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May 25, 1947 - Image 5

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The Michigan Daily, 1947-05-25

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PERSPECTIVES

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HAMLET AND EXISTENTIALISM
... James Baker

N0 IC has been able to pluck out
the heart of Hamlet's mystery; he
hides himself in " a cloud of unknow-
ing." The central problem.of the play is
why Hamlet delays to go into action.
Among the endless theories that have
been propounded to explain this, one of
the best 's the one that attributes his
inaction ta his melancholy, his total dis-
enchantment. Another theory is that
the act of revenge imposed upon him is
repugnant to him, because unconsciously
he has desired to do the very thing that
Claudius has done; he is, in fact, un-
consciously the lover of his mother, This
Oedipus theory is advanced by Sigmund
Freud and elaborated at greater length
by Ernest Jones. Asked what he thought
of this interpretation, on his recent visit
to Ann arbor, Karl Shapiro replied, "I
find it decreases my enjoyment but in-
creases my understanding." It is true
that such an explanation adds little to
our appreciation of the play as a play,
of its poetry or of its effectiveness as
drama ("the play's the thing"); yet any
theory which increases our understand-
ing woul , by that much, increase our
pleasure In it. It may be objected, as
E. E. Stoll is always objecting, that
Shakespeare was not a clinical psycho-
analyst, a professional psychiatrist, or
anything of the sort. He had never heard
of an :edipus complex; he was a pro-
fessional playwright writing for the
Globe Theater and consequently it is
illegitimate to read into the play what
Shakespeore never put there. But it is
the nat re of any work which really has
the quality of profundity to be con-
tinually growing in meaning and weight
with the passing centuries. It is quite
Possible that Robert Penn Warren reads
things into the "Rime of the Ancient
Mariner" that Coleridge never con-
sciously put there in the first place, but
what of that? If what is read into the
poem or drama enlarges our understand-
ing of. it, then it is all to the good, and
the author must be given credit for
writing a work of such profundity and
potentiality that new meaning can be
read into it of which he himself was but
dimly aware. With this idea in mind,
it may not be out of place to see whether
a reading of Hamlet as existentialist will
not brig something new to our under-
standing of the play.
Kierkegaard, who is the father of
Existenz, was, in his way, a nineteenth
century rince of Denmark, an intellec-
tual prince-indeed. without forcing
things very much, we may see a para-
llel between his rejection of the girl to
whom he was engaged and Hamlet's
treatment of Ophelia. The earliest Kier-
kegaardians in the English-speaking
world were -three: Edmund Grosse in
England, Professor Swenson at the Uni-
versity of Minnesota, and Dr. Louis I.
Bredvold. But now to be a Kierke-
gaardian is no distinction whatever; his
work has been translated and popular-
ised by Walter Lowry of Princeton, the
new Ki rkegaard anthology by Bretall
has recently been published, articles
continually appear about him in Parti-
san Review or other avant-garde maga-
zines, and, in short, he has become a
fashion 'ad a fad.
Kierkegaard was no compromiser.
That is the whole point of his Either Or.
You cannot have both religion and the
luxury of the aesthetic life-very well,
toss the aesthetic life out of the window.
You cannot hope to communicate to
another all the multiplicity of your own
private sensitivities. and if you try, your
effort nsust end in frustration. How
communicate the incommunicable? Even
Proust or Joyce might fail in this, spe-
cialists as they are in conveying multi-
levels of consciousness. What happens
then to the isolated individual? He be-
comes a burning point, an existenz of
suffering consciousness, face to face
with God. One might say that this is

solepsism in excelsis, and perhaps it is.
but in that burning point of being, the
"I" in the personal "I am" is burned
away, so that being minus the selfish "I"
becomes merged in BEING. This is
what every nystic knows, and the way
to it lies through "the Dark Night of the
Soul.'
Probably, there is nothing very start-
lingly new in the existentialism of Jean-
Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. The idea
that man is an absurdity and his life
vanity is at least as old as Ecclesiastes.
"Vanity of vanities" is quite similar to
the "Rien ne vaut rien" of Barbey d'Aur-
evilly, Pascal perceived the paradox of
man, his uncomfortable situation, nei-
ther brute nor angel, uneasily oscillating
between extremes. This thought is
echoed at the end of O'Neill's The Hairy
Ape. And to Thomas Hardy man is a
sad mis-fit, his consciousness, his chief
curse, unfitting him for life here. To
D. H. Lawrence, also, man is far less
well-adjusted than the animals.
The essence of existentialism, as de-
fined by Jean-Paul Sartre, is that exis-

and painful disillusionment grew out of
the rigors and betrayals of the German
occupation. Existentialism realistically
accepts all the difficulties and absurdi-
ties of man's existence, but it does not
propose to accept them all lying down.
It is a resistance movement! One of
Sartre's favorite ideas is that man's
character is not fixed; it is in a state of
becoming, and it is impossible to say
what a man will become till his life is
finally over,
In Albert Camus' novel, The Stranger,
the chief character, a young man, Meur-
sault, has none of the conventional or
accepted reactions to events. His mother
dies and he is not particularly moved to
sorrow. He and his mother were not
particularly close. He walks along the
shore. The noonday heat is maddening.
He sees an Arab and for no very good
reason shoots him. To be sure, the Arab
appeared to be menacing, though he
made no hostile move; there is a pre-
vious build-up of nervous tensions which
make the action less incomprehensible.
And the waves of heat perpetually as-

