The advantage​ of lying on the floor, Kafka once noted in his diary, is that there is nowhere else to fall. But this is a freedom from, not a freedom for: he is freed of the anxiety of falling but says nothing about what he wants this freedom to do. Lying on the floor, in other words, is not the precondition for doing something else. If Kafka has a subject, it is exclusion – the feeling of being left out. It is a feeling of being alien, or strange, or unable to participate (or, in his personal life, unable to marry), and he turns this feeling of being excluded into the wish to exclude himself. When Kafka’s heroes, or anti-heroes, aren’t describing just how excluded they are – even from the Law, which by definition is meant to include everybody – they are discovering in some uncanny way that they have excluded themselves without noticing. And, perhaps worse, without anyone else noticing, or caring.

‘The Great swimmer! The great swimmer!’ the people shouted. I was coming from the Olympic Games in X, where I had just set a world record in swimming. I stood on the stairs at the train station in my home town – where is it? – and looked out at the indistinct crowd in the dusk. A girl, whose cheek I had briefly stroked, hung a sash around me, on which was written in a foreign language: ‘To the Olympic champion’ … Honoured guests! I have, admittedly, set a world record, but if you were to ask me how I did it, I could not give a satisfactory answer. The fact is that I cannot even swim. I have always wanted to learn, but never had the opportunity. So how did I happen to be sent by my country to the Olympic Games? This is the question I’ve been pondering.

We could say that this fragment, from August 1920, is like a dream – indeed, Kafka seeds it with enigmatic dream elements: ‘my home town, where is it?’, ‘the Olympic Games in X’, the undisclosed foreign language. Or, if it is not a dream, it is a wish-fulfilling fantasy of an impossible act of heroism, an adolescent boy’s daydream of potency, of getting a world swimming record and exposing the grown-ups. Or it is some kind of joke. But the joke is on everyone: the winner has got away with something extraordinary and no one has even noticed. This extraordinary event is not cause for outrage or uproar or shame. It is not acknowledged to be some kind of scandal or travesty or deceit. It doesn’t seem to have been acknowledged by anyone at all, other than the winner who cannot in fact swim, and by us, the readers.

The joke, if it is a joke, is that heroism may be a function of incompetence. Or that we only have winners because we are losers. Or that being the best at something is being unable to do it. Or, indeed, that we have the wrong idea about what it is to swim, or to win a race, or even about what a race is. ‘When you think it over,’ Kafka writes in ‘Reflections for Gentlemen-Jockeys’, ‘winning a race is nothing worth desiring.’ Winning may be a description of something it is not. You may be wrong about your supposed objects of desire. Wanting to win, or wanting not to lose, may be how you stop yourself wondering whether races are for you.

Everyone, in a sense, has been left out of this Olympic swimming final, or rather this imitation of an Olympic swimming final. It wasn’t a final, or even a competition, because the winner couldn’t swim. How, Kafka wants us to wonder, did someone who couldn’t swim get this far? What did the organisers and the audiences – the authorities and the witnesses – think they were doing, let alone the non-swimmer himself? As with much of what we call modernist literature, we may feel left out of this particular story until we feel we have understood it, or redescribed it in a way that makes sense of it. Even though we’re more than familiar with feeling left out of (or by) a work of art, this experience may be no odder, Kafka intimates, than feeling included. Successes and achievements and triumphs, like winning at the Olympics, may be self-deceiving. Popular and successful social events may be the kind of thing one doesn’t want to be part of. Or one may not have been part of them without realising it.

Two months after writing about the Olympic champion, Kafka, who was himself a keen swimmer, wrote something else about swimming: ‘I can swim like the others, only I have a better memory than the others, I have not forgotten my former not-being-able-to-swim. But because I have not forgotten it, the being-able-to-swim does me no good, and I still cannot swim.’ Since there was – and still is – a time before we could swim we are always, somewhere in ourselves, people who can’t swim. In this story, exclusion always precedes inclusion, and we are always haunted by our being left out. The person who can’t swim is always with us. And the question, as Freud attempted to formulate and formalise, is this: what kind of relationship do we have with these former selves? As children growing up, we are initiated in sociability and eventually included in the adult world – or at least that’s the official story. But the fact that we were once unable to swim means we still can’t really swim, even if we win an Olympic swimming medal.

