Hamlet and Our Problems

Hamlet and Gertrude

To initiate this blog, I will start off, in a sense, where my previous blog left off.  I called that blog Untimely Meditations, after the Nietzsche book, itself a collection of four essays–cultural critiques–that Nietzsche deemed “warlike.”  Ultimately, I wanted to write criticism just as sharp, just as deadly–to expose Bildungsphilister and nihilists as the destroyers of true art, the enemies of true culture.

I was unsuccessful.  The pen may be mightier than the sword, but one must first pick up the pen.

I do not know whether or not this blog will carry out the mission I set forth in the previous blog; I want to keep my intentions more protean this time around.  However, in the spirit of “warlike” criticism, I will start with a brief discussion of one of my favorite critics–T. S. Eliot.  Specifically, I want to look at the essay “Hamlet and His Problems” (1919).

It was certainly a bold move for Eliot to focus his critical eye on one of the most revered works of Western literature–Shakespeare’s Hamlet–and then label it “an artistic failure.”  To be sure, many today still think the assessment preposterous (e.g., Harold Bloom).  But if you read the essay carefully and follow closely Eliot’s line of reasoning, you’ll find a tight, well argued, beautifully focused piece of writing.

The crux of Eliot’s argument is that Hamlet lacks an objective correlative for his excessive emotions.  Eliot defines “objective correlative” as:

[…] a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

The particular emotion that Eliot is referring to in Hamlet is Hamlet’s disgust for his mother Gertrude, a disgust which “is in excess of the facts as they appear.”  Gertrude, according to Eliot, “is not an adequate equivalent” for her son’s emotions, and “her character is so negative and insignificant that she arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is incapable of representing.”

In other words, Eliot finds Hamlet tonally inconsistent and artistically imbalanced.  And he makes a strong case for this reading.  So why, if he is correct, is Hamlet often considered one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces?  This is why:

And probably more people have thought Hamlet a work of art because they found it interesting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art.  It is the ‘Mona Lisa’ of literature.

Whether or not you agree with Eliot on the subject of Hamlet, you at least must see the importance of the distinction he makes between finding a work interesting because it is art and mistakenly thinking a work is art because it is interesting. It’s a fantastic, sobering question to ask oneself when making an aesthetic judgment.

So what constitutes true art?  And what role does criticism play in understanding it?

These problems of art and criticism, exemplified nicely in Eliot’s short essay, are problems to which I will keep returning.  If you find them as engaging as I do, I hope you will join me in the ongoing discussion.

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