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Disordered states: Hamlet, Durkheim and Don Quixote

DonI attended only one lecture while at university. This was in my first week at York and given by Professor Philip Brockbank, founder of the English faculty. Its subject was The Lunatic, The Lover and the Poet. I can’t remember much of what he had to say about the lover and the poet, perhaps these were discussed in subsequent lectures that I missed, but I was interested in what he had to say about the lunatic, who turned out to be Hamlet.

As far as I can recall, his contention was that the doomed prince was the first expression of a modern, Western sensibility. In his solitariness, self-preoccupation and internal anguish, he represented a new model of humanity; an individual whose consciousness is private and inward rather than merged with those around him.

In today’s highly individualized society in which one’s own preferences are frequently the primary consideration before any course of action, this might seem a perfectly natural state of affairs. Yet in many traditional cultures there are so many constraints imposed by age, gender and layers of family obligation and custom that the idea of doing anything simply for oneself would be, almost literally, unthinkable. In such communities, the mere desire for solitude or personal space would be thought, at the very least, peculiar. How could a person exist separate from those others that define who he or she is?

Hard evidence of how social organizations evolved is scarce, but it is reasonable to suppose that in our far off days the hunting of mammoths or other large animals would have been safer and more successful when undertaken by a group rather than singly. Similarly trekking across unknown or hostile environments would have been much less dangerous in the company of others. Survival depended on safety in numbers and this must have determined the sublimation of self to the group.

Things change. The mammoths became extinct and by the beginning of the seventeenth century, thousands of years of evolution had delivered homo sapiens to the point where it was possible to sit down and ponder if it was all worth it.  At some stage a few people at least decided that perhaps it wasn’t. Having been a morbid adolescent, I’d read Emile Durkheim’s classic study of Suicide. Much of what Professor Brockbank argued seemed to fit Durkheim’s theory which contended that the more socially integrated a person, the less the chance they would kill themselves. He found suicide rates are higher for men than women; those that are single rather than married; those without children and those that are highly educated. He also found Protestants more likely to take their own lives than Catholics and Scandinavians particularly prone to kill themselves. As a single, highly educated Protestant male Scandinavian, Hamlet was already in big trouble.

According to Durkheim, this higher propensity in Protestants was to do with the contrasting nature of the two faith traditions since he argued that in Catholicism the priest as intercessor between the communicant and God, and with the power to give absolution, was able to give spiritual comfort in a way that Protestantism did not. Typically more austere, Protestantism places greater emphasis on the word rather than display and conduces to a higher degree of individualism.

Given that Hamlet is thought to have been first performed in 1601 only a couple of generations after the Reformation and dissolution of the monasteries, it seemed to me that Professor Brockbank’s assertion that Hamlet was the first expression of a modern sensibility in literature could be linked to Durkheim’s notion that Protestantism in some way fostered both an increased sense of isolation and individualism and a greater tendency to suicide.

Durkheim also classified different types of suicide into four main categories; egoistic, altruistic, anomic and fatalistic. These too seemed to offer a fruitful way to explore the play since although Hamlet doesn’t kill himself, his most celebrated speech ponders its implications and the two women he loves, Ophelia and Gertrude take their own lives (if, as in some productions, she is shown to be aware the wine she drinks is poisoned).

Durkheim defined egoistic suicide as one in which the individual has become excessively detached from his or her community, this lack of social integration leading to depression, apathy and a sense of meaninglessness. He contrasts this with altruistic suicide in which a person is so completely integrated into his or her society that a person will willingly sacrifice themselves for what they believe the greater good; of which suicide bombers are the latest chilling manifestation.

According to Durkheim, anomic suicides occur at times of breakdown in social cohesion when individuals feel insecure and lacking the bonds which normally hold communities together. Typically, this form of suicide is associated with rapid and disruptive social change, especially periods of economic volatility. The fourth type of suicide, fatalistic, may be found in situations where the individual is so oppressed by circumstances, they prefer death to life. Thus prisoners in abusive confinement may well opt to escape in the only way they can, rather than face continued degradation.

