Slavoj Žižek: Hamlet before Oedipus

When we speak about myths in psychoanalysis, we are effectively speaking about ONE myth, the Oedipus myth - all other Freudian myths (the myth of the primordial father, Freud's version of the Moses myth) are variations of it, although necessary ones. However, with the Hamlet narrative, things get complicated. The standard, pre-Lacanian, "naive" psychoanalytic reading of Hamlet, of course, focuses on Hamlet's incestuous desire for his mother. Hamlet's shock at his father's death is thus explained as the traumatic impact the fulfillment of an unconscious violent desire (in this case, for the father to die) has on the subject; the spectre of the dead father which appears to Hamlet is the projection of Hamlet's own guilt with regard to his death-wish; his hatred of Claudius is an effect of Narcissistic rivalry - Claudius, instead of Hamlet himself, got his mother; his disgust for Ophelia and womankind in general expresses his revulsion at sex in its suffocating incestuous modality, which arises with the lack of the paternal interdiction/sanction... So, according to this standard reading, Hamlet as a modernized version of Oedipus bears witness to the strengthening of the Oedipal prohibition of incest in the passage from Antiquity to Modernity: in the case of Oedipus, we are still dealing with incest, while in Hamlet, the incestuous wish is repressed and displaced. And it seems that the very designation of Hamlet as an obsessional neurotic points in this direction: in contrast to hysteria which is found throughout all (at least Western) history, obsessional neurosis is a distinctly modern phenomenon.


While one should not underestimate the strength of such a robust heroic Freudian reading of Hamlet as the modernized version of the Oedipus myth, the problem is how to harmonize it with the fact that, although - in the Goethean lineage - Hamlet may appear as the model of the modern (introverted, brooding, indecisive) intellectual, the myth of Hamlet is older than that of Oedipus. The elementary skeleton of the Hamlet narrative (the son revenges his father against the father's evil brother who murdered him and took over his throne; the son survives the illegitimate rule of his uncle by playing a fool and making "crazy" but truthful remarks) is a universal myth found everywhere, from old Nordic cultures through Ancient Egypt up to Iran and Polynesia. Furthermore, there are enough evidences to sustain the conclusion that the ultimate reference of this narrative does not concern family traumas, but the celestial events: the ultimate "meaning" of the Hamlet myth is the movement of stars in precession, i.e. the Hamlet myth clads into the family narrative highly articulated astronomical observations... However, this solution, convincing as it may appear, also gets immediately entangled in its own impasse: the movement of stars is in itself meaningless, just a fact of nature with no libidinal resonance, so why did people translate-metaphorize it in the guise of precisely such a family narrative which generates a tremendous libidinal involvement? In other words, the question of "what means what?" is in no way decided by this reading: does the Hamlet narrative "mean" stars, or do stars "mean" Hamlet's narrative, i.e. did the Ancients use their astronomical knowledge in order to encode insights into fundamental libidinal deadlocks of the human race?

One thing is nonetheless clear here: temporally and logically, the Hamlet narrative IS earlier than the Oedipal myth. We are dealing here with the mechanism of the unconscious displacement well known to Freud: something that is logically earlier is perceptible (or becomes, or inscribes itself in the texture) only as a later secondary distortion of some allegedly "original" narrative. Therein resides the often misrecognized elementary matrix of the "dream work," which involves the distinction between the latent dream-thought and the unconscious desire articulated in the dream: in the dream-work, the latent thought is ciphered/displaced, but it is through this very displacement that the other, truly unconscious thought articulates itself. So, in the case of Oedipus and Hamlet, instead of the linear/historicist reading of Hamlet as a secondary distortion of the Oedipal text, the Oedipus myth is (as Hegel already claimed) the grounding myth of the Western Greek civilization (the suicidal jump of the Sphynxh representing the disintegration of the old pre-Greek universe); and it is in Hamlet's "distortion" of the Oedipus that its repressed content articulates itself - the proof of it being the fact that the Hamlet matrix is found everywhere in pre-Classic mythology, up to the Ancient Egypt itself whose spiritual defeat is signalled by the suicidal jump of the Sphynx. (And, incidentally, what if the same goes even for Christianity: is not Freud's thesis that the murder of God in the New Testament brings to the light the "disavowed" trauma of the Old Testament?) Which, then, is the pre-Oedipal "secret" of Hamlet? One should retain the insight that Oedipus is a proper "myth," and that the Hamlet narrative is its "modernizing" dislocation/corruption - the lesson is that the Oedipal "myth" - and, perhaps, the mythic "naivety" itself - serves to obfuscate some prohibited knowledge, ultimately the knowledge about father's obscenity.

