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  • Daemonic Figures: Shakespeare and the Question of Conscience
  • Eric Spencer
Daemonic Figures: Shakespeare and the Question of Conscience, by Ned Lukacher; x & 228 pp. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994, $37.50 cloth, $15.95 paper.

Daemonic Figures is a specialist’s book twice over. Profiting from it requires not only considerable familiarity with Heidegger, but also unquestioning acceptance of the rhetorical conventions and critical methods of contemporary theory. Lukacher uses these conventions and methods to argue that conscience, properly understood, poses uncomfortable questions about the origins of self-knowledge, and leads to a mysterious but presumably enriching encounter with the limits of our certainty. Shakespeare enters the argument as the supreme example of a poet who discovers, through sensitivity to the ambiguities of language, how to peer without flinching into the Heideggerian abyss. Although the book relies too heavily on Heidegger’s unforgiving idiom, and pauses too seldom to justify suggestive but tenuous claims, at its heart lie hard, interesting questions about what having a conscience means.

Lukacher wishes to restore to the idea of conscience all its paradoxical force. As a silent inner voice carrying a moral imperative from elsewhere, conscience immediately suggests an internally divided self. And although, according to Lukacher, Christian tradition locates the source of the imperative in God, and classical tradition in natural law, conscience remains irreducibly “uncanny,” because “the most intimate site of human habitation [i.e., the self] is also the strangest of places, for it is there that the (unfamiliar) god comes to presence through the language of moral judgment that tells us that we are and that because we are what we are we should act thus” (p. 7). For Lukacher, then, the question of conscience is the question of being, a question without an answer because it involves the unthinkable idea of something prior to and beyond being. The book argues that whatever speaks to us under the name of conscience must be both within and without any categories we have to explain it.

Hence “daemonic figures”: drawing on the Greek notion of a realm of daimones dwelling between the human and divine worlds, Lukacher claims that the “daemon is the cipher, the name, and the figure for the incontrovertible [End Page 240] ghostliness, the familiar strangeness, that dwells between the perceptions and reflections of consciousness and the enigmatic ground of Being itself” (p. 2), or “the medium in which we come to ourselves as precisely that which is divided from itself . . . from the outset” (p. 6). And because, in Lukacher’s scheme, language articulates this daemonic mediation, we must seek in literary works which explore conscience—like Hamlet and Macbeth—traces of uncanniness welling up through ostensibly coherent words. Literary value accordingly involves “giving us the words with which to bring that enigmatic lack to presence” (p. 92). Simultaneously ubiquitous and inscrutable, conscience both calls to and evades us, and literature makes its home in such paradoxical territory.

It follows that Lukacher seeks in texts brief flashes of something else in the midst of what’s apparently going on, a procedure which constantly risks arbitrary idiosyncrasy. For instance, in his chapter on Hamlet, Lukacher notes that the Player’s description of Priam’s death includes a line—“and with a hideous crash / Takes prisoner Pyrrhus’ ear”—whose sequence of sounds produces a ghostly authorial signature: sh . . . akes . . . Pyr . . . ear. And because this “countersignature” appears fragmented, in a context of hesitation, destruction and decline, Lukacher claims it creates an allegory of the “nonrelation at the heart of self-revelation” (p. 135). That is, it (and the larger drama of Hamlet’s revenge to which it obliquely gestures) reveals that at the heart of authorship, of authorized speech, of the moral law of conscience, lies “the silent play of the letter” (p. 135), the “daemonic figure” of dissolution in the midst of self-assertion, which unsettles all authorization. Hence Hamlet’s famous difficulties—he hears the whisper of Otherness in what ought to be a straightforward moral imperative to vengeance.

Lukacher justifies this procedure by noting that “Derrida’s writing, no less than that of Heidegger [and presumably Shakespeare], relies on the invention of figures and metaphors through which...

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pp. 240-242
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