Nietzsche and Irish modernism

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Patrick Bixby
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Nietzsche was a scandal, a revelation, an explosive intellectual force. Soon after he ceased to write, the German philosopher was hailed widely as a leading emissary of ‘the modern’, but his message of cultural transformation resonated nowhere more powerfully than in Ireland. Nietzsche and Irish modernism traces the circulation of the philosopher’s ideas in the work of Irish writers and, more broadly, the Irish public sphere during the early decades of the twentieth century. George Bernard Shaw styled himself an ‘English (or Irish) Nietzsche’, as he developed a ‘drama of ideas’ to advance his radical political philosophy. W.B. Yeats adopted an ethos of ‘proud hard gift giving joyousness’ from Nietzsche as he sought to establish a national theatre in Ireland. James Joyce playfully, and repeatedly, evoked the philosopher’s ideas in his fiction, as the novelist surveyed the cultural resources that might remake the conscience of his compatriots. Before long, Irish priests, politicians, and propagandists also summoned the name of the German philosopher as they addressed a tumultuous period of Home Rule agitation, world war, revolution, civil war, and state building. His thought would ultimately come to play a role in imagining a different future for both postcolonial Ireland and postwar Europe. Recounting this cultural history in meticulous detail, the study demonstrates how Nietzsche provided Irish culture with the potential for new, disruptive modes of thinking and writing, which spoke to both local political circumstances and the predicaments of modernity at large.

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