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John Banville’s “Overman”: Intertextual dialogues with Friedrich Nietzsche in Shroud

Mehdi Ghassemi
p. 159-181

Résumés

Cet article propose de lire Shroud (2003) de John Banville comme exemple qui illustre le mieux le dialogue de l'écrivain avec la philosophie de Friedrich Nietzsche. Cette étude tente de retracer les manières dont le narrateur incorpore et ensuite réinvente la notion Nietzschéenne de l’homme (Übermensch) à travers de ses métaphores élaborées. Ce projet soutient également que c'est bien Nietzsche qui fournit finalement au narrateur banvillean l'outil nécessaire pour encadrer une conception du “moi” qui serait immune à la crise linguistique proposée par la déconstruction.

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Introduction

  • 1 Laura Patrícia Zuntini Izarra, Mirrors and Holographic Labyrinths: the Process of a "New" A (...)
  • 2 Joseph McMinn, The Supreme Fictions of John Banville, Manchester, Manchester University Pr (...)
  • 3 John Kenny, John Banville, Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2009, p. 15.

1A defining aspect of John Banville’s fiction is his narrators’ preoccupation with the nature of their subjective experience as well as the (in)authenticity of their perceptions and representations. Often staged as first-person autobiographers, these narrators strive to find a way to explore and simultaneously enhance knowing and being. These concerns turn their narratives into extended interrogations of the relation between reality and imagination, on the one hand, and explorations of the (im)possibility of authentic subjective experience. Among the more recent publications, notably, Eoghan Smith’s John Banville: Art and Authenticity (2013) and Elke D’hoker’s Visions of Alterity (2004), deal with these issues extensively. At the same time, the Banvillian narrator is fully aware that there is no way out of language, that he is forever imprisoned by it, that language, as a system in its own right, imposes its rules, out of which there is no meaning. In the absence of direct access to “reality” these narrators embark on a journey of subjectivity in search of reality and stable self through writing and reminiscence. This, too, of course has been recognized by the majority of Banville scholars. Laura Izzara, for instance, rightly considers Banville a “critical writer” whose fiction “lies on the border between two genres, the novel and critical theory”1. Moreover, far from indulging a “postmodern” sense of liberation following the deconstruction of truth and stable self, Banville's protagonists seem to demonstrate a feeling of disappointment, if not disillusionment. To put it in Joseph McMinn’s words, although “Banville can deconstruct with the best of them,” “the exposure of constructed myths about identity and nature” is never “a simple cause for celebration” 2. Rather, as John Kenny has it, it is a “modernist nostalgia misplaced in a postmodernist chaotic world”3.

  • 4 John Banville, Birchwood, London, Picador, 1998, p. 13.

2Banville’s fiction, in this sense, is in constant search for an aesthetic expression that can adequately match his narrators’ epistemological crisis. It is an evolving philosophical fiction that, ever since Gabriel Godkin’s struggle with finding “the thing in itself”4 in Birchwood, has gone through various phases of concern. Although these questions have stayed constant throughout Banville’s oeuvre in one way or another, his fiction has very broadly moved from language and science in the seventies and metaphysics, art and ethics in the eighties to poststructuralist literary theory in his later period. Over the years, these shifts have resulted in an extraordinary number of perspectives and the quantity of the scholarly work devoted to Banville’s fiction alone is a testimony to how fertile these perspectives have been.

3The aim of the present study is to examine Shroud as a key text from Banville’s later period in which the writer offers his most vivid engagement with deconstruction, on the one hand, and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, on the other. As the second book of a trilogy (together with Eclipse and Ancient Light) Shroud features Axel Vander, an aging literary theorist residing in the United States, grappling with his wife’s death as well as his difficult past. After receiving a letter from Cass Cleave who threatens to expose his “true” identity as an imposter, Vander leaves for Europe to meet his exposer during a conference in Italy. His life, work, and controversial past are informed by that of Paul de Man’s—one of the founders of deconstruction. Yet, Banville’s mise en scene of de Man’s life in Shroud is at best very loose. Unlike de Man, Vander’s past is not revealed posthumously, but during his lifetime. Moreover, Vander and de Man do not entirely share the same secret. While de Man’s reputation has been tarnished by his anti- Semitic articles written at a young age under Nazi occupation, Axel’s ultimate secret is that he had purloined the identity of the person who wrote the problematic articles. Most significantly, perhaps, Vander openly confesses his secret in his narrative—something de Man never did (at least directly) in his lifetime.

  • 5 In a recent interview Banville confirms: “Nietzsche is my philosopher—is my poet. I can fi (...)

