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Becoming “James Overman”:
Joyce, Nietzsche, and the Uncreated Conscience of the Irish

On July 13, 1904, not long after he had commenced his first attempt to write a novel, the young James Joyce signed a note to George Roberts with the alias “James Overman.” The self-applied label has been dismissed by many biographers and critics, including Richard Ellmann, as little more than an ironic joke—appended, as it is, to a comically overstated letter card asking for the loan of a quid.1 How else, after all, could we read this allusion to Friedrich Nietzsche’s infamous creation, understood as, say, the exemplar of the self-affirming individual, capable of transcending the slave morality of Christianity and the nihilism of modern European society? This reference to Nietzsche’s philosophy, however, should not be so easily dismissed, if only to entertain the attitude behind Joyce’s own suggestion in regard to another hero of his youth: that a “postcard written by Ibsen will be regarded as interesting and so will A Doll’s House.”2 Even if Joyce’s note does not merit as much attention as Ulysses (1922), A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), or Stephen Hero (published posthumously in 1944), it can help us to appreciate previously overlooked aspects of those texts, to shed some light on the complex relationship between Continental philosophy and Irish modernism, and thus to understand better certain features of Joyce’s modernist project, its ethical significance, its affective investments. What could it mean for the young James Joyce—this shabby son of the new Catholic middle class in Ireland, this colonial subject, this provincial intellectual, this cosmopolitan wannabe, this unapologetic debtor, this fledgling socialist, this aspiring artist, this great ironist—to call himself “James Overman?” [End Page 45] Addressing this question does not necessitate returning to an outmoded vision of Joyce as an international modernist, but observing anew the tensions, interplay, and exchange between his Irish commitments, with their “subaltern” or “semicolonial” valences, and his flirtations with the avant-garde of European thought, especially as it engages with issues such as modernity, self-formation, and cultural dissidence. To be sure, the multiple contexts and subject positions suggested in the question seem to promise not the isolation or foreclosure of meaning but the proliferation of interpretive possibilities. What is more, the figure of the Overman or Übermensch possesses a stubborn, if evocative, indeterminacy of its own in Nietzsche’s writing, which had so recently been translated into English and yet was so widely discussed and debated, casting the figure as a heroic outcast, moral exemplar, atheistic monster, masculinist archetype, eugenicist daydream, or evolutionary inevitability, to name only a few of the many roles assigned to him.

What if—we might ask, in the manner of Derrida on Nietzsche—Joyce meant to say nothing or at least not much of anything?3 What if the young writer was only pretending to say something significant? There is virtually no end to the ironic play with meaning in Joyce’s oeuvre: the lifting and installing, the stealing and replacing in new contexts that he practiced in his writing, destabilize all hierarchical relations between the word and the world, semiosis and the self, with the use of allusions, quotations, echoes, and intertextual reactivations. There is in these techniques an element of playfulness that pervades the texture of the writing, so that the reader must account for the simultaneous sanctioning and subversion of sources. And so his mischievous signature on a letter card can be read as an exemplary modernist gesture, confident, knowing, and slyly evasive. But I want to suggest that a thick description of such utterances and their contexts, the complex social, political, cultural dynamics of modern Ireland is precisely what is needed to appreciate this early allusion, and other intertextual nods to Nietzsche’s thought, from the greatest allusionist in modern literature. This approach, at the very least, can tap into the semantic richness of such verbal gestures and begin to demonstrate their resounding significance for the culture of Irish modernism in which these ideas are renovated and recirculated. It can provide, moreover, a starting point for understanding how Joyce’s writing responds to a particular affective disposition, a complex set of feelings associated with Ireland’s colonial status that plagued both the artist and the people during the first decade of the twentieth century. Nietzsche’s Übermensch, indeed, played a significant role in shaping the ethics of a particular variety of modernism at a particularly vexed historical moment. The figure, with its evocative indeterminacy, offered a valuable resource not just for imagining a higher type of being, for the aesthetic, ethical, and partially ironic self-fashioning of a young man, but for transvaluing communal values, for forging the “uncreated conscience” of a “race.” It postulated a means for breaking out of a history of personal and national ressentiment, those feelings of envy or animosity that are a defensive reaction against the values of the powerful, arising from a largely unacknowledged sense of weakness or subordination. Joyce’s fictional alter ego, Stephen Dedalus, is fond of casting himself in the roles of various literary and mythological figures (the Count of Monte Cristo, [End Page 46] Hamlet, and Jesus come immediately to mind) as a means to attain a satisfactory image of himself. At this crucial point in his career, and in the history of Ireland, Joyce similarly recognized himself in the image of the self-affirming individual, an image that hailed him with the promise of a life beyond the social norms of the bourgeois respectability, nationalist antipathy, and the Catholic faith that had defined his youth. If the modernist artist in this conception comes to resemble that familiar heroic figure of literary history who somehow transcends the restrictions of his society and redeems its resentful values, the writer is nonetheless bound up in the same ecology of affects that generated those values and define the national or racial conscience.

To appreciate the significance of Joyce’s epistolary gesture, it will be useful to outline the immediate context of the lettercard’s composition. When Joyce wrote to Roberts, the young man was still suffering from bad conscience over the death of his mother and his inability to comfort her during her final illness, even as he was progressively adopting the spendthrift habits of his father, living as a debtor (that original form of bad conscience, according to Nietzsche) on what he could beg or borrow from others. His correspondence throughout the period—with Roberts, as well as Oliver St. John Gogarty and Constantine Curran—is made up of frequent and increasingly desperate requests for financial assistance, requests which he signed not only “James Overman,” but also “Stephen Daedalus” or “S.D.,” indicating the proximity in his imagination between Nietzsche’s Übermensch and the protagonist of his own recently commenced autobiographical novel. Padraic Colum, a friend of both Joyce and Roberts, later described the writer during this period as a “borrower of small sums” and a “shabbily dressed, penniless, lewd-spoken youth whose disreputability was striking because of the witticisms that arose out of it” (Our Friend, 21–22). There was, to be sure, something of the striking witticism, if not a bit of defensive irony, about his adopted pose as the self-overcoming Übermensch. There was also in Joyce’s reference the flashing of some cultural capital, as the young man and aspiring artist offhandedly drops a reference to the most dangerous and disreputable figure in contemporary European letters. In writing to Roberts, who would become his nemesis as an editor at Maunsel and Sons some years later, he was appealing to a member of what Colum called a coterie of “literary aspirants,” who took tea and cakes at his mother’s home to discuss Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Yeats, as they prepared themselves “to take part in a revival of the Celtic spirit” (59). Though he was not always welcome, Joyce had joined Roberts and Colum at meetings of the Irish National Theatre Society where the discussion ranged across the same topics discussed in the Colum home. The figure of the Übermensch, then, promised these young men, in their earnestness or mere curiosity, a transvaluation of Christian bourgeois values and the emergence of a superior form of humanity, however fanciful or figurative. In the context of turn-of-century Ireland, Nietzsche supplied inspiration for an unconventional mode of Bildung, for overcoming not so much bourgeois morality or European decadence as the predicament of semicolonial modernity and a specifically Irish variety of cultural malaise, including certain anxieties about manhood or masculinity in the context of British rule. His creation, the Übermensch, offered an inelegant young man like Joyce an alternative model of self-development, beyond [End Page 47] gentility, respectability, and harmonious social integration; it offered the writer, what is more, a imported resource for envisioning his personal myth of the artist and his relation to his family, his friends, his nation.