How are then act and knowledge related in a tragic constellation? The basic opposition is that between Oedipus and Hamlet: Oedipus accomplishes the act (of killing the father), because he doesn't know what he does; in contrast to Oedipus, Hamlet knows, and, for that very reason, isn't able to pass to the act (of taking revenge for the father's death). Furthermore, as Lacan emphasizes, it is not only Hamlet who knows, it is also Hamlet's father who mysteriously knows that he is dead and even how he died, in contrast to the father from the Freudian dream who doesn't know that he is dead - and it is this excessive knowkedge that accounts for the minimal melodramatic flair of Hamlet. That is to say, in contrast to tragedy which is based on some misrecognition or ignorance, melodrama always involves some unexpected and excessive knowledge possessed not by the hero, but by his/her other, the knowledge imparted to the hero at the very end, in the final melodramatic reversal. Suffice it to recall the eminently melodramatic final reversal of Wharton's The Age of Innocence in which the husband who for long years harbored illicit passionate love for Countess Olenska, learns that his young wife all the time knew about his secret passion. Perhaps, this would also offer a way to redeem the unfortunate Bridges of the Madison County: if, at the film's end, the dying Francesca were to learn that her allegedly simple-minded, down-to-earth husband knew all the time of his wife's brief passionate affair with the National Geographic photographer and how much this meant to her, but kept silent about it in order not to hurt her. Therein resides the enigma of knowledge: how is it possible that the whole psychic economy of a situation radically changes not when the hero directly learns something (some long repressed secret), but when he gets to know that the other (whom he mistook for ignorant) also knew it all the time and just pretended not to know to keep the appearances - is there anything more humiliating than the situation of a husband who, after a long secret love affair, all of a sudden learns that his wife knew about it all the time, but kept silent about it out of politeness or, even worse, out of love for him? In Terms of Endearment, Debra Winger, dying of cancer on a hospital bed, tells her son (who actively despises her for being abandoned by his father, her husband) that she is well aware of how much he really loves her - she knows that some time in the future, after her death, he will acknowledge this to himself; at that moment, he will feel guilty for his past hatred of her mother, so she is now letting him know that she is in advance pardoning him and thus delivering him of the future burden of guilt... this manipulation of the future guilt feeling is melodrama at its best; its very gesture of pardon culpabilizes the son in advance. (Therein, in this culpabilization, in this imposition of a symbolic debt, through the very act of exoneration, resides the highest trick of Christianity.)

There is, however, a third formula to be added to this couple of "he doesn't know it, although he does it" and "he knows it and therefore cannot do it": "he knows very well what she is doing, and, nonetheless, he does it." If the first formula covers the traditional hero and the second one the early modern hero, the last one, combining knowledge AND act in an ambiguous way, accounts for the late modern - contemporary - hero. That is to say, this third formula allows for two thoroughly opposed readings, somewhat like the Hegelian speculative judgement in which the lowest and the highest coincide: on the one hand, "he knows very well what he is doing, and he nonetheless does it" is the clearest expression of the cynical attitude of moral depravity - "Yes, I am a scum, cheating and lying, so what? That's life!"; on the other hand, the same stance of "he knows very well what he is doing, and he nonetheless does it" can also stand for the most radical opposite of cynicism, i.e. for the tragic awareness that, although what I am about to do will have catastrophic consequences for one's well-being and for the well-being of those who are nearest and dearest to me, I nonetheless simply HAVE to do it on account of the inexorable ethical injunction. (Recall the paradigmatic attitude of the noir hero: he is fully aware that, if he follows the call of the femme fatale, it is only doom that awaits him, that what he is letting himself into is a double trap, that the woman will for sure betray him, but he nonetheless cannot resist and does it...) This split is not only the split between the domain of the "pathological" - of the well-being, pleasure, profit... - and the ethical injunction: it can also be the split between the moral norms that I usually follow and the unconditional injunction I feel obliged to obey, like the deadlock of Abraham who "knows very well what killing one's own son means," and nonetheless resolves to do it, or the Christian who is ready to commit a terrible sin (to sacrify his eternal soul) for the higher goal of God's glory... in short, the properly modern post- or meta-tragic situation occurs when a higher necessity compels me to betray the very ethical substance of my being.

Excerpted from Slavoj Zizek: Death's Merciless Love


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