Monthly Archives: October 2022

G.S. Brett

G.S. Brett (1879-1944), longtime University of Toronto professor and Harold Innis’ predecessor as Dean of Graduate Studies, had died by the time McLuhan got to Toronto in 1946. But Brett’s Psychology Ancient and Modern was familiar to McLuhan, perhaps through Carl Williams who knew of Brett’s work from his grad studies in psychology at UT in the 1930s.1

Brett’s book is cited in The Gutenberg Galaxy (p 74):

Only one third of the history of the book in the Western world has been typographic. It is not incongruous, therefore, to say as G. S. Brett does in Psychology Ancient and Modern:

The idea that knowledge is essentially book learning seems to be a very modern view, probably derived from the mediaeval distinctions between clerk and layman, with additional emphasis provided by the literary character of the rather fantastic humanism of the sixteenth century. The original and natural idea of knowledge is that of “cunning” or the possession of wits. Odysseus is the original type of thinker, a man of many ideas who could overcome the Cyclops and achieve a significant triumph of mind over matter. Knowledge is thus a capacity for overcoming the difficulties of life and achieving success in this world.2

Brett here specifies the natural dichotomy which the book brings into any society, in addition to the split within the individual of that society.

The image of the Cyclops appears frequently in McLuhan’s work, usually signifying unipolar ‘thinking’ that is lacking in depth perception (because lacking the bipolarity necessary for it). 

A further passage in Brett concerning the “spontaneous act of the soul” may have contributed to McLuhan’s idea that the “power of detached observation” provides an escape from the media maelstrom.3 

The mystics were always more or less Platonic; mediaeval Platonism handed on to modern times the one indispensable principle that every fragment of knowledge, though it may be conditioned by the sense, involves a spontaneous act of the soul. Platonism thus became the natural creed of all who believed that consciousness cannot be reduced to physiological terms.4


  1. Williams obtained his MA (1937) and PhD (1940) in psychology from UT. He took at least one seminar with E.A. Bott (see D.C. Williams, ‘Bott’s “Systematic” Seminar: Some Recollections‘, Canadian Psychologist / Psychologie canadienne, 15:3, 1974, 299–301), who would be credited with Williams’ ideas on ‘auditory space’ in the culture and technology seminar. Williams’ undergraduate degree came from the University of Manitoba, where he and McLuhan continued their high school friendship. At that time the University of Manitoba had not yet separated the Philosophy and Psychology departments. But William’s decision to take advanced degrees in psychology at UT must have been  influenced by Henry Wright, who was the head of the psychology subsection within the Philosophy department at UM and would become the first head of the separated department of Psychology when it finally came into independent existence in 1945.
  2. Psychology, Ancient and Modern, 36.
  3. Footprints in the Sands of Crime’ (1946): “The sailor in his (Poe’s) story The Maelstrom is at first paralyzed with horror. But in his very paralysis there is another fascination which emerges, a power of detached observation which becomes a “scientific” interest in the action of the strom. And this provides the means of escape.”
  4. Psychology, Ancient and Modern, 150.

McDonald on Humboldt and McLuhan

In his 2017 book, Artefacts of Writing: Ideas of the State and Communities of Letters from Matthew Arnold to Xu BingPeter McDonald makes a series of observations on McLuhan which are utterly mis-taken — but which yet may be taken to point (in the mode of Wittgenstein’s arrows)1 to central aspects of McLuhan’s project. Here is a sample of McDonald’s take with a running commentary given in the footnotes:2

McLuhan looked back to the Prussian idealist philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, citing the following key statement from On the Diversity of Human Language (1836) via Ernst Cassirer and in Susanne K. Langer’s translation:

Man lives with his objects chiefly — in fact, since his feeling and acting depends on his perceptions, one may say exclusively — as language presents them to him. By the same process whereby he spins language out of his own being, he ensnares himself in it; and each language draws a magic circle round the people to which it belongs, a circle from which there is no escape save by stepping out of it into another.3