It may be rather unsurprising that Joyce entertained at least a passing interest in Nietzsche’s thought during this period: after all, the budding novelist and the German philosopher shared a number of preoccupations, including not just the elevation of the exceptional individual, but the promises of the artistic vocation, the significance of classical culture, the shortcomings of Christianity and nationalism, the perspectival nature of human knowledge, and the emergence of certain affective orientations and their associated values. Ellmann suggests that it was “probably upon Nietzsche that Joyce drew when he expounded to his friends a neo-paganism that glorified selfishness, licentiousness, and pitilessness, and denounced gratitude and other ‘domestic virtues.’” But the biographer concludes that “[a]t heart Joyce can scarcely have been a Nietzschean any more than a socialist; his interest was in the ordinary even more than in the extraordinary.”4 This general assessment has been echoed in passing by numerous critics, sometimes with the desire to lump Nietzsche together with Ibsen and Hauptman as radical critics of modern society and bourgeois values, and often in an effort to lay the topic of Joyce and Nietzsche to rest by dismissing any allusion to the philosopher or his Übermensch as “of a gratuitous and flippant nature.”5 When critics have given more sustained attention to the relationship between the novelist and the philosopher, it has generally been to cite the “affinities” in their perspectivist epistemologies or to read Joyce through Nietzschean themes such as the burden of history or the progress of the artist. Joseph Valente, for instance, acknowledges that “in Nietzsche’s superman [Joyce] found an empowering myth for his struggle against the mind-forged manacles of Irish society,” but suggests, that as Joyce’s interest matured, he “came to regard the Übermensch in light of the hermeneutical apocalypse Nietzsche heralds.”6 It is here, in the increasingly syncretic vision of the mature Joyce, that Valente locates Nietzsche’s importance for the writer, who appropriated elements of his thought to formulate a skeptical epistemology of “aesthetic incertitude.” More recently, in the first book-length study to address the connection between Joyce and Nietzsche, Sam Slote has elaborated on the affinities between Joyce’s “multifarious art of style” and Nietzsche’s theories of artistic innovation and perspectival knowledge in order to demonstrate not just their shared concerns regarding aesthetics and epistemology, but also the ethics of style or individuation operative in their writing. Nietzsche is relevant to Joyce, then, not because he provided the writer with raw materials for his art or with theories of artistic practice, but because the recognition of certain parallels between their projects can teach the reader something about the “ramifications” of Joycean style or styles.7

My focus is not so much influence or affinity as the possibility of tracing through Joyce’s texts certain of Nietzsche’s ideas, including slave morality, bad conscience, the death of God and, of course, the emergence of the Übermensch. The effort to account for these units of philosophical thought, or “philosophemes,” necessarily involves marking their transference, translation, and transformation in new contexts for new uses in [End Page 48] order to demonstrate their significance for Joyce’s artistic enterprise. Certainly, one might attempt something similar by pointing out the significance of other thinkers in his writing: Aristotle, Aquinas, Bruno, Vico, and others come to mind. But the intertextual relationship between Joyce and Nietzsche has been for too long underestimated, or at least under-analyzed, even though it seems to have been most substantial during that crucial year of 1904, when the writer commenced his first novel and later set his masterpiece, Ulysses. This is not to suggest that Joyce somehow accessed the “originary” identity of Nietzsche’s philosophemes, which maintained their mystifying power after being detached from a system or body of thought; nor is it to assign a discursive priority to philosophy over against literature, which becomes merely an exemplification or narration of its rational claims; rather it is to acknowledge, with Derrida, that each philosopheme issues from a network of tropes or figures and should be understood as a trope itself, which can be transplanted into a new textual system (and a new sociopolitical context), even if a trace of its originary identity always remains.8 Nietzsche’s writing, as Paul de Man reminds us, is largely comprised of “discontinuous, aphoristic formulations,” which can be classified as so many suggestive tropes, amounting to an extended reflection on the literary quality of philosophical discourse.9 The significance of the Übermensch, for instance, is famously vague and open-ended, announced only briefly within the rhetorical contexts constructed by Nietzsche in The Gay Science and Thus Spake Zarathustra, and “retain[ing] a teasing indeterminacy at the level of any imagined instantiation.”10 It is a philosopheme that takes on its significance primarily from the context in which the reader finds it, suggesting a rhetorical and philosophical openness to the future that made Nietzsche’s ideas so attractive to so many modernist writers in Ireland and elsewhere. This attraction is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Joyce’s oeuvre. His allusive rhetoric negotiates the discursive forces that have demarcated modernism and its common preoccupations, as well as those that defined Irish culture and its specific involvements, as ideas circulated in fraught and alien historical circumstances.

Nietzsche’s ideas, especially the notion of the Übermensch, played a significant role in the cultural scene of turn-of-the-century Dublin, though his writing first arrived in the capitol via translations and critical accounts generated in England and Scotland. This began with an abortive effort to publish Nietzsche’s collected works undertaken in the 1890s by Alexander Tille, a lecturer in German Language and Literature at the University of Glasgow, who edited English-language editions of Thus Spake Zarathustra (1896), A Genealogy of Morals (1897), and several other texts. The audience for these volumes had been primed by the English-language edition of Max Nordau’s infamous screed, Degeneration (1895), which captured the imagination of the reading public by employing a medico-scientific account of cultural pathology to diagnose the ills of modernism, including the “ego-mania” of writers such as Baudelaire, Gautier, Ibsen, Wilde, and Nietzsche. When Nietzsche’s writings finally reached an English readership in the latter half of the 1890s, a host of commentators, including Havelock Ellis, F. S. C. Schiller, and the Irish émigré George Bernard Shaw, commenced an attempt to provide a more evenhanded account of the philosopher’s thought. Writing for the [End Page 49] Saturday Review in 1896, Shaw noted Nietzsche’s “ineptitudes” as a political and social commentator, but identified with his efforts to get “underneath moral precepts that are so unquestionable to us that common decency seems to compel unhesitating assent to them.”11 This identification was confirmed a few years later in his review of A Genealogy of Morals and then again at the outset of the new century with the publication of Man and Superman (1903), a play which not only borrows Nietzsche’s Übermensch for its title, but also shares in the philosopher’s assault on bourgeois morality. Meanwhile, W. B. Yeats had begun to read Nietzsche, whom he called “that strong enchanter,” with such interest and determination that he complained he had made his “eyes bad again.”12 By early 1903, with the help of his American patron, John Quinn, Yeats was in possession of all the available English-language editions of Nietzsche’s work, including Nietzsche as Critic, Philosopher, Poet and Prophet (1901), an anthology edited by Scottish translator Thomas Common that Yeats annotated with allusions to Homer, Socrates, and Irish mythology. His subsequent Cuchulain plays, beginning with On Baile’s Strand (1903), feature the Nietzschean noble type, who transcends the slave morality of Christianity and offers his people a heroic model of independence, self-affirmation, masculine vigor, and aristocratic bearing. To be sure, the plays demonstrate why Colum, Roberts, and their friends might well discuss Nietzsche and Yeats together in preparation “to take part in a revival of the Celtic spirit.”

Even as this attention to Nietzsche’s writings exhibits a shared concern with the emergence or reemergence of a vibrant national culture, it also evinces the conflicts within and around the Revival movement, especially the debate at this time about the interrelations among international modernism, Irish Catholicism, and cultural nationalism. In his notorious broadside of 1904, “The Holy Office,” Joyce imagines himself “[u]nfellowed, friendless and alone, / indifferent as the herring bone, / firm as the mountain ridges where / I flash my antlers on the air.”13 The self-image provocatively combines Joyce’s view of the fallen Home Rule leader Charles Stewart Parnell, as the defiant stag at bay, with what Ellmann would later identify as Zarathustra’s mountaintop, above and beyond the provincial defenders of Irish art and culture. There, the young writer imagines that his strength has invoked the hatred of that “motley crew” of the Irish Literary Revival, including Yeats, George “Æ” Russell, J. M. Synge, and Lady Augusta Gregory, as well as Colum, Roberts, Gogarty, and John Eglinton. The last of these figures was familiar to Joyce as a sub-librarian at the National Library, where the young man and his contemporaries would gather to deliver lectures and engage in debates, as famously depicted in the “Scylla and Charybdis” episode of Ulysses. Eglinton drew Joyce’s ire in 1904 by rejecting the early autobiographical essay “A Portrait of the Artist” for publication in his newly-founded journal, Dana, where he would soon publish his own provocative article titled “A Way of Understanding Nietzsche.” The periodical, which took the subtitle “An Irish Magazine of Independent Thought,” sought to promote “a spirit of intellectual freedom, and a recognition of the supremacy of humanity,” in opposition to what its editors saw as the patriotic zeal of the Revival, with its reliance on “traditional methods and traditional themes.”14 Sharing Joyce’s sense of dissatisfaction with the parochial aspects of Irish cultural nationalism, the editors of Dana drew [End Page 50] on this humanist rhetoric in a call for something like a belated Irish Enlightenment, which would help to create a generation, or at least a vocal minority, of free thinkers—a new literati who would refuse to submit to nationalistic fervor or religious authority, especially Catholic orthodoxy. Eglinton’s essay on Nietzsche contributes to this project by asking Irish readers to open their minds to ideas considered to be at the leading edge of European intellectual life. Yet Nietzsche is worth understanding, according to the critic, not simply for reasons of intellectual tourism or aloof cosmopolitanism, but because the German philosopher speaks to native concerns, to the Irish mind and to its desperate need of “independent thought.”

