Home > Joyce J., Literature, Nietzsche F., Prose > Joyce and Nietzsche, Take 2

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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