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Carl Schmitt’s Literary Criticism

Summary and Keywords

As early as 1916, Carl Schmitt underscored the centrality of myth and religion in his analysis of the expressionist Theodor Däubler. He celebrated Däubler as a Christian poet and radical critic of modernity. This critique of modernity was then articulated in more systematic terms his 1919 essay Political Romanticism, which opposed the Romantic approach to life and art as ironic escapism and relativism. During the 1920s and 1930s, a personal search for new ground led Schmitt to the Catholic author Konrad Weiss, and subsequently to Herman Melville’s story Benito Cereno as a private allegory of Carl Schmitt as persecuted intellectual. His late literary criticism focused on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. His interpretation emphasizes the tragic nature of the play, explicitly taking issue with Walter Benjamin’s reading of Hamlet as a Christian Trauerspiel (mourning play). For Schmitt, the central issue is the presence of contemporary history as a force that deeply impacts the drama. This argument is directed against the notion of play and the idea of aesthetic autonomy. Instead, for Schmitt, the older concept of representation defines the place and relevance of art and the aesthetic within a broader cultural and religious configuration.

Keywords: aesthetic autonomy, expressionism, history, modernity, myth/mythology, political theology, realism, representation, Roman Catholicism

Carl Schmitt’s contributions to literary criticism have not received the same attention as Martin Heidegger’s critical interventions—for example, his interpretations of Friedrich Hölderlin’s poetry—or Theodor Adorno’s literary essays. In both instances, a small segment of the critic’s total oeuvre has nonetheless had a major impact on the recent history of literary criticism. Although neither Heidegger nor Adorno were professional literary critics, their readings have become an intrinsic part of the canon of contemporary criticism. The same cannot be said about Schmitt’s essays and occasional remarks about the German and European literary scene. Even among Schmitt scholars, references to his literary criticism are rare. What is the reason for this neglect? In part, this inattention can be explained in terms of Schmitt’s objects. The authors and works he chose for his analysis are, with the exception of three—namely, Thomas Mann, Shakespeare, and Herman Melville—not part of the Western canon. They are not even part of the established German national canon. Neither Theodor Däubler nor Konrad Weiss are well known in Germany, and they do not have a secure place in the history of German modernism. While Däubler is mentioned as a proto-expressionist, Weiss’s reputation has been limited to his Catholic environment. Schmitt’s choices were in part motivated by personal and private interests that did not resonate with the general literary public. This is not only true of the Däubler essay and his remarks about Weiss but also of his occasional remarks about Melville’s short story “Benito Cereno,” where the central figure becomes a metaphor for Schmitt’s difficult situation during the later years of the Nazi regime and after 1945.1 Schmitt sees himself in the role of Benito Cereno, as the victim of the Nazis and later of the Allies. In this very personal allegorical reading, the historical background of the material plays no role. Neither the literary form nor the thematic concerns of the novella are at the heart of Schmitt’s interest. The clear exception is the Hamlet essay of 1956 in which Schmitt offers a new and distinct reading of the play, based on prior critical literature. In this case, Schmitt is aware that he is making a contribution to a vast body of existing interpretations that have approached the play from different angles.

While the personal and private moments in Schmitt’s critical interventions are more noticeable than in either Heidegger’s or Adorno’s writings, it would be misleading to characterize them as merely incidental in comparison with Schmitt’s legal and political theory. From the very beginning, as a young lawyer in Düsseldorf, Carl Schmitt demonstrated strong interest in literature, especially in modern and contemporary works. With his friend Fritz Eisler (1887–1914), he composed a set of parodies, which offered a highly polemical survey of contemporary German and French literature. Among those chosen for criticism were Thomas Mann and Anatole France. While the sharp tone of these parodies made it clear that Schmitt and Eisler vigorously opposed certain tendencies within contemporary German and European literature, the work as a whole also demonstrates Schmitt’s uncommon familiarity with the literary scene of the early 20th century as well as the broader literary tradition.

Looking back in the late 1940s at his early engagement with German literature, Schmitt underscored a major shift in his assessment of the literary tradition at that time. Referring to Norbert von Hellingrath (1888–1916), a scholar and prominent member of the circle around the poet Stefan George, Schmitt points to the rediscovery of Hölderlin’s poetry as an important marker. It seems that for the young Schmitt, Hölderlin replaced Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as the central figure of the German literary tradition. In this preference, he was of course in agreement not only with Stefan George and his circle but also with Heidegger. But this agreement did not carry over into the belief in a new German mythology or the renewal of Germany through a poetic project, as was propagated by the George Circle. Although before World War I Schmitt’s ideological position was still in flux, his Catholic background was already a significant factor in his aesthetic and literary judgment. By 1916, this emphatic Christian point of view had become more pronounced. Nonetheless, the early writings of Schmitt demonstrate that he read widely in the German tradition and was intimately familiar with the contemporary literary scene. Yet from the very beginning, he opposed the idea that art and literature should be conceptualized as completely removed from social and political reality. In brief, Schmitt rejected the classical notion of the autonomous artwork. While this opposition is implicit in his early criticism, it becomes explicit in his Däubler essay of 1916. Here, his engagement with the modern poet is ultimately framed in theological terms. By the same token, Schmitt later claimed in Political Theology (1922) that the theological and the political sphere can and should be seen as connected, a move that opens up the possibility of also linking the literary and the political spheres in theological terms. In Schmitt’s search for an overarching theoretical framework, theology receives the most sustained attention, which does not mean, however, that all his literary writings and occasional remarks about literature can be neatly subsumed under theological concepts.

The Early Literary Writings: Schattenrisse

In 1913, Schmitt, with his friend Fritz Eisler, published a collection of parodies entitled Schattenrisse (Silhouettes) under a pseudonym. Until very recently, this publication received little attention and was mostly dismissed as a kind of intellectual student prank irrelevant to Schmitt’s broader intellectual development. In part, this assessment had to do with the obscure nature of the content: most of the authors who were parodied are either forgotten or only known to intellectual and literary historians. On the basis of the carefully edited and commented republication of the text in Ingeborg Villinger’s Carl Schmitts Kulturkritik der Moderne (1995), its meaning and broader significance can be discussed. The genre of the parody, which offers a strictly immanent critique of the object, does not openly state the position of the critic. Only through the choice of the writers and the composition and style of the parody can we infer the direction of Schmitt’s critique. While the majority of the selected authors are literary writers, Schattenrisse includes political criticism (Kaiser Wilhelm II), philosophical critique (Friedrich Nietzsche, Fritz Mauthner), and attacks on contemporary theory of science (Wilhelm Ostwald).

Clearly, the aim of these parodies is broader than poking fun at the stylistic and rhetorical peculiarities of individual authors. At stake is the totality of German culture around 1900, its aspirations toward a better and more civilized future. The parodies deconstruct the very goal and commitment of the writers by pushing them to the point where their internal contradictions and tensions come to the fore. In the case of the intellectual and later politician Walter Rathenau (1867–1922), for instance, the cultural critique of his own time, especially his anti-modern aesthetic position, collapses as he surrounds himself with the artifacts of the very artists that he opposes. Rathenau’s ponderous style, with its pretensions toward great intellectual depth, is exposed by the trivial content of the sentences. Similarly, the presentation of Nietzsche’s thought by his sister, who claimed to be the chosen interpreter, is ridiculed by the mismatch between the emphatic idea of the superman and the technical mechanics of aviation.