What is most striking about Eglinton’s essay, particularly in relation to Joyce’s writing, is that he frames his account of Nietzsche’s work in terms of a national coming of age in Ireland, repeatedly employing tropes that suggest alternative modes of education and development. The piece opens by suggesting that, although Nietzsche may be described as “a dangerous author,” there is a natural safeguard against the corruption of his audience, the same “as that which preserves the schoolboy from corruption by the more highly-coloured passages in the works of Horace and Ovid.”15 Acknowledging that Nietzsche’s philosophy “stands or falls with the assertion that moral distinctions are creations of humanity,” Eglinton explains the basic thesis of part 1 of A Genealogy of Morals by referring to the family, where parents impose slave morality on their children and it is a matter of expediency “to whip little boys” out of the habit of lying (“Understanding Nietzsche,” 185). Slave morality, he continues, “points back to the creative power of the ‘masters’ who impose it” and is thus essentially reactive, rather than creative, and an impediment to “virtue, in the old sense of manhood” (185, 187). Crucially, Nietzsche can teach Eglinton’s readers that, even when they give up or grow out of their faith and servitude, they may still be prone to particular patterns of thought or habits of perception that keep them mired in a certain moral affect—ressentiment. Quoting from Morgenröte (Daybreak), Eglinton stresses that “we should change our way of seeing in order to arrive, perhaps very late, at changing our way of feeling” (186–87). The Irish people, then, will be able to create new values for themselves only when they have learned to recognize their moral feelings as the aftereffect of the servitude that they have abandoned or are in the process of abandoning.

Eglinton goes on to suggest that the discussion of “the morality of slaves and masters,” leads inevitably to “the conception of the Superman”—“that ‘far-off divine event’—to which, according to Nietzsche, humanity moves” (187). For the Superman or Übermensch embodies the possibility of finally overcoming slavish values. It is here, however, that the critic parts company with the philosopher and a concept that he finds “undoubtedly a little crazy,” because he believes that it represents a radical break from his own humanist narrative of individual and collective development. Yet the idea of the Übermensch does provide Eglinton with an opportunity to address his abiding concern for the state of Irish culture, because the notion evokes in turn the fundamental idea of culture, as well as the social and the political conditions necessary for its flourishing. Considering the case of the great writer or artist, Eglinton claims contra Nietzsche that, while certain privileges are “necessary for art, we must not [End Page 51] therefore conclude that civilization exists for sake of the few.” The critic then speaks directly to the accomplishments of Irish cultural nationalism, especially the Irish Literary Revival, and the potentialities of an Irish modernism when he concludes that “the efflorescence of art and culture is only a part of the life-history of a race” and that “[b]ehind this efflorescence and eventually displacing it, new ideas and new tendencies are germinating” (188).

It is instructive to compare this perspective on Nietzsche to that of Thomas Kettle, a devout Catholic, a classmate of Joyce’s, and another “literary aspirant” in his coterie (albeit one with ambitions in law, economics, and politics, as well), who published two reviews of Heralds of Revolt by Father William Francis Barry in late 1904 and early 1905. Barry’s book included chapters on Carlyle, latter-day pagans, and Nietzsche; Kettle’s reviews offer an account of “Dr. Barry’s point of view, which is, of course, in essentials our Catholic point of view, of the most crowded, shining, confused, intelligent, spacious and chaotic age of human experience.”16 In stark contrast to Eglinton’s call for independent thought, Kettle shares in Barry’s attempt to evaluate modern culture according to the beliefs, values, and sentiments that unite the members of the Catholic Church, particularly in Ireland. But here too is a vision of cultural flourishing. According to Kettle, at a moment when Catholicism across Europe was coming to terms with artistic and theological modernism, Barry’s book promised to “inaugurate a creative florescence among the richer Catholic minds” in Ireland, despite unaccommodating educational, economic, and political circumstances (“Catholicism,” 133). Writing in the New Ireland Review, Kettle identifies Barry’s chapter on Nietzsche as “perhaps the best, and certainly the most ‘actual,’ chapter” in the study, because it deals directly with “a great and original force” in the more general assault on Christianity over the course of the nineteenth century. Kettle then considers Nietzsche’s “Over-man” who “imitating reality rises above the distinction of good and evil, and lives as a pure artist, lives for ecstasy and rhythm.” In Nietzsche’s books, the pursuit of an uncorrupted aesthetic vocation creates “an heroic glow,” but, according to Kettle, Barry’s Catholic criticism strips the writing of its “figured robes” to reveal the “very madness of immorality.” Like Eglinton, then, Kettle diagnoses the idea of the Übermensch as the product of a kind of insanity, “the absolute negation of that social sense and spirit of pity and co-operation.” But despite this, he finds that Nietzsche’s ideas have “a tonic virtue,” for they have an affective force, delivering “the mind from that . . . merely sentimental pity which vainly effuses itself.”17 Nietzsche’s illiberal and even misanthropic philosophy, with its unforgiving criticism of both modernity and Christianity, is thus partially redeemed by its exacting psychological insights. In the end, according to Kettle, this “new thought” offers the collective conscience of the Irish an “antidote against Puritanism and Pessimism,” even as the Übermensch and its other key ideas deny any “relish of salvation, social or philosophic” (“Dr. William Barry’s,” 250).

Making his first effort to write a novel in 1904 and 1905, Joyce began to call on this “new thought,” these Nietzschean philosophemes, to depict the emergence of a heroic artistic consciousness, as his protagonist seeks a type of salvation in the process of Daedalian self-fashioning and Nietzschean self-overcoming. Placed in the mouth [End Page 52] of the eponymous protagonist of Stephen Hero, these allusions serve both to demonstrate what Seamus Deane calls Stephen’s “passion for thinking” and to estrange his developing interiority from the affective and ideological forces that have shaped his youth.18 In chapter 21 of the novel, which chronicles his early years at the university and his developing relationship with the devout Cranly, Stephen has begun to distance himself from religious authority, even as he remains reluctant to commit sacrilege. “I am a product of Catholicism,” he admits in conversation with his friend: “I was sold to Rome before my birth. Now I have broken my slavery but I cannot in a moment destroy every feeling in my nature” (Stephen Hero, 139). Stephen’s Bildung, his formation as an artist and a young man, will depend precisely on his ability to surmount this affective conditioning, this indoctrination into bad conscience and ressentiment fostered by Catholicism and its priests, and he announces here, for the first time, his refusal to “submit to the Church” (139). Like Nietzsche, Stephen suggests that Christian or “slave” morality is characterized by debilitating feelings, which find solace in the form of imaginary revenge of the weak against their enemies, needed in order to sustain the belief in the “good” of the weak in relation to the “evil” of the strong. What Nietszche calls “self-overcoming” would require Stephen, the nascent “Overman,” to surmount slavish values and emotions through a process of brutal introspection and thus to open the way for a new set of values that proceed from strength to define the good according to its own noble or aristocratic valuation. The Overman, in this sense, is precisely one who has overcome himself. Übermensch is linked to überwinden (to overcome) in the sense of elevating man beyond the moralism of Christianity, the illusions of metaphysics, and the decadence of modernity, as well as the ressentiment and reactive values of the so-called herd. Catholicism is an obstacle to this process of personal development precisely insofar as it nurtures this ressentiment, which will therefore require, according to the ambitious young man, its removal from his own thoughts and feelings, so far as that is possible.

