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