What might be a worthwhile life in 17th-century Europe? Consider Shakespeare: poet, craftsman, backbone of the entertainment industry. Or Hamlet, who, had things worked out, might have ruled a state, found a good wife, fought off the enemy. (And yes, we can make such claims about a fictional character.) Things not working out, he has but the one task, famously underperformed.
Or Descartes, who sought knowledge through a mix of world- and self-examination, rejecting tradition and authority, and making it new.
These figures have much in common – a rather narrow focus, astonishing self-reliance, a way of seeming modern. Another model, considerably different, is offered by John Tradescant, the traveller and botanist whose miscellany, assembled at the time of Shakespeare’s later plays, forms the basis of the Ashmolean Museum. Andrew Cutrofello’s clever and demanding book reminds me of Tradescant’s miscellany. Putting the imaginary prince up against two millennia of philosophy, and using the structure of the play as an armature, he offers a vast array of observations on melancholy, negative faith, nihilism, delay or tarrying, and non-existence. Each of these he sets within a conventional subdiscipline – epistemology, metaphysics and so on. As with the cabinet of curiosities, there are many surprises, and an emphasis on marvels rather than message.
There are further similarities. Just as Tradescant was of his time, his activities depending on recent developments in voyaging, navigation and their impetus in trade, so this kind of book surely rests on the internet and its background in defence. Such are the commonplace beginnings of things highfalutin. But whereas Tradescant had to leave home and suffer the discomforts of travel, today’s explorer can, though bounded in his study or cafe, nevertheless be king of infinite space. What sorts of observations, what kinds of connections are made?
An example from the beginning of the book: in November 1619 Descartes, holed up with the German army in Ulm, had a series of dreams. The last of these dreams allegedly foreshadows his cogito ergo sum. The first, less well known, involved what seem-ed to be a melon from a foreign land. Psychoanalysts have had a field day. Noting that a version of Hamlet was put on in Dresden some seven years after those events, Cutrofello admits that he fancies Descartes was dreaming of the “melon-choly prince”.
And an example from the very end: in a fussy reworking of an already laboured chemistry metaphor from T. S. Eliot, we are told that “Hamlet is the shred of vanadium oxide”. (It would take too long to explain.)
In spite of its billing, this book is not so much a work of philosophy, or of literature, as a panoply of comments on both. Cutrofello may well demur here, and indeed it would be silly to suggest that there is just one method to be pursued; but although he discusses an impressive range of writers from both camps, it is plain that his sympathies are more with philosophy’s continental tradition – Hegel (“the mightiest of dead philosophers”), Nietzsche and Slavoj Žižek all loom large – than with the rivalling Anglo-American style. The result is curiously self-effacing, rich in detail (there are, in this relatively short book, almost 60 pages of notes) but thin on real shape. Few of the author’s own opinions come through, and there is little sense of a developed, sustained and defended argument.
All For Nothing: Hamlet’s Negativity
By Andrew Cutrofello
MIT Press, 240pp, £15.95
ISBN 9780262526340 and 2326032 (e-book)
Published 31 October 2014