Calling on Nietzschean terms again in chapter 24, Stephen places his artistic ambitions in direct opposition to the sensibilities of his class and his classmates at the university, who have entrusted their futures to the Catholic clergy and the promise of a world to come. In conversation again with Cranly, he proclaims that “I will live a free and noble life,” and further that “my art will proceed from a free and noble source. It is too troublesome for me to adopt the manners of these slaves” (Stephen Hero, 184). The pronouncement, like the ones that lead up to it, draws on terminology from A Genealogy of Morals to define the young man’s aesthetic aspirations in terms of an ethical imperative developed out of a refined feeling or awareness that begins with the triumphant affirmation of the self and directs itself toward the affirmation of new values. With this claim, moreover, Stephen positions himself as one of what Nietzsche calls “the noble, the powerful, the higher-situated, the higher-minded,” who regard “themselves and their acting as of first rank, in contradistinction to everything low, low-minded, mean and vulgar.”19 Noble, in this sense, does not mean so much elevated in social rank as “‘with lofty sentiment,’” or “‘privileged in sentiment,’” where the “pathos of distance” from the herd affords the noble individual with “the right of [End Page 53] creating values” (Nietzsche, Genealogy, 23, 20). Again like Nietzsche, Stephen makes a strong differentiation between the active morality of strength and creativity, on the one hand, and the morality born out of weakness and conformity, on the other. The boys of the college bear “the stamp of Jesuit training,” which for all its scholarly seriousness cultivates a passive respect for the “spiritual authorities of Catholicism and patriotism and the temporal authorities of the hierarchy and the government,” while muting “the call to a larger and nobler life” (Stephen Hero, 172–73). The Jesuit fathers, who are expected to train “the youth of Ireland for the higher walks of life,” have instilled in them an admiration of “Gladstone, physical science and the tragedies of Shakespeare” and a belief in “the adjustment of Catholic teaching to everyday needs, in the Church diplomatic” (172). Stephen, too, bears the stamp of this Jesuit training, which has provided him with crucial intellectual resources. But he is practicing, or attempting to practice, an alternative form of self-cultivation as he declares his independence from clerical teachings and the “manners of these slaves,” while announcing the right to express himself on his own terms. The form of Nietzchean Bildung that Stephen pursues, of course, will not depend on respect for spiritual and temporal authorities, but on the cultivation of what is rare, noble, or “aristocratic” in the exemplary individual, who is capable of generating his own values, his own ideals.

In the midst of this pursuit, Stephen is subject to the entreaties of the Catholic authorities, who send “an embassy of nimble pleaders” to state their case—though it appears from the way they are implicated in Stephen’s reflections that these pleaders are, in fact, internalized ones who have infiltrated his conscience and “address every side of his nature in turn” (204). With this shift toward interiority, and away from the more conventional dialogical form that dominates the earlier chapters of the novel, the scene may be read as dramatizing the difficult process of Bildung, of self-overcoming, that is taking place within the young man. Recognizing the social forces that impinge on Stephen’s “individual liberty,” the ambassadors of the Church acknowledge his “modern” reluctance to make pledges his need to see “himself [as] the greatest skeptic concerning the perfervid enthusiasms of the patriots” (204). The members of the priestly caste, as educators and spiritual guides, are largely responsible for breeding such enthusiasms among the Irish people, who (so Stephen seems to believe) have come to resent the very traits with which he associates himself—nobility, intellect, creativity. But as the entreaties continue, the priests become more and more cynical, until they even suggest a kind of sympathy with various Nietzschean positions: they caution against convictions in light of the changeability of the human mind and later endorse Stephen’s belief in the “eminence of [the] aristocratic class and in the order of a society which secures that eminence” (205). The ambassadors, moreover, cynically appeal to Stephen’s sense of superiority in a manner that recalls Nietzsche’s descriptions of aristocratic or master morality: “Do you imagine that manners will become less ignoble, intellectual and artistic endeavor less conditioned, if the ignorant, enthusiastic, spiritual slovens whom we have subjected subject us?” (205–06). With these queries, Stephen’s interlocutors claim sympathy with his sense of superiority, which positions his “nobility” over and against the manners and mores of the slaves, with their religious and patriotic enthusiasms. [End Page 54]

No doubt Joyce himself was both a keen sufferer from and a diagnostician of the resentful enthusiasms associated here with his countrymen; he acutely recognized that communal values are essentially dependent on collective affects, which provide a people with its fundamental mode of judgment or evaluation. Andrew Gibson claims that ressentiment “is surely a key theme for . . . Joyce criticism” because the writer had such a deep understanding of and, indeed, identification with the phenomenon.20 But if Joyce “repeatedly demonstrates that those of his characters who are caught in ressentiment are also still in its thrall, subordinate to power in the very intensity of their reaction to it, . . . he also had deep misgivings about it and worked to overcome it or leave it behind” (Joyce’s Revenge, 18). Take, for example, his claim in the 1907 speech “Ireland: Island of Saints and Sages” that “nations, like individuals, have their egos,” before he goes on to suggest that it is easy to “understand why the Irish peasant is reactionary and Catholic, or why, when he curses, he mixes the names of Cromwell and the Satanic pope,” given the brutal history of conquest and foreign rule in Ireland.21 The diagnosis is eminently Nietzschean insofar as it uses psychological terms to describe a collective who have succumbed to a sense of defensiveness and acrimony in the face of the values of a powerful antagonist, identified as evil by virtue of that very power. Joyce ends, however, by decrying this ressentiment, so often expressed in the heightened affect of nationalist speechmaking, because he does not “see the use of the bitter invectives against the English, the despoiler,” and of the attendant claims for an unacknowledged cultural superiority, which trap Ireland in a self-defeating vision of its own victimhood (“Island of Saints and Sages,” 125). In chapter 17 of Stephen Hero, declaring his allegiance with D. P. Moran and other ardent cultural nationalists, the young Madden zealously announces that, “[w]e want an Irish Ireland . . . [we want] nothing of this English civilization,” which encourages “our peasants to ape the gross materialism of the Yorkshire peasant” (54). But Stephen counters with the suggestion that the Catholic Church has promoted the study of the Irish language to protect its flock from modern ideas and, particularly, modern skepticism, so that the institution may secure its power over the hearts and minds of the Irish people.

This cynical will to power becomes definitive of the Church’s role in Ireland. In Stephen’s thoughts, at least, the ambassadors of the Church are willing to acknowledge his fondness for proclaiming that “the Absolute is dead”—and even to entertain the notion themselves—though they refuse to accept the consequences of this proclamation (206). Although Stephen’s denial of the Absolute may have roots in the relativism of Walter Pater, Anatole France, and others (the “ambassadors” recognize that it is “a mark of the modern spirit to be shy in the presence of all absolute statements”) his formulation is, of course, right out of Nietzsche, with its prophetic, quasi-religious phrasing (205). Borrowing on the shock value of the notorious assertion that “God is dead,” first made in The Gay Science and then repeated in Thus Spake Zarathustra, Stephen’s claim denies the existence of some metaphysical source of authority, which might offer universal foundations for religious, ethical, or moral codes. As the ambassadors of the Church repeat his claim back to him, Stephen becomes (at least in his own mind) a quotable cultural dissident like his infamous German predecessor, and, [End Page 55] even in this slightly tempered form, his pithy obituary forms an eminently modern and modernist challenge to the status of all values that claim ontological privilege or the validation of an ultimate order. The modernizing emissaries of the Church seem untroubled by all this, however, as they offer Stephen a position in their aristocratic or “patrician order,” from which he can continue “to exercise his contemptuous faculties” against belief even as he enjoys the rewards attained by the very doctrines he challenges (206). The priests in his mind appear to have slid from cynicism to nihilism in both valences of the term that Walter Kaufman identified in Nietzsche’s thought, “in asserting the existence of God and thus robbing this world of its ultimate significance, and also in denying God and thus robbing everything of meaning and value.”22 In the end, the ambassadors of the Church compel Stephen to recognize that “in temper and in mind [he is] still Catholic,” that “Catholicism is in [his] blood,” and, with another query, that his desire to overcome this in himself is misguided: “can you be fatuous enough to think that simply by being wrong-headed you can recreate entirely your mind and temper or can clear your blood of what you may call the Catholic infection?” They counsel not a personal revolution that might forge his conscience anew but instead “a course of moderation,” which can only seem like a slow defeat for a young man of Stephen’s enthusiasms (206).

