Echoes of Joyce

the way of escape from the dangers of excessive spiritual isolation was through wholehearted participation in the great stream of human experience and endeavor. (‘Introduction’, Tennyson: Selected Poetry, 1955, vii)

He was passing at that moment before the jesuit house in Gardiner Street and wondered vaguely which window would be his if he ever joined the order. Then he wondered at the vagueness of his wonder, at the remoteness of his own soul from what he had hitherto imagined her sanctuary, at the frail hold which so many years of order and obedience had of him when once a definite and irrevocable act of his threatened to end for ever, in time and in eternity, his freedom. The voice of the director urging upon him the proud claims of the church and the mystery and power of the priestly office repeated itself idly in his memory. His soul was not there to hear and greet it and he knew now that the exhortation [to join the jesuit order] he had listened to had already fallen into an idle formal tale. He would never swing the thurible before the tabernacle as priest. His destiny was to be elusive of social or religious orders. The wisdom of the priest’s appeal did not touch him to the quick. He was destined to learn his own wisdom apart from others or to learn the wisdom of others himself wandering among the snares of the world. (…) He crossed the bridge over the stream… (Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Chapter 4)

Perhaps because he was not a cradle Catholic and because Canada was not a Catholic country like Ireland, McLuhan did not feel the same tension between freedom and catholicism that Joyce did. However, five of his six children did.  And McLuhan understood this, both in Joyce and in his kids. His resolution of the tension was, while respecting the forms of contemporary catholicism (as only partially true like all things finite, but yet partially and importantly true), to criticize the Gutenbergian heritage of the church and the Gutenbergian assumptions of many of its parishioners and clerisy.  But, at the same time, to contribute to a scientific understanding of human experience in which the possibility of belief and the possibility of the need for a universal church were exposed and weighed against the full spectrum of rival possibilities. McLuhan’s faith was that the result of this open assessment would be definitively favorable to the religious life:

No longer is it possible for modern man, individually or collectively, to live in any exclusive segment of human experience or achieved social pattern. The modern mind, whether in its subconscious collective dream or in its intellectual citadel of vivid awareness, is a stage on which is contained and re-enacted the entire experience of the human race. There are no more remote and easy perspectives, either artistic or national. Everything is present in the foreground. That fact is stressed equally in current physics, jazz, newspapers, and psychoanalysis. And it is not a question of preference or taste. This flood has already immersed us. (The Mechanical Bride, 87)

What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication. Modern technology presumes to attempt a total transformation of man and his environment. This calls in turn for an inspection and defense of all human values. And so far as merely human aid goes, the citadel of this defense must be located in analytical awareness of the nature of the creative process involved in human cognition. For it is in this citadel that science and technology have already established themselves in their manipulation of the new media. (Sight, Sound and the Fury, 1954)

The distinction at stake may be seen in McLuhan’s use of “citadel” in these passages (itself deriving from Joyce)1. Joyce differentiated “the citadel of his soul” from its “sanctuary”, their difference consisting in “his freedom”:

he wondered at (…) the remoteness of his own soul from what he had hitherto imagined her sanctuary, at the frail hold which so many years of order and obedience had of him when once a definite and irrevocable act of his threatened to end for ever, in time and in eternity, his freedom.

McLuhan, on the other hand, in a move going back to John Watson, saw “the citadel of his soul” and its “sanctuary” as harmonious (not to say identical) given “analytical2 awareness of the nature of the creative process involved in human cognition”.

Whereas Joyce “crossed the bridge over the stream” in the name of freedom, McLuhan opted in the same name for “wholehearted participation in the great stream of human experience and endeavor” — which included religion.

  1. See “The very citadel of civilized awareness”.
  2.  McLuhan used “ana-lytical” in its etymological and Kantian sense as ‘differentiated’ and as opposed to ‘syn-thetic’. In Bellum-Pax-Bellum McLuhan is cited treating this distinction as that of ‘fission’ vs ‘fusion’.