(…) Humboldt saw this as a phenomenon in and of language; whereas McLuhan, like Goody and Watt,4 believed that the effects of print were social and political as well as cognitive.5 If the ‘Gutenberg revolution’ instituted the ‘fixed point of view’ characteristic of nationalist thinking (…) McLuhan, it should be said, did not appeal to Humboldt merely as an exemplar of nation-centred linguistic relativity.6 In keeping with his Utopian vision,7 he saw the passage from the Diversity of Human Language as an endorsement of his own ambition to ‘transcend the limitations of our own assumptions by a critique of them’.8 Humboldt’s relativism, as he saw it, was fundamentally emancipatory, since he showed9 ‘we can now live, not just amphibiously in divided and distinguished worlds, but pluralistically in many worlds and cultures simultaneously’.10 For him, the ‘global village’ to come was, in other words, not just post-literate but post-national.11 Like many commentators, he ignored the fact that Humboldt, for all his relativism, always insisted on seeing languages as open-ended rather than ‘closed systems’, the expressive potential of which is endlessly extendable…12 

What McDonald says McLuhan ignored in von Humboldt — “the expressive  potential [of language] which is endlessly extendable” — is actually what McDonald “like many commentators” ignores in McLuhan: namely, the all important distinction between ‘making’ and ‘matching’ (or ‘merging’). Making is “open-ended”, while matching/merging aims at being ‘closed-ended’ — but can never actually be ‘closed-ended’ given the multiple ramifications of human finitude. 

The “endlessly extendable” nature of all human enterprise operates despite the fact that we are always situated in some or other “magic circle” — “from which there is no escape save by stepping out of it into another”. This may be seen as negative or positive — or both — depending upon context. For McLuhan, the great point is that real communication and real knowing occur despite — or exactly thereby — the fact that no ultimate closure is possible. “The gap is where the action is.” This is most clearly to be seen in language learning by in-fants. Somehow they step from one magic circle to another. But something of the sort occurs in all great art and in all scientific discovery.

As regards the field of media theory, which is no less than the field of all human experience which is never unmediated, never not situated in some or other “magic circle”, the “endlessly extendable” nature of language implicates the possibility that this field, too, may be investigated and mapped. McLuhan’s insistent question: why don’t we get on with the job when so much, even our survival, may depend on it?

Here he is in his Playboy interview:

our survival (…)  is predicated on understanding the nature of our new environment, because unlike previous environmental changes, the electric media constitute a total and near-instantaneous transformation of culture, values and attitudes. This upheaval generates great pain and identity loss, which can be ameliorated only through a conscious awareness of its dynamics. If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slaves.
Because of today’s terrific speed-up of information moving, we have a chance to apprehend, predict and influence the environmental forces shaping us — and thus win back control of our own destinies. The new extensions of man and the environment they generate are the central manifestations of the evolutionary process, and yet we still cannot free ourselves of the delusion that it is how a medium is used that counts, rather than what it does to us and with us. This is the zombie stance of the technological idiot. It’s to escape this Narcissus trance that I’ve tried to trace and reveal the impact of media on man, from the beginning of recorded time to the present.