When Schmitt takes up literary works, he demonstrates hostility toward naturalism, especially where it focuses on quotidian detail, as in the case of Richard Dehmel (1863–1920) and Thomas Mann (1875–1955). From the perspective of Mann’s later work, Schmitt’s parody comes across as narrow and prejudiced, but we have to keep in mind that at the time of writing Mann’s exceptional position within modernism was by no means self-evident. Schmitt reads the early stories and Buddenbrooks as examples of belated, detail-obsessed naturalism that offer no future perspective. Yet Schmitt’s critique goes beyond the moment of minute veracity. It aims at the tension between spirit and life, aesthetic consciousness and the banality of real life, which ultimately results in the celebration of the banal as a conscious decision of the self-reflective artist. For the young Schmitt, Mann’s “double perspective” (doppelte Optik) amounts to a sell-out of true art to the publishing industry, whose representatives make a prominent appearance in the parody. Mann’s insistence on the indeterminacy in the tension between spirit and life, refinement and banality, is rejected in the name of an (unexplained) higher order. This clearly mean-spirited parody anticipates the hostile avant-garde’s classification of Mann as the eminently successful Großschriftsteller, who can combine popularity and aesthetic modernism.

Similarly, Schmitt points to the discrepancy between heightened artistic self-awareness and commercial self-interest in the case of the poet Richard Dehmel, who was highly praised by contemporary critics but is largely forgotten today. Around 1900, Dehmel was equally involved in the economic self-organization of German poets and the claim for radical aesthetic self-expression. Schmitt’s critique seeks to illuminate the contradiction between the strife for aesthetic autonomy in the post-naturalist work of the later Dehmel and the inevitable dependence of the artist on the literary market, which means that the cult of the powerful aesthetic subject is always already punctured by the material needs of the author, which force him to serve the market. This point will be crucial in Schmitt’s later interpretation of Theodor Däubler, who, at least in Schmitt’s mind, had no connections to the literary market. This contrast clarifies Schmitt’s implied position. He is not opposed to the exceptional aesthetic and philosophical role of the poet, but he reacts with revulsion to the compromise of Dehmel and Mann in allowing the banality of modern life to touch on the work of art. For the young Schmitt, literary success and aesthetic uniqueness, as he demonstrates in his treatment of the popular playwright and novelist Herbert Eulenberg (1876–1949), are fundamentally incompatible. Eulenberg’s claim for greatness (“in the soul of the great artist mysterious things are happening”2) is no more than a pose in front of a mirror.

Theodor Däubler’s Nordlicht

From the perspective of the 1916 essay on Theodor Däubler (1876–1934), Schattenrisse can be best understood as a preliminary review of the contemporary cultural scene, a survey focusing on literature and philosophy but branching out into politics and science. As a critical appraisal it remains incomplete, since major authors, among them Heinrich Mann, Gerhard Hauptmann, Rainer Maria Rilke, Arthur Schnitzler, and Hugo von Hofmannsthal, are not even mentioned. The most surprising gap, however, is the complete silence about Stefan George (1868–1933) and his circle. The demanding literary and philosophical program of the circle, with its emphatic distance toward the broad literary public, should have attracted Schmitt. From a much later statement we can infer that he was familiar with the literary program of the circle and strongly supported the canonization of Friedrich Hölderlin as the most important German poet. Why, then, did he not choose Hölderlin to explain his own emphatic conception of poetry?

There are two possible reasons: firstly, in the years between 1913 and 1916, Schmitt was more interested in the development of the literary avant-garde than the reformulation of the German canon, and secondly, he was a close friend of Däubler. This relationship motivated him to support the precarious literary career of his friend by publishing a supportive small monograph. His diaries underscore that Schmitt was very impressed by the poet when they first met.3 In later years this admiration became considerably more ambivalent after Schmitt had experienced his friend’s self-centered and sometimes rude behavior. Still, he never wavered in his high regard for Däubler’s work and especially for Das Nordlicht (1910). For Schmitt, this epic poem became the quintessential example of modern, future-oriented poetry. Even three decades later when he had already distanced himself from the poet’s worldview, he insisted on the poem’s extraordinary literary quality and importance.

Occasionally this close association with Däubler has been labeled as Schmitt’s expressionist turn. Yet this label is slightly misleading, since it narrows both Däubler’s self-understanding around 1912 and Schmitt’s interest in Däubler’s early work. While it is true that Däubler was acquainted with individual expressionists such as the artist and writer Ernst Barlach, he became involved with German Expressionism only in 1916 when he moved to Berlin and began his close collaboration with Franz Pfemfert and the journal Die Aktion. The fact that this journal then devoted a special issue to his work shows that the foreign-born poet was accepted as part of the Expressionist movement.4 Still, Däubler remained a cosmopolitan; he felt close to the Cubist movement in Paris, especially artists like Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, and to Italian Futurism. Of course, Schmitt was aware of this constellation and even refers to it in his monograph. In broader terms, Schmitt saw Däubler as part of the radical European literary avant-garde that stood completely outside of the commercialized literary public sphere. In a much later essay, Schmitt notes, Däubler was the great European poet, “who had incorporated the spiritual and artistic perfection of modern French and Italian art, so much more modern than all those aesthetes and writers whose pride it was to be modern.”5 For Schmitt, Däubler’s marginal social status, compared for instance with Thomas Mann’s status as a widely acknowledged writer, confirmed his role as a radical poet who offers more than a critique of his own time. Thus from the very beginning, Schmitt’s assessment goes beyond a conventional aesthetic appraisal. As the preface explains, the poem Das Nordlicht is expected to articulate a full and consistent worldview that competes with and replaces the position of the contemporary physical sciences. In order to frame this position in historical terms, Schmitt goes back to philosophy of nature, to Friedrich Schelling in particular, and argues: “German Romanticism, of which it was recently said that it had to be overcome, is an inexhaustible source [of meaning].”6 Along these lines Schmitt, following Däubler, opposes the notion that the phenomenon called “Nordlicht” (aurora borealis) can be explained in meteorological terms. Instead, it is a form of light that radiates from the inner earth, the visible expression of heat at the core of the earth. Thus the light is connected with the process of life: “Life is a process of fire.”7

In light of Schmitt’s later severe critique of Romanticism, the open embrace of Romantic philosophy as a valuable counterweight to the empiricism of the contemporary natural sciences comes as a surprise. Distinguishing between form and content, Schmitt argues that while the form of Däubler’s poem breaks with tradition and is highly original, “in terms of content the roots of the work can be found in Romanticism.”8 In a later passage, this claim includes the Middle Ages, specifically medieval mysticism. By extending the thematic tradition of the poem to medieval thought, Schmitt prepares for his ultimate claim, articulated in the third part of the book. Here he argues that Däubler’s work is grounded in Christian theology. But at this stage, a religious interpretation is not yet seen as incompatible with an affirmative view of Romantic philosophy, since both positions share a metaphysical response to the secularized modern world. In the early monograph, Schmitt’s focus is the link between a traditional content and a radically advanced formal structure. When he returns to Däubler in 1946, he reiterates his belief that the poet combines spiritual renewal and formal radicalism, but now he speaks of Däubler’s Gnosticism and underscores the redemption of mankind through the spirit.

What does it mean that Däubler breaks away from traditional literary language, while at the same time returning to older mythologies as a way of expressing his metaphysical worldview? In the first part of his small monograph, Schmitt provides a summary of the content, its extensive and unorthodox references to and use of a variety of mythologies, but without questioning Däubler’s catholic approach to heterogeneous mythological sources that are amalgamated in the poem. Däubler’s understanding of and relationship to myth is not critically examined. Instead, Schmitt’s discussion emphasizes the formal use of the mythological elements as a new visual sense of form (“bildnerisches Formgefühl”9). Thus Schmitt does not confront the poet with a dogmatic concept of mythology in which the Judeo-Christian tradition is favored, as he will do in his later work. He accepts that Däubler uses various religious traditions as material for his overarching epic vision of a new world. In fact, Schmitt celebrates the original creative power of the artist, which he defines as instinctual and unconscious rather than self-reflexive and egocentric (like Thomas Mann). The artist is thus praised as the alter deus who creates rather than imitates nature (like the naturalists): “An astonishing philosophical and historical intuition provides the material for this colossal edifice. The most profound problems of legal and political philosophy are clearly articulated.”10 That the expression of such broad problems can be provided through mythological metaphors is, as Schmitt contends, Däubler’s great achievement. Again, this accomplishment is reached through aesthetic means but not limited to the aesthetic. It is not the immanence of the Greek epic (Lukacs) that Schmitt praises but the transcendental vision of a new Earth based on the faith that “everything is good and meaningful.”11 Thus the early Schmitt underscores the utopian dimension of Däubler’s work, the elements that clearly transcend a mere critique of the modern age. In this context he speaks of a post-Kantian approach, a new synthesis based on faith rather than rationality.