4Alongside de Man, Friedrich Nietzsche is the other strong presence in Shroud. Turin, where much of Shroud takes place is also the city where Nietzsche lived and finally went mad. What is more, Vander and Cass Cleave visit the philosopher’s house during their stay in the city. Indeed, Nietzsche’s philosophy has long appealed to Banville’s narrators, at least since Freddie Montgomery’s Nietzschean extra-moral stance in The Book of Evidence.5 Yet, this paper argues, it is in Shroud that Banville articulates his most sophisticated version of Nietzsche’s Overman. Through elaborate metaphors Banville creates an intertextual dialogue with Nietzsche’s conception of the self, one that ultimately provides his narrator with the necessary tool to capture (or frame) a sense of selfhood that lies outside the linguistic predicament posited by de Man. It starts by examining the way in which the discourse of autobiography fails to produce a coherent sense of self in Vander’s narrative and, instead deprives him of a sense of “presence” and reduces him to a spectre. Moreover, in this section, Jacques Lacan’s conception of Symbolic existence is mobilized to aid us in understanding Vander’s problematic identity. As such, the first part sets the scene for Vander’s two-fold recourse to Nietzsche in order to salvage a sense of self. The second part of the paper thus traces the ways in which Vander, following Nietzsche, incorporates the body as part and parcel of his project to capture the ever-elusive self. Finally, the third section demonstrates how Banville reinvents Nietzsche’s conception of the Overman as a being located at an “edge” via complex and creative tropes. Here, Lacan’s crucial distinction between reality and the Real will also prove fruitful as it enables us to elaborate on the significance of Banville’s Nietzschean move in its complexity, ambition and scope.

Inauthenticity, lack of presence

  • 6 John Banville, Shroud, London, Picador, 2002, p. 5.
  • 7 Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, trad, R. J. Hollingdale, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1992, p. (...)
  • 8 Jacques Derrida, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, Peggy Kamuf (...)
  • 9 Robert Smith, Derrida and Autobiography, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 76
  • 10 Ibid.
  • 11 Ibid.
  • 12 Ibid., p. 78.
  • 13 Jacques Derrida, op. cit., p. 108.
  • 14 Robert Smith, op. cit., p. 78.
  • 15 Jacques Derrida, op. cit., p. 50-1.

5Axel explains the aim of his narrative in the opening pages of his narrative: “I am going to explain myself, to myself”6, echoing Nietzsche’s announcement “And so I tell my life to myself” in the semi-autobiographical Ecce Homo7. Jacques Derrida reads the latter in his Otobiographies according to which the autobiographer first and foremost “tells himself this life and he is the narration’s first, if not its only, addressee and destination—within the text”8. As Robert Smith comments, autobiography is related to “auto-affection” as a process of solipsistic self-containment achieved in “hearing oneself speak”9. The latter entails a process via which the subject creates a close circuit between the mouth and the ear, resulting in a “solipsistic umbilicus of completion”10. The most “categorical” by-product of hearing oneself speak, says Smith, is the sense of self-presence11. Nevertheless, for the process of hearing oneself speak to be effective in producing presence one must inevitably produce speech from the mouth to ear. In other words, utterances must be verbalized, expressed as well as ex-pressed (pushed outside), so they can be heard. The message has to be first “detached at large” for it to be received by the ear. In this sense, the process cannot be an entirely closed circuit, but instead, always partly open and exposed12. It is exposed to what Derrida calls the “aleatory or chance elements at work in every kind of message”13. That is to say, for subjectivity to exist, a discourse of exchange must be established through verbalization, one that is never fully self-contained but irrevocably mediated. The self-unity solipsistic umbilicus solipsistic umbilicus of the speaking/writing “I” is marred precisely because by uttering, I exposes itself to the other, the you, the generic interlocutor. Consequently, the self can no longer be the sole proprietor of the message. Rather, by addressing oneself, the I also addresses “an antecedent you”, a “not yet anthropomorphized you”, an irreducible otherness whose existence provides the very condition of possibility of the I’s verbal auto-correspondence14. According to Derrida, in autobiography the “text is signed only much later by the other”, “it is the ear of the other that signs”15. This is why autobiography is in fact “Otobiographie, a text destined to be received and endorsed by the other’s ear (Oto-). The latter provides the ground on which the autobiographical signature takes hold, the agent for whom the process of signing is performed.

  • 16 John Banville, op. cit., p. 38.
  • 17 Ibid., p. 167.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 110.
  • 19 Ibid., p. 211-12.
  • 20 Jacques Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, Bruce Fink, (trans.), New Yor (...)
  • 21 Lacan defines the Real as “that which subsists outside of symbolization” (Ibid., p. 324). (...)

6In Shroud, the narrator hears himself breathe rather than speak: “I heard myself breathing in the mouthpiece”16; “I could hear myself breathe”17. It is not so much his speech Axel hears, not a textual message, not even a voice, but a shadowy sound of air. The process of hearing-oneself-speak in Axel’s narrative does very little in creating a subjective loop, a closed circuit between mouth and ear as a result of which he can achieve self-presence. In fact, presence is precisely what he lacks. Like the air he breathes, he is transparent: Cass is depicted as “looking through me as though I were not there”18 and his “presence did nothing to tone down the rabid talk”19. In parallel, after admitting to having stolen the name “Axel Vander”, the narrator never discloses his real name throughout the novel. From a psychoanalytic viewpoint, the proper name functions as a signifier that guarantees the subject a unique space in the Symbolic order, that is, according to Lacan, “the locus of the signifier” 20, the register that guaranties the possibility of any meaningful signification. The proper name thus serves as a singular point, which defines one’s singularity as a speaking (existing) subject. Nevertheless, adopting a Symbolic identity entails giving up something irreducible to the Symbolic because the latter is not a complete system. In fact, one can never be reduced to his/her Symbolic “existence”. Therefore, adopting a Symbolic identity always involves a splitting that divides the subject into his/her Symbolic existence, on the one hand, and the Real, the aspect of his/her being that lies beyond Symbolization21. The subject is thus required to make a sacrifice with regards to his/her (Real) “substance”. S/he has to give away “something” so that s/he can have a place in/through the Symbolic. This is why his/her (Symbolic) existence will always be marked by a lack, a negativity.

