Patrick Bixby
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‘An English (or Irish) Nietzsche’
in Nietzsche and Irish modernism
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The early chapters of the present study consider how Nietzsche’s ideas bore on the reconceptualisation of the role of the Irish artist and the development of new forms of Irish writing during the first decade of the twentieth century. Chapter 1 examines Shaw in the guise of a self-styled ‘artist-philosopher’, who sought to provoke his London audience – so concerned with profit making, social class, and late Victorian respectability – into recognising its own short-sightedness, as he worked to remake the national conscience of both England and Ireland. In doing so, the chapter provides the first comprehensive reading of Shaw’s Man and Superman (1903) in terms of Nietzsche’s philosophy. Capitalising on the philosopher’s growing reputation, and appropriating his most infamous creation, the Übermensch, Shaw’s text develops a sprawling, contradictory, dialectical new form of drama in order to promote something that Nietzsche’s oeuvre did not offer: a coherent political philosophy. Like his German counterpart, the Irish playwright pursued a position both within and without traditional philosophical discourse and its field of cultural production, where he could enjoy both the benefits of membership and the returns on transgression. His first ‘drama of ideas’ mingled Nietzschean philosophy, Fabian socialism, and Lamarckian evolutionary theory, along with a parodic comedy of manners, a surreal tableau called ‘Don Juan in Hell’, and an appended ‘Revolutionist’s Handbook’, which collectively strain against the traditional form of the well-made play and shatter the rhetorical conventions of philosophical discourse. But this new ‘modernist’ form of drama nonetheless served to advance a Shavian vision of human enhancement and political transformation. A real revolution, whether in England or Ireland, would only be brought about by changing the ‘raw material’ of the citizenry – the physiological basis of their moral sensibility and collective conscience – in order to raise the national community to heights previously associated with the singular Übermensch. The title of Shaw’s play linked his own reputation to the reception of Nietzsche’s writing, and also allowed critics to write off his ‘drama of ideas’ as recycled German philosophy, though the play itself ultimately offered a type of political philosophy – and worrying propaganda – like nothing before seen on the page or stage in England or Ireland.

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