The third part of the book highlights this opposition by underlining the contrast between the banality of modern progress and the need for a different goal and approach to life. While this contrast uses familiar topoi (“They want to create heaven on earth. Heaven as the result of commerce and industry”12) to describe a false goal of material progress, the interpretation of Däubler’s new synthesis takes a surprising turn. It underscores the Christian element in Däubler’s epic and in doing so moves toward a rudimentary form of political theology. Schmitt radicalizes the contrast between a Christian and a modern liberal conception of the world by comparing it to the contrast between Christ and Anti-Christ. This analogy transforms the metaphor of light, as it is embraced by the liberal belief system, into its opposite: a dark credo that leads humanity into the abyss. The dangerous power of the Anti-Christ is grounded in his imitation of Christ. But where Christ leads to the redemption of the world, the Anti-Christ leads to worldly, material success: “The incredible success is irrefutable: big cities, luxury steamers and hygiene; the prison of the soul has become a comfortable summer residence. And finally the crowning achievement in the field of technology: humans can fly, their bodies can actually fly.”13

Schmitt’s decision to apply an eschatological schema to Das Nordlicht, i.e., to read the poem as speaking about the imminent end of the world, does violence to the text. It narrows the utopian energy of a broad mythological spectrum to an apocalyptic schema that inherently demands a decision of the reader: either to be on the side of Christ or among the followers of the Anti-Christ, to base political action on the words of Christ or on the liberal ideology of human progress. For this reason Schmitt can assign immediate relevance to the poem: it “is the negation of the last and most universal of all negations.”14 The distinctive moment of this ultimate negation is, as Schmitt tells us, the negation of even all critical negations that the present age has produced. It is doubtful that the author would have recognized himself in this reading. Clearly, in the third part of the book, Schmitt’s interpretation moves away from the text. The critic is increasingly preoccupied with the development of his own position vis-à-vis the modern age, which is seen as standing under the sign of the Anti-Christ. Still, the explication does not spell out the political ramifications. While it vigorously transcends the aesthetic sphere and claims the need for an absolute, it limits its task to the celebration of a literary work. This celebration is based on a type of reading that ultimately turns against the radical modernity of the text. For Schmitt it is important to clarify the meaning of Nordlicht by connecting it to the romantic philosophical tradition while staying away from those dark and incomprehensible passages that do not confirm his interpretation.15 Schmitt holds on to the concept of a poetic subject who is responsible for the production of language, keeping his distance from the disturbing idea of the avant-garde that language produces itself.16

The Critique of Political Romanticism

A prominent and significant feature of the Nordlicht essay is its utopian drive grounded in an affirmative reading of the German Romantics, especially Schelling. The 1919 monograph Political Romanticism reverses this line of argument. Now Romantic thought, broadly understood, becomes responsible for the very chaos and confusion of modernity that Schmitt attacked in the Däubler essay. How do we explain this radical shift? In terms of his thematic interest in 1919, Carl Schmitt focuses on the political ramifications of the Romantic worldview, understood as a synthesis of its epistemology, social, and political commitments, as well as its religious beliefs, aesthetic theories, and literature. In fact, the literary achievements of the German Romantics play only a secondary role in the course of reasoning. Schmitt does not refer to or interpret individual literary texts to sustain his argument. Instead, his claim that the literary production of the Romantics is characterized by a blatant avoidance of reality is part of a historical construct in which the assessment of an individual event or work is derived from the notion of an insincere and false attitude toward reality in general. Because of their hostility toward the reality of their time, Romantic writers seek out other places and distant historical times to create a distinct and more desirable reality—for instance, in Italy or in Greece: “The removed, the unusual, the fantastical, the protean, the marvelous, the mysterious, that some people even incorporate into a definition of the romantic, have no intrinsic importance. Their romantic function is the negation of the here and now.”17 This is also true, Schmitt argues, for the romantic rediscovery of religion. There is no substantive engagement with transcendence, since the romantic writer avoids a definitive solution, preferring instead the use of irony. Irony, the most central element of the romantic creed, is characterized as an intellectual move that undercuts real oppositions and conflicts, thereby eliminating the need for decisions. According to Schmitt, romantic irony operates as an intellectual means for the subject to evade reality. Therefore the point of romantic irony is, as Schmitt insists, not the subject but the object, to be more precise, the destruction of reality: “The target of his [Friedrich Schlegel’s] irony is … objective reality.”18

To be sure, these arguments were not entirely new: they were typical elements of the critique of the Romantic movement that began with G. W. F. Hegel and the Young Hegelians like Arnold Ruge and was continued by the post-1848 German Realists, who vehemently rejected the fanciful subjectivism of the Romantics. The same is true for Schmitt’s method. It owes its force to the methodological principles of Geistesgeschichte of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Schmitt stands in the shoes of Wilhelm Dilthey and his disciples. Like them, he makes use of long historical vistas and sweeping abstractions that enable him to frame his object. But the aim of his argument is different. He uses the tools of the history of ideas to craft a sharp polemic, which means that the historical detachment toward the Romantic movement that had characterized the scholarly work of the second half of the 19th century (beginning with Rudolf Haym) is taken back. Schmitt insists on Romanticism’s continued relevance, since the movement stands in for a larger problematic.

The high stakes of the polemic are not fully developed in the first part, but they are at least alluded to when Schmitt objects to Hegel’s epistemology by arguing that it lacks a clear reference to the concept of a transcendent god, “because the other world of Christianity is a world in the hereafter. Its terrible decision—eternal bliss or eternal damnation—turns all the fits of romanticism into an absurd trifle. Although its heaven is indeed filled with music, the Last Judgment stands before this eternal harmony.”19 In short, we recognize the opposition of Christ and Anti-Christ that Schmitt used in the Däubler essay.

When he probes the epistemology of the Romantics, Schmitt is primarily interested in the romantic response to the loss of the metaphysical ground in Immanuel Kant’s critical project. In brief, Schmitt seeks to demonstrate the highly problematic and politically dangerous consequences of the Romantic position as a response to this loss. For the extinction of a transcendent God results, Schmitt asserts, in the dissolution of the monarchy as an unquestioned, legitimate political structure. In the search for a new ground the Romantics and the counterrevolutionaries in France, the Royalists, are close, but for Schmitt the decisive moment is precisely where they differ. While the French Royalists seek to restore the monarchy by restoring the metaphysical foundations through the Catholic Church, the political theories of the German Romantics are in the last instance grounded in an aesthetic belief. Schmitt maintains: “This, therefore, is the core of all political romanticism: The state is a work of art. The state of historical-political reality is the occasion for the work of art produced by the creative achievement of the romantic subject. It is the occasion for poetry and the novel, or even for a romantic mood.”20 With deep distrust and revulsion Schmitt examines the aestheticization of the political: it mimics the conservative search for the metaphysical ground but replaces God with the aesthetic subject of the romantic theorist, who has the qualities of a creative artist. Thus Novalis’s famous essay “Christianity or Europe” (“Die Christenheit oder Europa”) is treated as a fairytale whose lack of arguments is compensated by its poetic tone. Correctly Schmitt observes that the aesthetic turn in romantic political theory, for instance in Adam Müller and Novalis, results in the dissolution of power relations in favor of the idea of a harmonious totality. In the language of the later Schmitt: there is no clear distinction between friend and enemy.