This reference to Nietzsche’s philosophy provides an important cue for understanding Stephen’s conception of his role as an artist in Irish society, a role that casts him as an inventor of personal and communal values. It provides, moreover, a significant context for appreciating Joyce’s use of the moniker James Overman, for at the close of the first book of Thus Spake Zarathustra, the prophet proclaims: “Dead are all Gods: now we will that beyond-man [Übermensch] live.”23 After the demise of God, or the Absolute, man is open to an ethical transformation and a renovated culture to fill the void left behind: as Eglinton puts it, those who have repudiated God “will be called upon, in a world bankrupt in ideals, to create new moral values and new Gods” (“Understanding Nietzsche,” 182). The alternative is nihilism. The ambassadors in Stephen’s mind, having accepted that they may well be wrong regarding their belief in the Absolute, ask if anything remains then for the young man “but an intellectual disdain.” This question serves as a rejection of Nietzschean critique and an invitation to comradeship with them. In joining their order, emissaries of the Church suggest, Stephen will protect himself from the “revolutionary notions”—the dissenting, critical, even heretical thoughts—that might derail his career as an artist in their conception (206). As Gregory Castle points out, the Jesuits are inviting him into the safety of an established institution, which would assure him something like the telos of traditional Bildung, and his story something like the narrative trajectory of the conventional Bildungsroman; but they also threaten to “short-circuit the Bildung process, shunting him off the pathway leading to the fulfillment of his artistic aspirations.”24 Stephen believes that the responsibility for taking the place of God, for establishing new ideals or standards, falls to the artist, that exemplary individual who becomes the only source and guarantor of what is to be valued, to be sought after, to be recognized as beautiful and true. The Nietzschean philosopheme thus becomes a mark of cultural dissidence. [End Page 56] The Nietzsche of the young Joyce, in other words, shares much with the Nietzsche of Kaufmann, who recuperated the philosopher’s image from the taint of Nazism by transforming him into the prophet of an alienated artistic heroism. In the context of turn-of-the-century Ireland, where the Catholic Church, the British Empire, and the Irish nationalist movement all exert their powerful influence, Nietzsche and his Übermensch offer a model of individual dissent, of individual freedom, that Stephen (and Joyce) fails to find in these ideological formations.

Laying out his aesthetic theory in an essay titled “Art & Life” much earlier in the novel, Stephen argues that “the poet is the intense centre of the life of his age to which he stands in a relation than which none can be more vital” (Stephen Hero, 80). Like Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols, Stephen protests against the “moralizing tendency in art,” but again like Nietzsche, he does not argue in favor of l’art pour l’art—art with no other end than itself.25 Instead, he claims that art should contribute to and participate in the overflowing of energy, “vivification,” “the force to live. . . . Thus the spirit of man makes a continual affirmation” (80). But this means that the work of art and its creator necessarily enter into conflict with the very standards that Kettle attributes to Irish Catholic society and identifies as the foundation of criticism. It means, moreover, that Stephen’s desire for intellectual independence cannot entirely sever his ties with the religious traditions in which he was raised and the rising nationalist sentiment that colors his emotional experience. When the young man delivers the paper to an audience of students and faculty at the college (who would have included the likes of Kettle), they initially propose a vote of thanks but eventually launch a “general attack” on his claims, which concludes with a declaration that “the moral welfare of the Irish was <<menaced by such theories>>” (102, 103). Stephen is condemned as a “renegade from the Nationalist ranks,” whose “insidious theory that art can be separated from morality” had offended the general acceptance of “moral art, art that elevated, above all, national art” (103). In “Catholicism and Modern Literature,” Kettle regrets the absence of “pure artists” in Ireland, because he recognizes that “adherents of established things, like ourselves,” have consistently advocated for the moral value of art and failed to appreciated the ability of art “to break up old moulds, and bring us back to the vital and throbbing stuff of sensation and feeling” (133). For Stephen, of course, “established things” have become something to be shattered, for they represent social constraint, artistic repression, and the suppression of instinct. To accomplish this task, he must reject the morality of the Catholic Church and the value of patriotism, altruism, and even happiness, all in order to produce what Nietzsche calls a more a “severe self-love.” It is not so much that he seeks a form of historical detachment or bourgeois autonomy, but that his project as an aspiring artist in Ireland demands an aesthetic of independence from the norms of national society—an art disengaged from narrowly moral concerns, which attends instead to the “realities which alone give and sustain life” (Stephen Hero, 80).

That the terms of Stephen’s discourse derive, in no small part, from Joyce’s interest in Nietzsche’s philosophy is substantiated by evidence in the Dubliners story written during this period, “A Painful Case.” Throughout the summer of 1905, the young [End Page 57] writer worked alternately on his novel and his short story, completing chapters 24 and 25 of Stephen Hero by the end of June, likely beginning composition of “A Painful Case” the same month, and finishing the second draft of the story by August 15. The dates of composition are significant here because in the first draft of the story, Joyce places two volumes of Nietzsche’s writing on his protagonist’s bookshelf: The Gay Science and Thus Spake Zarathustra, the texts in which the philosopher announces the death of God and rise of the Übermensch. Critics have often associated Duffy with the figure of the Übermensch, as an aloof, freethinking, self-sufficient individual, who offers an image of self-criticism on Joyce’s part in the wake of his own flirtation with Nietzsche’s philosophy (which, according to this line of thinking, had already ceased). I would counter that the problem with Duffy is precisely that he was not “Nietzschean” enough—and that the character, some two decades older than his creator, represents a counterexample, or cautionary tale, of what Joyce might become should he not follow the path of self-overcoming. Rather than an artist, an anarchist, or a revolutionary, Duffy is a meek bourgeois: he entertains socialist ideas but abandons them at the first sign of difficulty; he thinks of robbing the bank where he works but realizes the correct circumstances will never arise; he fancies himself in the mode of an artist and man of culture, but he stolidly retains his clerkship; finally, when Mrs. Sinico presents him with the possibility of an unconventional—that is, adulterous—relationship, he retreats back into his previous isolation and idleness. In a further irony, as the volumes of Nietzsche sit neatly arranged on his bookshelves, Duffy dines “moderately” every evening on George’s Street and “read[s] the evening paper for dessert,” internalizing the conventional values of late-Victorian Dublin.26 Despite his pretensions to moral, or perhaps more accurately, amoral superiority, Duffy is finally unable to overcome the social norms that restrain his thoughts and actions. James Duffy is, in short, a failed “James Overman.”

