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  • Revolutionary Damnation: Badiou and Irish Fiction from Joyce to Enright by Sheldon Brivic
  • Richard Barlow (bio)
REVOLUTIONARY DAMNATION: BADIOU AND IRISH FICTION FROM JOYCE TO ENRIGHT, by Sheldon Brivic. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2017. vii + 319 pp. $65.00 cloth, $34.95 paper.

Revolutionary Damnation is a wide-ranging collection of inventive and instructive readings of texts by eleven Irish writers: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Flann O'Brien, John Banville, Elizabeth Bowen, Seamus Deane, Edna O'Brien, Roddy Doyle, Patrick McCabe, Colm Tóibín, and Anne Enright. These readings are organized into a set by way of the theories of the controversial French philosopher [End Page 189] Alain Badiou (with the occasional use of Jacques Lacan, Jean-François Lyotard, and Slavoj Žižek) and are divided into three sections entitled "Philosophy," "War," and "Family." The readings, however, are also linked to the subject of damnation and related themes such as the infernal and the demonic. According to Brivic's text, there are quite a number of subjects or situations that can be conceived of as hellish or infernal. They include "hierarchy" (18), "frustration" (91), "losing a war" (183), "winning [a war]" (183), "love" (204), "colonialism" (205), "passion" (211), "work" (212), the "nature of life" (239), "hopelessness" (246), "blarney" (254), and "family" (281). Interestingly, an atmosphere of homophobia portrayed in Tóibín's The Blackwater Lightship is "not quite a hell" (239).1

What is the relationship between the work of these Irish writers, Badiou, and damnation? For Brivic, the texts selected all

feature a central character who does not fit in, who is outcast, lost, or damned. This figure embodies what Badiou … calls the generic, the new, undefinable term that leads to the truth of the unknown future possibilities of the event. … [T]he generic figure continues to prefigure liberating possibilities for Ireland or humanity even though he or she is effectively damned.


Brivic writes that "Joyce's characters tend to be enclosed by belief and compelled to seek escape from it through exploration of the forbidden" (81).

The first of two chapters on "Herr Satan" (JJII 26), "Joyce, Stephen's Damnation, and Badiou's Saint Paul," joins recent works such as Help My Unbelief: James Joyce and Religion by Geert Lernout and James Joyce and Catholicism: The Apostate's Wake by Chrissie Van Mierlo in expanding the scholarship on Joyce and religious matters.2 For Brivic, "Joyce's theology makes it manifest to him that modern artistic originality must always entail damnation because it has its source in what is outside the field of the acceptable" (41). He writes that "[j]ust as Paul, following Jesus, delivered a new dispensation that focused on love defined by weakness and universalism, so Joyce delivered a new dispensation based on art and multiplicity" (52). The second chapter on Joyce, "Badiou and the Multiple Subject of Joyce's Ulysses," suggests that "Joyce shared with Badiou the desire to promote infinite prospects of human emancipation, and Badiou's ideas help us to see the drive toward freedom in Ulysses" (79). These chapters are perhaps the strongest in the text, and the innovative application of Badiou's ideas on the "generic" and "the event" work well here. The rather simplistic claim that "Joyce is … inveterate in his opposition to nationalism" (44), however, is debatable.

While the links between Joyce and Badiou are fully developed, [End Page 190] connections between Badiou and the other novelists covered are sometimes presented in terms of similarities or coincidences: "[t]his matches Badiou's definition of the event" (59), or "[t]he elimination of God as a unity matches Badiou's idea that the one does not exist except as a construction" (284). Brivic is quite keen on the word "matches": "Stephen's assumption of the role of the God of creation matches the central sin of Satan" (41); "[t]his matches Christopher Norris's definition of the generic" (59); "[t]his matches Swift's definition of happiness in A Tale of a Tub" (108); "[t]his matches observations about life by cognitive scientists that Žižek reports" (138–39); "Rheticus concludes that 'at the center of all there is nothing,' which matches...


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