In Political Romanticism Schmitt’s critique focuses on two sides of the same problem. On the one hand, he emphatically rejects the avoidance of reality in romantic literature through the search for uncommon cultural spaces and the use of irony; on the other hand, he opposes the aestheticism of the political, which occurs when the state is conceived as an artwork. The common denominator of these arguments is the inability of the Romantics to face objective reality and their desire to replace it with a subjective idea. In this respect they are the opposite of the (Catholic) conservative political thinker, for whom objective reality is the point of departure and the ultimate aim of the thought process. The conservative mind, with which Schmitt identifies, conceives of the aesthetic sphere as a clearly marked as well as contained space and the artwork as a vehicle for the expression of higher goals. This means that aesthetic autonomy is ultimately challenged because it makes a claim for an extraordinary status of the artwork as an entity that can be judged only on its own terms. As a result, literary criticism is defined as the analysis of individual works and literary history in their relationship to history as the ground from which they are derived. For this reason the later Schmitt not only rejects Romanticism but also, and increasingly so, opposes the aesthetic principles of German Classicism (Goethe and Friedrich Schiller) and its humanism as insufficient answers to the search for a metaphysical ground.

The most obvious proof of this radical position is Schmitt’s interest in and relationship with the obscure Catholic poet and critic Konrad Weiss (1880–1940). Weiss’s literary commitment was defined in terms of a theological conception of the word (Wort in contrast to Sprache, language). What Schmitt appreciated in this approach was the complete submission of poetic language to a Christian definition of the artwork, implicitly thereby rejecting the idea of the (secular) autonomous artwork. It is interesting to note, however, that Schmitt did not write about the literary quality of Weiss’s poems. It was primarily the decision to place his entire oeuvre under the sign of Christ that attracted and impressed Schmitt. When he referred in his diaries to Weiss’s oeuvre after 1945, the interest had shifted to a single work of Weiss, namely Der christliche Epimetheus (1933). This treatise, with a strong anti-utopian and anti-humanist message, allowed Schmitt to reflect on his own difficult situation after the war, especially on his problematic collaboration with the Third Reich. The mythological figure of Epimetheus, who brought disease and turbulence to humanity by opening Pandora’s box, becomes the code for Schmitt’s ill-fated decision to actively support the Nazis in 1933. It serves both as an acknowledgement of his complicity and a defense of his dubious actions. In this instance, we are observing a highly personal use of a theological text. Schmitt’s frequent references to Melville’s story “Benito Cereno” in his postwar diaries (Glossarium) have a similar function. Schmitt reads the fate of the Spanish captain Cereno, whose ship is captured in a revolt by black slaves, as an allegory of his own fate under National Socialism. Cereno is forced to play the role of captain who is in charge of his ship, while in reality he is under the control of the rebellious slaves. Again, this reading speaks to a remarkable inclination in Schmitt to look for literary texts that enable him to understand himself as the victim of larger external forces.

One might argue that this approach to literature reduces it to the function of mirroring the private life of the critic. But in the case of Schmitt, the private moments are intricately connected with the political constellation in which he operated as a jurist and councilor of the Third Reich. His harsh treatment as a Nazi party member by the Allies after 1945 underscores his life. Along with Heidegger and Gottfried Benn, he exemplified the treason of the intellectuals in 1933. Thus his personal fate, i.e., his imprisonment and his exclusion from the public sphere until 1950, was eminently political, which in turn is expressed in his literary comments and interpretations of the late 1940s and early 1950s.21 But in the use of Melville the stakes are even higher. The contrast between the Spanish captain, who has to play a degrading role in order to survive, and the American captain, who comes to his assistance and finally rescues him from the avenging slaves, lends itself to a comparison between the compromised European and the victorious but naïve American intellectual. Thus the figure of Benito Cereno stands in for a difficult and complex resistance to the threat of totalitarian power. It also allegorizes the difference between the complex weakness of Europe and the naïve strength of America.

What is missing in Schmitt’s literary criticism is a public engagement with the modernist novel—for example, with the works of Thomas Mann, Robert Musil, or Alfred Döblin. An opportunity would have been the publication of Ernst Jünger’s novel Heliopolis in 1949. Schmitt and Jünger, who belonged to the Far Right during the 1920s and later chose the path of inner emigration, had been close friends since the early 1930s. After 1945, they shared the hostile scrutiny of the Allies. In his novel, Jünger seeks to come to terms with the immediate German past by transposing the experience of National Socialism to a distant future. He adds a utopian dimension by suggesting the possibility of world peace under a just leader in an even more distant future. The utopian tendency of Jünger’s fictional world is clearly incompatible with Schmitt’s political thought. Schmitt’s response could only be critical. Unfortunately, Schmitt’s actual response in his letters to Jünger and in his diaries is marked by resentment.22 His reading of the novel remains superficial, focusing on individual characters and elements of the plot that he dislikes. Among other things, his strong anti-Semitism is expressed. Ultimately, he accuses Jünger of remaining on the level of mere aesthetic play, an argument that will become important in his reading of Shakespeare’s Hamlet a few years later. But the deeper problem of finding the appropriate literary form for engaging the horrors of the Third Reich is never addressed because Schmitt is unwilling to face these horrors and his own accountability.23 There are only faint traces of these personal concerns still noticeable in his reading of Hamlet in 1956; the main thrust of the argument emphasizes the larger question of the link between the play and the historical and political constellation of Elizabethan England, which means that his interest in Shakespeare’s best known tragedy is closely connected to the question of early European modernity that is at the center of The Nomos of the Earth (1950).


As David Pan has noted, it is difficult to place the small monograph Hamlet or Hecuba in the configuration of postwar German literary criticism.24 In terms of its method, it positions itself in sharp contrast to the mainstream of academic criticism of the time, which stressed the insularity of the literary work and disdained references to its political context. The emphasis on immanent criticism (methodologically close to the New Criticism in the United States), propagated by major critics like Emil Staiger and Wolfgang Kayser, had an important secondary function. It whitewashed those Germanists who had supported National Socialism by stressing the political nature of literature as a decisive criterion of its quality and its use for the fascist state. Obviously Carl Schmitt had reasons to distance himself from his former ideological commitments. But it is difficult to determine if he is at all aware of and in dialogue with German academic criticism of the 1950s, as there are no explicit references to West German literary theory. His unexpected intervention in the vast field of Shakespeare criticism highlights only two British authors and the Trauerspiel study (mourning play) of Walter Benjamin (1928). Schmitt uses the works of Lilian Winstanley and John Dover Wilson to buttress his historical argument. In particular, he relies heavily on Winstanley’s Hamlet and the Scottish Succession (1921), which supplies him with the needed link between the character of Hamlet and the fate of James I, who succeeded Elisabeth in 1603. The fact that Winstanley’s argument played no role in later Shakespeare criticism (no mention by Wilson, for instance) did not deter Schmitt from using this study as the cornerstone of his own argument, with a critical side-glance at T.S. Eliot’s critique of Hamlet as an imperfect play. The involvement of the author in the material of the drama that Eliot makes responsible for the failure is the very reason why Schmitt examines and praises the play as a tragedy that not only speaks to and explicates the political configuration of the early 17th century but also created a modern myth. This is the point where the dialogue with Benjamin becomes crucial. In clear opposition to Benjamin’s reading of Hamlet as a Trauerspiel, Schmitt insists on the tragic character of the play. The disagreement reveals their ultimate discord about the nature of the Trauerspiel and its importance for the Baroque. It is a disagreement about political theology.