This is a suggestion of extraordinary consequence. In that familiar cliché of Romanticism, and of the romanticism that is Freudianism, we are always really the children we once were. What follows from this is that we can’t really do any of the things we do as adults. Mastery and development and learning from experience, and learning itself, not to mention adult sexuality and the use of language, are a cover-up. The self may aspire, but it can never really achieve: indeed, it may only be able to aspire – which makes a mockery of all our cultural ideals and ambitions. To want something is to be left out of having it. So success, like growing up, is a form of denial. Competition reveals nothing. Adulthood is a sham. Adulthood is you and everyone else believing you have won an Olympic swimming medal when you can’t even swim. ‘A great swimmer,’ Kafka’s biographer Reiner Stach says, ‘in Kafka’s imagery was a term of the highest regard.’ And terms of the highest regard are – for Kafka as for Freud – always ironised. We are always left out, especially when we seem to be included. ‘There is hope,’ Kafka wrote, ‘but not for us.’ Since the essential thing is there but not for us it is in a sense not really there – much as an Olympic victory isn’t there for a swimmer, because once the swimmer couldn’t swim and therefore can’t have won at all.

For Kafka, for whom freedom from was a way of repressing freedom for, being left out was neither an opportunity nor a defeat. It was an acknowledgment of something real. To be a person – at least a modern person – is to be excluded from oneself and others. For the more obviously excluded – for, say, émigré Jews of Kafka’s generation in antisemitic societies like Prague – the available options included assimilation or Zionism, both exclusionary. But there was also Kafka’s qualifying question and answer: ‘What do I have in common with the Jews? I have nothing in common with myself.’

It was Freud’s contention that we are involved in the lifelong project of leaving ourselves out of our own lives, that we can only survive by exclusion. Our unconscious includes us and excludes us at the same time. The Jews of Freud’s generation in Vienna couldn’t easily assimilate. But then Freud sought to show that what he took to be human nature could not, by definition, be assimilated into itself. In Freud’s view, people want to have as little in common with themselves as possible. The Jews may not have been acceptable to Viennese culture, but then no one is remotely acceptable to themselves. Human beings, as Freud saw it, are radically at odds with who they take themselves to be. And in Lacan’s more radical reading of Freud, Freud is saying that ‘whatever we take ourselves to be we are not.’

Whether Freud was writing about the Oedipus complex, or Negation, or the death instinct, he was writing about leaving and being left out as constitutive of who we are. We make ourselves up through our exclusion of ourselves. When we talk, in the psychoanalytic way, of the unconscious, or repression, or mechanisms of defence, or the decentred subject, we’re talking about leaving and being left out of our desire, our feeling, our thought. We’re talking about leaving and being left out of the complexity of our desiring selves: if we are not, in Freud’s famous examples, masters in our own house, or riders of our own horse, what are we? We are excluded by the very thing we thought belonged to us. Freud turned his attention to the provocations of being and feeling left out, of feeling the need to exclude. He was looking at what we are tempted to leave unattended to in ourselves and others, at our passion for ignorance, our fear of our own desire.

But Freud, of course, was doing his work in and with language. And, given that most people can speak, we aren’t, on the whole, left out of language – the medium we use to describe our left-outness. In elective mutism the child exempts herself from speaking, from language itself, by choice. We are also selectively mute as adults: we keep an eye on what we say. We don’t tend to exclude other people from language in general, though, through censorship, we exclude them from certain kinds of language. At first we can’t speak, and then we speak, and one of the things we use language to do, once we have it, is to exclude. And yet, as in Kafka’s formula, because we couldn’t speak initially, we can’t really speak. Or, as Freud puts it, when we speak we never really quite know what we’re saying. We say more than we intend, and we omit more than we recognise.

