The Hamlet Doctrine: Knowing Too Much, Doing Nothing

Adam Phillips writes:

In The Birth of Tragedy Nietzsche gives what Simon Critchley and Jamieson Webster call a ‘fascinating short interpretation’ of Hamlet, from which they take their title. They don’t think much of the book up to that point: it’s when he gets to Hamlet, they argue, that Nietzsche wakes up. This isn’t a view everyone would share, but it’s of a piece with the many assured judgments they make about Hamlet in the play with the most canonically self-doubting hero. Everyone, it seems, is more certain than Hamlet about what’s wrong with him. Nietzsche, though, uses Hamlet, as people tend to do, to make a larger point. ‘The Dionysian man,’ he writes,

resembles Hamlet; both have once looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and it disgusts them to act, for their action could not change anything in the eternal essence of things; they feel it to be ridiculous or humiliating that they should be asked to set right a world that is out of joint. Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion – that is the Hamlet Doctrine.

(LRB 10 October 2013)