There can be no doubt: Carl Schmitt needed Winstanley not only for his elaborate contextual argument but also, and more important, for the theoretical question concerning the nature and place of the literary work. Schmitt insists on the historical grounding of the artwork. Yet, this claim does not turn him into a historical positivist or a Marxist. In fact, he rejects any kind of reading of the play that is mainly invested in the private fate of the main character—for instance, in the Freudian interpretation that emphasizes Hamlet’s failing because of his Oedipal complex. Still, interpretations that abstract from the historical nature of the material and thereby modernize the problem of Hamlet are equally dismissed.

For Schmitt, the time of the first public production of the play in London in 1602 is a defining moment because it antecedes the death of Queen Elisabeth and the succession of James I to the throne. In this time limbo, Schmitt tells us, the face of James behind the figure of Hamlet is all-important. The plot of the play parallels the fate of the prince; the contemporary audience, Schmitt insists, understood the deeper implications of the play. This means: The tragedy points to the problematic status of James I as the presumed successor to the reigning queen. As the son of Queen Mary Stuart he owed conflicting allegiances, because he was also the son of Lord Darnley, who was murdered by the Earl of Bothwell, the very person Mary married shortly thereafter. The English public and James had reasons to suspect that his mother was involved in the murder of his father. Following Winstanley, Schmitt then argues that the deviation of Hamlet from the genre of the revenge drama must be understood as a reference to the unique situation of James I. Hamlet hesitates to kill the murderer Claudius, his father’s brother and new king, because he is uncertain about the involvement of his mother. Yet the guilt of the queen could not be alluded to or discussed in public without frustrating the son. Therefore, Schmitt argues, Shakespeare leaves the involvement of Gertrude in the murder of the old king in the dark. Hamlet becomes the hesitating avenger. In this attitude, Hamlet mirrors the cautious and suspicious James I. For Schmitt, this parallel is more than the documentation of a historical background; it is of decisive relevance because it demonstrates the power of history over the play. As he notes, “Then it appears that … a piece of historical reality projects into the drama and helps to determine the figure of Hamlet as a contemporary historical figure that for Shakespeare, his patrons, the actors, and the audience, was simply given and whose presence penetrated deep into the play.”25 Quite emphatically, however, Schmitt rejects the positivist notion of sources and influences, which prevail in Winstanley. Instead, history is understood as a major agent, imposing itself on the play without totally defining it. This definition allows Schmitt to read Hamlet in a way that neither Winstanley nor Wilson would consider, for, as much as they differ in approach and judgment, both consider Shakespeare’s drama ultimately as a literary and aesthetic entity that was loosely based on historical sources. Schmitt, however, sees the larger meaning and value of the play in its historical configuration. Its literary structure is defined in historical terms: “Historical reality is stronger than every aesthetic, stronger also than the most ingenious subject.”26

By setting up a contrast between the aesthetic realm and historical reality, Schmitt enters into a dialogue with German Classicism, with Friedrich Schiller in particular, and with Walter Benjamin. While German Classicism strongly defends the centrality of the autonomous and self-contained artwork, Benjamin, in his 1928 study of the German Baroque drama, questions the relevance of the classicist definition of the tragedy for the German drama of the 17th century. His rediscovery of these plays as Trauerspiele rather than “bad” tragedies points to the role of (secular) history as their defining moment. Specifically, he borrowed from Schmitt’s Political Theology the concept of the sovereign king as a critical tool. But when Schmitt reads Hamlet he does not follow Benjamin’s interpretation of the play as the most important example of a Trauerspiel. Rather, he claims that the play must be considered a tragedy in the strong sense of the term. This claim immediately raises questions about his relationship to Benjamin’s approach in general. Why does Schmitt withdraw from Benjamin’s central thesis that Hamlet is after all the most powerful example of a Trauerspiel?

If Schmitt returns to a more traditional understanding of the play as a tragedy and at the same time insists on the crucial role of history as a defining element, he is confronted with the question of the ground: From where do the plot and the characters receive their tragic nature? Moreover, what is the ground of the tragic in general terms? As one would expect, Schmitt rejects an answer that emphasizes the agency of the author as the ground. He thereby opposes a model in which the historical reality is the mere material for the creative force of the writer. Using Shakespeare and his public as an example, Schmitt favors a model in which the literary work, especially a play, emerges out of the contemporary public sphere of late 16th–century England. Schmitt seems to suggest that history writes itself through the creative force of the playwright, who may use the sources freely. By redefining the creative subjectivity of the author as a tool for the emergence of the play, Schmitt breaks through the illusion of the self-contained sphere of the theater. The point of this claim is that tragedy is more than a play and in particular more than the (German) Trauerspiel of the 17th century. By collapsing the concept of play (Spiel) and the Baroque Trauer-spiel, Schmitt prepares the space for his understanding of Shakespeare’s plays as tragedies rather than Trauerspiele, as Benjamin had asserted. While he extensively discusses the element of play in Hamlet, he ultimately stresses the moment of transcendence where the aspect of play (Spiel) opens up to the reality of history. Only where they meet, Schmitt contends, can we speak of tragedy. Therefore, he asserts: “On the contrary, the more original, the more rigorous the construction, the more perfectly the play works, then the more certain the destruction of the tragic itself.”27

At this point, Schmitt introduces a third term to explain the possibility of tragedy. The emergence of a drama out of a specific historical constellation contains the resources for building a myth. For Schmitt, myth is defined as the result of an interaction between the play and history. Hence without the presence of history there can be no myth. This argument leads him back to the conventional link between tragedy and myth in Greek tragedy. Following the famous definition of Greek tragedy by the German classicist Ulrich von Willamowitz-Moellendorff, Schmitt claims “that myth thus becomes the source of the tragic.”28 Yet this argument leads Schmitt to conflate myth and history. While he had emphasized the presence of history as the ground of Shakespeare’s play, a presence that would eventually result in the creation of a new myth, in his definition of Greek tragedy he stresses myth as the very ground of the play. He does this without acknowledging the difference, which is the very difference that Benjamin uses to demonstrate the fundamental distinction between ancient tragedy and the Baroque mourning play. At a later point, Schmitt seems to understand and accept this difference when he claims that in the case of Hamlet a “Trauerspiel rose to the level of tragedy and was able to convey in this form the living reality of a mythical figure to future ages and generations.”29 By underlining the temporal process, Schmitt reconnects tragedy, (mourning) play, and myth. Still, in this new ordering, myth is no longer the ground (as it was in Greek tragedy) but the outcome of the play in its later reception. Yet it is important to note that in the case of Hamlet this process of myth building occurred in Germany more than in England, as Friedrich Gundolf has shown in his famous study Shakespeare und der deutsche Geist (1911). In this respect Schmitt thus continues the tradition of a “German” Hamlet that can also be found in Benjamin.30

This complicated dialogue with Benjamin requires further scrutiny. Schmitt seems to invoke Benjamin’s Trauerspiel study in order to support his interpretation of Shakespeare as well as his definition of tragedy. But the outcome of this move also contains an unexpected critique of Benjamin. This becomes quite clear in his second excursus that engages Benjamin’s allegorical reading of Hamlet as a mourning play in the chapter “Mourning play and tragedy.” Schmitt openly objects to Benjamin’s attempt to read the play against a theological, specifically Lutheran, background. He asserts: “Hamlet is not Christian in any specific sense, and even the famous passage concerning providence and the fall of the sparrow (V, 2, 227–228) that Benjamin invokes does not alter this fact.”31 Of course, Benjamin had relied on Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty presented in Political Theology in order to set up the relationship between the political and the theological sphere in German Baroque drama as structurally different from both ancient Greek and modern French and German tragedy. But “Benjamin both incorporates and severely limits Schmitt’s definition of sovereignty by marking the irreducible difference that haunts Schmitt’s insistent attempts to concretize the analogy between sovereign and God.”32 Benjamin reads the kings of the Trauerspiel as creatures who reign over subjects and states without ever reaching the transcendence that Schmitt’s political theology suggests. Thus, in Benjamin’s interpretation, the decision of the sovereign is not, as Samuel Weber points out, the figure that performs the breakthrough, the “miracle” that brings about a new order.33