‘It is no easy matter,’ Freud wrote to his colleague and collaborator Wilhelm Fleiss in 1897:

Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise. Only one idea of general value has occurred to me. I have found love of the mother and jealousy of the father in my own case too, and now believe it to be a general phenomenon of early childhood … If that is the case the gripping power of Oedipus Rex, in spite of all the rational objections to the inexorable fate that the story presupposes … becomes intelligible … the Greek myth seizes upon a compulsion which everyone recognises because he has felt traces of it in himself. Every member of the audience was once a budding Oedipus in phantasy … the idea has passed through my head that the same thing may lie at the root of Hamlet.

In this early account of what became the organising myth of psychoanalysis, which came out of Freud’s attempt to be entirely honest with himself, he is not at all explicit about the fact that the myth involves a desire to marry – to have sex with – the mother and kill the father. Love of the mother and jealousy of the father seems innocuous, almost euphemistic, when you compare it with the way the Oedipus complex would come to be defined: ‘group of largely unconscious ideas and feelings centring around the wish to possess the parent of the opposite sex and eliminate that of the same sex’, as Charles Rycroft put it in his Critical Dictionary of Psychoanalysis.

Freud was talking about what he called, with no apparent irony, the ‘positive’ Oedipus complex. But this implies that there is also a ‘negative’ Oedipus complex, in which, Freud writes, ‘a boy has not merely an ambivalent attitude towards his father, and an affectionate object-choice towards his mother, but at the same time he also behaves like a girl and displays an affectionate feminine attitude towards his father and a corresponding jealousy and hostility towards his mother.’ The equivalent is true for the girl. The child wants to kill both parents, and love both parents. In the wish to kill, to eliminate the parent of the same sex and ‘possess’ the parent of the opposite sex, and to kill the parent of the opposite sex and ‘possess’ the parent of the same sex, the child’s project is to put an end, once and for all, to being left out.

Freud never puts it quite like this. But we may well devote our lives to mitigating the effects of being left out, and of anticipating being left out. What we fear about loss is that it excludes us from someone’s presence: when people leave us, and more exactingly when people die, we are forever left out of their company. Mourning is supposedly the best thing we can do about being terminally left out, or perhaps it is the most culturally sanctioned thing we can do. But what else can we do if and when we are left out in this way? Mourning may seem the most forlorn – even the most absurd, least promising – of self-cures if being and feeling left out is the problem.

There is also the ordinary Oedipus complex of everyday life. As the French psychoanalyst Nicole Oury writes, ‘the destiny of the child is also weighed down by the unrepresentable place of his origins, the desire between a father and a mother.’ The child can never really know the nature of the desire through which he was conceived: he is left out of his own conception. If the male child can ‘possess’ the mother he will never be excluded from her presence, and if he can kill the father she will have no other object of desire and he will have no rival. In a more benign and in some ways more instructive reading of the Oedipus complex, Bela Grunberger proposed that the father who excludes the son from the mother’s bed is the guardian of the child’s future potency: if the son was to attempt sex with the mother he would be physically incapable and therefore humiliated. It is worth considering the very real advantages, indeed the necessity, of being left out, and having the wherewithal to bear it, and even to make something of it.

When one is left out, something else becomes available, even if what first becomes available are the difficult and dismaying feelings of being left out (as though feeling left out may sometimes be like stage fright). So the always ambivalent need to be left out, and the wish to be left out, has to be included in our repertoire. Exclusion may involve the awakening of other opportunities that inclusion would make unthinkable. If I’m not invited to the party, I may have to consider what else I want: the risk is that being invited to the party does my wanting for me, that I might delegate my desire to other people’s invitations. Already knowing, or thinking we know, what we want is the way we manage our fear of freedom. Wanting not to be left out may tell us very little about what we want, while telling us a lot about how we evade our wanting.