Joyce’s subsequent novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, may be read as the story of how Stephen arrives at the vision of an alternative future. But the novel initially presents us with a chastened subject. In chronicling Stephen’s early life, which is largely absent from what survives of Stephen Hero, A Portrait presents us with an individual still prey to slave morality, ressentiment, and bad conscience, loosely recapitulating in the story of an individual life the broader narrative of decadence laid out so influentially by Nietzsche in A Genealogy of Morals. Like many of his counterparts in the history of the novel, Joyce’s protagonist grows up in the context of the moral authority and religious pedagogy of the Church, though he experiences the torments of sin and confession even more intensely than most. In chapter 3 of the novel, shortly after the notorious hellfire sermon, Stephen begins to manifest the first signs of a bad conscience, endured by an individual who has transgressed religious authority and who, out of fear as much as anything else, has promised to amend his ways. He has become conscious of a debt to be repaid to his progenitor, who made him “out of nothing,” loves him “as only a God can love,” and will receive him with open arms even though he has “sinned against Him.”27 Soon, when he confesses to precocious sexual activity, Stephen finds himself compelled by a priest to “promise God now that by his holy grace [End Page 58] you will never offend him any more by that wicked sin. . . . Promise God now that you will give up that sin, that wretched wretched sin” (Portrait, 167). Recognized as an autonomous individual capable of making promises, the young man simultaneously is held accountable for his future actions and is faced with the awesome responsibility of mastering his will. In other words, he is endowed with a “conscience,” as Nietzsche defines that term in part 2 of A Genealogy of Morals. In chapter 4 of the novel, as Stephen struggles with this responsibility and his intensifying “ache” of “conscience,” he adopts a mode of behavior that conforms to the “ascetic ideal” described in part 3 of A Genealogy of Morals: his efforts at self-abasement, his religious devotions, his attempts to mortify the flesh, all exemplify the nay-saying ethic of self-denial by which spiritual values are elevated above sensual pleasures and worldly ambitions (159).

Nietzsche claims that such practices entail the turning inward of aggressive drives, which cannot be expressed in repressive or restrictive circumstances, even though the subject experiences this internalization as the product of free will rather than the inability to exercise the will to power. Joyce repeatedly suggests that the collective conscience of the Irish people has been shaped by the chastened economic and political conditions of late colonial Ireland, where the possibilities of wealth and prestige, power and influence, are largely denied to a generation of young men. Their sense of resentment, however, has only been compounded by the ideological influence of the Catholic Church and the Irish nationalist movement. For instance, the narrator describes the power of this influence on the “rude imagination” of Stephen’s nationalist friend, Davin, who stands towards “the broken lights of Irish myth . . . in the same attitude as towards the Roman Catholic religion, the attitude of a dull-witted serf.” The combined weight of national and religious tradition has rendered Davin subservient, a “dull-witted serf,” in the very manner that Nietzsche associates with slave morality, because he has acquiesced to values determined not by strength, but in reaction to the strength of others. “Whatsoever of thought or feeling came to [Davin] from England or by way of English culture his mind stood armed against,” the narrator tells us (210). But this ressentiment—this reaction against the thoughts and feelings, ideals and sentiments—of the English has also become productive of values, elevating the worth of native myths, native history, and native beliefs, even as it reinforces the very opposition imposed by imperial power, the firm distinction between the rulers and the ruled.

Stephen’s Bildung, his development as an artist and young man, in this environment is necessarily a struggle with ressentiment in the effort to affirm a self that is contingent neither on the recognition of the powerful nor the devaluation of the noble. If A Portrait is a loose recapitulation of A Genealogy of Morals, it is also the story—however unsuccessful or infelicitous—of how one might extricate oneself from this ethical impasse, of how the artist might emerge from his society to create an art that proceeds “from a free and noble source,” rather than from “the manners of slaves.” When Stephen abandons the possibility of becoming a priest for the vocation of an artist, his aesthetic formulations initially constitute something of an overreaction to his circumstances and, even more fervently than in “Art & Life,” he theorizes a static art divorced from moral concerns. To separate himself from the slaves would be to abandon their morality, their [End Page 59] sense of good and evil, for a mode of aesthetic perception that has no truck with such categories. But the traumatic experience of Irish history makes the severance difficult, if not impossible, since that experience is always influencing the development of the young man and depleting the will to innovate in his art. His eventual revolt thus can be read as an act of Nietzschean heroism, as he seeks to overcome the very forces that have shaped his conscience: as he famously tells Davin in chapter 5, “when the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets” (238). Stephen’s “non serviam” is precisely a refusal to acquiesce to slavish values. Yet the young man will not find it so easy to fly off to artistic independence when nationality, language, and religion are as closely linked as they are in Ireland and in his own mind. His declaration announces a modernist revolt that seeks out the creation of new values, both personal and communal, for the artist hero and his readers, even as it rejects the social accommodation that is the telos of traditional Bildung and the conventional Bildungsroman. This revolt requires, above all, a surmounting of the negative affects, the bad conscience and ressentiment, that have defined the lives of Stephen and many of his countrymen, so that they might regard themselves as measures of value in their own right—confident, judicious, and fully independent.

In declaring his prophetic ambition to forge “the uncreated conscience of [his] race” at the end of the novel, Stephen recognizes his own bad conscience for what it is and, in this recognition, opens up the possibility of creating new, nobler values through his art. While recent scholarship has given ample attention to the term “race” in Stephen’s declaration, I want to shift attention to the connection between affect and conscience, emotion and value, in these well-known lines. To be sure, these relationships are highlighted in the lines that immediately precede Stephen’s declaration: “welcome O life. I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience” (299). In this final epiphany, this ecstatic moment of feeling, Stephen has adopted the life-affirming stance that, according to Nietzsche, privileges strength, health, and power over the life-denying morality of the so-called slaves, associated with weakness, pathos, and ressentiment. Moreover, this is a stance based on a direct contact with the material world, “the earth beneath him, the earth that had borne him,” rather than a retreat from lived experience into otherworldliness, spirituality, or metaphysics (200). What Stephen seeks in this moment of heightened affect is something radically new, which breaks from the manners and mores of the national community and the pervasive feeling of ressentiment—and he declares this to be his central artistic aim.

Robert Gooding-Williams has identified a similar aim in Zarathustra and his desire to produce “novelty-engendering interruptions of received practices and traditions”: in other words, Nietzsche’s protagonist “is a modernist who, articulating his vision of the overman, aspires to create new non-Christian-Platonic values that will transform European humanity.”28 Joyce’s protagonist is equally a modernist who aspires to create new post-ressentiment (and postcolonial) values that will renovate the Irish future by, to paraphrase both Frantz Fanon and Edward Said, moving racial conscience beyond national consciousness. This aspiration, of course, also represents the possibility of [End Page 60] Stephen overcoming his own antipathy, his own ressentiment, toward the “slaves” or “herd,” as his effort at self-overcoming merges with the interests of his “race.” When the young man first begins to formulate this project, as he embarks on his long stroll with Cranly in chapter 5, he wonders of the Irish patrician class: “How could he hit their conscience or how cast his shadow over the imagination of their daughters . . . that they might breed a less ignoble race than their own” (Portrait, 280). Stephen’s declaration reiterates a hackneyed nationalist trope, the narrative of the individual merging with the story of the collective. But it does so with a Nietzchean difference, as the young man attempts to transform himself and his people—“a race,” as the philosopher would have it, of “men of resentment [ressentiment]” into a “noble race,” or at least, as Stephen muses, “a less ignoble race” (Genealogy, 38). This might be accomplished by “hitting” the conscience of his countrymen directly with the impact of his art or it might be a matter of, somehow, influencing the “breeding” a new generation of superior individuals, of Overmen—a project closely associated with Nietzsche’s philosophy at the turn of the century. The eugenicist suggestions complicate the nationalist implications that, as Vincent Cheng and Pericles Lewis have both demonstrated, began to play a role in the term “race” during this period; and they also throw into question the possibility of forging an as yet uncreated conscience for a collective understood to be already determined by a complex mixture of cultural, historical, and biological factors.29

