Patrick Bixby
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‘The Forerunner’
in Nietzsche and Irish modernism
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Just a few years later, during the Irish Civil War, the philosopher’s name would be evoked on the floor of the Dáil Éireann (lower house of parliament) to pose the relationship between the values of the Irish people and the draconian measures of their new government as ‘a case of Christianity vs. Nietzscheanism’. Drawing on an opposition made familiar by Kettle and Allied propagandists, the remark addresses, in the bluntest terms, the issues at stake for the national conscience as Ireland entered the era of independence. Chapter 5 demonstrates that Nietzsche, despite his drubbing in the public sphere, remained an important point of reference for the foremost Irish writers as they looked beyond the tumultuous intensity of the period and embraced prophetic modes of discourse. With a peculiar admixture of mythology, cosmology, eccentric historiography, and Nietzschean ideas, Yeats sought in A Vision (1925) to offer a systematic, if highly idiosyncratic, account of the patterns of human history that might reveal something about the future. Meanwhile, in his five-part play, Back to Methuselah (1921), Shaw attempted to translate the tenets of his philosophy of Creative Evolution into the legends of a new religion of human enhancement: legends that revise the story of the Garden of Eden, comment directly on the political failings of the present, and project a posthuman future some 30,000 years hence. After the war, like many of their contemporaries, Yeats and Shaw became increasingly enamoured with the potential of eugenics to overcome the counter-selective effects of the recent conflict and to breed the human race into a fitter political animal. Joyce, for his part, demonstrates considerable scepticism about such a potential, but he was nonetheless preoccupied with human breeding and the question of futurity in the ‘Oxen of the Sun’ episode of Ulysses. Among the many competing discourses that addressed these issues in Ireland and beyond, Nietzschean philosophy is again crucial, precisely because it remains open to multiple interpretations, multiple potentialities for the future of humanity, or rather a future beyond humanity, when at least certain individuals will live according to new codes, new values, and new ideals. One of the great achievements of Irish modernism, as we shall see, is that its leading writers accommodated these provocations to their own array of provocative images, metaphors, and myths, which repeatedly crossed the borders between art and society, aesthetics and politics.

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