Monthly Archives: July 2022

The earwig when bisected fights itself

A note left by McLuhan in a 1950 issue of UTQ1 has been transcribed by Andrew McLuhan. The note ends with the striking aperçu: “The earwig when bisected fights itself.”

The ultimate source of this observation must have been Eduard von Hartmann’s Philosophie des Unbewussten (Philosophy of the Unconscious) from 1869 (translation 1884):

the anterior part of one bisected insect continues the act of devouring, and the posterior part of another the act of propagation. (…) Crickets with their heads cut off even seek their females for days, find them and copulate, just as if they were unscathed. (…) The like independence of the will in the different ganglia of one and the same animal is observed, when the two halves of a divided earwig (…) turn against one another, and, under the unmistakable influence of the passion of anger and lust of fighting, contend furiously with their antennæ till exhaustion or death ensues. (trans 62)

Wyndham Lewis was particularly struck by this passage. He cited it in successive books in successive years (The Art of Being Ruled in 1926 and Time and Western Man in 1927) and, in the latter, on successive pages — at length on TWM 337 directly from von Hartmann:

and then again on TWM 338:

McLuhan’s note — “the earwig when bisected fights itself” — is particularly close to Lewis’ formulation on TWM 338 — “an earwig (…) cut in half engages in mortal combat with itself”. But von Hartmann’s  formulation (in translation) is also not far off — “the two halves of a divided earwig (…) turn against one another”.

Lewis referred to the same von Hartmann passage a year earlier than TWM in his 1926 Art of Being Ruled:

Continuity, in the individual as in the race, is the diagnostic of a civilized condition. If you can break this personal continuity in an individual, you can break him. For he is that continuity. It is against these joints and sutures of the personality that an able attack will always be directed. You can divide a person against himself, unless he is very well organized: as the two halves of a severed earwig become estranged and fight with each other when they meet.

McLuhan closely studied these two 1926/1927 books of Lewis after meeting him in the summer of 1943. His 1944 ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’ quotes from both of them extensively.

Although Lewis as the source of McLuhan’s awareness of the image of the divided earwig fighting with itself seems clear, it would be interesting to know more about the same question in regard to both Lewis and Joyce. Did Lewis get the image directly or indirectly from von Hartmann? If indirectly, from whom?

The case with Joyce is of the utmost interest. In 1923 he was already writing (in the so-called Finn’s Hotel) about ‘Earwicker’ and the earwig. At that time he surely knew, directly or indirectly, of the earwig image in von Hartmann. Was this the reason he was so struck by the ‘Earwicker’ name when he came across it on holiday in 1923 in Sussex?2 The whole genesis of Finnegans Wake seems to be at stake in these questions.

  1. University of Toronto Quarterly 19:2, January 1950. McLuhan himself had a contribution in this issue, a review of R.W. Stallman, Essays in Criticism 1920-1948.
  2. See Peter Chrisp’s wonderful post on ‘James Joyce in Bognor Regis‘.

Buick ad 1947

McLuhan’s early writings,  especially ‘American Advertising’ (1947), Typhon in America (1949, unpublished) and The Mechanical Bride (1951) reflect his detailed engagement with the popular environment, particularly with ads (but also with movies, radio, fashions, slang, etc). Here’s a Buick ad from 1947 that ran in newspapers nationally — McLuhan used it in Typhon II.1 along with other ads like MacLevy’s Figurama.

YOU know at first look that it’s the beginning of a wonderful friendship. You can picture yourself, with all that Fireball power to boss around, making the most of bright blue weather, trampling the miles into nothing and striding the hills like a Paul Bunyan on the loose. You feel like a kid with a new toy train handling controls that automatically send the top up or down, the front seat back and forth, the door windows to just the level you want. All of which is grand for a starter. But what means even more is that here you are stepping right square into tomorrow. Here in flowing fender lines, and neat, rich grille you travel in the eye-stopping style that is shaping the whole future of automobile design. You are not only style-right now, but are certain-sure to stay smartly in the swim for a long span of years to come. So what does it matter if the most we can assure you now is a spot on a Buick waiting list, you’ll still have the smartest, freshest thing on wheels when the happy day-of-delivery comes. But get this — you can place your order with or without a car to trade. You’ll pay no more than established prices that apply at delivery time, and you’ll find us just as courteously ready to talk business as if our showrooms were filled with cars rather than eager car-buyers. Come in, have a chat, and see if you don’t agree it’s smart to get your order in early.