Freud takes the child’s inevitable exclusion from the sexuality of the parents – the first party we are not invited to – as the fundamental and founding developmental experience of the child’s life. Everything depends on what we make of feeling left out. The child’s life, in Freud’s account, is a ‘cumulative trauma’ of absences and exclusions and exiles: first separation from the mother, then exclusion from the parents’ sexual relationship, then being displaced by siblings and so on. On top of this there are all the ordinary accidents and catastrophes and frustrations of childhood: being left out of the satisfactions one seeks, the safety one requires, the unmet needs, the unrecognised preoccupations that will inform the child’s entire life.

Oedipus Rex​ and Hamlet are relevant because the cumulative and ultimately tragic experiences of being and feeling left out are what their heroes suffer. Tragedies – which Freud uses to make sense of childhood experiences, never comedies – are about the tragic hero’s attempted self-cure for the ordeals of exclusion. Hamlet, Othello, Lear, Macbeth, Coriolanus and Timon – just to take Shakespearean examples – all suffer from unbearable and murderous jealousies and envies, the symptoms of the excluded. Reacting to his feeling of being left out, the tragic hero creates havoc, and tries to solve the problem of exclusion by seeking to exclude his excluders in retaliation. Wanting, in the psychoanalyst Robert Stoller’s phrase, to ‘turn trauma into triumph’, the tragic hero tries to turn the tables. Being left out begins as tragedy, and tragedy, Freud suggests, is integral to development. So the developmental question – the moral question – is this: is there another and better solution to feeling left out than revenge? If we don’t retaliate, against others and against ourselves, what else can we do? If I murder the woman or man who betrays me, I turn passive into active: they organised my exclusion, so I organise theirs. But if I kill the woman I love, a woman I believe has betrayed me, I am forever excluded from her company. Revenge makes exclusion permanent.

Freud uses the phrase ‘primal scene’ for the child’s fantasy of the parents’ sexual relationship, the mystery that he is ineluctably left out of, and that can make him feel jealous, envious and vengeful. The primal scene, Laplanche and Pontalis write in The Language of Psychoanalysis, refers to ‘the scene of sexual intercourse between the parents which the child observes, or infers, on the basis of certain indications and fantasies. It is generally interpreted by the child as an act of violence on the part of the father.’ We have to imagine how strange, how unintelligible, how ‘unrepresentable’ his parents’ sexual relationship is for the child. He has never seen or imagined anything like it. He will sense something about his parents’ desire, but he won’t know what it is, even if it excites and frightens him. In Freud’s account of our first and foremost exclusion, the child, whatever he experiences, doesn’t know what he is excluded from. And the adults don’t know how he could possibly be included – or rather, they know that he can’t be. In his unknowing, the child projects his own violence into the scene and perceives sex as male aggression. (The child, like the psychoanalyst, becomes a theorist of sexuality.) What this shows is how difficult it is to tell the difference between what we think we are left out of and our projected imagining of it. We are likely to imagine that we are left out of the thing we think we most need. Tell me what you feel left out of and I will tell you what you think you want.

It may be that being left out of the so-called primal scene is what inspires curiosity, what prompts the wish to know, and what inspires fantasy. The primal scene violates and stimulates the child’s omniscience, since only in fantasy can he know what isn’t there. But with this first predicament the child also experiences his powerlessness: he comes to realise that he is only as powerful as his parents will allow him to be. If the parents don’t want to have sex – at least at night – they will let the child sleep in their bed. That is a power the child has. But whenever he is excluded, from the bed or anywhere or anything else, his power is taken away. And powerlessness prompts a powerful fantasy in the child – about what he imagines is going on in his absence, about what he wants and what he fears. So the primal scene leaves the child with fundamental questions. What am I being excluded from? What next? Either the child tries to get in, with all that that entails, or he has to do something else with the intense feelings stirred up by the parents’ sexual relationship. Meanwhile – and this is development – the child will have to wait, until puberty at least, to find someone for himself, someone sufficiently like and unlike his parents. But what he can include in his life will depend on what he has been able to make of his first and formative exclusions.

