Brian Cosgrove is Professor Emeritus of English at the National University of Ireland, Maynooth. He has published on a wide range of literary topics and is the author of Wordsworth and the Poetry of Self-Sufficiency.
The main purpose of this book is to validate a reading of Joyce in negative terms. Central to the enquiry is an examination of the roles of irony and of indeterminacy. Irony, interpreted in metaphysical rather than merely rhetorical terms, is envisaged as deriving from two separate if related orientations, one associated with Friedrich Schlegel, the other with Gustave Flaubert. Insofar as Joyce's work (including "Ulysses") owes more to the latter than the former, it forgoes the genial humour central to Schlegel's theories, and embraces instead the ironic detachment and formal control of a Flaubertian perspective. Such irony (which entails a suspicion of sentiment and a related dehumanisation of character, as in some of the stories in Dubliners) becomes normative in Joyce, and along with a similarly deflationary parody pervades "Ulysses". In addition, a persistent indeterminacy is established as early as 'The Dead', so that it becomes impossible in that story to adjudicate between not just contradictory but mutually exclusive interpretations. Such indeterminacy is pushed to further extremes in "Ulysses", with its notorious proliferation of narrative perspectives.As a corollary to the work's encyclopaedic inclusiveness and quotidian particularism, every detail tends to assume the same significance as every other; the consequence being that (in Gyorgy Lukacs' famous formulation) we lose all sense of any 'hierarchy of meaning'. From that it is but a step to Franco Moretti's assessment that in "Ulysses" everyday existence remains 'inert, opaque - meaningless', and that in fact the whole point is to represent the meaningless precisely 'as meaningless'. Indeterminacy, in effect, ushers in the possibility of nihilism. The analysis of "Ulysses" culminates with the attempt (unavailing in both cases) to discover in either Bloom or Molly a genuine source of countervailing affirmation. The study concludes with a brief consideration of the polysemic vocabulary of "Finnegans Wake" as a logical extrapolation of the poetics of indeterminacy.
Part One, Irony and Indeterminacy as Normative
- Irony and Inclusiveness
Dubliners and The Persistence of Irony
- Irony, Technique and The Fate of Sentiment in Ulysses
- Technique and Language in Ulysses
Sentiment, Music, Women
Part Three, Multiperspectivism, Indeterminacy and Nihilism in 'Ulysses'
- Fragmentariness, Pluralism, Indeterminacy and the Question of 'Meaning'
'Ithaca' and the Futility of Taxonomy, Ulysses and The Question of Order/Design
Part Four, Negation and The Possibility of Affirmation - Bloom, 'Ithaca' and 'Penelope'
- Leopold Bloom
- Passive Hero or 'Aesthetic Man'?
'Avoiding the Void? 'Ithaca' and 'The Apathy of the Stars'
Trying to Say 'Yes'
- Ironising Molly Bloom
Part Five, 'Finnegans Wake' as Culmination
- The Paradox of Willed Indeterminacy in Finnegans Wake
- Joyce and the Limitations of Comedy
"[Brian Cosgrove] has written extensively in literary studies, particularly on Joyce. In this book he takes the novel approach of interpreting Joyce’s works via negatives. He sees the use of irony, in the metaphysical rather than rhetorical sense, as a key way into Joyce’s work … This is definitely for the well-read."
"Cosgrove’s analysis is fresh and insightful about both the theories he applies and, more importantly, about the Joycean text … [He] patiently examines the various ramifications of his readings, such as showing how the relationship Joyce has towards his craftsmanship of the English language impacts on his … attitudes towards the complex history of Irish subjugation under England. In this, Cosgrove’s reading is superior to many of the so-called post-colonial readings of Joyce since most of those have unfortunately tended to elide Joyce’s multivalent rapport with language. This also shows another strength of Cosgrove’s book: even though he is dealing with abstract philosophical concepts, he never loses sight of the more quotidian, which would be to say the more fundamental and practical, implications of his argument … As an application of theory-informed concepts and models to reading Joyce, Cosgrove’s study is exemplary."
Irish University Review
"This ingenious study by the retired Professor of English and Head of Department at NUI, Maynooth, and author of Wordsworth and the Poetry of Self-Sufficiency (1982), Brian Cosgrove, dispels the view of Ulysses as a celebration of the redemptive power of love and language. According to the author, Joyce’s dehumanized characters inhabit a senseless world presided over by a cold artificer, whose playful language is a mere distraction from his thoughts of mortality. Its main contribution to Joyce studies is that it rescues him from second-hand sentimentalism and invites the readers to re-examine his Weltanschauung.
[There is an] extraordinary alertness to the finer points in the texts exhibited in this study. Nor is the author neglectful of Joyce’s delight in obscene language or his self-satirizing impulse. Notwithstanding the seriousness of its subject matter, the book exhibits a fine sense of humour. The writing is lucid; the reader never loses sight of the argument, however inventive and broad it becomes.
James Joyce’s Negations is a significant new departure in Joyce studies and provides a highly erudite model for the study of nihilism and irony in modernist literature."
Irina Ruppo Malone
National University of Ireland, Galway
Sage: Irish Theological Quarterly 2008; 73; 413
'Cosgrove’s book … offers a refreshing view of familiar texts and critical debates. Bringing his rich experience and insight, gained from long years of reading and teaching Joyce, Cosgrove proves that any serious Joyce scholar shall do well to keep a healthy critical distance between him/her and the canonical readings of the industry.'
Soichiro Onose, University of Tokyo
Journal of Irish Studies 2008 vol. XXIII
"Cosgrove discusses Joyce as an international modernist rather than as a 'self-evidently Irish artist'. Many writers – among them E. M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, and George Bernard Shaw – considered Ulysses a bad book. Cosgrove disagrees, and he carefully explains what makes Joyce an astonishingly great novelist. … Cosgrove tells the reader that 'a central part of the argument of this study [is] that irony is the normative mode in Joyce'. And irony is what Cosgrave focuses on. Those who can deal with its complexity will enjoy Cosgrove’s book."
Q. Grigg Emeritus, Hamline University
October 2008 Vol. 46 No. 2
"Cosgrove navigates a wide range of sources for his inquiry, including Schlegel, Flaubert and Kierkegaard, with perhaps the most interesting detours turning toward Chaos Theory. By drawing on the work of Thomas J. Rice and Peter F. Mackey, Cosgrove highlights the existential necessity of seeking to comprehend a work such as ‘Ulysses’ and of interrogating modes of survival within complex surroundings that deny the fulfillment of desire and thereby confront us with a metaphysic of negation.
James Joyce is a pillar of modernity, and Cosgrove’s engagement with the poetics of indeterminacy implicates more than just one man’s work. In a world where definitive positions are increasingly difficult to find, let alone maintain, irony can be an effective way to disrupt and critique without actually having to take a position. Cosgrove of ‘James Joyce’s Negations’ takes a position and makes no apologies for its bleakness. He offers a thorough, engaging and often provocative reading of James Joyce that confronts us with the implications of living in a world that is inexhaustible and not only devoid of meaning, but actually constructed to frustrate human hopes of transcendence.
The point of the study is not to dismiss or devalue James Joyce, but rather, given the tendency to sentimentalise his work, to be as sensitive as possible to the challenges which he poses. … At times one is almost tempted to give up and jump into the relativist void, but the honest search for truth which pervades Cosgrove’s investigation is what holds us back, and we find ourselves determined to return to the source with renewed vigour and a greater appreciation for what we are up against."
Kasper Hartman, McGill University
Canadian Association of Irish Studies vol 33 no 2