Scylla and Charybdis 1

In a startling example of second sight, McLuhan’s short Manitoba M.A. thesis on George Meredith (1934) cited one passage from Meredith no less than four separate times:

speeding of us, compact of what we are, between the ascetic rocks and the sensual whirlpools, to the creating of certain nobler races now very dimly imagined1… (Meredith, Diana of the Crossways, chapter 37, cited by McLuhan, George Meredith as a Poet and Dramatic Novelist, at pages 39, 48, 63 and 82)2

The whirlpool or worldpool or vortex or Maelstrom would become, of course, a central theme and image in McLuhan’s whole enterprise. But, twenty and thirty years after his Manitoba M.A. thesis, he also specifically discussed “Scylla and Charybdis, rock and whirlpool”, themselves:

Joyce underlines the skill of Bloom’s social decorum in a peculiarly witty way. Homer’s Odysseus learns from Circe that after passing the Sirens there were two courses open to him. One is by way of the Wandering Rocks, which Jason alone had passed in the 
Argo. The other is the way of Scylla and Charybdis, rock and whirlpool. Odysseus avoids the labyrinth of the Wandering Rocks. But Bloom navigates both labyrinths safely, thus excelling Odysseus. The Rocks are citizens and society seen in abstraction as mindless, Martian mechanisms. The “stone” men are children of the sun, denizens of space, exempt from time (…) Opposed to them are “The Dead” (see last story in Dubliners) children of the moon, the Celtic twilight (“cultic twalette”), moving in the aquacities of time, memory, and sentiment. On these dual labyrinths of stone and water Joyce has built almost every line he has written. (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial)

What could be more practical for a man caught between the Scylla of a literary culture and the Charybdis of post-literate technology to make himself a raft of ad copy? He is behaving like Poe’s sailor in the Maelstrom who studied the action of the whirlpool and survives. May not it be our job in the new electronic age to study the action of the new vortex on the body of the older cultures? (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 77)

While Meredith’s “creating of certain nobler races” might strikes us today as dubious and potentially dangerous, McLuhan’s larger (if less grandiose) goal could certainly be thought to have concerned human and even biological survival “now very dimly imagined”.


  1. At the end of his thesis at 117, McLuhan cited a part of this passage for a fifth (!) time: “certain nobler races now very dimly imagined”.
  2. A trace of this early citation and its unusual use of ‘compact’ may be found in McLuhan’s remark 30 years later: “The bomb is our environment. The bomb is of higher learning all compact, the extension division of the university.” (‘Notes on Burroughs’, 1964)