(D) about “A Painful Case,” November

“He walked along quickly through the November twilight, his stout hazel stick striking the ground regularly,….”

Duffy furnishes his tidy Chapelizod dungeon with an unusual number of cold iron appurtenances. The few colors of his flat (“white bedclothes and a black and scarlet rug”) suggest sterility, moroseness, and violence. Into his window peeps a derelict distillery. Jackson and McGinley offer that his Chapelizod locale bordered the most unhealthy area of Edwardian Dublin. Environmental influences take a toll on his appearance as well as his health: “His face, which carried the entire tale of his years, was of the brown tint of Dublin streets.”

Chapelizod is named for Isolde’s chapel. Her tragic love for Tristan was associated with Chapelizod but not caused by the environment. The undoing of a promised queen and pristine knight was a potion, administered perhaps with malice, perhaps through carelessness. Superstitious Joyce may have accepted the unlucky nature of Chapelizod since he also sets the scene of Humpty Dumpty’s fall from the nearby Magazine Wall in Finnegans Wake in Isolde’s Chapel.

The stiff-necked clerk protected himself against any such acts of carelessness through persnickety attention to the details of his apartment. Armored with obsession, he “abhorred anything which betokened physical or mental disorder.” One sheet of music was allowed on the stand. He also made a sacrament of the placement and repositioning of his lamp. Duffy considered attendance at musical performances “the only dissipations of his life.” He ordered his books, not by subject or author but by girth. 

As a counterbalance to environmental danger, Mr. Duffy keeps his dietary regime in a stranglehold. When he slips from his self-discipline indulging in cabbage, he exposes himself to melancholy, failing to heed Galen’s warning (Jackson & McGinley). He lunches habitually on only “a small trayful of arrowroot biscuits.” Arrowroot is an antidote for ingested poisons. As “an outcast from life’s feast,” He guards against the creation of excessive bile, even saving an ad for a bile bromide. As for mealtime indulgences, he “read the evening papers for dessert.” Duffy’s strict self-disciplines guard him against the effects of food allergies. Food allergies are sometimes blamed for disruptive behavior among those diagnosed with certain mental disorders.

Among the tomes allowed in his bookcase are two by Nietzsche: Thus Spake Zarastruthra and The Gay Science. The former was to become a series of six books. Nietzsche prematurely ended his writing, finishing only four books. These volumes are largely repetitive. Thus Spake also carries a curious subtitle A Book for All and None. It may be about all, disparaging of most, but written for the author alone. The book declares itself to be a novel; it is not. It is a book of philosophy, with a fictionalized Zoraster preaching a credo. For Mr. Duffy, a novel would be frivolous since its purpose would be “shared humanity.” The Gay Science is essentially a self-indulgent book of poetry and songs. However, it includes Nietzche’s first proclamation that repetitive, predictable, and identical incarnations make humans godlike (and Duffyesque). In this book, he also first proposes that God is dead. The combination of these propositions established Nietzsche’s superman.

A man who constructs a sterile environment and severe discipline might also be likely to favor managed national economies. That would be one goal of socialist orders. However, it would be impossible to predict James Duffy’s brand of Socialism, devoid of empathy for the worker. He scorns Party members eager to put bread on the table, losing all interest when his hope for insurrection fails to win support. Emily may have inspired his short-lived affection with her astrakhan coat, named for Lenin’s birthplace. Perhaps he believed she was as cold as Lenin. When snapping the shoots of the affair, he delivers the bad news in a cakeshop, frigid as a member of the French Monarchy: “Let them eat cake.”

And a man who refers to himself in the third person depersonalizes himself. That man cannot empathize with humanity. The narrator tells us: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side glances. He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense.” Duffy’s first name is used only once as the second word of the story.

 Orderliness, even rigidity, cannot prove a pathology. Neither is a dietary concern over food allergies or the choice of a political view espousing a centrally managed society. Impersonalizing oneself is more disturbing but still not sufficient to label Duffy with a diagnosis. It’s of no great concern that the scent of rotten apples wafts from his writing desk, recalling Schiller’s inability to write without that stimulation, but an unusual reaction to sensory input is another warning of a pathology. 

There is only incidental meaning in the reluctant lover’s unwillingness to write down his ideas, but avoidance of expressive communication is troubling. Duffy separates himself from even his voice: “…he heard the strange impersonal voice which he recognised as his own, insisting on the soul’s incurable loneliness.” Echolalia, another symptom, is the meaningless repetition of sounds and phrases. For James Duffy, this occurs as “in his ears the laborious drone of the engine reiterat(es) the syllables of her name.” 

Ritualism was one of the five criteria used for diagnosing Autism until approximately 2000, but three of five symptoms were needed to prove a diagnosis. With the Millennium, The Center for Disease Control replaced the diagnosis of Autism with placement along the Autism Spectrum. The CDC continued to assess ritualistic behavior when diagnosing Autism Spectrum Disorders. All Duffy’s symptoms join to form a compelling case for placement along the Autism Spectrum. The cause might be environmentally induced ASD with behavioral issues worsened due to food allergies.

Joyce will return to Emily Sinico again in Ulysses (where he reports her death on October 14 rather than in November as in the short story). I find no subsequent mention of James Duffy. Joyce’s continued attention suggests that she is the “painful case.” That might be appropriate since some people with ASD do not react to pain, but do they deserve empathy even if unable to give empathy to another? If he suffered, fully aware of his Asperger’s Syndrome? 


Writing of Madam Sinico, what strain,
Fussy Duffy, that eponymous “pain.”
If his obsession weren’t Nietzsche,
life could have been peachy
with Emily missing her train.

don ward November 12, 2020

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