When Schmitt reengages Benjamin in 1956, his strategy is similar to that of Benjamin in 1928: He takes over what he finds useful and rejects what does not fit his own design. In Schmitt’s postwar agenda, a German Lutheran Hamlet makes no sense. Instead, he underlines the non-religious structure of the play (here later scholarship is mostly in agreement with Schmitt34) and its English—that is to say, non-continental—character. By emphasizing the “barbaric nature” of the play, Schmitt points to the emergence of England as a sea power that begins to distinguish itself more and more from the continental land powers like early modern France. As he contends, “However, it appears to me that he [Benjamin] underestimates the difference between insular England and continental Europe and therewith also English drama and the 17th century German Baroque Trauerspiel. This difference is also essential for an interpretation of Hamlet because the crux of the play cannot be understood in terms of intellectual or aesthetic categories like Renaissance and the Baroque.”35 In brief, Schmitt underscores the difference between the centrality of the state for the development of continental European modernity in contrast to a political structure in England where the state building of absolutism was not a decisive phase of this development. This argument puts Shakespeare’s drama into a larger historical and political context. It is, on the one hand, still barbaric, i.e., medieval, but, on the other, potentially more modern than the early stage of continental modernity, which is characterized by destructive confessional wars. Yet this sweeping argument, which is based on Schmitt’s earlier monographs Land und Meer (1942) and The Nomos of the Earth (1950), does not quite line up with his reading of Hamlet, because his interpretation turns James I into the crucial figure of the play, but a figure that could not be openly named. According to Schmitt, as a theorist James was defending a kind of political theology (the analogy of God and king) that stood in the way of modernity and was therefore removed from British political theory after 1688. Is it this failure of James I and of the later Stuart kings to transcend medieval thought that defines the play as a tragedy? Schmitt leaves his readers without a decisive answer. Following Victoria Kahn, one could argue that for Schmitt it is not so much the figure of Hamlet that is tragic but the staged representation of the state of emergency, the fundamental impossibility of resolving the confessional conflict of the 16th century.36 This conflict is the real life that Shakespeare, in contrast to the Baroque German playwrights, dramatizes without getting lost in “play,” i.e., in the purely aesthetic sphere. But this reading cannot quite explain Schmitt’s insistence on the mythic quality.

As David Pan has noted, the moment of myth operates at the level of the reception rather than through the material of the play. Indeed, there is a slippage in the use of the term. What Schmitt seems to have in mind is much closer to Hans Blumenberg’s Arbeit am Mythos (1979) than to Benjamin (or Max Horkheimer and Adorno). Specifically, in its German reception the figure of Hamlet takes on mythic qualities that transcend the aesthetic realm. Here the moment of indecision becomes, in Hegel, the character of modern consciousness tout court and later, in Ferdinand Freiligrath, an allegory of Germany’s political indecision. In this later reception, Shakespeare’s play re-enters the public sphere with a clearly political turn. Hamlet’s generalized indecision becomes a critique of the German people, where the extreme complexity of thought has blocked action. The point of the allusion, then, is to encourage political action, i.e., ultimately, German unification. In brief, the concept of myth serves as a tool to understand the lasting impact of a literary work whose content (plot, characters, historical setting) is no longer relevant to the audience. It is precisely this lack of immediate relevance that allows for interpretations that establish a different and broader kind of relevance. In this sense, the myth of Hamlet also throws light on Schmitt’s own situation and on the situation of the European intellectual, as he explained in a public lecture in 1957 entitled “Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a Mythic Figure of the Present.” The lecture traces the history of the Hamlet myth from the 18th century to the present, placing the emphasis on the tension between spirit and power (Geist und Macht).37 This is a tension that also defined Schmitt’s own fate.


The intricate link between the aesthetic and the political has been a central aspect from the very beginning in Carl Schmitt’s literary criticism. One can observe a persistent tendency to contain the aesthetic and a resistance to complete aesthetic autonomy. In this respect, there are remarkable parallels with the approach of Leo Strauss’s disciples when they examine Shakespeare. Like Schmitt, Allan Bloom and Harvey J. Jaffa reject the modern notion of a complete separation of the aesthetic and the political and highlight the eminently political nature of Shakespeare’s dramas. The poet can be read therefore as a political thinker.38 But the Straussians, when applying their type of hermeneutics, stay much closer to the text than Schmitt, who underscores the impact of history and therefore needs to explicate the historical configuration. However, within this constellation, there is a significant shift. While the 1916 Däubler monograph approaches the link from the literary side and explores the ultimate religious and social ramifications of modern poetry (especially in the third part), the later Shakespeare essay examines the play from the point of view of the political and explores the role that the aesthetic (drama and theater) is allowed to play. This attempt to explicate the relationship is considerably more complex than the argument of the Däubler essay, where Schmitt posits a clear division between Christ and Anti-Christ, thereby calling for a decision on the part of the artist as well as the reader.

Beginning with Political Romanticism, Schmitt treats the question of the aesthetic sphere as part of a larger historical configuration in which the formal analysis and evaluation of the artwork becomes secondary in comparison with the examination of the historical and political relevance. From now on, for Schmitt, the assessment of aesthetic questions always includes the relationship to the political. This connection is articulated most succinctly in the 1929 essay “The Age of Neutralizations and Depoliticizations,” where Schmitt offers a brief periodization in order to define the intellectual history of the modern age. He characterizes the direction of this development as an increasing neutralization of the state, i.e., an increasing de-politicization of the state. In the sequence of stages, the liberal (humanistic) period explicitly calls for the neutralization of the state. Now the political, according to Schmitt, either moves into the aesthetic realm (Romanticism) or into the economic sphere (Marxism). As Schmitt claims, “In reality, the romanticism of the 19th century signifies (if we want to utilize the moderately didactic word romanticism in a way different from the phenomenon itself, i.e., as a vehicle of confusion) only the intermediate stage of the aesthetic between the moralism of the eighteenth and the economism of the 19th century, only a transition which precipitated the aestheticization of all intellectual domains.”39 As Schmitt contends, the contemporary emphasis on the economy as the central political conflict is the logical outcome of the aesthetization of the political. Thus Schmitt’s early literary criticism, for instance his study of Däubler, confronts the historical process of aestheticization as the always-present danger of modern art and stresses the creative power of poetic language, which overcomes the emptiness of the modern world, thereby opening up utopian spaces.

For Schmitt, literary criticism, or art criticism in general, emerges as a legitimate and important project not so much through aesthetic judgment but through the concept of representation more broadly. In Catholicism and Political Form (1923), the idea of representation becomes the central structural pattern to articulate the nature and role of the Catholic Church in the world.40 To begin with, the Church represents the Christian community vis-à-vis God and the pope represents Christ within the Church. Yet this idea also defines a much broader set of relations. For Schmitt, representation is the all-embracing principle of connecting material and spiritual spheres, including art and literature. It mediates between spheres that are otherwise sharply separated—for instance, theology and politics, or art and theology. Yet this relationship, Schmitt contends, cannot be understood simply as reflection or mirroring. Instead, representation moves as transformation from one level to another, from a person to an idea or a larger group (people, nation). Applying this approach to the Catholic Church, Schmitt argues: “This world has its own hierarchy of values and its own humanity. It is home to the political idea of Catholicism and its capacity to embody the trinity of form: the aesthetic form of art; the juridical form of law; finally the glorious achievement of a world-historical power.”41 Here the aesthetic element is legitimized through its subsumption under the umbrella of representation. Yet it is understood that in this configuration the aesthetic is not autonomous; rather, it serves a higher purpose, namely the glory of the Church, which itself stands in for the glory of God. The aesthetic, in other words, is always symbolically anchored and contained. For Schmitt, the world of representation is a world of images (Bildlichkeit) that mediate between levels of meaning.