The Skull and The Butterfly
The butterfly was beautiful; it sk'ipped
In fluttering rainbows, and then dipper
Its vari-colored wings, to rest
In a skull's eye socket for a nest;
A skull that had bleached for many years
Empty of feeling and devoid cf tears.
Over the rim of the grass-green hill,
With lilting step and artless skill,
A girl appeared in silhouette
Inscribing a graceful pirouette
Against the cloudless sky above,
Advancing lightly toward her love.
She gave the skull a laughing glance
Then bounded over it and began to dance.
Startled, the butterfly swiftly rose,
The girl, enraptured, held her pose.,
,Gasping with wonder and shy delight
A t this exquisitely colored sight.
She lifted her arms attempting to grap n
Its loveliness in one sweet clasp.
Then slowly, sadly, she lowered her hands
Seeing them shackled with golden bands.
john Coo'

cept. But he does find a sort of bleak
cleanliness, a kind of peace, in accepting
"the benign indifference of the uni-
verse." There is a moral courage, a
spiritual cleanness, in this act of un-
sentimental acceptance.
Jean-Paul Sartre's play, Huis Clos,
(Behind Closed Doors, or No Exit) was
produced about a month before D-Day,
1944, in Paris. It has recently (latter end
of 1946) had a short run on Broadway.
The three characters in the room with
no exit are Garcin, a pacifist journalist
and collaborationist, who has been shot
attempting to avoid military service;
Ines, a lesbian, who has goaded another
girl into committing suicide; and Es-
telle, an American nymphomaniac. Gar-
rin has always posed as a hero, but
Ines does a little probing:
Garcin: Can one judge a life by a
single action?
Ines: Why not? You have dreamt
for thirty years that you have cour-
age; and you allowed yourself a thou-
sand weaknesses, because everything
is permitted to heroes. How conveni-
ent it was! And then, in the hour of
danger, they cornered you . . you
took the train for Mexico.
Garcin: I didn't dream the heroism.
I chose it. One is what one wishes
to be.
Ines: Prove it. Prove that it was
not a dream. Deeds also decide what
one has wished.
Garcin: I died too soon. I wasn't
left time to perform my deeds.
Ines: One always dies too soon or
too late. And yet there is one's life-
finished; the shot is fired, you must
foot the bill. You are your life and
nothing else.
And there the three characters are,
doomed to one another's company, be-
cause there is no exit, and no two of
them can find a modus vivendi, because
there is always the third there to spoil
it, It is a hell of wonderful simplicity
and hideous ingeniousness. The point is
that they themselves are their own tor-
ment, through being what they are. The
same principle governs Dante's Inferno,
These people must endure an eternity
of claustrophobia in a perpetual preying
on and excerbation of each other's
nerves. And the hell is all the worse be-
cause the setting is not macabre in the
least; itsis merely a salon of the Second
Empire. Could there be a more exqui-
site boredom? The French have always
been specialists in ennui.
But w'hat has all this to do with
Hamlet? May we, without stretching a
point, consider it a play with an existen-
tialist theme? When Hamlet says in his
first soliloquy:
How weary, stale, flat and
unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this
world,
when he finds the world an unweeded
garden, or a sterile promontory, when
man delights not him nor woman nei-
ther, when he finds that the world is a
prison, "a goodly one, in which there
are many confines, wards, and dun-
geons, Denmark being one o' the worst"
he may be expressing an undifferenti-
ated melancholy, which does not have
an especially existentialist twist. But if
we find him with a sense of human ab-
surdity, and with a sense of alienation
from society, a sense of being a stranger,
then we should have to agree that Ham-
let does contain an existentialist theme.
And we do, in fact, find that Hamlet
has a sense of the meaninglessness and
absurdity of existence. Rosencrantz and
Guilderstern represent the acceptance
of conventional values; Hamlet delights
in baiting, in twitting, and spoofing
those two collaborationist popinjays,
Professor Theodore Spencer has recently
contributed an article to the Sewanee
Review on the isolation of the Shake-
Centinued on Page 9

tence comes before essence; being or
living is what it feels like at the moment
to be or live, rather than what it is
said to be. The senses inform us sensi-
bly, and we do well, dog-gone it, to be-
lieve the data of the senses rather than
some thin abstraction therefrom. The
senses, the philosophers tell us, are de-
ceptive, but we might as well go on
being deceived; what else have we got
to live by? Man is a stranger in the uni-
verse, which is essentially not moral or
immoral, but amoral. He is always hurt-
ing himself and getting disillusioned be-
cause he expects the world to be ordered
according to his concepts of the rational
and the just; but the world is not so
ordered; wisdom consists in expecting
the contrary of those abstractions. If
one lived in constant expectation of ir-
rationality and injustice, life might more
.frequently come up to expectatons. One
would surely not be disappointed.
To many people existentialism seems
nihilistic, negative, humanly hopeless,
and therefore abhorrent. But it is not
so negative as people think. Its peeled

sailing him also have their effect. But
one gets the impression that the action
was done without reflection, without
purpose, that it was just done and might
just as well not have been done. He is
put on trial for the killing. It becomes
clear that his life could be saved if he
could make some appeal, appear human,
touch the hearts of the jury. But he
refuses to conform to any accepted pat-
tern of behavior and what tells against
him most at the trial is his callousness
or coldness, as they appear to the court,
on the death of his mother. He even
finds it hard to be always attentive at
the trial, his thoughts wander, though
it is his own life that hangs in the bal-
ance. At his own trial he is a stranger,
almost an intruder, one from another
world-a lonely existenz in a universe
that makes little sense. For his non-
conformity, his social cut-off-ness, he
pays with his life. He is completely alone
in the prison cell awaiting death. He
rejects the consolations of religion of-
fered by a priest, finding something un-
clean for him in a faith he cannot ac-

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