  • 22 John Banville, Eclipse, London, Picador, 2000, p. 211.

7Therefore, one can postulate, by not giving his “true” name, Shroud’s narrator aims at resisting the name’s Symbolic splitting. Insofar as he is unnamed, the narrator aims at positing himself as the hors texte (to use Derrida’s famous phrase), as that which is outside the process of symbolization. By remaining an unnamed entity that lacks positive existence—so long as existence is only possible via the Symbolic—the narrator seeks unmediated being, but the price he has to pay is that he becomes a spectre. This is illustrated very well by Axel’s counterpart, Alexander Cleave in Eclipse where Cleave notices Axel’s paradoxically absent presence: “at the core of it all there is an absence, an empty space where once there was something, or someone, who has removed himself” 22. In what follows, I attempt to examine the strategies Axel Vander implements to resolve the predicament of his lack of presence through a creative recourse to Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy.

The Nietzschean option

  • 23 John Banville, Shroud, op. cit., p. 8.

I have begun to feel that I am falling off myself, that my suety old flesh is melting off my skeleton and soon will all be gone. I shall not mind; I shall be glad; I shall rise up then, bared of inessentials, all gleaming bone and sinew smooth as candle wax, new, unknown, my real self at last23.

  • 24 René Descartes, Méditations Métaphysiques, Marc Soriano (eds.), Paris, Larousse, 1950, p. 3 (...)

8This key passage illustrates how Axel’s quest for a stable core of selfhood independent from his incompatible body leads to a dualism of body and mind reminiscent of Descartes’s cogito. In contrast to the depiction of the body as a troublesome extension, the “I” is emphatically reiterated several times, rendering the dualism all the more explicit. For Descartes, while the nature of corporeal substance is constituted by material extension, the mind is made of non-physical substance. However, while Descartes famously uses the example of wax24 to demonstrate the necessity for an independent mind to ascertain its “nature”, Axel takes wax as an analogy for both his body as well as his self. On the one hand, his disintegrating body, his flesh, is “melting” like candle wax. By melting the wax of corporeality, then, Axel hopes to rid himself of the inessentiality that it represents in an attempt to attain the true essence of his self beyond (or beneath the cover of) the body. On the other hand, he considers the formlessness of melted wax as a metaphor for the self he is hoping to find, the original “smooth” self that has not been yet hardened into a shape. In this sense, although Axel distances himself from deconstruction by assuming the existence of the essential self, he does not fully subscribe to a fully-fledged Cartesian dualism in order to ascertain its nature. Instead, by using the same metaphor for both (the self and the body) he arguably seeks to redefine the relationship between the two, to find a relationship that is not based on a binary opposition (mind/body) but, rather, based on the inter-relatability of the two. This adds a new dimension to Axel’s perception of his body as it is no longer viewed as merely dysfunctional and incompatible, but, instead, it reveals a potential for the disclosure of the self.

  • 25 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, Thomas Wayne (trans.) (...)
  • 26 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, R (...)
  • 27 Peter. R Sedgwick, Nietzsche: The Key Concepts, London, Routledge, 2009, p. 140.
  • 28 John Banville, op. cit., p. 286.
  • 29 Ibid., p. 27.
  • 30 Eoghan Smith, op. cit., p. 128.
  • 31 John Banville, Shroud, op. cit., p. 8.
  • 32 Ibid., p. 185.

