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Joyce and Nietzsche, Take 2

I inaugurated my blog with a post about the relationship of two passages written by James Joyce, one from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the other from Ulysses, both revolving around the word ‘yes’ (which was used in drastically different ways in the two passages). I connected these passages to Nietzsche’s philosophy, in particular his critiques of Christianity, and his conception of an anti-Christian life, in which ‘yes’ plays a central role (as does its opposite, ‘no’). I’d like to revisit the connection between Nietzsche and Joyce, this time with respect to the short story “A Painful Case,” one of my favorites from his Dubliners collection. “A Painful Case” is different from both Portrait and Ulysses in that Nietzsche is actually mentioned in the story, and so it may provide a particularly good case to explore in order to uncover the role Nietzsche’s thought played in Joyce’s writing.

“A Painful Case” centers around Mr. Duffy, a lonesome, middle-aged man who has a brief affair with a married woman, breaks it off, and later finds out that she has been killed after being run over by a train. The story’s title comes from the news article that breaks the news to him, which describes the death as “a painful case” but stresses that there is “No blame attached to anyone” (pg. 115, Viking Critical Library edition). Nietzsche enters the story shortly before Mrs. Sinico’s death, four years after Mr. Duffy ended the affair. At the beginning of the story, Joyce paints a picture of Duffy, focusing significant attention on his living quarters. After Mr. Duffy ends the affair, Joyce casts his view again on Duffy’s home environment, noting some new additions: “Some new pieces of music encumbered the music-stand in the lower room and on his shelves stood two volumes by Nietzsche: Thus Spake Zarathustra and The Gay Science” (pg. 112).

As the story proceeds, Nietzsche emerges as a rationalization (in the fully pejorative sense) for his actions; Mr. Duffy has latched onto Nietzsche as an excuse for ending the affair with Mrs. Sinico. Two months after the “interview” where he ended the affair, Mr. Duffy wrote the aphorism: “Love between man and man is impossible because there must not be sexual intercourse and friendship between man and woman is impossible because there must be sexual intercourse” (pg. 112). This comes directly after Joyce describes the contents of his bookshelf. Nietzsche often wrote in an aphoristic style, and Mr. Duffy’s particular aphorism recall’s Nietzsche’s, “Woman can very well enter into a friendship with a man, but to maintain it—a little physical antipathy must help out” (Human, All Too Human, aphorism 390, Faber translation). Mr. Duffy lacks the inspiration and acerbic wit of Nietzsche, but the inspiration is clear, and here he comes across as a half-hearted Nietzsche, writing down a generalization from his own experience to all experience. It is not particularly convincing—again, it comes across primarily as a rationalization. My affair did not work out, but that’s only because in principle it could not work out. Where Nietzsche advocated a cold, hard-hearted approach to rooting out and overcoming one’s own flaws, Mr. Duffy adopt’s Nietzsche’s style (as well as he can) in order to run away from his flaws.

This continues after Mr. Duffy reads of Mrs. Sinico’s death in the paper. Here, notions of blame and guilt come to the fore. The article announcing the death, as I noted earlier, takes great pains to absolve all parties of blame. “The deceased had been in the habit of crossing the lines late at night from platform to platform and, in view of certain other circumstances of the case, he [Mr. H. B. Patterson Finlay, on behalf of the railway company] did not think the railway officials were to blame” (pg. 114). “The jury returned a verdict in accordance with the medical evidence and exonerated Lennon [driver of the engine] from all blame” (pg. 115). And the final sentence of the article: “No blame attached to anyone” (pg. 115).

Mr. Duffy’s response to reading this article has three stages, as I read it, each distinguished by who he blames (and for what). First, he blames Mrs. Sinico for “degrading” him, and himself for ever having associated with her (pg. 115):

The whole narrative of her death revolted him and it revolted him to think that he had ever spoken to her of what he held sacred. The threadbare phrases, the inane expressions of sympathy, the cautious words of a reporter won over to conceal the details of a commonplace vulgar death attacked his stomach. Not merely had she degraded herself; she had degraded him. He saw the squalid tract of her vice, miserable and malodorous. His soul’s companion!

