The Crusader’s Tragedy

The Norway killings by Anders Breivik and the death of Amy Winehouse would seem to have little, if anything, to connect them, apart from sharing a fateful historical moment. And yet these events, happening alongside each other, compel cultural self-reflection on the kind of worlds in which a young man is compelled to go on a killing spree aimed primarily at youthful others and a creatively gifted young woman is compelled to destroy herself, whether by suicide or other forms of self-harming. Despite the seeming contingency of the two tragic events, I would like to speculate on a possible contrapuntal connection between them through the formulation of what could be called a Hamlet complex.

One of the intriguing things about Shakespeare’s plays is how they have the capacity to assume, time and again, a contemporary relevance.  In terms of the concerns of our times, it is surprisingly not hard to see Shakespeare’s Hamlet as exhibiting the psyche of a Jihadist extremist. In brief, Hamlet is dismayed by the socio-political corruption he finds all around him and in relation to this he develops a savior complex: he believes that it is his almost divinely appointed task to set the world to rights. He believes that the wrong he has to address is betrayal of a divinized father ideal: that to which all loyalty must be fanatically owed. Hamlet is puritanical; he is disgusted by sex and berates his mother for acting on her sexual desires while he orders Ophelia to veil herself, more or less, in his ‘get thee to a nunnery’ speech. Hamlet also has a paranoid attitude, one of intense distrust of ‘infidel’ types such as Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and, of course, especially Claudius.

The reason that I put forward this odd—and, possibly to some, discordant— proposition of a Jihadist Hamlet is to challenge some of the reductive post 9/11 framings of Islamic extremism by politicians and the media. One of the particularly reductive features of these framings has been the widespread simplistic inference that extremism is culturally other, and specifically Islamic.

While the figure of Hamlet has been taken by some literary critics to be emblematic of the emergence of the modern Western subject, what does it then mean to notice that such a subject would seem to exhibit Jihadist tendencies? It means not only that the repeated othering of extremism is untenable but also that extremism accompanies the modern subject as the effect of its emergence. In other words, if the modern subject is a Dr Jekyll then Mr Hyde is his extremist double: not another as such but a phantom other of refused identifications. While the West currently produces a phantom of Islamic extremism, this paranoid structure comes to be inhabited by the Jihadist who attempts to invert it, that is, in producing the West as its demonic other.

In terms of this logic of opposing mirrors, the Jihadist fighting the Crusader is just like the Crusader fighting the Jihadist. Or, Hamlet the Jihadist could also be Hamlet the Crusader. With this turn, it becomes possible to account for the political psyche of Anders Breivik , not Anders the Dane but rather Anders the Norwegian. Like his literary counterpart, Anders the Norwegian considers the rulers of the state to be corrupt and considers his role to be one of setting the world to rights. From his website, Anders appears to have been mesmerized by the specters of idealized military manhood: here, we might recall that the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears precisely as a suit of armor.

Moreover, the ideology of Anders is explicit in its Jihadist parallels. Just as the jihadist is engaged in the good fight against corruption, so is he: it is just that Arabs are the vermin in his world while it is the infidel West that is the plague in the world of Bin Laden and his young followers.

Why is extremism particularly a problem for young men, men who would like to be savior-knights? What is it exactly they are trying to save? Is it really religion? Is it truly cultural purity? I think Hamlet offers us a telling way of understanding the paranoia of would-be young male savior figures. The key moment for this understanding arrives in the graveyard scene of the play during the speech in which Laertes mourns the death of his sister Ophelia: it is indeed a cryptic moment. Consider the name: Laertes. Strange name for a Dane, for a Scandanavian. In fact, the name is out of Homer; Laertes is the father of Odysseus. And, amazingly, the graveside speech of Laertes is the transposition of a vignette from the Hades section of Homer’s Odyssey. Here are the two passages:

Now pile your dust upon the quick and the dead
Till of this flat a mountain you have made
T’o’ertop old Pelion or the skyish head
Of blue Olympus. (Hamlet, V.i.240-3)

It was their [the twins Otus and Ephialtes] ambition to pile Mount Ossa on Olympus, and wooded Pelion on Ossa, to make a stairway up to heaven. And this they would have accomplished had they reached their youthful prime. But Apollo […] destroyed them both before their beards began to grow […] (Homer)

From this, we can see that the name Ophelia is an anagram of the name of the twins: O(tus) EPHIAL (tes). That is, the character of Ophelia is a front, one that conceals the androgyny of boyhood. In psychological terms, the extremist could therefore be someone who fails to cope with the transition from boyhood to manhood. Saying such is to broach a cultural taboo, signified by Shakespeare’s cryptic treatment, and as can be further explained through an anecdote.