McLuhan cited the underlined ad copy in Typhon:

This is from a car ad which might have been written for a super-matrimonial agency:

You know at first look that It’s the beginning of a wonderful friendship. You can picture yourself, with all that fireball power to boss around…. Here in flowing fenderlines, and neat rich grille you travel in the eye-stopping style…

Boy oh Boy! with bumpers that curve around your heart and a Hotchkiss drive! If one notices the catalogue of special engineering features which accompany many car ads it is as though one were reading the catalogue of design features for a girdle or bra. (Typhon in America, II.1)

The sheer number of ads referenced or quoted in any section of McLuhan’s writing in this period is noteworthy. But more important is the idea that is developing behind the scenes — the idea, namely, that everything in the human environment (= all experience)1 is the dynamic expression of underlying structural dominants which McLuhan would come to call, a full decade later, media.2

  1. “The human environment” has two aspects. There is physical nature, including the physical body of human beings, which is studied in the various physical sciences. This may be called the exterior landscape. Then there is the environment as experienced  — “the entire diversity of civilized interests”, as McLuhan wrote in his 1950 UTQ review of Stallman — which McLuhan termed the interior landscape. It is not yet subject to scientific investigation — but must become so if we are to survive our own folly. (This interior landscape is not ‘interior’ in any spatial sense. It is ‘interior’ in that its constitution is determined in ways that cannot be abstracted from the psyche. Furthermore, this interior landscape is an entirely different field, actually fields, from those of the physical sciences. It is decidedly not the case, therefore, that the interior landscape might be investigated scientifically by collapsing it into one or more of the physical sciences.)
  2. To compare, in physical sciences like chemistry and genetics, their elements (this was also Mendel’s name for what later were called ‘genes’) are inherently dynamic — they ex-press themselves as particular configurations in the experienced material environment with associated particular effects there. We come to understand it when we come to understand them — a process that took hundreds of thousands of years to be initiated consciously and  that is ongoing as we speak. The imperative is to learn about them excluding us; excluding, that is, the limitations and distortions we bring to our experience of them. The whole point of experiment is to put a check on these. But what about those limitations and distortions themselves? Is the experienced material environment including us — the interior landscape — subject to a similar sort of collective investigation to that which we exercise in and on the exterior landscape excluding us? (This question puts a whole new spin on media as “extensions of the senses”!) McLuhan’s answer was that this is entirely possible and, furthermore, that this sort of interrogation is desperately needed today in a nuclear environment as a, or the, ‘strategy for survival’. And just as with the exterior landscape, the demand in regard to the interior one is to initiate the required investigation by specifying the underlying structure of its field or fields: “the medium is the message”.

Typhon/Minotaur/Dionysus parallels

In Typhon in America,1 McLuhan brings together three mythological cycles, that of (1) Typhon,
(2) Daedalus-Minotaur and (3) Dionysus,2
 without, however, specifying the structural parallels between them. He must have at least sensed their mutual implication in his emphatic use of all three of them in his sectional titles for Typhon (as detailed below). But just what is that mutual implication?

Francis Bacon’s retaling of the Typhon saga in Wisdom of the Ancients (1609) is used by McLuhan for the title of his complete volume, for the title of its Book IV (SIXTY MILLION MAMA BOYS or TYPHON) and for its epigraph. Here is the epigraph to McLuhan’s volume:

Juno, being vexed, say the poets, that Jupiter had begotten Pallas by himself without her, earnestly pressed all the other gods and goddesses, that she might also bring forth of herself alone without him; and having by violence and importunity obtained a grant thereof, she smote the earth, and forthwith sprang up Typhon, a huge and horrid monster. This strange birth she commits to a serpent, as a foster-father, to nourish it; who no sooner came to ripeness of years but he provokes Jupiter to battle. In the conflict, the giant getting the upper hand, takes Jupiter upon his shoulders, carries him into a remote and obscure country, and, cutting out the sinews of his hands and feet, brought them away, and so left him miserably mangled and maimed; but Mercury recovering these nerves from Typhon by stealth, restored them again to Jupiter. Jupiter being again by this means corroborated, assaults the monster afresh, and at the first strikes him with a thunderbolt, from whose blood serpents were engendered. This monster at length fainting and flying, Jupiter casts on him the mount Aetna, and with the weight thereof crushes him.3

