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Title: Nietzsche and modernism : nihilism and meaningless suffering in D.H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, and Samuel Beckett
Author: Smith, Stewart
Awarding Body: University of Southampton
Current Institution: University of Southampton
Date of Award: 2016
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While Friedrich Nietzsche’s explosive impact on literary modernism is widely acknowledged, the existent critical literature overlooks modernist writers’ shared engagement with Nietzsche’s governing preoccupations, namely of nihilism and meaningless suffering. Departing from the tendency to consider Nietzsche’s relationship to modernism largely in terms of his revolutionary, iconoclastic appeal, I shall argue that works by D. H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, and Samuel Beckett dramatise and explore the problem of nihilism, and its inextricable tie to suffering, in terms that echo Nietzsche’s analysis of this psycho‐physiological phenomenon. I shall therefore invoke Nietzsche’s thought as a heuristic tool to examine Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Kafka’s The Trial, and Beckett’s Endgame. I shall begin by arguing that Nietzsche’s most consistent usage of the term nihilism denotes the failure to experience oneself as an agent. As the cognitive and the physiological intertwine in Nietzsche’s thought, I shall contend that Nietzsche identifies suffering to precipitate feelings of nihilism. While observing that Nietzsche defines his philosophical project in opposition to the Christian interpretation of suffering, I shall note that he nevertheless acknowledges the role of the ascetic ideal in averting suicidal nihilism: Christianity provides a means to appropriate senseless suffering and enables its adherents to conceive of themselves as willing agents. I shall proceed by examining Nietzsche’s discourse on excessive suffering given that he considers those traditional means to counter nihilism as redundant. Doing so, I shall attend to the discordant postures in Nietzsche’s thought which, I argue, gravitate around the problem of unbearable suffering. Turning to the aforementioned modernist texts, I shall demonstrate that the need to ascribe value to suffering weighs heavily in each of the fictional landscapes characterised by illness, exhaustion and powerlessness: Lawrence, Kafka, and Beckett dramatise the frailty of the modern subject denuded of the traditional means to justify or redeem one’s suffering. Relatedly, I shall invoke Nietzsche’s notion of the self‐preservative economy to analyse the recurrence of defensive, self‐protective subjectivities in these respective texts, observing the characters' reactionary recoil from the other. Furthermore, registering that the characters’ experience of suspended agency provokes a compensatory negation of the other, Nietzsche’s thought on cruelty and ressentiment, or the vindictive spirit of the impotent, shall feature prominently in my study of literary modernism.
Supervisor: May, William ; Middleton, Peter Sponsor: Not available
Qualification Name: Thesis (Ph.D.) Qualification Level: Doctoral
EThOS ID:  DOI: Not available