9This is arguably a Nietzschean move on Axel’s part. In Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche’s prophet defines the self as “a mighty commander, an unknown wise man”, an entity stemming from the body and not an abstract consciousness above it: “’I,’ you say, and are proud of this word. But the greater thing […] is your body and its big reason: it does not say ‘I,’ it does ‘I’”25. The self for Nietzsche has the capacity to transcend the ego precisely because it does not discard the body, but embraces it. The form of selfhood Nietzsche vouches for is not a metaphysical “I” or a transcendental subject. In other words, it is not a True self that can be excavated from underneath false appearances. In fact, the “I” and the self for Nietzsche do not constitute the same thing. The former is an illusion, which comes to be created as an effect of the processes of perception and interpretation (which are not mutually exclusive for Nietzsche). The “I,” says Nietzsche, “only contains an interpretation of the event and does not belong to the event itself”26. The self, in contrast, is constituted as a result of one’s acknowledgement and exploration of a potential creativity. It is, for Nietzsche, not the equivalent of the mind but rather a conglomeration of one’s physiological perceptions that are constantly subject to change not to say transformation. It is not solely based on a set of mental activity that produces consciousness, nor is it an essential, unique core of selfhood, but “is, rather, a multiplicity”, “an assemblage of heterogeneous elements for which the word ‘body’ must stand as a rather attenuated and insufficient summary”27. Axel, on the one hand, “believe[s],” “insist[s]” that “there is no essential, singular self”28. On the other hand, he is unable to “rid [himself] of the conviction of an enduring core of selfhood”29. In this sense, Nietzsche’s idea (that relying on one’s ability of creativity, the self can be formed, made, by incorporating the bodily dimension) provides Axel with a way out of the deadlock. Smith remarks that “[b]ehind the pose, Vander truly yearns for the restoration of the essential value,” and his narrative is the “fetishization of the ‘Idea’ that is asserted in Shroud, as the assertion of the ideal over the corporal”30. Yet, in parallel to his idealization of the self over the body, I argue, in likening his “real self” as well as his “bone and sinew” to the smoothness (i.e. malleability) of “candle wax”31 Axel effectuates a transition from the quest for the ideal self to an exploration of selfhood accessible only through corporeality: Cass observes how Axel smells of “candle wax”32, evoking the idea that his body is literally transformed into it.

  • 33 Ibid., p. 27.
  • 34 Ibid., p. 292.

10Axel uses a similar set of adjectives to describe the “enduring” resilience of his self33, on the one hand, and the resilience of the eye as a bodily organ: “the eyeball is one of the toughest, most resilient muscles in the human body”34. In this light one can discern the interrelation of the body and the self in a rereading of the actor’s mask in Attic drama:

  • 35 Ibid., p. 286-7.

The white clay from which [the mask] was fashioned has turned to the shade and texture of bone […] He takes to wearing the mask at home, when no one is there. It is a comfort, it sustains him; he finds it wonderfully restful, it is like being asleep and yet conscious. Then one day he comes to the table wearing it. His wife makes no remark, his children stare for a moment, then shrug and go back to their accustomed bickering. He has achieved his apotheosis. Man and mask are one35.

11The white colour of clay merges with the similar colour of bone and the mask acquires the contours, the shape of the face, becoming indistinguishable from it. Traditionally, the function of a mask is to conceal a discrepancy, a difference that, albeit temporarily hidden, remains. Yet, what is evoked in the imagery above is a sense in which the mask and the face (the body) merge. That is to say, insofar as one takes the mask as Axel’s metaphor for his identity, this means he is aiming at bridging the gap between the Symbolic (identity) and the Real (of the body), hoping to resolve the incongruence between the two. In fact, this passage in part stages the way Nietzsche relates mask and truth:

  • 36 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, op. cit., p. 34-5.

there is not only deceit behind a mask – there is so much goodness in craft […] A man who has depths in his shame meets his destiny and his delicate decisions upon paths which few ever reach, and with regard to the existence of which his nearest and most intimate friends may be ignorant […] [He] insists that a mask of himself shall occupy his place in the hearts and heads of his friends […] Every profound spirit needs a mask36.

  • 37 Ibid., p. 35.
  • 38 John Banville, Shroud, op. cit., p. 60.
  • 39 Ibid., p. 61.

12Nietzsche’s seemingly paradoxical claim—that the mask does not so much hide a truthful self as offers the possibility of creating a profoundness of self through simulation—is part of his overall toppling of the traditional privileging of truthful reality over apparent superficiality. In Nietzsche’s terms, there is no truth to be discovered by unveiling the shroud, or the mask, but rather, all one can peer through it is another mask, another shroud. Truth is but the effect of the masking act, posited as a result of it. Profundity of selfhood, then, is not to be sought in removing the mask but, on the contrary, in elaborating it: “around every profound spirit there continually grows a mask, owing to the constantly false, that is to say, SUPERFICIAL [sic] interpretation of every word he utters, every step he takes, every sign of life he manifests”37. Axel admittedly engages in the Nietzschean celebration of the façade: “I had made myself adept at appearing deeply learned”38. In his writing as a literary critic he always demonstrates an elaborate “prose style” rather than “grasp of theory” and “scholarship”39. What is more, after admitting to having stolen the name “Axel Vander,” the narrator never discloses his real name throughout the novel. His reluctance in disclosing his real name is to be read as his attempt to make his mask, that is, his artistic poses and articulate style, his signature.

  • 40 John Kenny, op. cit., p. 174.
  • 41 John Banville, Shroud, op. cit., p. 47.
  • 42 Ibid., p. 48.
  • 43 Ibid., p. 287.
  • 44 Ibid., p. 156.
  • 45 Ibid., p. 287.
  • 46 Ibid., p. 329.