Freud, like Kafka, always wanted to find new ways of talking about exclusion. For Jews in Europe – in those cities at that time – it’s unsurprising that this would be an essential perplexity. And yet neither is involved in special pleading, and neither has explicit recourse to writings in any kind of Jewish tradition. Neither was a religious Jew even though both were acutely aware of themselves as Jews – a more paradoxical position than it may seem. Kafka and Freud tell mostly secular or secularised stories about being left out, and their references and allusions are to the Western literature through which they aspired to educate themselves – to traditions alien to their parents and to earlier generations. They emulated, therefore, what was foreign to them, and to their own traditions. Both insist that being and feeling left out are human problems, that no one is or has ever been excluded from the experience of being left out.

And that left-outness begins to seem the key to something. ‘Tell me what you are haunted by,’ Breton wrote in a famous Surrealist motto, ‘and I will tell you who you are.’ Neither Freud nor Kafka is saying ‘tell me what you feel excluded from and I will tell you who you are,’ but they are saying that feeling left out is constitutive of who we take ourselves to be. Or even that so-called identity may be our self-cure for experiences of exclusion, that identities are the artefacts we make as the solution to being left out. We organise ourselves around these experiences of exclusion, and we narrow our minds to deal with them. And identity, like exclusion, makes us violent.

Hamlet was one of Freud’s touchstones: in his ‘Contribution to a Questionnaire on Reading’ in 1907 he called it one of the ‘ten most magnificent works (of world literature)’. But so was Satan in Paradise Lost, which Freud called one of his ‘favourite books’. These are paradigmatic works about characters who are left out. Tony Tanner once asserted that all novels are about adultery. More fundamentally, we may wonder what literature there is that is not about exclusion. And if all literature is about exclusion, the question is why?

It is true​ of both Hamlet and Milton’s Satan that exclusions formed their characters. Or that what we take to be their characters are reactive to the exclusions that they each suffer and create. They are both, of course, strikingly eloquent and imaginative and seductive figures. Both are obsessed with fathers, and with revenge and death: all things which we are both included in and excluded from at the same time. Hamlet’s soliloquies – which include the audience in something that all the other characters in the play are excluded from – are about his relationship to himself in the aftermath of his father’s murder and his mother’s remarriage. What we overhear in them is left-outness, the left-outness that is solitude, and what this makes possible.

Milton’s Satan, like Hamlet, is defined and defines himself through his reflections on the forced exclusions that are his predicament. If it is our own fallenness – our own exclusion – that allows us to be moved and impressed by Milton’s Satan, we can’t help noticing that one of the most poignant and terrifying things about him is his envy, and therefore his appreciation, of all he is excluded from: his envy of God, of Christ his son, of the unrebellious angels, and of Adam and Eve in Eden. Hamlet becomes sceptical, while Satan abolishes scepticism. In Book IV of Paradise Lost, he says to his fellow angels:

All hope excluded thus, behold, instead
Of us outcast, exil’d, his new delight,
Mankind created, and for him this World!
So farewell hope, and with hope farewell fear,
Farewell remorse; all good to me is lost;
Evil be thou my good.

Satan’s exclusions bring out the worst in him, which he must then describe as the best in him. He claims that he has been liberated from fear and is no longer intimidated. But the repeated ambiguity of farewell – farewell hope, farewell fear, farewell remorse – betrays a doubt: they may, ironically, fare well, and not be abrogated. We could say that Satan is rationalising his humiliation and defeat, or we could say that he is redescribing his predicament in order to make a future out of it. Acknowledged loss and defeat, or hopeful and enlivening redescription. Being and feeling left out inspires, perhaps requires, redescription. We need to redescribe the experience to make it bearable. Such redescription may create remarkable cultural artefacts, like Hamlet and Paradise Lost, and inflict remarkable cruelty. Satan is vengeful, and what else could he be? Whatever else they are, tragic heroes are always vindictive. And they always feel excluded from something they deem to be of paramount importance. It is Milton’s uncertainty, conscious or unconscious, about whether or not Satan is a tragic hero – about whether Satan has suffered or created a tragedy – that is the provocation of Paradise Lost. But the excluded, the outcast, the exiled are Milton’s preoccupation: in contemporary terms, separation anxiety at its most acute.