Hamlet offers examples of three of these states, since the gloomy young prince is the archetype of egoistic suicide – melancholic, withdrawn and brooding. Yet in many ways his situation is brought about by anomic disregulation, his time is ‘out of joint’, its disordering caused by his uncle’s murder of his father and marriage to his mother. All of the structures that should have been in place to keep him secure had been kicked away, leaving him adrift and vulnerable.

This is even more true of Ophelia. We don’t learn much of her relationship with Hamlet prior to events in the play, though as it begins both Laertes and Polonius warn her his love may not be sincere. Given that her father is a member of the royal household for whom an alliance with the prince could be advantageous, this might indicate an honest concern about Hamlet’s intentions. Equally, it could be evidence of the way she is constrained, her affections trammelled by father and brother.

Whatever Hamlet’s original feelings for her, in Act 2 she reports that he’d visited her chamber, his appearance dishevelled and his manner strange. Later his treatment of her is harsh and taunting and she is confusedly torn between his professions of love and rejection of her. Later still, his unintended murder of her father tips her into suicide.

Destabilized by Hamlet’s cruelty and the killing of Polonius, Ophelia’s death has anomic aspects. Yet there are also fatalistic traits. For while in the course of the play Laertes leaves for Paris, Hamlet sets out for England with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Fortinbras arrives from Norway, she is trapped in Elsinore. Bullied by the three males closest to her and deprived of independence, it is a kind of psychic prison. Apparently lacking other options, death came to seem preferable to living in hell.

It was only much later I discovered that Durkheim’s elaborate theory was built on statistics that were almost certainly flawed, since the recording of death by suicide is itself subjective; wherever self-slaughter was disapproved or illegal, many apparent suicides may have been described as an accidental death or due to natural causes in deference to the bereaved family. What Professor Brockbank made of the thesis, I never troubled to ask.

I didn’t attend another lecture, not even one of his, largely because too lazy to get out of bed and too arrogant to suppose them of use. Life after university might have been somewhat easier had I taken a more rigorous approach. Instead I took a series of casual jobs, including three months on a farm, before heading to London and temporary work for the British Council.

After six months in the city with excess alcohol, insufficient sleep and a series of disastrous relationships I thought I was going crazy and decided the best thing would be to live alone in the country. Finding a cottage on the Cumbrian border, I headed north but couldn’t get work. Signing on the dole, I spent my time reading, walking the fells and illustrating Don Quixote.

In retrospect the choice of subject to illustrate seems itself quixotic, though a wonderful book. Don Quixote is in some ways Hamlet’s second cousin – both eponymous heroes, both of questionable sanity, both attempting to right wrongs in their world, both created in the early years of the seventeenth century and, by coincidence, their authors dying a day apart in April 1616.

In Hamlet the question regarding the protagonist’s sanity is open. Is the prince mad or merely feigning madness? If the latter, was he already mad or driven so by circumstance? Alternatively, is he sane and the world around him mad? Few doubts exist about Don Quixote, driven insane by hours alone in his library, studying works of chivalry.

Don Quixote is an innocent, yet his actions are not harmless. He kills sheep thinking them part of an army, destroys puppets believing them to be real life miscreants and sets free thieves and pimps who rob him and run away. He rarely wins, yet is indomitable. He is the mistaken idealist and bungling dreamer in all of us. Don Quixote

At first, the solitude in Cumbria was healing, but after several months I also began to go a little mad. Once I was shouted at by a farmer and told to get out of his field. As the first human contact in many days I found the experience unsettling. Towards the end I became unbalanced and paranoid. Offered a job doing up a basement flat in Durham, I boarded a coach and crossed the Pennines. The vehicle was full of Geordies on their way home from a holiday in Blackpool and full of warmth and raucous humour. It felt like coming back to life.


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