13According to John Kenny, by evoking the Shroud on multiple occasions Axel seeks to “identif[y] himself directly with Christ and Nietzsche” “through the Shroud”40. I claim it is not so much Christ that Axel wants to identify with as it is with the Shroud (of Turin) itself. This is emphasized when a mysterious “red-haired fellow”41 repeatedly says to him something that “sounded like signore42. He later refigures, again calling him “signore”43. At the same time, reminded by Kristina that the Shroud’s other name is sindone, Axel’s memory readjusts and he realizes that what the red-haired man had actually said was “sindone, not signore44. Axel refers to the man as “the punster”45, emphasizing the way in which signore (mister) becomes a pun for sindone (the shroud). The equation of the two in Axel’s perception evokes a sense in which he is one and the same as the shroud (mask). In other words, like the Attic thespian, he too achieves his “apotheosis”, the culmination of his aesthetic self-recreation. Elsewhere, Axel admits: “There is not a sincere bone in the entire body of my text”46. The metaphor of the text as a body underlines two points. Firstly, it illustrates the textuality of the body, that is, just as the text can be likened to a body, the body itself is constructed textually (linguistically, metaphorically). Secondly, the text as a body (and the body as a text) highlights Axel’s own role as the writer of the body-text. That is to say, insofar as he is the writer of his self-representation, his function is irreducible in the type of body-text that is represented in his account. He is its creator.

  • 47 Ibid., p. 224-5.
  • 48 Ibid., p. 36.
  • 49 Ibid., p. 52.
  • 50 Ibid., p. 73.
  • 51 Ibid., p. 205.
  • 52 Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist. R. J. Hollingdale, Harmondswort (...)
  • 53 Ibid., “‘Reason’,” says Nietzsche, “is the cause of our falsification of the testimony of (...)

14Under the Nietzschean imperative, Axel heeds his bodily calls: “Headaches, stomach cramps, a constant churning in the gut, these were the body's protests at the insupportable strain of living always in fear”47. The word “protests” indicates Axel’s view of his body as an entity to be reckoned with, as a force that exerts a power on him that he cannot neglect. What is more, Axel’s immediate relationship with the world is regulated by sensory feelings rather than intellectual reasoning. He speaks of experiencing “the sense of being sealed off from the world”48, he has “the sense of [Cass] spinning on her toes”49, and feels “a sense of splendour and communion”50. He further emphasizes the physical, sensory nature of his experience when he links the word “sense” to smell: “I have a sense of something torpid, brownish, exhausted; the smell is the smell of re-breathed air”51. Axel’s emphasis on the senses (as the faculty by which the body perceives an external stimulus and not the faculty of meaning and understanding) resonates with Nietzsche’s attack of the ascetic ideal. The latter, says Nietzsche, is opposed to the world of becoming governed by bodily senses that should be favoured over “reason” since the senses “do not lie at all52.” That which lies is what one “make[s] of their testimony”, a “falsification” that could lead “the lie of unity, the lie of thinghood, of substance, of permanence”53.

  • 54 Pier Pauo Piucucco,  “Thus Spoke Axel Vander. Pictures of Turin in John Banville's Shroud”, (...)
  • 55 John Kenny, op. cit., p. 163.
  • 56 Pier Pauo Piucucco, op. cit., p. 66.

15The Nietzschean overtones of Axel’s enunciations are in congruence with the philosopher’s presence throughout the novel. Pier Paulo Piciucco gives a detailed account of the relationship between Axel’s narrative and the city of Turin where “the figure of Frederick Nietzsche” presents a “powerful picture that contributes to both the making of Axel Vander and to his strong connection with the city of Turin” and sees Shroud as “a fertile soil where allusions, references and connections with the German philosopher mushroom”54. Kenny, in his turn, proposes that the fact Axel is “one-eyed” “may be a partial reference to ‘the Cyclops of culture,’ the frightful energies that Friedrich Nietzsche, the ghost that haunts the novel, argued were the innovators for humanity [sic]”55. Piciucco convincingly links Kenny’s observation to the way Axel represents his uncommonly large “size and stature” that at times transforms him into “a gigantic creature of mythical dimensions”56. Axel’s unusually large mass, Piciucco notes, is reminiscent of, or a variation on, Nietzsche’s famous Übermensch. Yet, despite his sound analyses, Piciucco’s emphasis on other aspects of the relationship between Shroud and Turin limits his analysis of the significance of Nietzsche’s Overman in Banville’s novel.

Overman as going over

  • 57 John Banville, Shroud, op. cit., p. 288.
  • 58 Ressentiment is Nietzsche’s term for the nihilistic, rancorous attitude manifested by the (...)
  • 59 Lee Spinks, Friedrich Nietzsche, London, Routledge, 2003. p. 120.
  • 60 Ibid.

