was giving up sovereignty to U.S. political hegemony.

Click here to purchase Carl Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba: The Intrusion of the Time into the Play.

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