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.