The success of Stephen’s project depends ultimately on the problem of conscience; critics have often noted this, but without making reference to Nietzsche. In part 2 of A Genealogy of Morals, the philosopher sought to establish the origins of conscience in the emergence of the autonomous individuals who was granted responsibility over himself and his actions until that responsibility became internalized as an instinct. With this influential account, Nietzsche helped to transform the moral significance of conscience by the beginning of the twentieth century—and to identify bad conscience and its affective energies as something imbedded in the history of Christian civilization itself. Drawing on these associations, the conscience that Stephen seeks to invent would be one somehow freed from the stifling traditions and restrictive institutions that have cultivated bad conscience in the Irish. Portrait culminates on an affirmative note, with Stephen pronouncing his ambition to create new values, a new collective conscience, through an act of artistic will. Yet, like Thus Spake Zarathustra, Joyce’s youthful masterpiece leaves open the question of whether or not the creation of new values is indeed possible. Will Stephen Dedalus, the namesake of that “fabulous artificer,” forge a modern art for Ireland and help to deliver the nation from a history of bad conscience and ressentiment? Can he perform this radical break from his cultural or racial past in order to create as yet uncreated values? Or will he, despite his best efforts, stumble upon what Gooding-Williams identifies as “a possibility inherent in modernism: namely, that of failing . . . to make an innovative break with a received cultural practice or tradition” (Zarathustra’s, 4)? In this sense, the “uncreated conscience” is a consummate modernist trope, perpetually open to the future, to the innovative, to the new in anticipation of a mode of feeling and valuation that, ironically, may never come into existence, that may remain only a potentiality or, at best, an ongoing and [End Page 61] uncertain process of becoming. The distance between Joyce and Stephen, between the novelist and his creation, can be read not only as the gap between the mature artist and the young man, but as a skepticism that, dampening all prophetic ecstasy, puts the possibility of creating new values into question.

This skepticism and uncertainty, of course, carry over to the first chapter of Ulysses, the so-called “Telemachus” episode, where a number of Nietzschean philosophemes emerge and confirm the significance of Zarathustra’s project for Joyce’s fiction. A brief look at the episode will demonstrate this significance. As the novel opens on that June morning in 1904, Stephen—the “hawklike man” now “Lapwing. Icarus”—has returned to Ireland and taken up residence in the Martello Tower with his enthusiasm for forging the “uncreated conscience” of his race severely diminished (Ulysses, 173; Portrait, 299). Playing at the role of Jesuit father, Buck Mulligan scolds Stephen for his callous behavior toward his dying mother: “I’m hyperborean as much as you. But to think of your mother begging you with her last breath to kneel down and pray for her. And you refused.”30 Evoking Nietzsche’s own evocation of the Hyperboreans in the opening pages of The Antichrist, Mulligan takes on the paradoxical guise of the Nietzschean priest who identifies himself and his parishioner with those mythical peoples who live in distant northern climes, looking on the moral codes of Christian civilization with a cold eye (this, even as he wants to preserve the value of a son’s love for his mother). The real-life Mulligan, Gogarty, wrote a series of letters from the Martello Tower during this period demonstrating his easy familiarity with Nietzsche, whom he linked with both classical sources and a strident “satire against mediocrity.”31 Making his Nietzschean inspiration manifest, Mulligan concludes his heretical mass with a jocular transvaluation, as he travesties Proverbs 19:7 (“He who stealeth from the poor lendeth to the Lord”) to advocate for selfishness, licentiousness, and callousness, rather than Christian pity—and then pronounces “Thus Spake Zarathustra” (Ulysses, 19). In Mulligan’s mouth, Nietzsche’s refrain appears to have lost its authority, calling attention both to its diminishing power, with each repetition, in the pages of Thus Spake Zarathustra and to the problem of pronouncing new values in late colonial Ireland, as it challenges the authority of Biblical scripture to forever define the Irish conscience. Mulligan mocks not only those priests in Stephen Hero and Portrait who worked to cultivate ressentiment and bad conscience, but also the enthusiasm that Stephen expressed for the projects of self-overcoming and value creation. Stephen, as Mulligan’s parishioner, remains haunted by the past, returning to the habitual brooding that he displayed in A Portrait as a sufferer of bad conscience, now rendered as “agenbite of inwit”—usually translated as “remorse of conscience” (Ulysses, 14). He mournfully recalls not only the bedside scene with his dying mother, but also his conversation in the previous novel with Cranly, who had pointed out to the young man that his mind continues to be “supersaturated with the religion” he claims to disbelieve (Portrait, 283). Mulligan’s toast “to ourselves . . . new paganism . . . omphalos,” locates the Martello tower at the center of the cultural revolution that would lead a “priestridden Godforsaken race” into a new future defined, it seems, by the masculine virtues that Eglinton had linked with Nietzsche’s neo-paganism and an ancient ideal of humanity (Ulysses, 7; Portrait, 39). [End Page 62] But despite these evocations of Nietzsche’s philosophy, Stephen seems nonplussed by Mulligan’s heretical mass and can be seen mutely walking away up the path at its conclusion, thereby refusing initiation into his Zarathustrian cult.

So what has become of Stephen’s heroic modernist project and of its Nietzschean inspiration in the opening pages of Ulysses? What has become of Joyce’s interest in Nietzsche’s philosophy during the decade stretching from 1904, when he signed the lettercard to Roberts, to 1914, when he began drafting the early chapters of his great novel? Stephen’s return to Ireland, the return of his bad conscience, and Mulligan’s playing at Zarathustrian prophecy are all signs that the project of creating new values is necessarily a vexed one, especially in the context of Irish history. It is often remarked that a central concern of the “Telemachus” chapter is the state of Irish culture and the contest over its future between not just Stephen and Mulligan, but also the Englishman Haines. In this contest, Joyce appears to be exploring the same question of cultural flourishing that had preoccupied, Eglinton, Kettle, and so many other Irish writers during this period, as he examines the challenges faced by the creator of new values and the significance of Nietzsche’s thought for Irish culture. Rather than aspiring to the status of an Übermensch, capable of forging his own values, Stephen concedes to being the servant of two, or rather three, masters: the Imperial British state, the Holy Roman Empire, and the Irish nation itself. He remains, that is, enslaved. When Mulligan, disrobed and ready to plunge into the sea, announces that “I’m the Übermensch. Toothless Kinch and I, the supermen”—Stephen has already declined his invitation, his Nietzschean hailing, but the young man will continue to struggle to awaken from the “nightmare” of history (Ulysses, 19, 29). No doubt, as Zarathustra himself recognizes, the Overman cannot be invoked through discipleship, since he must learn to help himself, independent of God, Christian doctrine, and the will of others. Stephen, unlike the young Joyce who had proclaimed himself “James Overman” in 1904, denies identification with Nietzsche’s image of the self-overcoming individual, however corrupted that image might be rendered by Mulligan’s heretical mass. The denial may be seen, nonetheless, as a sign of Stephen’s enslavement insofar as he has failed to overcome himself, to overcome what his youth in Ireland has made of him, to finally, that is, “kill the priest and the king” that reside in his mind, as he suggests much later (481). “Telemachus” instead seems to suggest a historical fatalism: Stephen, like Mr. Duffy and many of Joyce’s other Dubliners, cannot forge a flourishing modern culture in Ireland, precisely because his effort to produce new values depends on historical conditions that make such a project all but impossible.

