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James Joyce's Negations: Irony, Indeterminacy and Nihilism in "Ulysses" and Other Writings (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 3-4, Spring-Summer 2009
pp. 592-598 | 10.1353/jjq.2008.0043

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At least as far back as Phillip Herring's Joyce's Uncertainty Principle, Joyce's critics have sought to transvalue the charges of his earliest critics that Ulysses is chaotic, without form or force. T. S. Eliot's "Ulysses, Order and Myth," for instance, counters Richard Aldington's 1921 review by saying, in effect: "Formless? Are you kidding me? You have no idea how carefully it's formed." Hence, we have the mythical method, Stuart Gilbert's James Joyce's "Ulysses," and a critical project that continues to the present day in the patient articulation of Joyce's deep structure.

With New Criticism, and con gusto with poststructuralism, however, textual indeterminacy became a desideratum, if not the sine qua non, of advanced literary production: while not standing in binary opposition one to another, polysemy displaced structure as the very hallmark of the literary. Ambiguity (seven flavors) and irony were in; classical clarity was out; Roland Barthes's scriptible dubbed the merely lisible risible and sent it packing. And we discovered, much to our relief and delight, that Ulysses was always already ironic, indeterminate, and disseminating every which way.

It is at this point—in its most extreme form, perhaps, captured in the essays of Derek Attridge and Daniel Ferrer's Post-structuralist Joyce—that Brian Cosgrove enters the field of battle. The indeterminacy of Joyce's texts Cosgrove concedes, even stipulates; but he argues that its value has never really been established and that the celebration of textual play underwriting the most exciting poststructuralist work on Joyce ought to have to fight for its right to party. "What this study … proposes," Cosgrove writes on his first page, "is that, in a thoroughgoing espousal of indeterminacy, a text such as Ulysses runs the risk of forfeiting any clear ostention of meaning" (vii). His ultimate concern, he explains, is "the possible cul-de-sac into which ironic negation, and the related textual indeterminacy, can lead" (viii).

This much, surely, is salutary: put more simply, the political efficacy of any text built on the principles of irony and indeterminacy is highly contingent. Had this been the burden of Cosgrove's study, I would gladly consent. Instead, he seems to switch arguments, or targets, just a couple of pages in and never entirely finds his way back. Thus, instead of exploring the stakes of modernist ironic writing, he sets his sights on "positive" readings of Ulysses, "taking issue with any straightforward 'celebratory' interpretation" as "a half-truth that must be tempered by—and may have to yield to—a recognition of harsher and more problematic features, not just of the text, but of the Weltanschauung that underlies it" (2). Well, sure. But is this a fight we are really still fighting? One would have thought that, among them, Richard Ellmann and Lionel Trilling on one side, Hugh Kenner on the other, had pretty well burned in effigy the straw man Cosgrove here tries to convince us is alive and kicking.

Too much of the book resembles this kind of slightly disingenuous rhetorical exercise. Critics who have emphasized the affirmative in Ulysses, even as part of a larger, more balanced evaluation, have those assessments found by Cosgrove to be inadequate. At the same time, however, critical assessments underscoring the "negative" view of Ulysses are quoted with approval, no matter the quality of that assessment. Cosgrove includes this passage from Carl Gustav Jung's infamous essay, for instance, at some length:

Jung found throughout Ulysses "an atrophy of feeling" which "does not shrink from any depth of absurdity or cynicism." … It is "ironic, sardonic, virulent, contemptuous, sad, despairing, and bitter" …, and in "all the book there is nothing pleasing, nothing refreshing, nothing hopeful, but only things that are grey, grisly, gruesome, or pathetic, tragic, ironic, all from the seamy side of life and so chaotic."


And so on. Readers of this journal presumably know the essay. For Cosgrove's part, he not only assumes that we do not (and therefore continues quoting from it for another half page or so) but presents it not so much as an essay but as a diagnosis. Does Cosgrove agree with Jung that "there is nothing pleasing" in all...

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