16Axel meets a “doctor” in Turin whose name “sounded like Zoroaster”57, a reference to Nietzsche’s text, Thus Spake Zarathustra, in which the philosopher introduces and discusses in detail the idea of the Overman as the culmination of his life-affirmative philosophy, a being free from reactive beliefs and ressentiment58. As Lee Spinks remarks, Übermensch, on the one hand, signifies Overman “in the sense of height and self-transformation,” that is, “the elevation of mankind’s highest self into an experience of being that has no trace of moralism or the fiction of free will59.” On the other hand, Over- “can also suggest ‘across’ or ‘beyond’ and Nietzsche employs this second resonance to characterize ‘man’ as a bridge we must pass across toward a life free of ressentiment and negativity”60. This is why the Overman’s key feature, according to Nietzsche, lies in crossing, “going over”:

  • 61 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, op. cit., p. 9.

Man is a rope suspended between animal and Superman—a rope over an abyss. A dangerous going-over, a dangerous on-the-way, a dangerous looking-back, a dangerous shuddering and standing still. What is great about man is that he is a bridge, not an end: what can be loved about man is that he is a going-over and a going-under61.

17Nietzsche’s idea of the self’s crossing over is evident in Axel’s narrative on multiple occasions. At the beginning of his narrative, on the day he receives Cass’s premonitory letter, he

  • 62 John Banville, Shroud, op. cit., p. 12-13.

had the certain sense of having crossed, of having been forced to cross, an invisible frontier, and of being in a state that forever more would be post-something, would be forever an afterwards. The letter, of course, was the crossing point62.

  • 63 Ibid., p. 13.
  • 64 Ibid., p. 201.
  • 65 Ibid.

18Though the words “afterwards” and “post-something” conjure up the Nietzschean transformation in which man moves forward, advances to the Overman, the fact that it is the content of Cass’s letter threatening to reveal his rogue past that causes the crossing over, the movement is rather backwards. That is to say, he crosses over to the realm of the spectral past in which his old demons come back to haunt him. As a result of this passage, he is “cloven” between what “I had been before the letter arrived” and “this new I, a singular capital standing at a tilt to all the known things that had suddenly become unfamiliar”63. The transformation results, not only in his uncanny bifurcation, but in the tilting, sloping, hence, a destabilized sense of self emphasized by the italicization (i.e. the literal tilt) of the second “I.” Elsewhere, “[t]he corner of the square with the plane trees”, Axel’s says, “was the crossing point from my world into” the world of the real Vander64. What is emphasized in the description is not so much the process of the self’s crossing over, nor is it the other side, as it is the very site where the crossing takes place: “When I think of that spot the weather in it is always grey, the luminous, quicksilver grey of an early northern spring, the colour for me of the past itself [emphasis added]”65.

  • 66 Ibid., p. 42.
  • 67 Ibid., p. 43.
  • 68 Ibid., p. 52.
  • 69 Ibid., p. 55.
  • 70 Ibid., p. 93.
  • 71 Ibid., p. 144.
  • 72 Ibid., p. 211.
  • 73 Ibid., p. 18.

19In the description above, the passage from the narrator’s identity to that of Vander takes place “on the corner.” The word “corner” intriguingly figures repetitively throughout the narrative. To cite a few examples, Axel sees someone “sitting hunched at the corner of a table”66; he goes to a “flower seller” located “at the sunlit corner”67; he “had to stop at a street corner to consult the crumpled map” while he “registered the girl, on the corner opposite, looking in my direction”68; and in his youth, he used to live a “corner basement room”69. Even Cass is depicted as “hiding in the corner of a couch”70 and “sitting at a table in a cramped corner by the window”71. Insofar as a corner is seen as an angle where two sides or edges meet, it connotes a spatial border, a crossing point from one space into another. Therefore, by systematically representing himself—as well as his perceptual field—taking place at a corner, Axel shows how he is liminally stuck between two spaces, at the very edge of two worlds without quite pertaining to either. “For the most part,” Axel says, “I was kept firmly off at the outer edge of things”72. The passive voice Axel uses in his enunciation evokes the sense of him being forced into the marginal position, as if a force was keeping him “firmly” at bay, away from accessing “things.” The sense of being forced is further emphasized when Axel uses the word edge as a verb again in the passive voice when he remembers his late wife Magda: “I felt I was being edged around by a large, wary ruminant”73. Indeed, the very word corner can evoke such a sense as in to be cornered, that is, to be pushed into a position by force. In a sense, one can argue, Axel’s metaphors of liminality primarily highlight his lack of direct access to the “real” thing, indicating that his access to truth is barred by a force beyond him. Being cornered to the edge, so to speak, illustrates his perceptual (and representational) predicament. In this sense, Axel transforms Nietzsche’s metaphors for man as “rope” and “bridge” into man in corners and edges. Banville arguably provides a variation on the philosopher’s idea of Overman, presenting an in-between-man. As to what this move on Banville’s part represents in terms of his overall aesthetics, a brief detour through Alenka Zupančič’s reading of Nietzsche is illuminating.

  • 74 Alenka Zupančič, The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two, Cambridge, The MIT (...)
  • 75 Ibid., p. 12.
  • 76 Zupančič emphasizes, it is “a duality that has nothing to do with the dichotomies between (...)
  • 77 Ibid.
  • 78 Ibid., p. 28.
  • 79 Ibid., p. 17.

