Friday, 22 October 2010

‘Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)’: Songs from the Botting & Wilson archive (occasional series)


Grinding wire, rumbling skin, taut metal slice, blood drawn strings.
Voice retching down a well of misery, spelling it out.

aytch … chayh … yemmh … mhell …



‘Hamlet (Pow, Pow, Pow)’. The Birthday Party plays a Hamlet of Bataillean proportions. Nick Cave sings Bataille now in a performance that sketches in, allusively, various philosophical incarnations of Shakespeare’s most perverse character.

Hamlet got a gun, now,
he wears a crucifix

Priestly, prophetic, sovereign in his visionary expenditure, the German Romantic Hamlet appears in all his doomed, artistic individualism: heroically, vainly, struggling against the overwhelming torrent of historical destiny. Hegel’s Hamlet, for example, moving beyond ‘the rightful sense of vengeance’ and a forced violation of morality, is a figure whose ‘real collision’ turns on the ‘particular personality’, on the ‘inner life’ ‘whose noble soul is not steeled to this type of energetic activity’. Similarly, for Goethe, time is out of joint because a pure, noble and moral nature is not up to the performance of the great action for which events call, sinking, instead, under a burden it cannot bear. The noble soul of Goethe and Hegel is unable to meet the demands of destiny, a human destiny that, for Schlegel, becomes enmired in the ‘dark complexity’ of world events. For Tieck, the dark passions are those of the melancholic soul cursed with the gift of an unbearable interiority, an accursed hole, ‘these beautiful contradictions from which nearly every gifted individual suffers’. But

don’t let ‘em steal your heart away
he went and stole my heart POW!

Hamlet’s heart is gone. Yet still Hamlet refuses to give up on his desire. ‘Is this love?’ Hamlet also appears as an amorous, anguished individual animated by an uncanny object of adoration and animosity: ‘I believe our man’s in love’, ‘some kinda love’. Some kind of love: for Charles Lamb it is a ‘supererogatory love’, ‘love awkwardly counterfeiting hate’. Hence the confrontation between Hamlet and Romeo.


‘Hamlet got a gun’, he’s a vengeful pursuer seeking out his Romantic double; he is loverman, master of love-hate drawn out to the extreme limit of Romantic subjectivity and

he likes the look of that CADILLAC

The gangster of love’s on a death drive.

Hamlet’s fishin’ in the grave
thru’ the custard bones
he ain’t got no friends in there

The melancholic subject seeks the impossible: a lost object in the hole in the real, the very point of nonknowledge, according to Lacan, around which the symbolic cannot close, the hole that pulls the symbolic out of joint. As Lacan insisted, ‘we do not know what happened [to Antigone] in the sepulchre any more than we know what goes on when Hamlet goes down into the sepulchre’. This rupture is also characterized by Lacan as the limit where the possibility of metamorphosis is located. When, for example, Antigone goes fishing in the grave to re-cover the corpse of her brother she begins to moan like a bird that has lost its young. Hamlet, however, becomes Ophelia, his own lost object:

Hamlet moves so beautiful
walking thru’ the flowers …

Down in the hole, Hamlet follows the logic of the signifier outlined by Lacan in ‘Desire and the Interpretation of Desire in Hamlet’, but with a difference. The young Dane assumes the identity of Ophelia, and then, with a gun and a crucifix, he rises from the grave as phallus. But Hamlet rises as phallus but only to raze it to the ground. Already continuous with his lost object of love, Hamlet’s identity further splits as he goes in vengeful pursuit of the ghost whose place he has taken:

now he’s movin down my street
and he’s coming to my house
crawling up my stairs

Hamlet shadows the ghost of his father, the deadly, fantasmatic double whose visored gaze demands action and revenge. Beyond morality, Hamlet turns his gun on the law in a moment of homicidal expenditure: POW POW POW

* * *


'Is this love?’ In love, Hamlet encounters the movement of extreme states which, for Bataille, mean he is torn from ‘isolate being’ and opened to ‘what’s beyond itself, to what is beyond the couple even – monstrous excess’. It charts a movement from a desire for union and decision to a lacerating, catastrophic leap. POW POW POW With laughter that ‘opens me up infinitely’, there is a laceration in which being ‘slips into indecisiveness, turns into interference, splits apart’; Hamlet’s indecisiveness becomes a mortal wound: ‘there’s an infinite gaping in laughter, something mortally wounded – this is nature, violently suspending itself’.