And fallenness itself, of course, is the primal scene of Judeo-Christian culture. We have become who we are, who we think of ourselves as being, through the exclusion caused by a refusal of exclusion. Adam and Eve were expelled from Eden because they refused to be refused access to something God forbade them. Everything depends on what you refuse to be left out of, and why. Or, since you are left out, everything depends on what you do about your exclusion, and do with it. The question is how you interpret your left-outness and exile, and Hamlet and Satan are interpreting all the time. Exclusion, as both Hamlet and Paradise Lost show us, is the medium for self-recognition. An identity is what you are left with, what you come up with, after being left out: it is a self-cure for alienation. Desiring and thinking and questioning and imagining are what we do after the catastrophe of exclusion. We are shocked into necessary forms of self-identification. We try to make ourselves recognisable to ourselves and others, as though the foundation of what we call identity is not having one. On Kafka’s principle – I can’t really swim because I was originally unable to swim – since I didn’t originally have an identity I don’t really have one. ‘Do you know who I am?’ the excluded say to their excluders, and then proceed to tell them, or try to tell them. And to tell themselves.

What else could or should Hamlet and Satan have felt and done given their predicaments? History, Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote, ‘is not merely what happened; it is what happened in the context of what might have happened’. Any unfolding plot is an incitement and an invitation to consider other options and outcomes. So we might think of exclusion as forcing us, as it forces both Satan and Hamlet, to think about the nature and provenance of choice, and to consider the choices available. Having been coerced – having been rendered choiceless by being expelled – puts the question of choice, and of human agency, firmly back on the agenda.

‘If every action which is good or evil in man at ripe years were to be under pittance and prescription and compulsion what were virtue but a name … when God gave [Adam] reason, he gave him freedom to choose, for reason is but choosing,’ Milton writes in Areopagitica, defending reason as the source of our freedom. Both Hamlet and Paradise Lost are preoccupied by the question of free will, and of what in the self should be censored. Hamlet, of course, is characterised by his uncertainty, his scepticism, his self-doubt, his questions about free will. If ‘to be or not to be’ is the question, everything is in doubt. Satan, by contrast, cultivates conviction and dogmatic certainty thanks to his determined and flagrant belief in his own free will: how else to respond to an apparently omnipotent adversary? After all omnipotence and omniscience only function because people doubt themselves: they are, by definition, what everybody is excluded from, other than God (or his secular substitute, the tyrant or the fascist dictator). The power of monotheism is that it is exclusionary: it exploits everyone’s terror of being left out. The only real power it has is intimidation.

Just as our shame keeps us in an intimate relationship with our shamers, exclusion tends to keep us in touch with our excluders. What can we do if we do not – like Hamlet and Satan – become obsessed by recovering what has been lost to us, or destroying what we can’t reclaim as our own? What can we do if we don’t succumb to getting even, or to the lure and allure of triumphalism, or if we don’t choose to narrow our minds, to organise our lives, around our sense of exclusion and loss? This is a bit like asking, absurdly, what our lives would be like if we were different creatures. Hamlet and Paradise Lost can’t help but make us wonder what the problem is that revenge appears to solve. Psychoanalysis would say that revenge is a false solution to the problem of our fundamental and founding lack of self-sufficiency, to our life-long dependence. And one kind of common sense would say that revenge is a solution to injustice. Because we had parents, because we are (in Alasdair MacIntyre’s phrase) ‘dependent rational animals’, because we were excluded from our own invention, we must invent ourselves. In the aftermath of their catastrophes we see Hamlet and Satan working out who they can be now, and who they can be next. Once there has been an exclusion, a catastrophic loss, the story can begin. We only start out after being left out. Hamlet has difficulty asserting himself; Satan boastfully and blatantly reinvents himself. Each is seeking a different solution to the same problem.