While the idea of representation, typically used in the arena of political theory, allows Schmitt to include art and literature in his view of the world (Weltbild), it also poses serious questions when he focuses on the contemporary world because Schmitt defines the concept of representation as a structure that remains part of the pre-modern world. Therefore he asserts that neither modern technology nor modern economic and political structures are capable of representation. “The modern factory, lacking representation and imagery (repräsentationslose Unbildlichkeit), takes its symbols from another age because the machine has no tradition.”42 What would this lack of true representation mean for modern art? Schmitt’s reading of Hamlet holds the answer: art and literature, when separated from the anchor of representation, turn into play (Spiel) in the sense of Schiller’s aesthetic theory. However, in Schmitt’s view aesthetic autonomy, as it was envisioned and conceptually developed in the late 18th century, has to pay a heavy price. For Schmitt it becomes ultimately subjective (the mere expression of the individual artist) and therefore arbitrary. What sets Shakespeare, as a poet located at the transition from the medieval to the modern order, apart from later playwrights such as Schiller or Friedrich Hebbel is the fact that his plays can still invoke and rely on representation. By the same token, Schmitt’s interest in and praise of the contemporary Catholic poet Konrad Weiss reflects his conviction that the Christian commitment of the author moves him beyond the level of mere artistic play.

The very privatization that Schmitt diagnoses and opposes in the contemporary social world, he also rejects in his evaluation of literature.43 A case in point would be Schmitt’s relentless polemic against Rainer Maria Rilke, whom he calls a “powdered lady” (ein geschminktes Frauenzimmer).44 Rilke’s linguistic elegance and formal perfection strikes Schmitt as poetry “lite.” He speaks of “smart rhymes” (aparte Reime) and compares them to shallow waters. It is precisely the moment of artistic freedom that irritates Schmitt because it has lost the transformative force that was preserved in the idea of representation.

Schmitt’s emphasis on the idea of representation, which he considers historically grounded and contained, makes it difficult for him to be in dialogue with mainstream literary criticism and literary theory of the 20th century. From the perspective of advanced literary theory broadly defined, his fierce resistance to aesthetic autonomy subverts an easy conversation about the role and function of the aesthetic in a modern, differentiated society. His position is not compatible with advanced Critical Theory (Jürgen Habermas) or Systems Theory (Niklas Luhmann), which both depend in different ways on the conception of social differentiation, nor can it be seamlessly connected with forms of classic Marxism, which insist on social mediation but grant the aesthetic a larger degree of autonomy. The stumbling block is Schmitt’s commitment to an absolute that is conceptualized in (Catholic) theological terms. This commitment informs and guides his engagement with literature and the arts.

Discussion of the Literature

In the Anglophone world, Carl Schmitt’s literary criticism is a fairly recent discovery. While the reception of his political theory goes back to the 1970s and became a significant element in the Anglo-American discussion in the 1980s, Schmitt’s essays on literature remained almost invisible until the new millennium. The journal Telos was where the shift in reception began, by way of translations and critical commentary during the late 1980s. Its main focus was Schmitt’s 1956 essay on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. An important first step in the reception process was the translation of selected parts of Schmitt’s study and an extended commentary by David Pan in 1987.45

A second significant step was Victoria Kahn’s 2003 article “Hamlet or Hecuba: Carl Schmitt’s Decision,” which examines Schmitt’s work, including his Hamlet essay, from the dual perspective of contemporary aesthetic theory (Benjamin, Adorno) and European Renaissance studies, critically exploring Schmitt’s reading within the broader context of modern political aestheticism and political theology or mythology.46

The impact of this article was reinforced by the complete translation of Schmitt’s Hamlet study in 2009 (co-translated by one of the editors of Telos and published by Telos Press).47 The expansive introduction by Jennifer R. Rust and Reinhard Lupton as well as the extensive afterword by David Pan seek to establish the centrality of Schmitt’s essay, not only for Schmitt’s oeuvre in general but also for the history of literary criticism. For Rust and Lupton the task is to demonstrate the relevance of the Hamlet essay as part of Schmitt’s approach to the political theory of the early modern age. Relying on the work of Giorgio Agamben, especially his understanding of Schmitt’s political theology, they seek to explicate the meaning of the essay on a number of different levels, including the applicability of Schmitt’s reading of Hamlet to his own fate during the 1930s. Following Victoria Kahn, Pan specially underscores the importance of the concept of representation for Schmitt’s literary analysis and the placement of Shakespeare’s plays in the public sphere of their time. In this instance, the canonical weight of Shakespeare’s play in the English-speaking world increases the significance of Schmitt’s interpretation, which is seen as being in dialogue with academic Shakespeare criticism (Dover Wilson). As Philip Lorenzes’s The Tears of the Sovereignty shows, by 2013, Schmitt’s discussion of Hamlet, together with his concept of sovereignty, had reached mainstream American criticism.48 By placing the essay in the context of Shakespeare criticism, on the one hand, and discussing Schmitt’s approach in the context of German literary criticism, on the other, the Shakespeare study has become a cornerstone of the Anglophone appropriation of Schmitt’s literary criticism on which other critics can build.49 It is telling that this discussion pays scant attention to Schmitt’s Däubler study of 1916, which is not available in translation.

As one would expect, German Schmitt scholarship has commented on his literary essays, although they do not play a major role in the highly controversial German discussions about Schmitt. Since the 1960s, this debate has been dominated by the controversy over the political consequences of Schmitt’s theory and his public role during the Third Reich. The more specialized scholarship on Schmitt’s literary criticism is still limited. There is the detailed and thorough analysis of the parodies by Ingeborg Villinger, and Reinhard Mehring’s comprehensive and thoroughly researched biography.50 This work provides valuable information about individual authors and literary works that were of interest to Schmitt, without offering a systematic assessment of Schmitt’s literary criticism and aesthetic views. The most comprehensive treatment appears in the 2013 dissertation of Linjing Jiang, which covers not only Schmitt’s major literary essays but also his private comments and reflections on a number of authors.51 As the author’s bibliography demonstrates, he had to work more or less from scratch. An exception was Schmitt’s appropriation and use of Melville’s Benito Cereno, where he could refer to Marianne Kesting’s 1972 documentation.52

Unlike American scholarship, German critics have focused their attention more on Schmitt’s affinity with literary modernism and his interest in the avant-garde, which means they have been more interested in the Däubler essay. Unlike the Anglo-American scene, the German discussion has remained, at least until now, a minor segment of the vast critical discourse on Schmitt. There are two reasons for this outcome: on the one hand, from the German perspective, Schmitt’s literary topics are somewhat marginal with respect to the national literary tradition; on the other, his approach and method do not fit neatly into the development of 20th-century literary theory in Germany. In this context, Schmitt remains an outsider. Even his fundamental epistemological critique of Romanticism does not resonate with the contemporary left-leaning theoretical avant-garde. It comes across as too Catholic and too parochial. Andreas Höfele’s recent monograph No Hamlets: German Shakespeare from Nietzsche to Carl Schmitt underscores this pattern.53 Although the author is a German scholar, he seeks to make a contribution to Anglophone Shakespeare studies. Still, his reading of Schmitt’s approach to Hamlet is quite sensitive to the German historical context. The densely footnoted chapters on Schmitt carefully document both the biographical and the political aspects.

