Duffy as the Übermensch

According to Friedrich Nietzsche, “‘free spirits’…do not exist, did not exist” but “could one day exist” (18). Mr. James Duffy, the protagonist of James Joyce’s “A Painful Case” in Dubliners, has characteristics similar to that of Nietzsche’s theoretical overman. Nevertheless, although Duffy appears to live like an overman, his life ironically parallels an ascetic religion from which he cannot escape. His orientation towards Dublin, society, and his relationship with Mrs. Sinico have Nietzschian undertones, although they remain fundamentally religious, thereby ensuring the impossibility of Duffy ever reaching Übermensch status. In both the preface to Human, all too Human and Thus Spake Zarathustra, Nietzsche lays out the key traits of his Übermensch. This intellectual overman has a “profound degree of suspicion” of society (Human 17) and thus, like Zarathustra, would “posses his spirit in solitude” (Zar. 3), living isolated from others in the mountains until he can rise above the everyday values of society. He is a man of “a high and select kind” (Human 18) who “do[es] not give alms” (Zar. 4). Most importantly, he was once a “fettered spirit and seemed to be chained for ever to [his] pillar and corner” (Human 18) until he realizes that “God is dead!” (Zar. 5) and becomes “just as much as an enemy and indicter of God” (Human 17). James Duffy’s personality directly mirrors some of these fundamental qualities of the Übermensch. Duffy, like the artistically rebellious overman, is an intellectual who translates Hauptmann’s Michael Kramer (70) and values the music of Mozart. He lives “safe from the society of Dublin’s gilded youth” (71), and while he does not flee to the mountains like Zarathustra, his “old sombre house” was “as far as possible from the city” and had an “uncarpeted room free from pictures” or practically any decoration (70). He views himself as above the “phrasemongers, incapable of thinking consecutively for sixty seconds” (72), and rejects most of the “conventions which regulate the civic life” (71). Perhaps as a direct nod to Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, Joyce states that Duffy “never gave alms to beggars” (71). Finally, Duffy claims to have neither “church nor creed” (71) and embarrassedly has his “Maynooth Cathechism sewn into the cloth cover of a notebook” (70) to hide it. However, although Duffy seems to flout religion, each of his similarities to the overman has religious undercurrents, thereby reflecting Duffy’s inability to evade religion and the unlikelihood of him ever becoming an Übermensch. Although Duffy lives isolated from society like the free spirit who lives in the mountains, the description of Duffy’s house reflects a religious ascetic instead of a defiant Übermensch. Almost nothing in Duffy’s home is colorful, from the simple “black iron bedstead” to the “shelves of white wood” (70). He has few items other than what he requires, and only allows for a lamp as his “sole ornament” (70) which most would not view as decoration but as a necessity. Duffy’s intellectual pursuits become intertwined with religion when Joyce describes his attendance of concerts and the opera as “the only dissipations in his life” (71). The word “dissipation”, which can mean a diversion, sensual pleasure, or a wasteful expenditure, does not reflect the attitude of an Übermensch towards art, who would consider art necessary and important. Instead, the word implies a sin, for the ascetic Duffy sees his interest in art as worldly and wasteful. Nevertheless, Duffy still views himself as above the common man, and even though his eyes “gave the impression of a man ever alert to greet a redeeming instinct in others” he was “often disappointed” (71). Here, Joyce’s use of “redeeming,” evokes a religious redemption from the “mean, modern and pretentious” (70) suburbs of Dublin or from the “obtuse middle class” (72). Even Joyce’s assertion that Duffy does not have “church nor creed” is questionable, for Duffy leads a somewhat “spiritual life without any communion with others” (71). By cutting himself off from the rest of the world but still leading a “spiritual” life, Duffy yet again resembles a silent monk not a worldly free spirit. His strict regimen of working and then eating dinner at a restaurant “where there was a certain plain honesty” (71) would seem suspect to an overman who would follow no such daily routine and who would never believe in a concept such as “plain honesty”, for he does not even believe in good and evil. Furthermore, although Duffy hides his Maynooth Catechism, the fact that he has kept it at all exhibits an inability to fully reject religion. Nevertheless, Duffy’s relationship with Mrs. Sinico may reveal a certain “wickedness” (although probably not evident to Duffy himself) that Nietzsche claims is fundamental for the overman, as “‘man must become better and more wicked…the wickedest is needed for the Superman’s best'” (Zar. 254). This wickedness is apparent with the sexual undertones and sinful nature of Duffy and Mrs. Sinico’s relationship, even visible in the root of Mrs. Sinico’s name. Duffy notices Mrs. Sinico’s attractive “bosom of a certain fullness [which] struck the note of defiance more definitely”, and he even “seize[s] the moments when her daughter’s attention was diverted to become intimate” (72). The narrative becomes even