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Tragedy and the Intrusion of Time: Carl Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba

Miriam Leonard

This paper discusses the role that questions of temporality have played in the modern reevaluation of tragedy.  It has often been argued that the universalizing assumptions and abstraction of philosophical readings have been blind to the historical specificity of Greek tragedy. By inaugurating the concept of “the tragic” German Idealism stands accused of making tragedy untimely. Yet, from Hegel’s engagement with Antigone as an exemplification of the historical development of Spirit, to Hölderlin’s assertion that “Greek art is foreign to us” – the philosophy of the tragic has looked to tragedy to understand the distance as much as the proximity of antiquity. 

At the core of this paper will be a discussion of the essay Hamlet or Hecuba: The Intrusion of Time onto the Play by the controversial German political theorist Carl Schmitt. Writing in 1956, Schmitt constructs his argument, on one hand, through an engagement with Walter Benjamin and his historicizing contrast between tragedy and Trauerspiel, and on other, as a reaction to Freud’s dehistoricized psychologizing readings. Beyond this immediate context, he explicitly sets up a dialogue with what he calls a “German nineteenth-century philosophy of aesthetics”. This aesthetic tradition, he argued, had been blind to what he calls the “concrete historical setting” of tragic drama.

Schmitt begins his analysis by mapping out three distinct modes of the historical in literature: allusion, mirroring and intrusion. His exploration provides a different vocabulary for thinking about tragedy and its relationship to history and politics which I will argue can call into question the new and old historicist certainties of much recent scholarship on Greek tragedy. In particular, his essay helps us understand tragedy as an “intrusion of history” in the continuum of the contemporary. Schmitt illustrates his conception of “intrusion” by exploring the role that contemporary religious and political events played in shaping the narrative of Shakespearean tragedy. Rather than seeing the play “alluding to” or “mirroring” historical events, Schmitt sees history functioning, as it were, as the political unconscious of the play.  In turn Schmitt claims that Hamlet acts “as the schism that has determined the fate of Europe”. In the Politics of Friendship, Jacques Derrida observed that Schmitt’s essay “questions the political destiny of the European Spirit”. In asking the question “Hamlet or Hecuba”, Schmitt invites us to ponder which formulation best captures Europe’s predicament:  “tragedy or modernity” or “tragedy and modernity”.

Hamlet or Hecuba raises the question of the politics of time. Schmitt’s complicity with Nazism and his refusal to renounce his association with fascism make his discussion of the history and politics of tragedy particularly vexed.  By locating “the source of the tragic” in “historical reality”, Schmitt was making an appeal for the repoliticization of literary analysis. On the one hand, Schmitt’s decision could be seen as a continuation of his reactionary political agenda, on the other hand, it could be seen to expose the hypocrisy of former collaborators who were now hiding behind a belief in the autonomy of art. This paper thus turns to Hamlet or Hecuba to probe the ideological commitments of timeliness and untimeliness.

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Untimeliness and Classical Knowing

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