A lot is going on here. Mr. Duffy gives clear indication that he has not fully digested Nietzsche. In this response he displays a vulgar elitism—he disparages her death as commonplace, as if it mattered whether his associates died in freak accidents or not. In his (very slight) defense, she was crossing the tracks in order to get to a store to buy spirits, but the particular tenor of his elitism stills comes across as crude. This is especially true when he thinks, “Evidently she had been unfit to live, without any strength of purpose, an easy prey to habits, one of the wrecks on which civilisation has been reared” (115). The elitism comes across so poorly especially because of the resentment that is so prominently showcased in these sentences. A significant aspect of Nietzsche’s philosophy of self-overcoming is the overcoming of resentment, and Mr. Duffy has clearly not succeeded in that regard. Worth noting also is the choice of the word “malodorous” to describe “the squalid tract of her vice.” I can’t point to any specific passages, but I recall Nietzsche using the sense of smell in his cultural criticisms (perhaps in Beyond Good and Evil?), and I see Joyce’s word choice here as (intentionally or not) underscoring the Nietzsche connection.

After a brief period in which “he sat there, living over his life with her” (pg. 116), doubt creeps in, and he worries about his handling of the end of their affair. Where previously, “He had no difficult now in approving of the course he had taken” (pg. 116), now he has to ask himself “what else could he have done” (pg. 116). He is forced to justify to himself how he treated her, to calm his own disquiet. He starts to empathize with her loneliness (even though she was married, her husband “had dismissed his wife so sincerely from his gallery of pleasures that he did not suspect that anyone else would take an interest in her,” pg. 110), perhaps out of fear more than anything else. This fear comes out forcefully in the lines: “His life would be lonely too until he, too, died, ceased to exist, became a memory—if anyone remembered him” (pg. 116). Soon, he enters the third stage of his response, in which he forcefully condemns himself. “Why had he withheld life from her? Why had he sentenced her to death?” (pg. 117). “One human being had seemed to love him and he had denied her life and happiness: he had sentenced her to ignominy, a death of shame” (pg. 117). Mr. Duffy now blames himself for her actions. As he sees things, it was his elitism and egoism that caused him to break off their relationship (probably true), and this makes him responsible for her drinking, and thus her death (very much debatable). While perhaps less detestable than his initial reaction, when we leave Mr. Duffy he is in no healthier a state of mind, and Joyce leaves us with: “He felt that he was alone.” Insofar as any relationships regarding blame are clear in “A Painful Case,” it is clear that it was his own character that left him alone. Of course, central to the story is what precisely is responsible for creating that character, but detailed analysis of that is the stuff of another post (one I may never write, but which I am sure fills the vast literature on Joyce).

In all of this, I do not mean to say that Joyce’s aim in this story was to argue that reading or misreading Nietzsche makes people lonely. I do not think that anything could be more wrong. What causes Mr. Duffy’s loneliness is his particular character, and if it is to be traced to any one factor, then the overall approach of Dubliners demands that this factor be Dublin itself, and the particular state of Ireland at the time Joyce was writing. I have simply attempted to elucidate somewhat, at the risk of overstatement, how (mis)reading Nietzsche in an attempt to escape Dublin’s inducement of paralysis itself induces a similar paralysis. Or, perhaps, better, how Dublin induced a paralysis in Mr. Duffy that put him in a position where he empathized with a misreading of Nietzsche, and took solace in it, to his detriment. Joyce’s use of Nietzsche in “A Painful Case” thus serves to underscore the pervasiveness of Dublin’s debilitating effects on its residents, rather than as a particular statement about Nietzsche’s philosophy. It is a beautiful example of one of my favorite of Joyce’s techniques: his ability to reference a work that creates numerous allusions that all serve to enhance the emotions and meanings created by Joyce’s own words. One can understand “A Painful Case” without having read Nietzsche; looking into Nietzsche’s role in the story serves simply to heighten the experience, without changing its fundamental character.

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James Joyce and the word ‘Yes’

2011/08/20 3 comments

Ever since I finished Ulysses earlier this summer, I’ve had the last seven words rattling around my head. yes I said yes I will Yes. These seven words are the last seven words of a sentence that lasts five and a half pages and almost 250 lines, and they’ve stuck with me because they capture a euphoria I’ve rarely felt. I’m rather fond of Nelson Goodman’s aesthetic philosophy, and there’s one portion of his excellent book Languages of Art where he argues something along the lines of: what makes sad art sad (and so on) is not that that art effectively makes its viewers feel the sadness of a particular scene, because then art is simply a less good version of real life, for no verbal description or pictorial depiction of, say, love is as powerful as actually feeling love. Goodman is right, but one key reason Ulysses has stuck with me, and those seven words in particular, is that the euphoria I felt while reading them does rival (and eclipse) many of my real life experiences. Surely not the experience of a marriage proposal—in that Ulysses must pale next to real life, as Goodman notes. However, in the joy of the words themselves, combined with their meaning in the context of the novel, there is a very real feeling that is the novel’s own, and which is not a pale impression of anything. The euphoria of these words isn’t the (foggy, imperfect, diminishing) mirror of the event they describe, but an ecstasy that’s internal to the novel and its peculiar logic.