This Nietzschean hailing, and its call for Stephen’s allegiance, nonetheless offer an important point of departure for understanding the project of cultural transformation undertaken by Joyce’s art and the ethics of modernism negotiated within the pages of Ulysses. Stephen’s project takes place in relation to power or authority and engages the desire to create oneself as a subject, without relying on the recognition of that authority. This means that the possibility of forging a postcolonial conscience is, in the sense that Nietzsche’s thought suggests, the possibility of overcoming ressentiment and conquering slave morality. There is a doubling and dissembling potentiality in this to [End Page 63] the degree that Stephen, as an artist, seeks to be different from those who are different and entertains the impossible dream of being the same as the masters that have defined Irish history—an impossibility that haunts the process of his Bildung and his bold proclamation to make anew the conscience of the Irish. There is further dissembling in this insofar as Stephen’s rejection of a Nietzschean calling is, in an important sense, the necessary precursor to asserting an autonomous subjectivity like that suggested in Nietzsche’s figure of the Übermensch. These are contradictions that are not finally resolved in Ulysses. Joyce’s novel, nonetheless, allows him to personify this “modernist will to cultural change,” which represents the possibility—if not the necessity or even probability—of escaping the received cultural conditions that threaten the will to innovate and opening up the future as a void into which new forms, new content, new values might issue (Gooding-Williams, Zarathustra’s, 7). It allows him too, in the story of his younger alter ego, the pathos of distance necessary to diagnose the negative affects and historical contingencies that plague any such project. This distance is not indicative of aesthetic alienation, then, but of an ethically engaged modernism that depends on both formal experimentation and a skepticism about the solidity of all ethical and moral pronouncements. Nietzsche’s thought—his rhetoric, tropes, philosophemes—offers not just an “antidote to Puritanism and Pessimism,” but an impetus for thinking through the aesthetic, affective, and ethical issues arising for Joyce and his countrymen in the early years of the twentieth century. But rather than concentrating his attention on a solitary “James Overman,” the heroic creator of values who emerges in A Portrait, Joyce decenters this hyperbolic ego (and developmental historicism) at the focus of his Bildungsroman in favor of a more expansive ethical perspective. Though Stephen continues to struggle with the paralyzing ressentiment of Dublin, Joyce succeeds, however ironically or obliquely, in moving beyond the pale, in engaging in the Nietzschean project of creating new values through innovative aesthetic activity. This should not be understood as a moral or national art, then, but an ethical and political one, which despite its seeming aloofness is all the better positioned to create images, to voice perspectives, to evoke feelings that might transmute the collective conscience of the Irish people and the broader community of its readers.

Patrick Bixby

Patrick Bixby is Associate Professor of English at Arizona State University, author of Samuel Beckett and the Postcolonial Novel, and co-editor, with Gregory Castle, of Standish O’Grady’s Cuculain: A Critical Edition. He is currently finishing a book on Nietzsche and Irish modernism and co-editing, with Gregory Castle, The Cambridge History of Irish Modernism.


1. James Joyce to George Roberts, July 13, 1904, in The Letters of James Joyce, ed. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Viking, 1966), 1:56.

2. Quoted in Mary Colum and Padraic Colum, Our Friend James Joyce (Gloucester, MA: Peter Smith, 1968), 33.

3. Jacques Derrida, Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles, trans. Barbara Harlow (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 125–27.

4. Richard Ellmann, James Joyce, new and revised ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 142.

5. David S. Thatcher, Nietzsche in England, 1890–1914: The Growth of a Reputation (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1970), 135. See also Brett Foster, “Biography of James Joyce,” in James Joyce, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Chelsea House, 2003), 21; Christopher Butler, “Joyce, Modernism, and Post-Modernism,” in The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, ed. Derek Attridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 259–82; Jean-Michel Rabaté, Joyce and the Politics of Egoism [End Page 64] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 19–22; Klaus Reichert, “The European Background of Joyce’s Writing,” in The Cambridge Companion to James Joyce, 55–82, 69–70.

6. Joseph Valente, “Beyond Truth and Freedom: The New Faith of Joyce and Nietzsche,” James Joyce Quarterly 25, no. 1 (1987): 87–104, 87, 88.

7. Sam Slote, Joyce’s Nietzschean Ethics (New York: Palgrave, 2013), 2.

8. See, for instance, Jacques Derrida, Dissemination, trans. Barbara Johnson (New York: Continuum, 2004), 75; and Jacques Derrida, Margins of Philosophy, trans. Alan Bass (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 219, 244.

9. Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figurative Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979), 101.

10. Michael Bell, Open Secrets: Literature, Education, and Authority from J-J. Rousseau to J. M. Coetzee (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 155–56.

11. George Bernard Shaw, “Nietzsche in English,” Saturday Review, April 11, 1896, 374.

12. W. B. Yeats to Lady Augusta Gregory, December 26, 1902, in The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats, vol. 3, 1901–1904, ed. John Kelly and Ronald Schuchard (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994), 284.

13. Quoted in James Joyce, Stephen Hero (1944; rpt., New York: New Directions, 1963), 35.

14. Frederick Ryan, “Political and Intellectual Freedom,” Dana: An Irish Magazine of Independent Thought 1, no. 1 (1904): 27–31, 31; and John Eglinton and Frederick Ryan, “Introductory,” Dana: An Irish Magazine of Independent Thought 1, no. 1 (1904): 1–4, 1.

15. John Eglinton, “A Way of Understanding Nietzsche,” Dana: An Irish Magazine of Independent Thought 1, no. 6 (1904): 182–88, 184.

16. T. M. Kettle, “Catholicism and Modern Literature,” St. Stephen’s, January 1905, 131–33, 131.

17. T. M. Kettle, “Dr. William Barry’s Report on Modern Literature,” The New Ireland Review 22, no. 4 (1904): 248–51, 250.

18. Seamus Deane, “Joyce and Stephen: The Provincial Intellectual,” in Celtic Revivals: Essays in Modern Irish Literature, 1880–1980 (Winston-Salem, NC: Wake Forest University Press, 1985), 75–91, 75.

19. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. William A. Hausemann, ed. Alexander Tille, vol. 10, A Genealogy of Morals (London: Macmillan, 1897), 19–20.

20. Andrew Gibson, Joyce’s Revenge: History, Politics, and Aesthetics in “Ulysses” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 17. Enda Duffy, for instance, characterizes Joyce’s A Portrait as taking on “the general air of ressentiment which in the post-Parnell years had become second nature to most, and especially to ambitious young educated males in late-colonial Ireland, and reconstitute[ing] it . . . into the famous ‘Non serviam.’” This carries over into the opening chapters of Ulysses, where the Bildung-narrative indulges the “the bitter pleasures of personal ressentiment” within the still feted air of “the most hackneyed nationalism”—“a way of imagining community . . . expressed less the possibilities of the future nation than a shrill resentment of Britain” (Enda Duffy, The Subaltern Ulysses [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994], 13, 27, 31). Seamus Deane, on the other hand, has suggested that Joyce’s critique of Irish tendency toward both paralysis and fantasy “arose out of colonial conditions, involving derivativeness, economic backwardness, internalized submissiveness to established external authority, a ressentiment directed towards oneself and one’s own culture,” which reveal the impact of modernity on Ireland during the period (“Dead Ends: Joyce’s Finest Moments,” in Semicolonial Joyce, ed. Derek Attridge and Marjorie Howes [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000], 21–36, 33).

21. James Joyce, “Ireland: Island of Saints and Sages,” in Occasional, Critical, and Political Writing, ed. Kevin Barry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 108–26, 108, 120, 21.

22. Walter Kaufman, Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist, 4th ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1974), 101.

23. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. Alexander Tille, vol. 8, Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None (New York: Macmillan, 1896), 109.

24. Gregory Castle, Reading the Modernist Bildungsroman (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2015), 177. [End Page 65]

25. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, trans. and ed. Thomas Common, vol. 11, The Case of Wagner; Nietzsche Contra Wagner; The Twilight of the Idols; The Antichrist, (London: H. Henry, 1896), 182.

26. James Joyce, “A Painful Case,” in Dubliners, ed. Robert Scholes and A. Walton Litz (New York: Penguin, 1996), 107–17, 112.

27. James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (New York: Huebsch, 1922), 155.

28. Robert Gooding-Williams, Zarathustra’s Dionysian Modernism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 3, 5.

29. See Vincent J. Cheng, Joyce, Race, and Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 15–76; Pericles Lewis, Modernism, Nationalism, and the Novel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 1–51.

30. James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Hans Walter Gabler, Wolfhard Steppe, and Claus Melchor (New York: Vintage, 1986), 5.

31. Oliver St. John Gogarty, Many Lines to Thee: Letters to G. K. A. Bell from the Martello Tower at Sandycove, Rutland Square and Trinity College, Dublin, 1904–1907, ed. James Francis Carens (Dublin: Dolmen Press, 1971), 69. [End Page 66]