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Nietzsche and Modernism: Nihilism and meaningless suffering in D. H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, and Samuel Beckett

Nietzsche and Modernism: Nihilism and meaningless suffering in D. H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, and Samuel Beckett
Nietzsche and Modernism: Nihilism and meaningless suffering in D. H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, and Samuel Beckett
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.
University of Southampton
Smith, Stewart
04b3559a-51e4-468f-8974-835d35a2a934
Smith, Stewart
04b3559a-51e4-468f-8974-835d35a2a934
May, Will
f41afa4c-1ccc-4ac6-83b6-9f5d9aad0f67
Middleton, Peter
9f64f346-a05f-4e54-bbf4-600c87a2b237

Smith, Stewart (2016) Nietzsche and Modernism: Nihilism and meaningless suffering in D. H. Lawrence, Franz Kafka, and Samuel Beckett. University of Southampton, Doctoral Thesis, 220pp.

Record type: Thesis (Doctoral)

Abstract

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.

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Published date: January 2016

Identifiers

Local EPrints ID: 421663
URI: http://eprints.soton.ac.uk/id/eprint/421663
PURE UUID: 7095021e-aa6e-48ae-99ca-90e088cf3462

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Date deposited: 19 Jun 2018 16:30
Last modified: 23 Jul 2022 04:29

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Contributors

Author: Stewart Smith
Thesis advisor: Will May
Thesis advisor: Peter Middleton

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