  1. PU #454: “Der Pfeil zeigt nur in der Anwendung, die das Lebewesen von ihm macht.” An arrow has meaning only in the application made of it within some exercise of life. McLuhan: the message of an arrow has meaning only in the context of some prior medium.
  2. McDonald, p 11. Single quotation marks in the passage signal McDonald’s citations from The Gutenberg Galaxy, the great majority of which are from its first 40 pages.
  3. Cited from von Humboldt in The Gutenberg Galaxy30-31.
  4. In ‘The Consequences of Literacy’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, 5:3 (April, 1963), pp. 304-345.
  5. McLuhan would reject this “whereas” since for him the “social and political” were fundamentally also “in and of language”. Like everything in possible human experience, they had their “grammars”. For McLuhan’s discussion of the point see, eg, his 1958 Grammars of the Media.
  6. Are “nationalist thinking” and “nation-centred linguistic relativity” offered here as figures or grounds? Do they make sense either way? Especially, are independent investigators able to specify these proposed objects and to investigate them in common? By implicating questions like these, the Gutenberg mentality points beyond itself (cf Wittgenstein’s arrows above) and is, therefore, not at all merely negative in McLuhan’s view (as McDonald would have it). More, McLuhan often characterized his whole project as an attempt to defend such undoubted goods such as individual identity, privacy, human rights, law and science, all of which he saw as priceless products of the Gutenberg galaxy and as gravely threatened in a world gone electric. Today in 2022, over 40 years after McLuhan’s death, it is plain that he was all too prophetic about that threat.
  7. As if wishing to illustrate McLuhan’s description of the literary outlook as “schizophrenic”, McDonald characterizes McLuhan’s work in successive sentences as “starkly negative” and as “utopian” in its desire to “unite the entire human family” (10). The same taste for stark dissociation may be seen in operation immediately before this where McDonald describes McLuhan as “a direct inversion” of the “world according to Goody and Watt”. In fundamental contrast, McLuhan’s enterprise attempted to liberate us from such conceptualizations as “direct inversion” by insisting on the prior range of such ratios.
  8. The word “endorsement” here is strange. Far rather, McLuhan saw von Humboldt’s observation as precipitating basic problems which, once deeply considered, might lead to needed new ground. The central problem in von Humboldt’s passage is the threat of infinite regress from one “magic circle” to another and to another after that — and so on indefinitely. Moreover, as Nietzsche was to show later that century, such regress leads to the loss, not only of the ‘true world’, but of the ‘apparent world’ along with it. Hence his nihilism. Put in McLuhan’s terms, if the medium is the message, how is any medium to be specified except via some further medium? And if the medium can never be specified strictly (because always begging the question of its medium), how can it be that ‘the medium is the message’? What medium? And, therefore, what message? Here Beckett is the great expositor.
  9. McDonald omits explication of just how what “ensnares” might “show” at the same time — especially how it might show something “fundamentally emancipatory”. But precisely this is the heart of the matter!
  10. Here is the fundamental medium (or elementary structure) proposed by McLuhan: “live, not just (…) in (…) distinguished worlds, but pluralistically in many worlds and cultures simultaneously”. That is, we may now live not just in one “distinguished world” structured by a singular (usually molecular) configuration of ear/eye ratio, but “in many worlds and cultures simultaneously” — by always judging against the background of all possible ear/eye ratios and their combinations at once.
  11. McDonald’s linear language here (“to come”, “post-“) fails to appreciate the synchronic axis of McLuhan’s work (“simultaneously”) and therefore also fails to appreciate the crossing in it of the synchronic and diachronic axes. The underlying problem is a failure to appreciate the inherent plurality of times. ‘Time’s arrow’, like Wittgenstein’s, is not unidirectional.
  12. Or was McLuhan one of the few people in the world who took this open/closed question with deep seriousness by insisting on the range of their ratios? Indeed, how a “magic circle” that “ensnares” might also be “open-ended (…) the expressive potential of which is endlessly extendable” is the great question — one McLuhan engaged for 35 years as that of a possible “ascent from the maelstrom”.

The entire range of human expressiveness

In the 1969 Counterblast McLuhan writes of the “total matrix of living relations”, the “primordial matrix”, from which humans via an “enormous effort of collective abstraction” can ‘disentangle’ a new understanding of discrete areas of life (such as geometry):

Geometry is visual space. An enormous effort of collective abstraction [as occurred in Greece 2500 years ago in the founding of geometry] precedes the disentangling of these [focal] elements from the total matrix of living relations. Today an even greater energy is needed (…) to understand in a connubium [in a complex singularity like a city], the unity of all the elements which men have abstracted by their codes from the primordial matrix. 

As regards the still un-dis-covered (or, at least, uncommunicated) field of human perception, this “total matrix” or “primordial matrix” is “the entire range of human personal expressiveness”1, the “complete a range of expressiveness”2, the “medium itself”3, from which any particular perception of an individual or a society may be regarded as abstracted. In this same sense, any sample of physical material may be studied as abstracted from the “total matrix” or “complete range” of chemical possibilities (which “range” or Mendeleev’s table is of course just what chemistry is).4

In the passages below, McLuhan points to this matrix or range of expressiveness that amounts to the spectrum of possibilities out of which human experience may be specified — and thereby investigated — as generated:

Technology and Political Change (1952)
If the new reality of our time is in the main a collective dream or nightmare brought about by the mechanization of speech (television takes the final step of mechanizing the expressiveness of the human figure and gesture) then we must learn the art of using all our wits in a dream world, as did James Joyce in FINNEGANS WAKE. 