In the Anglo-American context Schmitt could overcome this outsider status because of his engagement with Shakespeare. Schmitt’s reading of Hamlet touches on major aspects of Anglo-American scholarship: Shakespeare research, Renaissance studies, and literary theory. For an Anglophone critic who is familiar with other writings of the German theorist, especially someone familiar with The Nomos of the Earth, Schmitt’s reading of the drama becomes a major theoretical statement about literature and culture in the early modern age. Given Walter Benjamin’s critical importance for the contemporary theory discourse, Schmitt’s disagreement with Benjamin’s Hamlet reading turns into a crucial intervention that calls for expanded commentary and reassessment.54 As in the case of Schmitt’s political theory, Schmitt’s postwar writings on literature, which are focused on European rather than German texts, have unexpectedly impacted the Anglo-American conversation and contributed to the recent canonization of Carl Schmitt as a modern classic.

Further Reading

Balakrishnan, Gopal. The Enemy: An Intellectual Portrait of Carl Schmitt. London: Verso, 2000.Find this resource:

    Christi, Renato. Cark Schmitt and Authoritarian Liberalism: Strong State, Free Economy. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998.Find this resource:

      Höfele, Andreas. No Hamlets: German Shakespeare from Nietzsche to Carl Schmitt. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.Find this resource:

        Mehring, Reinhard. Carl Schmitt: A Biography. Trans. Daniel Steuer. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2014.Find this resource:

          Meier, Heinrich. The Lesson of Carl Schmitt: Four Chapters on the Distinction between Political Theology and Political Philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998.Find this resource:

            Müller, Jan-Werner. A Dangerous Mind: Carl Schmitt in Post-War European Thought. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.Find this resource:


              (1.) See Carl Schmitt, Ex Captivitate Salus: Erfahrungen der Zeit 1946/47, 2d ed. (Berlin: Duncker and Humblot, 2002), 73.

              (2.) Carl Schmitt, Schattenrisse, in Ingeborg Villinger, Carl Schmitts Kulurkritik der Moderne: Text, Kommentar und Analyse der “Schattenrisse” des Johannes Negelinus (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1995), 26.

              (3.) See Carl Schmitt, Tagebücher: Oktober 1912 bis Februar 1915, ed. Ernst Hüsmert (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2003).

              (4.) Peter Demetz, Worte in Freiheit: Der italienische Futurismus und die deutsche literarische Avantgarde 1912–1934 (Munich: Piper, 1990), 68–71.

              (5.) Carl Schmitt, “Zwei Gräber,” in Ex Captivitate Salus, 46.

              (6.) Carl Schmitt, Theodor Däublers “Nordlicht”: Drei Studien über die Elemente, den Geist, und die Aktualität des Werkes, 2d ed. (Berlin: Duncker and Humblot, 1991), 12.

              (7.) Ibid., 13.

              (8.) Ibid., 17.

              (9.) Ibid., 18.

              (10.) Ibid., 29.

              (11.) Ibid., 53.

              (12.) Ibid., 60.

              (13.) Ibid., 63.

              (14.) Ibid., 65.

              (15.) Moritz Baßler, Die Entdeckung der Textur: Unverständlichkeit in der Kurzprosa der emphatischen Moderne 1910–1960 (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1994), 71–72.

              (16.) Ibid., 73.

              (17.) Carl Schmitt, Political Romanticism, trans. Guy Oakes (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1986), 70.

              (18.) Ibid., 73.

              (19.) Ibid., 71.

              (20.) Ibid., 125.

              (21.) See Linjing Jiang, “Carl Schmitt als Literaturkritiker: Eine metakritische Untersuchung” (PhD diss., Heidelberg University, 2013), 111–129.

              (22.) Ernst Jünger and Carl Schmitt, Briefe 1930–1983, ed. Helmuth Kiesel (Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta, 1999), 241–245; Schmitt, Glossarium, 280.

              (23.) See Schmitt, Ex Captivitate Salus, 55–79.

              (24.) David Pan, afterword to Hamlet or Hecuba: The Intrusion of the Time into the Play, by Carl Schmitt, trans. David Pan and Jennifer R. Rust (New York: Telos, 2009), 69ff.

              (25.) Schmitt, Hamlet or Hecuba, 20.

              (26.) Ibid., 30.

              (27.) Ibid., 45.

              (28.) Ibid., 46.

              (29.) Ibid., 49.

              (30.) See Jane O. Newman, Benjamin’s Library: Modernity, Nation, and the Baroque (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011).

              (31.) Schmitt, Hamlet or Hecuba, 61.

              (32.) Jennifer Rust and Julia Reinhard Lupton, introduction to Hamlet or Hecuba: The Intrusion of the Time into the Play, by Carl Schmitt, trans. David Pan and Jennifer R. Rust (New York: Telos, 2009), XXVIII.

              (33.) See Samuel Weber, “Taking Exception to Decision: Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt,” diacritics 22.3 (1992): 14–15.

              (34.) See, for example, Stephen Greenblatt, Hamlet in Purgatory (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001).

              (35.) Schmitt, Hamlet or Hecuba, 47.

              (36.) See Victoria Kahn, “Hamlet or Hecuba: Carl Schmitt’s Decision,” Representations 83 (2003): 83.

              (37.) See Reinhard Mehring, Carl Schmitt: Aufstieg und Fall (Munich: C. H. Beck, 2009), 503–504.

              (38.) See Allan Bloom, Shakespeare’s Politics (New York: Basic, 1964), 4–5.

              (39.) Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political, rev. ed., trans. George Schwab (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 84.

              (40.) See Kahn, “Hamlet or Hecuba: Carl Schmitt’s Decision,” 72–74.

              (41.) Carl Schmitt, Roman Catholicism and Political Form, trans. G.L. Ulmen (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 21.

              (42.) Ibid., 22.

              (43.) Ibid., 47.

              (44.) Cited in Jiang, “Carl Schmitt als Literaturkritiker,” 45.

              (45.) David Pan, “Political Aesthetics: Carl Schmitt on Hamlet,” Telos 72 (Summer 1987): 153–159; also David Pan, “Carl Schmitt on Culture and Violence in the Political Decision,” Telos 143 (Spring 2008), 49–72.

              (46.) Victoria Kahn, “Hamlet or Hecuba: Carl Schmitt’s Decision,” Representation 83 (2003): 67–96.

              (47.) Carl Schmitt, Hamlet or Hecuba: The Intrusion of Time into the Play, trans. David Pan and Jennifer Rust (New York: Telos, 2009).

              (48.) Philip Lorenzo, The Tears of Sovereignty: Perspectives of Power in Renaissance Drama (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013).

              (49.) Johannes Türk, “The Intrusion: Carl Schmitt’s Non-Mimetic Logic of Art,” Telos 142 (Spring 2008): 73–90; Carsten Strathausen, “Myth or Knowledge? Reading Carl Schmitt’s Hamlet or Hecuba,” Telos 153 (Winter 2010): 7–29; Andrea Mossa, “Beyond Hamlet and Hecuba: Irruption and Play in Carl Schmitt’s Thought,” Telos 175 (Summer 2016): 68–84.

              (50.) Ingeborg Villinger, Carl Schmitts Kulturkritik der Moderne: Text, Kommentar und Analyse der “Schattenrisse” des Johannes Negelinus (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1995); Reinhard Mehring, Carl Schmitt. A Biography, trans. Daniel Steuer (Cambridge, U.K.: Polity, 2014).

              (51.) Jiang, “Carl Schmitt als Literaturkritiker.”

              (52.) Herman Melville, Benito Cereno: Vollsständiger Text der Erzählung, ed. Marianne Kesting (Frankfurt: Ullstein, 1972).

              (53.) Andreas Höfele, No Hamlets: German Shakespeare from Nietzsche to Carl Schmitt (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

              (54.) See Sam Weber, “Taking Exception to Decision: Walter Benjamin and Carl Schmitt,” diacritics 22.3 (1992): 5–18.