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This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, August 14, 2014


[Hamlet] is a superman among men. And he is a superman because he has walked and held converse with death... Thus Hamlet is an element of evil in the state of Denmark. The poison of his mental essence spreads outwards among things of flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal. They are helpless before his very inactivity and fall one after the other, like victims of an infectious disease.-- G. Wilson Knight, THE WHEEL OF FIRE, 1930.

Later in the essay Knight says that Hamlet "is, as it were, the channel of a mysterious force, a force which derives largely from his having seen through [all the other characters]."

Obviously, when Knight calls Hamlet a "superman," he's not speaking of him in the comic-book sense of the word; he's almost certainly referencing Nietzsche's concept of an ubermensch whose mental outlook simply outstrips that of ordinary men. In keeping with I find Knight's idea of a force which is not really a force-- one that derives from a simple change in perspective-- to be intriguing for my category of the uncanny as expressed by the NUM formula.

Whenever I have written about either the Shakespeare play or various cinematic adaptations, I've almost entirely analyzed it in terms of the trope I call the "phantasmal figuration." This means that there is some entity or occurrence in the narrative that is witnessed by a given subject-- usually a viewpoint character-- and that said entity/occurrence is dubious as to its true nature. Many films use this trope to conjure with "ghosts" who are merely masquerading human beings. HAMLET, in contrast, has a ghost whose existence one cannot doubt, though the spirit's true nature is unfathomable. Knight calls it "the devil of the knowledge of death," but in contrast to many of the "specious spectres" of Gothic literature, the ghost is not the star of the play. The imaginative center of the play is Hamlet, who brings death to almost every major member of the Danish court, outstripping his uncle by far.

Until reading the Knight essay, it hadn't really occurred to me to think of Hamlet as having an infectious potency. But he is a man transformed by a "converse with death," who has in a sense become one with Death, not least because the ghost bears his own name. He does not literally channel any "mysterious force" to bring down the Danish court, and he doesn't even out-maneuver his foes in the cunning manner of his literary ancestor, the original Amleth. Yet he does seem to be protected by something more than his author's desire to give him good or bad fortune as the story demands.

I pored over all of the "phantasmal figuration" films I had thus far reviewed for my movie-blog. In all of them, none included a phantasm that somehow transformed the outlook of the subject who viewed it. The closest thing I found were films in which some individual dressed up like a spectre in order to make a murderer recall his or her crimes, but no "infectious potency." as I've termed it, appears as a result of this exposure.

However, in the essay OF SHERLOCK AND PSYCHOS PT 2, I did discuss a certain interesting interface between the villain who conceives of a "bizarre crime" and the detective who solves it.

 ...the villain of SPECKLED BAND may conceive of his bizarre murder-method, but the hero mirrors the villain's ingenuity by being able to deduce the plot by piecing together such disparate clues as a useless bell-cord and a mysterious whistling sound-- the one being the snake's method of entry, the other being the method by which the snake's owner calls the creature back up the cord.  In this story, Sherlock accomplishes his feat of detection by drawing upon his encyclopedic knowledge of exotica, rather than by making deductions based on reasonable premises.  In contrast, Holmes' solution of the HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES mystery depends not on special knowledge but on a careful observation of available facts.  Holmes' knowledge of exotica then may qualify him as an uncanny entity in this story, just as a similar body of knowledge elevates Professor Van Helsing in the DRACULA novel to a status above that of an ordinary individual.  

So is there an "infectious potency" between the villain's conception of the crime and the sleuth's fathoming of it? If so, the interface is far more beneficial to society than anything one sees in HAMLET, for all that the hero is also engaging in a kind of "detective work."

Knight's essay has got me thinking further on the subject of a "potency" that is not quite the same as "power," even though some dictionaries view the words as essentially covalent.  Part II will be devoted to these thoughts.

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