When I was a student at Oxford conducting research into literary representations of androgyny, I ordered up in the Bodleian library, a book entitled L’Androgyne (1891) by the French author Joséphin Péladan. To my surprise, I was told that it was a banned book that I’d have to read under surveillance conditions. I expected there to be material of a sexual nature, but there was nothing of the sort. Instead, the story is about a boy on the brink of puberty who wishes to resist the natural process of becoming a man. While the story idealizes the state of sexual indeterminacy, what is striking about it in the light of the obsessions of Anders Breivik, is that it also promotes a romantic mythology of the Knights Templar, Péladan being a Catholic Rosicrucian. It would seem that what these Christian knights represent is a certain refusal of the transition from boyhood to manhood, that is, of sexual difference.

Hamlet is obsessed with the loyalty of women. Psychologically speaking, the anxiety is over a fickle femininity that deserts men as they become men. What the veil and the nunnery signify in this context is a desire for the interiorization of femininity. That is, femininity becomes that which is not supposed to show itself on the outside to maintain the desired fantasy of femininity as an inalienable masculine property. This entails a paranoid formation because the masculine self is then formed as a fortress to protect and save an encrypted, secret feminine core that is perceived to be under attack. Under attack from what though? It would seem to be from the encroachments of adulthood experienced as a kind of foreign invasion.

It is possible that for Anders, in psychological terms, Muslims represent the foreign masculinity—the intrusion of manhood—that threatens to appropriate his Christianity as the symbolization of his boyhood androgyny. The choice of young people as targets by Breivik, while politically motivated, might be understood on another level to exhibit his resentment at youth as an unfaithful, fleeting condition.

This cluster of paranoid anxieties can also be seen to inform T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’. The poem is about a corrupt modernity, fickle femininity and the desire for the purity of youth maintained. Apart from the fact that the poem alludes to Hamlet, it structures itself on the myth of savior knights questing for the holy grail. So, it is a case of this Crusader/ Jihadist thing.

Extremism is predominantly addressed in ideological terms, rather than as a cross-cultural form of paranoia around questions of manhood. So we remain caught in the crossfire of paranoid accusations: ‘I am not the extremist; the foreign man is.’ It is worth noting that the attempt to project extremism onto demonized others is part of the very structure of extremism.

What of the figure of Ophelia as an actual woman rather than as the cryptic allegorical symbol of youthful male androgyny? What does the self-destruction of Ophelia have to do with all of this? Ophelia, that O, is treated as nothing in herself in that her femininity is reserved for the possessions and disposals of others. In a recent theatre production, Imagining O, by Richard Schechner, Shakespeare’s Ophelia is spliced together with Pauline Réage’s Story of O. What is illuminating about this theatrical experiment is the way in which it shows how femininity is culturally validated as a masochistic position. The ideal woman gives herself up for the requirements of others. And if she fails to do this, she is resented.

The video footage of Amy Winehouse’s last concert, the one in Serbia, is heart-breaking. She is clearly in no state to perform, and yet the audience—with the greed of self-entitlement because they’ve paid for her—exert a pressure on her to perform regardless of her very evident vulnerability. It is almost as if she is their drug, the audience determined to get their fix no matter what: Amy as O, nothing in herself. She forces herself up to the mic, and the expression in her eyes is a haunting one of caged, appropriated femininity in front of a predatory crowd.

Anders and Amy may be said to embody the sadism and masochism of our cultures or, politically, the ever-present potential for fascism. Amy Winehouse’s relationship with Blake Civil Fielder does seem to have been a sado-masochistic one, involving the desire of two to merge into one. Indeed, it is a will-to-singularity that is at stake in this for sadism aims at the appropriation of the other for the self, while masochism entails the absolute giving of yourself to another. What is really missing here is human relationality.

An important difference between Hamlet and outright Jihadist/ Crusader extremists is that Hamlet’s melancholia acts as the brake on the ‘filial duty’ assigned to him by the ghost of the father, namely the duty of taking the lynching obligation of kangaroo court vengeance into his own hands. It is in this way that Hamlet marks a turning point. But it is a turning point whose significance we may not have quite had the courage to embrace. What modernity really requires of us is the ability to give up on the desire for divinized selfhood. Hamlet is, in this reading, torn between the regressive desire for the imaginary fortress of self-sufficient manhood and the everyday world in which humans are not complete in themselves, but flawed, vulnerable and inter-dependent.

If monotheism is an error, it could be as a will-to-singularity, a singularity of being, of otherness interiorized and denied on the outside. In the utopian moment of Tahrir Square—radical, revolutionary but not extremist (although extremism is often confusingly dubbed ‘radicalization’)— we saw a different kind of unity: the solidarity of relational inter-dependencies, collective good will and mutual support. And, curiously enough, this revealed itself through a youth movement drawing attention to what youthful spirit really pertains to: collective fellow feeling. Or, in the words of Egyptian artist Yasser Rostom: ‘At Tahrir I saw the Egyptian people act in a civil way no one could have imagined, and they came from all levels of society. I want to thank the youth of Egypt. You brought my soul back.’

Caroline Rooney is an RCUK Global Uncertainties Fellow based at the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK. She can be reached at