20In The Shortest Shadow, Zupančič identifies two fundamental, philosophical positions with regards to the Real. On the one hand, there is “the classical or metaphysical position,” according to which, the Real is posited as “the material basis or a touchstone” for speech74. On the other hand, there is “the so-called ‘sophistic’ position” that aims at dismissing “the very notion of the Real,” advocating the idea that “‘speech is all,’ that the Real does not exist, that it all comes down to a question of conventions, different language games, different perspectives and interpretations”75. Nietzsche’s writing, says Zupančič, offers a third stance that surpasses the aforementioned “couple”; it is based on “a specific duality”76, one that is “perhaps best articulated in the topology of the edge as the thing whose sole substantiality consists in its simultaneously separating and linking two surfaces”77. Zupančič claims that Nietzsche’s specific articulation of duality as edge distinguishes his thinking from both the “realist” and “nominalist” positions in that it proposes a fresh position regarding the relationship between representation and reality since it brings to the equation the role of the Lacanian Real. Insofar as the Real is not reducible to reality, and insofar as reality itself is constituted through a fantasmatic scenario, that is, as a specific configuration of the Real-Symbolic-Imaginary, the traditional binary opposition between reality and illusion no longer presents a sufficient framework to distinguish truth from untruth. At the same time, insofar as the Real does exist, or, rather, subsists (though as an impossibility, as a limit), total dismissal of anything beyond textuality (and linguistic construction) misses the role of the Real. Nietzsche’s conception of duality as edge, according to Zupančič, “suggests that the Real exists as the internal fracture or split of representation, as its intrinsic edge on account of which representation never fully coincides, not simply with its object, but with itself”78. Ultimately, “what is designated as ‘beyond good and evil’” is located at this edge. It is “a beyond that is not really a realm, and is thus not a ‘beyond’ in the common sense of this term, but rather, has the structure of an edge”79.

21If one agrees with Zupančič’s reading, one can postulate that Banville’s Nietzschean turn in Shroud does not so much lie in his multifarious, anecdotal references to the philosopher throughout the novel (and throughout his oeuvre), but it arguably lies in constantly situating his narrator on edge, at an edge, that is, within a specific distance from the Real where he periodically comes across the impossibility of a truthful self-representation while simultaneously insisting on the existence of truth. Shroud is a sophisticated dialogue with the deadlock outlined by deconstruction, a dialogue supplemented by a Nietzschean subtext in order to locate, to lay bare, the inherent points of impossibility at the heart of representation rather than a mere illustration of that impossibility. The edges and corners at which Axel constantly finds himself are, in a way, the contours of his subjective frame. They are the spatial tropes for Banville’s mise en scene of his narrator’s perceptual as well as representational crisis.

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Notes

1 Laura Patrícia Zuntini Izarra, Mirrors and Holographic Labyrinths: the Process of a "New" Aesthetic Synthesis in The Novels of John Banville, International Scholars Publications, 1999, p. 159.

2 Joseph McMinn, The Supreme Fictions of John Banville, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1999, p.
7.

3 John Kenny, John Banville, Dublin, Irish Academic Press, 2009, p. 15.

4 John Banville, Birchwood, London, Picador, 1998, p. 13.

5 In a recent interview Banville confirms: “Nietzsche is my philosopher—is my poet. I can find few things in his work, and I’ve read most of it, that I disagree with” (Hedwig Schwall, “Interview of John Banville with Hedwig Schwall”, The ESSE Messenger, 26 (2), 2017, p. 74.). 

6 John Banville, Shroud, London, Picador, 2002, p. 5.

7 Friedrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, trad, R. J. Hollingdale, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1992, p. 74.

8 Jacques Derrida, The Ear of the Other: Otobiography, Transference, Translation, Peggy Kamuf (trans.), New York, Schocken Books, 1985, p. 13.

9 Robert Smith, Derrida and Autobiography, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995, p. 76.

10 Ibid.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., p. 78.

13 Jacques Derrida, op. cit., p. 108.

14 Robert Smith, op. cit., p. 78.

15 Jacques Derrida, op. cit., p. 50-1.

16 John Banville, op. cit., p. 38.

17 Ibid., p. 167.

18 Ibid., p. 110.

19 Ibid., p. 211-12.

20 Jacques Lacan, Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English, Bruce Fink, (trans.), New York, Norton, 2006, p. 688.

21 Lacan defines the Real as “that which subsists outside of symbolization” (Ibid., p. 324). It is the realm of the impossible, because it is impossible to signify yet it paradoxically underlies all aspects of our reality. It is the unknown kernel of jouissance that needs to be repressed, excluded, so that “reality” becomes possible. In this sense, in Lacan’s terminology the Real is distinct from reality. The Imaginary is the third register of the Lacanian triadic model and consists of images, ones that regulate one’s sense of self by mediating his/her interactions with the self as well as others.

22 John Banville, Eclipse, London, Picador, 2000, p. 211.

23 John Banville, Shroud, op. cit., p. 8.

24 René Descartes, Méditations Métaphysiques, Marc Soriano (eds.), Paris, Larousse, 1950, p. 39-41.

25 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra: A Book for All and None, Thomas Wayne (trans.), New York, Algora Publishing, 2003, p. 25.

