Ubermensch

In Brief

At the end of Telemachus Mulligan playfully compares himself to the unfallen man of Christian myth, and then to the fully evolved man of Nietzschean philosophy: "My twelfth rib is gone, he cried. I'm the Uebermensch." The sudden disappearance of a rib makes him Adam, and in the figure of the Übermensch he aspires to Friedrich Nietzsche's prophetic ideal of a man who succeeds in overcoming the soul-killing heritage of Christian ethics and metaphysics. Several sentences later, Mulligan perverts the language of Proverbs 19:17 (“He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord”) to trumpet Nietzsche's rejection of Christian ethics: "He who stealeth from the poor lendeth to the Lord. Thus spake Zarathustra."

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Nietzsche developed his concept of the superman or overman in two works of the 1880s, The Gay Science and Thus Spake Zarathustra. Mr. James Duffy, the protagonist of “A Painful Case,” one of the short stories of Dubliners, owns copies of both works. In a 1904 card addressed to publisher George Roberts, a young Joyce, who likewise had been reading some of Nietzsche's works, signed his name "James Overman."

Ellmann speculates 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'" (142). In Ulysses it is not only Mulligan who displays this kind of reaction to the Übermensch. Stephen too, in Oxen of the Sun, parodies biblical language in a Nietzschean spirit to justify sexual licentiousness: "Greater love than this, he said, no man hath that a man lay down his wife for his friend. Go thou and do likewise. Thus, or words to that effect, saith Zarathustra, sometime regius professor of French letters to the university of Oxtail nor breathed there ever that man to whom mankind was more beholden." "French letters" are condoms.

In the same chapter, Stephen also recalls Mulligan's parody of Proverbs, this time to attack the financial greed of the Catholic church. In response to Bloom's tongue-in-cheek ruling that, when forced to choose between saving the life of a pregnant woman or her child, the child should live because then the church will receive both "birth and death pence," Stephen "was a marvellous glad man and he averred that he who stealeth from the poor lendeth to the Lord for he was of a wild manner when he was drunken."

Ellmann observes that "At heart Joyce can scarcely have been a Nietzschean" (142). Joyce did indeed prove not to be one in the limited and distorted sense of justifying selfish impulses and slaying sacred cows, but there is more to Nietzsche and to Joyce's engagement with his ideas. Ulysses seems very Nietzschean in its rejection of transcendental metaphysics that devalue life and shackle human beings in sin and guilt. Criticism is beginning to come to terms with the ways in which the novel follows Nietzsche in seeking an answer to nihilism by affirming embodied existence and overcoming mere "humanity." In addition to Sam Slote's Joyce's Nietzschean Ethics (Palgrave, 2013), there is an excellent unpublished undergraduate thesis by Nathan Miller, "Reading Nietzsche in James Joyce's Ulysses" (2011).

JH 2016
Friedrich Nietzsche in Basel, ca. 1875. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
The parabolic figures of Thus Spake Zarathustra (camel, lion, child), by an unknown artist. Source: kubrickfilms.tripod.com.