TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Schmitt, Hamlet, and Aesthetic Idlers

As an occasional feature on TELOSscope, we highlight a past Telos article whose critical insights continue to illuminate our thinking and challenge our assumptions. Today, Linas Jokubaitis looks at David Pan’s “Political Aesthetics: Carl Schmitt on Hamlet” from Telos 72 (Summer 1987).

In his essay “Political Aesthetics: Carl Schmitt on Hamlet,” David Pan puts forward an interpretation of the relationship between aesthetics and politics in Schmitt’s discussion of Hamlet. Today the question about the relationship of aesthetics and politics in the thought of German jurist is a widely discussed topic. According to one interpretation, which is best represented by a sentence of Jürgen Habermas, “Carl Schmitt’s polemical discussion of political Romanticism conceals the aestheticizing oscillations of his own political thought.” But according to Schmitt’s self-understanding, this interpretation could not be further from the truth.

When Schmitt was describing the “secret key to his spiritual existence,” he wrote in his diary that one of the most important elements of it was his fight against “aesthetic idlers.” Schmitt’s Politische Romantik, which, according to Frank Ankersmit is “undoubtedly one of the greatest political texts written in the twentieth century,” is a devastating attack on “aesthetic idlers.” However, as his enemies in Nazi regime noted, Schmitt was a man who had written his book on Theodor Daubler’s poem “Nordlicht” and worked on his “Politische Romantik” during the bloodiest battles of the First World War. Problems of aesthetics seemed to be higher on the agenda than the fate of Germany. Schmitt’s paradoxical relationship with aesthetics makes this topic an interesting aspect of his thought.

Pan begins his analysis by noting that Schmitt’s critique of the autonomy of aesthetics in The Source of the Tragic is similar to positions that we can find on the left (this kinship was also noted by George Lukács in his review of Schmitt’s Politische Romantik). Pan observes that in his discussion of Hamlet, “Schmitt outlines a concept of the relation between art and society which breaks down traditional barriers between the two and allows the previously private realm of art to be redefined as existing within a public sphere” (153). This argument is consistent with Schmitt’s political “totalism”—a view according to which there is no escape from politics, not even for art.

In Pan’s opinion, we can gain a better understanding of Schmitt’s position on the relationship between art and politics by comparing it with the positions put forward by Adorno and Benjamin. This proves to be a fruitful strategy. Pan makes it clear that Schmitt would agree with Adorno in his diagnosis about the breakdown of the autonomy of art, however they would draw completely different conclusions from this interpretation: “while Adorno views art’s opposition to the concrete contemporary situation as its primary, if not last remaining option for criticism, Schmitt denigrates such an opposition as a denial of history and the deterioration of art into mere ‘play’ lacking any seriousness or meaning” (154). Play and lack of seriousness was something that particularly terrified Schmitt. In this respect, a comparison of Schmitt with Johan Huizinga would be most interesting.

We can gain a better understanding of Schmitt’s standpoint when we consider concrete examples of “the intrusion of time into play”—or, to put it more simply, the intrusion of politics into art. Pan alerts the reader to the fact that when the barrier between art and politics collapses, there is a high possibility that art will be brought under strict political control. Only the art that agrees with those who control the public sphere would prevail. This could be deadly to any nonconformist forms of art.

It comes as no surprise that all the examples that Schmitt provided about the relationship between Shakespeare’s plays and English politics of the time are those where the poet “exercised a kind of self-censorship to avoid offending James” (155). What does this tell us? Not very much. It seems that sometimes persecution can bring the best in the art of writing.

In The Source of the Tragic, Schmitt describes how art is politicized and formed by political powers. According to him, art is always political because there is no escape from politics. However, this does not mean that all politicized art is bad art. The case of Shakespeare only speaks in favor of Schmitt’s position. This could be denied only by claiming that the intrusion of politics into Hamlet ruined the play.

Pan goes on to compare Schmitt’s interpretation with the one proposed by Walter Benjamin. He states that “Schmitt’s insistence upon the inescapability of historical facts not only prevents him from conceiving history as anything other than a power struggle, but also from understanding Benjamin’s project of redeeming facts in the world of ideas” (158). There could hardly be any doubt that this is a correct reading, and it reminds one of the consistency of Schmitt’s thought. His understanding of aesthetics remained grounded in his Realpolitik and left no room for utopianism even in art.

Schmitt’s discussion of Hamlet is consistent with the views he presented in Politische Romantik. The last sentences of the book read:

In spite of irony and paradox, a consistent dependence is manifest. In the most limited area of its distinctive productivity, in lyrical and musical poetry, subjective occasionalism may discover a small land of free creativity. But even here it unconsciously submits to the strongest and most proximate power. And its superiority over the present, which is taken in a purely occasional fashion, undergoes an extremely ironical reversal: Everything that is romantic is at the disposal of other energies that are unromantic, and the sublime elevation above definition and decision is transformed into a subservient attendance upon alien power and alien decision.

This could be Schmitt’s answer to Pan’s criticism.

Schmitt remained loyal to the principles of his political theory in the domain of aesthetics. He thought that confrontation with political reality is necessary for the creation of a truly great work of art. Pan argues that Schmitt was forced to submit to the historically given and thus lost sight of the transforming possibilities inherent in art. There can be no doubt that Pan’s comparison of Schmitt with Adorno and Benjamin reveals two very different conceptions about the relationship of art and politics.

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