Patrick Bixby
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‘The duel between Nietzsche and civilisation’
in Nietzsche and Irish modernism
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An important aim throughout Nietzsche and Irish modernism is to reexamine the relationship between literature and philosophy by rigorously historicising their encounter in modern Irish culture. After the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914, Nietzsche’s name quickly became prominent in Irish (and English) newspapers as shorthand for a ‘Gospel of the Devil’, associated with German militarism and its perceived threat to Christian civilisation. Chapter 4 documents the emergence of this strain of propaganda in the writings of Thomas Kettle, who wrote an introduction to Daniel Halevy’s The Life of Friedrich Nietzsche (1911), which expounds on ‘the duel between Nietzsche and civilisation’, even as it dismisses his philosophy as nothing more than a rather vivid form of poetry. Three years later, on a gun-running mission for the Irish Republic Brotherhood, Kettle witnessed the so-called Rape of Belgium and immediately wrote a series of articles for the Daily News, attributing the rapid escalation of German belligerence to Nietzsche’s destructive influence. Within a few short weeks, a host of Irish clerics reaffirmed the connection, as they negotiated their difficult position between the Home Rule cause and the British war effort by arguing in the popular press that Ireland and England must stand together against the ‘poison doctrines’ of the German philosopher. By November 1914, Yeats could rather mischievously evoke Nietzsche’s name in Kettle’s presence at a nationalist celebration, drawing rousing applause from the Dublin audience for this now explicitly anti-British (if also anti-Christian) figure. During the course of the war, the Nietzsche controversy raged on in newspapers across the Allied powers, while Yeats remained largely silent about the conflict and its catastrophic impact on Western civilisation. But, in January 1919, only days after the armistice was signed, he would return to some of Nietzsche’s most provocative tropes in a series of allusions in ‘The Second Coming’, a poem that famously responds to the trauma of the war years by transforming the imagery of Christian faith into a nightmarish vision of the Antichrist. The final section of the chapter focuses on Yeats’s poem in the context of the Nietzsche controversy in order to read it in terms of the philosopher’s radical transvaluation of its values, which suggests a daunting future for both postwar Europe and postcolonial Ireland.

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