Ulysses was my second experience with Joyce, after I read most of Dubliners for an otherwise rather pointless literary theory class I audited (I know as little about theory now as I did then, only now I can throw a handful of new terms around), and the rest of Dubliners because it was amazing. Perhaps I would have been better off reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man before Ulysses—I can certainly see the logic that leads to that being the common recommendation—but I’m glad I didn’t read it until later this summer, after I’d spent a month and a half or so with the end of Ulysses haunting my thoughts. The reason I’m glad is that, having spent so much time marveling at the command of English Joyce showed in wrangling so much emotion out of so few words, I was able to fully appreciate the genius of one particular passage in Portrait, also focusing on the word ‘yes,’ but with an entirely different effect. Here are both passages, first from Ulysses [pp. 643-644, Gabler edition, episode 18, lines 1592-1609] (I obviously won’t quote the entire final sentence of Ulysses, just the portion where the word ‘yes’ plays a central role):

and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas 2 glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

And from Portrait [p. 134, Penguin Classics edition]:

He could not grip the floor with his feet and sat heavily at his desk, opening one of his books at random and poring over it. Every word for him! It was true. God was almighty. God could call him now, call him as he sat at his desk, before he had time to be conscious of the summons. God had called him. Yes? What? Yes? His flesh shrank together as it felt the approach of the ravenous tongues of flames, dried up as it felt about it the swirl of stifling air. He had died. Yes. he was judged. A wave of fire swept through his body: the first. Again a wave. His brain began to glow. Another. His brain was simmering and bubbling within the cracking tenement of the skull. Flames burst forth from his skull like a corolla, shrieking like voices:

—Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell!

In the second passage (the first chronologically, of course), ‘yes’ is a terrifying word. All of the joy at the end of Ulysses is gone, replaced by fear in the face of damnation. Stephen Dedalus, the ‘he’ of the passage, has just heard a sermon in which the preacher discusses the fall from Eden, then addresses the congregation, “Now let us try for a moment to realise, as far as we can, the nature of that abode of the damned which the justice of an offended God has called into existence for the eternal punishment of sinners.” The remainder of the sermon is a horrifyingly detailed account of Hell, and Joyce, in the passage quoted, captures the terror of the word ‘yes’ when it becomes the answer to “will I go there,” “will I be eternally damned”.

In addition to reading Joyce, I’ve also read a fair amount of Nietzsche recently (I’m currently in the midst of reading through his major works in chronological order). Joyce had read Nietzsche, and so far as I know admired him. Joyce was centrally concerned with the ways Ireland was wedged between and stifled by British rule on one side and the Catholic church on the other, and it’s hard to imagine that he didn’t sympathize with Nietzsche’s harsh criticisms of Christianity. In fact, in reading Joyce, I’ve toyed somewhat with the idea that he is in some respects Nietzsche applied to a specific culture (Nietzsche, of course, commented on every culture he could get his hands on). Certainly Stephen Dedalus’ famously stated aim in Portrait, to “forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race” (276) is a very Nietzschean aim. The extent to which Dedalus’ goals can be attributed to Joyce is certainly debatable, but it is hard not to see Joyce’s writing as in many ways creating an Irish conscience by exploring the state of then-contemporary Irish culture.

More importantly, though, in the case of the two passages above, is the specific tenor of Nietzsche’s philosophy, both his positive accounts of Zarathustra’s attitude toward life (which is discussed more strictly philosophically also in works like Beyond Good and Evil) and his specific critiques of Christianity. In both cases, Nietzsche fixates on the word ‘yes’ (and its opposition to the word ‘no’). Nietzsche describes his philosophy as a yes-saying philosophy, and implores his followers to say yes to life. He opposes this to Christianity, which he sees first and foremost as a philosophy that would deny life, that says no. With this consideration in mind, it is difficult not to look at the passage from Portrait in light of Nietzsche’s philosophy, knowing that Joyce did read Nietzsche. Read in this light, the passage is a visceral exploration of Christianity, and the Catholic church in particular, as a no-saying institution, as an institution that has managed even to pervert the joyous word ‘yes’ into something crippling and diminishing. The passage that closes Ulysses, then, returns ‘yes’ to its rightful glory. Indeed, ever since I read that passage in Portrait, the final seven words of Ulysses have continued to infiltrate my thoughts, and they have only grown more powerful, battling against the incursions of an equally memorable but much darker passage.

This is of course a partial reading of mere parts of two complicated and dense works of art, and I make no claim to having the final word. I welcome any and all input as to why my analysis may not work—my end goal here is understand Joyce, and I expect that will require being hopelessly wrong at many points along the way.