The second Daedalus-Minotaur cycle is used by McLuhan in the titles of the first two of the four books constituting Typhon in America:



Bacon’s retaling of the Minotaur cycle in Wisdom of the Ancients clearly struck McLuhan with its emphasis on “mechanic”, hence his emphasis on ‘know-how’ and ‘technology’ in his titles. But unlike the Typhon saga, that of the Minotaur is not explicitly quoted by him. It reads as follows in Bacon:

Mechanical wisdom and industry, and in it unlawful science perverted to wrong ends, is shadowed by the ancients under the person of Daedalus, a man ingenious, but execrable. This Daedalus, (…) being banished, was kindly entertained, during his exile, in many cities and princes courts: for indeed he was the raiser and builder of many goodly structures, as well in honour of the gods, as the beauty and magnificence of cities, and other public places, but for his works of mischief he is most notorious. It is he that framed the engine which Pasiphae used to satisfy herself in companying with a bull, so that by his wretched industry and pernicious device, that monster Minotaur, the destruction of so many hopeful youths, took his accursed and infamous beginning; and studying to cover and increase one mischief with another, for the security and preservation of this Monster he invented and built a Labyrinth, a work for intent and use most nefarious and wicked, for skill and workmanship famous and excellent. Afterwards, that he might not be noted only for works of mischief, but be sought after as well for remedies, as for instruments of destruction, he was the author of that ingenious device concerning the clue of thread, by which the Labyrinth was made passable without any let. (Wisdom of the Ancients

The backstory to the Minotaur cycle begins with the gift by Poseidon of a white bull to Minos, the king of Crete, to be used for a divine sacrifice.4 But Minos, caught up by the bull’s beauty, substituted another bull for the sacrifice and thereby granted life to the white bull. Angered, Poseidon caused Pasiphae, Minos’ wife, to lust after the bull.5 Daedalus then crafted a kind of Trojan cow for her, through which Pasiphae was able to mate with the object of her frenzy. The child of this mechanical and unnatural union was the Minotaur.6

Both these mythic cycles of Typhon and of the minotaur concern monsters conceived without a human male. And in both there is a previous birth (in the case of Pallas Athena) or gifting of life (in the case of the white bull) without a female. In both cycles, the above (Zeus Asterion, Jupiter [Zu-pater]) and below (earth, snake, depth of the labyrinth) — so the light and the dark —  come into violent conflict in which the below is momentarily victorious. Again in both, sinews/labyrinth/thread (media!) are the cause both of loss and recovery.

In the mythological cycle concerning Pasiphae, she is said to have married Dionysus, who is named in the title of Book III by McLuhan:


Across the various tellings of this cycle, it is not clear if this was an alternative tale to Pasiphae’s marriage with Minos or as a prolongation of that tale, coming after it. And it is unclear if Dionysus’ wife was Pasiphae or Pasiphae’s daughter, Ariadne. In any case, McLuhan’s association of Pasiphae with Dionysus was not fortuitous. The Greeks saw close implication between her fate and Dionysus and so did Bacon and McLuhan. Here is Bacon’s chapter on Dionysus in Wisdom of the Ancients:

They say that Semele, the mistress of Jupiter, having bound him by an inviolable oath to grant her a request whatever it might be, desired of him to come to her arms in the same form as he would to Juno; and so she was scorched to death in his embrace. The child which she bore in her womb was taken by his father and sewn up in his thigh, till the time of gestation was accomplished. And because the child, when in the thigh of Jupiter, pinched and galled him so as to make him limp, he received the name of Dionysus.7 After he was brought forth he was nursed for some years by Proserpine;8 and when he grew up his face was so like a woman’s that it seemed doubtful of which sex he was. He was likewise once dead and buried for a time, but came to life again not long after. In his early youth he was the first to invent and explain the culture of the vine, and the making of wine, and its use; whereby becoming renowned and illustrious, he subdued the whole world and advanced to the furthest parts of India. (…) He took to wife Ariadne [daughter of Pasiphae who can appear in the cycle in her stead], whom Theseus had deserted and abandoned. His sacred tree was the ivy. He was regarded likewise as the inventor and institutor of sacred rites and orgies ; but such as were fanatical and full of corruption and moreover cruel. He had also the power of exciting phrensy. At least it was by women excited to phrensy in his orgies that two renowned men, Pentheus and Orpheus, are said to have been torn to pieces ; the one having climbed into a tree out of curiosity to see what they were doing ; the other while playing sweetly and skillfully on the lyre. Moreover the actions of this god are often confounded with those of Jupiter.

The parallels of this cycle with those of Typhon and the Minotaur are clear. Outrageous feminine desire in all three sagas leads to an irregular birth without a human male. Furthermore, the birth occurs either without a male at all (Juno and Typhon) or with too much male (Pasiphae and the white bull, Semele and Zeus). The child coming from the unnatural union is as outrageous as the ‘phrensied’ desire that led to its generation. The resulting children in all three cases ‘confound’ themselves with Jupiter and cause him great pain.9 In all three, there is central emphasis on sinews/labyrinth/thread — Dionysus is the god of grape vines, ivy and labyrinthine ceremonies. All include reference to music via sinew strings, pipes and rites. All three lead to the death of god (Jupiter via Typhon or Dionysus via his own “phrensy”) or to the death of the obligatory divine rites (in the cases of both Minos and the Minotaur). The central matter of all the cycles concerns extreme disorder and the question of its relation to the order of the cosmos.10

McLuhan concludes Typhon — just as he will conclude the Gutenberg Galaxy11 more than a decade later — with the same extended quotation from Pope’s 1725 Dunciad:

She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold
Of Night Primaeval, and of Chaos old!
Before her, Fancy’s gilded clouds decay,
And all its varying Rain-bows die away.
Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
As one by one, at dread Medea’s strain,
The sick’ning stars fade off th’ethereal plain;
As Argus’ eyes by Hermes’ wand opprest,
Clos’d one by one to everlasting rest;
Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
Art after Art goes out, and all is Night.
See skulking Truth to her old Cavern fled,
While the Great Mother bids Britannia sleep,
And pours her Spirit o’er the Land and Deep.
She comes! she comes! The Gloom rolls on,
Mountains of Casuistry heap’d o’er her head!
Philosophy, that lean’d on Heav’n before,
Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
Physic of Metaphysic begs defence,
And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!
See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
And unawares Morality expires.
Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;
Light dies before thy uncreating word:
Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
And Universal Darkness buries All.12

The Gutenberg Galaxy then immediately concludes:

This is the Night from which Joyce invites the Finnegans to wake.

Just as Typhon in America, 13 years before The Gutenberg Galaxy, immediately concludes: 

In this darkness we must learn to see.


  1. McLuhan sometimes called his unpublished manuscript from te late 1940s simply Typhon and at other times, Typhon in America. In the latter case, the parallel should be noted with his 1944 lecture (published in 1946): ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’. With both, the intent was to indicate a recurrent synchronic drama below the level of contemporary diachronic events. The same impulse was at work with Freud and Jung and with Yeats, Pound, Eliot and Joyce. It was also the great question of McLuhan’s Nashe thesis, one inherited from Rupert Lodge in Winnipeg — and one that McLuhan spent the rest of his life interrogating.
  2. A fourth cycle concerning MERCURY is cited by McLuhan in Book IV of Typhon from Bacon’s PAN or NATURE chapter of Wisdom of the Ancients: “Mercury, that is, the Word of God, which the Holy Scriptures without all controversy affirm, and such of the philosophers as had any smack of divinity assented unto (…) Whereas Pan is said to be, next unto Mercury, the messenger of the gods, there is in that a divine mystery contained; for, next to the word of God, the image of the world proclaims the power and wisdom divine, as sings the sacred poet. Psalm xix: ‘Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei et opera manuum eius adnuntiat firmamentum.’ The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament showeth the works of his hands.” Mercury as “messenger of the gods” plays the role of logos or medium or sinews/labyrinth/thread both between the gods themselves and between the gods and the historical order. That this logos or medium or thread reveals both as word and as the intelligible order of nature, especially of the stars, is the explicit topic of McLuhan’s Nashe thesis.
  3. Wisdom of the Ancients, Spedding edition. In his citation McLuhan does not include Bacon’s chapter heading, ‘TYPHON OR A REBEL’.
  4. Other tellings of the cycle simply say that the best bull of the king’s herd was supposed to be sacrificed each year. But one year Minos could not bring himself to offer a particularly fine bull and substituted another…
  5. Poseidon unmistakably identifies the sacrilegious character of Minos’ affection for the white bull by causing his wife’s sacrilegious affection for it in, so to say, another register. Minos’ affection leads (or seems to lead) to life (for the bull), Pasiphae’s to repeated death. The message to Minos: ‘You have mistaken life for death.’ (The same message was delivered in the subsequent history of the spared bull itself which, once granted life, went on to bring death to all of Greece through its uncontrollable rampage through it.)
  6. There are many variations to this myth. For example, sometimes the bull is not a gift from Poseidon, but from his brother, Zeus. Hence, the Minotaur’s name, ‘Asterion’ or ‘starry one’, which was also a name under which Zeus was worshipped. But ‘Asterion’ was the name of Minos’ human ‘father’ as well — or, at least, of his predecessor as king. So in this telling, in which Zeus could be considered the ‘father’ of the white bull, ‘Asterion’ was the Minotaur’s ‘grandfather’ on both of its divine and human ancestral lines (Zeus-bull-minotaur; King Asterion-Minos/Pasiphae-minotaur). The constants across the variations of these myth cycles are not identities of who did what to whom, however, but questions: what is paternity? what is maternity? what is it to give life? And especially, what is it to receive life?
  7. Bacon was referencing Nonnus of Panopolis here, the 5th century AD composer of the Dionysiaca. Nonnus held that the name Dionysus meant ‘Zeus-limp’ and that Hermes named the new born Dionysus in this way, “because Zeus while he carried his burden (of the baby) lifted one foot with a limp from the weight of his thigh, and ‘nysos in Syracusan language means limping”. Modern etymologies, however, believe the name to be pre-Greek: it appears already in Minoan B tablets.
  8. Proserpine was queen of the underworld. The nursing of Dionysus by her at once relates Dionysus to the labyrinth of the Minotaur and reinforces the ‘later’ event of Dionysus’ death and resurrection. ‘He is risen’ of Christian Easter was once also cried every ‘spring’ about Dionysus.
  9. In the case of the Minotaur, the challenge to Zeus’ order is primarily made by his father, the Cretan bull, which, even after being subdued by Herakles, continued to rampage throughout the Greek world. But the Minotaur itself challenged Zeus by implementing an improper sacrifice namely, the annual sacrifice to himself of Athenian children.
  10. The death of God is the supreme disorder that can befall the universe. It is repeatedly at stake in the mythological cycles at stake in Bacon and McLuhan — and, of course, in the Christian cross. And it is captured in the concluding lines cited by McLuhan from the Dunciad.
  11. The book — The Gutenberg Galaxy — includes as a kind of epilogue an additional section: ‘The Galaxy Reconfigured’. The conclusion at stake here is that of the preceding major portion of the book describing the syndrome of the ‘Gutenberg galaxy’ itself.
  12. Dunciad (B), IV, 11.627-56.

MacLevy’s Figurama

In his unpublished Typhon in America, aka, Guide to Chaos, McLuhan cites many different news reports and ads from the late 1940s to illustrate the link between mechanization and sex.1 One of these, in Typhon Book II2, chapter i3, runs as follows:

Do you like my figure?
MacLevy’s have been keeping it slim and trim.

Monty MacLevy offered books

and home kits to help housewives shape themselves  up. His ‘Figurama salon-at-home slenderizing plan’ must have particularly caught McLuhan’s eye:


  1. Typhon can be considered a footnote to Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command which McLuhan reviewed in 1949.
  3. “Announcing the birth of a petunia”.