Beckett, Joyce and the Art of the Negative

Beckett, Joyce and the Art of the Negative

Beckett, Joyce and the Art of the Negative

Beckett, Joyce and the Art of the Negative


This collection presents articles that examine Joyce and Beckett's mutual interest in and use of the negative for artistic purposes. The essays range from philological to psychoanalytic approaches to the literature, and they examine writing from all stages of the authors' careers. The essays do not seek a direct comparison of author to author; rather they lay out the intellectual and philosophical foundations of their work, and are of interest to the beginning student as well as to the specialist.


I can connect nothing with nothing.

—T.S. Eliot, The Waste Land

…sharing a joke with nothingness.

—Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse

Perhaps it is nothing that is our true state, and our dream of life is

—Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time

Negation is the dark metaphysical heart of modern literature. Yeats composes poetry from “any rich, dark nothing”; at the center of A Passage to India the Marabar Caves resound with emptiness; and Lily Briscoe is confounded by the blank space on her canvas. Samuel Beckett and James Joyce write with deep awareness of ancient, medieval and modern philosophical and theological traditions that express negation and its correlative states— absence, void, emptiness and nothingness—as central to language and representation. The essays in this volume emphasize its importance to the central meditation of literary modernism: the nature of mind and its expression in words. The collection does not strive to present a system for reading Beckett and Joyce, nor does it seek to draw comparisons between the authors. Rather, the essays in this volume point out absence as the chief condition (and therefore parallel) of Beckett's and Joyce's literary worlds, and suggest the inherence of negation to modernist thought.

Given the abundance of essays on Beckett included in this volume, it is tempting to speculate on the relative affinity of Beckett and Joyce to its theme; however, neither author is more nor less obfuscatory, and neither has a greater or lesser relationship to negation. Each confirms the activity of perception as the defining feature of mind and philosophical core of language.

W. B. Yeats, “The Gyres,” in W. B. Yeats: Selected Poems and Four Play,
ed. M. L. Rosenthal (New York: Scribner, 1996), 178.

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