more sexually overt and “wicked” with the short but explicit sentence “she came”, and “the most quiet quarters” they choose “for their walks together” (72). Although they have no physical contact, “little by little he entangled his thoughts with hers” and “sometimes in return for his theories she gave out some fact of her own life” (72). Even without actual contact Joyce has conjured up images of intercourse and of a mutually satisfying relationship. For Duffy, “her companionship was like a warm soil about an exotic” (73), and although Captain Sinico “had dismissed his wife so sincerely from his gallery of pleasures”, Duffy “take[s] an interest in her” (72). Their relationship is symbolically depicted as rebellious as their meetings occur in “dark discreet room[s]” in “isolation” (referring back to Zarathustra’s seclusion) where Mrs. Sinico “refrain[s] from lighting the lamp” (73). However, although their relationship seems “wicked”, the sexual imagery is mixed with religious metaphors, illuminating that Duffy still has strong religious tendencies. Instead of simply commenting on Mrs. Sinico’s beauty, Joyce writes that “her face…must have been handsome” (71), which reveals Duffy’s unwillingness to simply appreciate her face, as this might be sinful. Her eyes, first invoked sexually with their “defiant note” and the “deliberate swoon of the pupil into the iris” (71), are later used as the holiest image in the story when Duffy “thought that in her eyes he would ascend to an angelical stature” (73). The two are united by the sexual tension of a “the music that still vibrated in their ears,” but which “exalted him” (73), referencing a religious emotion which is expounded upon when “she became his confessor” (72). In fact, Mr. Duffy probably had not realized the sexual nature of his relationship with Mrs. Sinico, since he “had a distaste for underhand ways” and was not “conscious of any incongruity” (72), and ends the relationship when the first instance of physical contact occurs. Since he is tied to religion, when Mrs. Sinico “catch[es] up his hand passionately and press[es] it to her cheek” (73), he refers to the episode as a fall from grace or as “their ruined confessional”, and decides to “break off their intercourse”(73). Phoenix Park, where the two meet for the last time, is the supreme metaphor for the mixture of religion and sexuality that defines their relationship, since the Pheonix “is a traditional symbol variously of Christ and of the regenerative power of passionate love” (Gifford 85-86). Because Duffy cannot allow for any sort of “passionate love” and opts instead for religion and “Christ”, he must reject Mrs. Sinico citing that “every bond…is a bond to sorrow” (73). Thus, Duffy decides again to seclude himself, not in order to transcend society and religion like the overman, but to avoid the sexual underpinnings he sees as fundamental to all human relations when he states that “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” (73). He believes he must reject all relationships to avoid sex, which, like a religious figure and exactly unlike the overman, he sees as wrong. Beyond his affinity for religion, Duffy would never achieve Übermensch status because he is not “willing to burn thyself in thine own flame” and “become ashes” which Zarathustra explains is necessary to “be made anew” (55). Instead of realizing the folly of his ways after Mrs. Sinico’s “painful death” Duffy only reaffirms his actions as acceptable and has “no difficulty…in approving of the course he had taken” (76). Moreover, Mrs. Sinico’s death actually strengthens Duffy’s bonds with religion even further. Duffy reads the article of Mrs. Sinico’s death “not aloud, but moving his lips as a priest does when he reads the prayers Secreto” (74). His feeling of revulsion towards her death comes from the fact that he had “spoken to her of what he held sacred” (75), revealing a predilection towards religion and the holy, which is further secured with his supplication: “just God, what an end!” (76). Although James Duffy reads Thus Spake Zarathustra and appears to have similar traits to Nietzsche’s overman, his strong ties to religion thwart his ability to ever become a free spirit like the enlightened Zarathustra. Interestingly enough, however, his proclivity for religion is paralleled by another character in Thus Spake Zarathustra: the Aged Man or the Saint. Zarathustra encounters the Saint upon his initial descent from the mountains and finds that the man, like himself and Duffy, lives in isolation as a “hermit” (Zar. 4). However, this Aged Man strongly believes that “love of mankind would destroy me”, for “man for me is a thing far too imperfect” (4). Duffy too refuses to have an emotional or even physical relationship with anyone and believes that the men of his day are subordinate to him and his intelligence. Most significantly, the Saint decides to love God instead of man and “singing, weeping, laughing, and chanting I praise that God which is my God” (5). Duffy, too, is not able to retain a relationship of any sort with Mrs. Sinico because he is so tightly bound by religion. Thus, as a man who scorns society but maintains a strong belief in God, Duffy does not resemble Nietzsche’s Übermensch but the misguided Aged Man who “hath not yet heard that God is dead!” (Zar. 5).

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