26 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future, R. J. Hollingdale (trans.), Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1990, p. 48.

27 Peter. R Sedgwick, Nietzsche: The Key Concepts, London, Routledge, 2009, p. 140.

28 John Banville, op. cit., p. 286.

29 Ibid., p. 27.

30 Eoghan Smith, op. cit., p. 128.

31 John Banville, Shroud, op. cit., p. 8.

32 Ibid., p. 185.

33 Ibid., p. 27.

34 Ibid., p. 292.

35 Ibid., p. 286-7.

36 Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, op. cit., p. 34-5.

37 Ibid., p. 35.

38 John Banville, Shroud, op. cit., p. 60.

39 Ibid., p. 61.

40 John Kenny, op. cit., p. 174.

41 John Banville, Shroud, op. cit., p. 47.

42 Ibid., p. 48.

43 Ibid., p. 287.

44 Ibid., p. 156.

45 Ibid., p. 287.

46 Ibid., p. 329.

47 Ibid., p. 224-5.

48 Ibid., p. 36.

49 Ibid., p. 52.

50 Ibid., p. 73.

51 Ibid., p. 205.

52 Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, The Antichrist. R. J. Hollingdale, Harmondsworth (Trans.), London, Penguin, 1990, p. 2.

53 Ibid., “‘Reason’,” says Nietzsche, “is the cause of our falsification of the testimony of the senses” (Ibid.). Nietzsche, here, is making a case for his idea that “The ‘apparent’ world is the only one; the ‘true’ world is merely added by a lie” By emphasizing sensuality over reason Nietzsche directs his attack on Platonic metaphysics that fundamentally distinguishes between appearance and reality (Ibid.).

54 Pier Pauo Piucucco,  “Thus Spoke Axel Vander. Pictures of Turin in John Banville's Shroud”, in L'immagine dell'Italia nelle Letterature Angloamericane e Postcoloniali, Paolo Bertinetti (Eds.), Trauben, Edizioni Trauben, 2014, p. 57-72.

55 John Kenny, op. cit., p. 163.

56 Pier Pauo Piucucco, op. cit., p. 66.

57 John Banville, Shroud, op. cit., p. 288.

58 Ressentiment is Nietzsche’s term for the nihilistic, rancorous attitude manifested by the weak as a result of their incapability to punish the strong. The weak (or the slave, as Nietzsche liked to put it), in turn, engage in “imaginary revenge” in order to make up for their incompetence (On the Genealogy of Morality: A Polemic, Carol Diethe (trans.), Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 21). For Nietzsche, the figure of the priest is the ultimate manifestation of ressentiment that incessantly propagates Sklavenmoral (slave morality).

59 Lee Spinks, Friedrich Nietzsche, London, Routledge, 2003. p. 120.

60 Ibid.

61 Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra, op. cit., p. 9.

62 John Banville, Shroud, op. cit., p. 12-13.

63 Ibid., p. 13.

64 Ibid., p. 201.

65 Ibid.

66 Ibid., p. 42.

67 Ibid., p. 43.

68 Ibid., p. 52.

69 Ibid., p. 55.

70 Ibid., p. 93.

71 Ibid., p. 144.

72 Ibid., p. 211.

73 Ibid., p. 18.

74 Alenka Zupančič, The Shortest Shadow: Nietzsche’s Philosophy of the Two, Cambridge, The MIT Press, 2003, p. 12.

75 Ibid., p. 12.

76 Zupančič emphasizes, it is “a duality that has nothing to do with the dichotomies between complementary oppositional terms (which are ultimately always two sides of the One): this duality is not (yet) multiplicity either” (Ibid., p. 12).

77 Ibid.

78 Ibid., p. 28.

79 Ibid., p. 17.

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Mehdi Ghassemi, « John Banville’s “Overman”: Intertextual dialogues with Friedrich Nietzsche in Shroud », Études irlandaises, 43-2 | 2018, 159-181.

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Mehdi Ghassemi, « John Banville’s “Overman”: Intertextual dialogues with Friedrich Nietzsche in Shroud », Études irlandaises [En ligne], 43-2 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2018, consulté le 19 octobre 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/etudesirlandaises/5826 ; DOI : 10.4000/etudesirlandaises.5826

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Auteur

Mehdi Ghassemi

Mehdi Ghassemi is Adjunct Lecturer-Researcher in English at the University of Lille where he previously completed a doctoral thesis on John Banville’s fiction. His research explores the intersections between subjectivity, masculinity and style in contemporary Irish fiction. His publications include “Authorial and Perceptual Crises in Banville’s Shroud” (2015), “Uncanny Corporeality in John Banville’s Eclipse” (2016), “Aesthetics of Hysteria in John Banville’s The Book of Evidence “ (2018). He has also co-edited La Représentation du Corps dans La Littérature (2016). His forthcoming publications examine Gothic tropes and ekphrasis in Mefisto, The Sea, and Ancient Light

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