Laughter remains an erotic experience and as such it ‘waits upon chance’. Eroticism, Bataille states, ‘always entails a breaking down of established patterns, the patterns … of the regulated social order basic to our discontinuous mode of existence as defined and separate individuals’. Eroticism fucks with communication even as it remains at its base:

For those who understand communication as laceration, communication is sin or evil. It’s a breaking of the established order. Laughter, orgasm, sacrifice (so many failures harrowing the heart) all manifest anguish; in them, a person is anguished, seized and held tight, possessed by anguish. (Bataille)

But the negativity of sovereignty, the eroticism which veers uncontrollably towards death, expends the individuated being beyond the anguish of death, towards the me that is not me, to a real that is not real, impossible … ‘to be or not to be is a question that can never be seriously (logically) raised’. HA-HA-Hamlet.

Sovereign man dies like an animal in the act of living sovereignly, freed from the anguish of death. The sovereign resists individual consciousness, his ‘playful impulse’ ‘proves stronger in him that the considerations that govern work’ … This impulse demands transgression; it enjoins rebellion, provoking the desire to move beyond usefulness, slavish work and the negation that death introduces into the domain of servile existence. … Sovereign play finds its ‘greatest affirmation’ in the killing of the king for it displays a king who cannot die, for whom ‘death is nothing’: ‘it is that which his presence denies, that which his presence annihilates even in death, that which his death itself annihilates’.

Crawlin’ up my stairs


Hamlet’s act means he becomes phallus, no longer subordinated to it. Through his moment of sovereign expenditure Hamlet becomes king and dies, sacrificed to the signifier of deathlessness that erases and exhumes him, turning substance into energy, returning him to the ghostly, fatal power that has moved him throughout his performance and beyond it.

Sovereign negativity, as it sacrifices individual identity, as it transgresses all limits, does not become frozen before the mirror, the double of the signifier. Hamlet, spitting bullets in the face of death, discharges signifiers in the grave of the double; Hamlet, fishing in the hole that remains in him more than him, rends life’s fabric and its symbolic death. POW POW POW. Absolute expenditure.

It unleashes a movement beyond the human wager, beyond the risk that restores an uneasy equilibrium between the two deaths in that, risking one, the combatant achieves the recognition of the Other. For Lacan, Hamlet is torn between a real and a symbolic death; and it is only in being so torn, having been given his death wound by Laertes, that he can unleash his revenge. But it is an indifferent revenge. Beyond the risk there is only sovereignty. While Lacan’s Hamlet ends with the rise of the phallus and the return of some kind of symbolic order in the shape of Fortinbras and Hamlet’s request to Horatio ‘To tell my story’ (V.ii.341), Cave’s Hamlet expires in the POW POW POW. The rest is silence.

Absolute in its uselessness, complete only in its utter evacuation of subjectivity, the discharge of sovereign negativity wrenches time out of joint.


A Bataillean response, then, to the so-called postmodern, posthistorical period heralded or exemplified by the symbolic death of Marxism is not to resurrect the Kantian moral imperative in the ghostly shape of Marx’s spectre or spirit, it is to follow and act in the negative determinations of the irreversible death, destruction and sacrifice forming the blind spot around which meaning circulates, to act in a Marxism that does not give up on its desire, a Marxism that exists in the sovereign space disclosed by its symbolic death, a Marxism without reserve. POW POW POW

From Fred Botting & Scott Wilson (2001), ‘Pow, Pow, Pow’, Bataille, Palgrave: 127-45