AlthoughHamlet begins as a catalogue of exclusions – the murder of Hamlet’s father, the marriage of his mother, Laertes and Hamlet’s wish to leave Denmark, and so on – it is significant that Hamlet’s first words in the play are a reaction to the new king’s feeling of being spurned, or left out, by Hamlet. Having agreed to Laertes’s request to absent himself from Denmark, the king says: ‘But now my cousin Hamlet, and my son –’. To which Hamlet replies in an aside, leaving out everyone but the audience: ‘A little more than kin, and less than kind.’ This is an act of disaffiliation, Hamlet exempting himself from the new court and the king’s demand. The king wants to include Hamlet as his son, but the son already has a father, a father who has been murdered by this king. For Hamlet to consent to the new king’s request would be a self-betrayal. The question is this: who is Hamlet – who is he going to be – after these tumultuous events? A little more than kin, and less than kind to himself?

When the king and queen leave, Hamlet begins his first soliloquy with a disappearing act, the desire to become nobody, to be the nothing that comes from not being all:

Oh that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into dew;
Or that the everlasting had not fixed
His cannon ’gainst self-slaughter.

So the play begins with Hamlet telling us not simply that he doesn’t know who he is now, but that he doesn’t want to be anyone. After the horrifying exclusion of his father, Hamlet wants to remove himself. He wants, paradoxically, to do to himself what was done to his father, both to avenge his father’s death, and to identify with it. He is, here, trying to acknowledge what has happened to him, to bear the seemingly unbearable. When Horatio first greets him, Hamlet responds: ‘I am glad to see you well./Horatio – or I do forget myself.’ In a play that is about recognition – about seeing people well – Hamlet is torn between forgetting himself and striving for certain acknowledgments, between knowing what and who he is seeing and not wanting to know.

But then, quickly, Hamlet’s encounter with his father’s ghost organises him. He is given his defining feature – the son who has to work out how best to remember his father. But this is an equivocal kind of identity, plunging him into a new-found scepticism about identity itself. As his subsequent deferrals reveal, Hamlet is in at least two minds about most things. When the ghost leaves with the words ‘Remember me’ – meaning take appropriate revenge for this terrible crime – Hamlet replies:

Yea from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain
Unmixed with baser matter.

This could be a description of how one acquires a so-called identity through a violent and vengeful narrowing of the mind. Everything else about him will be wiped away in the service of his father’s commandment. He will, effectively, inflict a character assassination on himself. In his attempt to commit himself to his father’s command he wants to commit self-slaughter. His identity is crystallised by his father’s demand. If the question is ‘what is to be done?’, the answer is: do what your father tells you. Hamlet is saying that there will be no more to his world now than honouring and avenging his father: all his experience and development, ‘that youth and observation copied there’, will be null and void. He will become the emperor of one idea.

Hamlet knows now what his life is in the service of, what he is supposed to be doing with himself. If his life is worth living, it is worth living for only one thing. And this was all inspired by a rupture, by an irredeemable exclusion. Yet what we witness Hamlet actually doing in the play is veering between acknowledging the complexity of his own mind and attacking that complexity in moments of resolve and decisiveness. Like Milton’s Satan, Hamlet needed to be usurped to become the vivid character we recognise and remember. What we have come to call an identity may be the cultural self-cure for a usurpation: we begin to recognise ourselves as someone in particular only after being displaced, or replaced, or rejected. That is, after being betrayed. And being betrayed makes us wonder who we must be if such a thing can happen to us. Here again Kafka may be instructive: because originally I wasn’t betrayed I can’t really have been betrayed. So what have I become that made betrayal possible?

Unlike Milton’s Satan, who staves off self-questioning with bravado, Hamlet both knows and doesn’t know what he should be doing, who he is and wants to be. So in these two examples we see one self fashioned through defiance, and another through oscillating commitment and self-doubt. But both are versions of the self as constituted, fundamentally, by vengeance – a vengeful self born from being discarded. Both figures are distinctively articulate: being left out, it seems, has inspired and stimulated their language, their desire to speak. After Hamlet and Paradise Lost, identity comes to seem our best and our worst response to the right and the wrong kinds of exclusion. When we are left out we become who we are, and who we can be.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

letters@lrb.co.uk

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences