Jackson Knight on “the main question”

McLuhan mentions reading W. F. Jackson Knight on Virgil (‘Vergil’ in Knight’s spelling) in a letter to Ezra Pound, July 24, 1951 (Letters 228).  He was probably referring to Knight’s 1936 Cumaean Gates since he mentions “the question of the Cumaean Gates, the ring Wall cities, and Peripolesis-periplum, the Troy game etc” in the same paragraph.1 The next year, in another letter to Pound on July 16, 1952, he again mentions the Cumaean Gates in the context of “the whole traditional lore on the diverse labyrinths of the Cumaean Gates. Rock labyrinth. Water labyrinth and so on”. (Letters 231)

It may be, however, that McLuhan also read Knight’s ‘New Principles in Vergilian Commentary‘ which appeared in the 1950-1951 issue of Humanitas (161-174). Here Knight concludes with these observations: 

It is hard to write about Vergil without writing about all Humanity, and about the whole question of man on earth, or even more than that. Nothing, according to St. Augustine, is more beautiful and more divine than equality and even, balanced symmetry; and yet in this life (…) symmetry is at its best when it is inexact, but inexact according to appropriate law. That is very like the main question concerning Vergil; or, indeed, concerning Humanity. (174)

Knight’s deep point here is that equality, balance and symmetry cannot be without difference. All require plurality in order to exist at all. There can be no equality, balance and symmetry of one singular thing alone by itself. But supposing these (equality, balance and symmetry) are foundational, supposing Augustine was correct that “nothing (…) is more beautiful and more divine than equality and even, balanced symmetry”, then they themselves must be plural.2 

The pluralizing terms of equality, balance and symmetry are inequality, imbalance and asymmetry. Similarly, the pluralizing terms of justice and harmony are injustice and disharmony.3

Knight’s dictum that “symmetry is at its best [ie, is at its most fundamental] when it is inexact, but inexact according to appropriate law” points to such fundamental uttering-outering4 into plurality.5

The same point is made by Hopkins in regard to “peace” here:

What pure peace allows,
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

And by the I Ching in regard to “true strength” here:

Thus true strength is that strength which, mobile as it is hidden, concentrates on the work without being outwardly visible.

And by Yoko One in regard “giving” here:

Giving is getting too.

And by  McLuhan when he notes:

pouring [out] is also fulfillment, is not emptying but filling. There’s a [fundamental] complementarity here.

“Complementarity” here is the same as equality, balance and symmetry above.

The basic law (Knight’s “appropriate law”) in all these formulations is just that put forward by McLuhan at the end of TT 22:

dialogue [aka equality, balance and symmetry, aka complementarity] as a process of creating the new came before, and goes beyond, the exchange of “equivalents” that merely reflect or repeat the old.

“Came before” = “is more beautiful and more divine” = “goes beyond the exchange of ‘equivalents’ that merely reflect or repeat the old” = “symmetry is at its best when it is inexact, but inexact according to appropriate law”. 

But why is this “very like the main question concerning (…) Humanity”? Because humans cannot relate to truth and goodness through identity with them.  Aside from the fatal circumstance that we lack the timber for this, McLuhan insisted over and over and over again that all human relation to anything at all is made (and not a matter of matching).  Humans cannot escape the fly-bottle of media.  Humans are inescapably finite in a myriad ways and have no purchase on anything infinite that does not trans-late “it” into something finite.6 Taken seriously, a seldom enough occurrence, this reduces to nihilism as Nietzsche tirelessly described.7 Unless, that is, humans are the pluralizing “inexact” finite term of an infinite “symmetry” that “concentrates on the work without being outwardly visible”, a “symmetry” whose “true strength” it is to outer itself into plurality in the unbalanced asymmetry of human beings.  

In this case, the realization of utter finitude would be the condition of a relation beyond ourselves. But since this is something humans can hardly avoid — we are going to die and are the epitome of evil — we exist willy-nilly in a medium of ‘relation beyond ourselves’ that we cannot see and do not acknowledge and certainly do not deserve.  This is the medium that is the message than which there is “nothing (…) more beautiful and more divine”.8

At the turn of the year from 1950 to 1951, in his long letter to Harold Innis, McLuhan wrote. 

Wyndham Lewis’s The Art of Being Ruled (…) is probably the most radical political document since Machiavelli’s Prince. But whereas Machiavelli was concerned with the use of society as raw material for the arts of power, Lewis reverses the perspective and tries to discern the human shape once more in a vast technological landscape which has been ordered on Machiavellian lines. (Letters, 222)

To “reverse (…) perspective” to enable us “to discern the human shape once more in a vast technological landscape which has been ordered on Machiavellian lines” was the goal of McLuhan’s work.  It turned on “the main question concerning (…) Humanity” that is nothing other than the question of “inexact” relation “according to appropriate law”.9

 

  1. Like his reference to “the Cumaean Gates” in his July 16, 1952, letter to Pound, all these (“the Cumaean Gates, the ring Wall cities, and Peripolesis-periplum, the Troy game etc”) are images and themes used to portray “the diverse labyrinths” of epic exploration, of human wit and witlessness, of life and death, and of life beyond death’s “gates”.
  2. The argument here runs as follows: a) if equality, balance and symmetry are simply singular relations between plural terms, there must be some fundamental possibility of such singularity that is deeper than them; b) but if equality, balance and symmetry are subject to a deeper possibility than themselves, it is not the case that “nothing (…) is more beautiful and more divine than equality and even, balanced symmetry”; c) therefore, if “nothing (…) is more beautiful and more divine than equality and even, balanced symmetry”, equality, balance and symmetry must themselves be plural.
  3. ‘Pluralizing terms’ are terms that are needed if a first term (like equality, balance or symmetry) is to be plural. Equality is not plural if it is related to equality.  To be plural, it must be related to something other than equality, therefore some variety of inequality. Hence McLuhan’s remark concluding TT22: “dialogue as a process of creating the new came before, and goes beyond, the exchange of “equivalents” that merely reflect or repeat the old.”
  4. Gutenberg Galaxy, 35: “Languages being that form of technology constituted by dilation or uttering (outering) of all of our senses at once….”.
  5. The great question implicated here is when this pluralization occurs. If it is a sequential — diachronic — event, plurality must be secondary and singularity primary. In fundamental contrast, if plurality is original, singularity must be secondary and derivative.  In this event, singularity might be termed plurality’s “inexact” way of being plural.
  6. The Indo-European root of  ‘-late’ in ‘translate’ (and in ‘collate’, ‘dilate’, ‘elate’, ‘oblate’, ‘relate’, etc) — all from Latin ‘latus’ (‘carried’, ‘borne’) — is *tlatos. And *tlatos is also the root of ‘tele’ as in telescope, telegraph, telephone, television and telos. Perhaps *tlatos may be taken as the original name of ‘relation beyond ourselves’ aka — ‘communication’.
  7. “With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!” With this demonstration, Nietzsche revealed that nihilism is self-cancelling and therefore, like everything else, points beyond itself. But to see this, it must be taken seriously — a seldom enough occurrence.
  8. Absent such fundamental ‘relation beyond ourselves’, humans could never have begun to use language in the deep past and could not learn language as children even now. The mystery is that a capacity (for relation beyond itself) can be awakened in a child in a process that could not take place unless this capacity were already operative. Here is McLuhan to John Snyder, Aug 4 1963: “…we are already moving in depth into a situation in which learning becomes a total process (…) from infancy to old-age. The pattern by which one learns one’s mother tongue is now being extended to all learning whatsoever. The human dialogue itself becomes not only the economic, but the political and social, fact.”  (Letters 291)
  9. Mathew 3:13-15 may be read as an illustration of “inexact” relation “according to appropriate law”, namely that of righteousness (δικαιοσύνην): “Then cometh Jesus from Galilee to Jordan unto John, to be baptized of him. But John forbad him, saying, I have need to be baptized of thee, and comest thou to me? And Jesus answering said unto him, Suffer it to be so now: for thus it becometh us to fulfil all righteousness.” Dostoevsky is reported to have cited this passage just before he died.