Technology and Political Change (1952)
Seen as communication networks, all cultures past or present represent a uniquely valuable response to specific problems in interpersonal and inter-social communication. This position amounts to no more than saying that any known language possesses qualities of expressiveness not to be found in any other language [just as any sample of physical material must be investigated as a unique product of the elements composing it].

Notes on the Media as Art Forms (1954)
Andre Malraux came up with the news of ‘museums-without-walls’. The main force making in that direction he saw was the clarification of the painter’s medium itself. The canvas gradually freed from anecdote and narrative became in our time not a vehicle but sheer expression.

Notes on the Media as Art Forms (1954)
Every medium is in some sense a universal, pressing towards maximal realization. But its expressive pressures disturb existing balances and patterns in other media of culture. The increasing inclusiveness of our sense of such repercussions le
ads us today hopefully to investigate the possibilities of orchestral harmony in the multi-levelled drive towards pure human expressiveness.5

Historical Approach to the Media (1955)
Radio and TV were not just the electrification of speech and gesture but the electronification of the entire range of human personal expressiveness.

Nihilism Exposed (1955)
On the plane of applied science we have fashioned a Plotinian world-culture which implements the non-human and superhuman doctrines of neo-Platonic angelism to the point where the human dimension is obliterated by sensuality at one end of the spectrum, and by sheer abstraction at the other

Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication (1956)
If our new media constitute so complete a range of expressiveness as both to enhance and almost to supplant speech itself, then we have moved into the period of post-literacy. If our present means of exploring and presenting the human past are such as to make simultaneously present all kinds of human pasts, then we have moved into the period of post-history.

Prospect (1962)
The fact that we have many media now enables us to leap across the barriers from one form or one set of rules to another. And I think it is this multiplicity of media that is now enabling man to free himself from media for the first time in history. He has been the victim, the servo-mechanism of his technologies, his media from the beginning of time, but now because of the sheer multiplicity of them he is beginning to awaken.

Counterblast (1969)
Our craving today for balance and an end of ever accelerating change, may quite possibly point to the possibility thereof. But the obvious lesson of all this development for education seems to me both simple and startling. If our new media constitute so complete a range of expressiveness as both to enhance and almost to supplant speech itself, then we have moved into the period of post-literacy. If our present means of exploring and presenting the human past are such as to make simultaneously present all kinds of human pasts, then we have moved into the period of post-history. Not that we are to be deprived of books any more than of ancient manuscripts. But it is plain that our new culture is not going to lean very heavily on any one means of encoding experience or of representing reality.6

  1. Historical Approach to the Media’ (1955), cited above.
  2. Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication’ (1956) cited above.
  3. ‘Notes on the Media as Art Forms’ (1954), cited above.
  4. Sciences are both discovered and invented. Dis-covery is made of existing structures. What is invented is a way of focusing on those structures such that collective identification and investigation of them becomes possible.
  5. In this same essay, McLuhan calls the culmination of this “drive towards pure human expressiveness” a “day of emancipation” for “each channel of expression (even press, radio, cinema)”.
  6. Most of this passage is taken from the 1956 ‘Educational Effects of Mass Media of Communication’, some of which is given above.

Thoth: “the third ends the discord of the two”

We have fashioned a Plotinian world-culture which implements the non-human and superhuman doctrines of neo-Platonic angelism to the point where the human dimension is obliterated by sensuality at one end of the spectrum, and by sheer abstraction at the other. (Nihilism Exposed, 1955)

It’s to escape this Narcissus trance that I’ve tried to trace and reveal the impact of media on man, from the beginning of recorded time to the present. (Playboy Interview, 1969)

Thoth played a central role in the ancient Egyptian narrative of The Contendings of Horus and Seth. Their battles were said to have been put to rest through his intervention.1

However, it is important to read such narratives as a kind of diachronic description of a synchronic condition. Taken in this way, the contendings of Horus and Seth, along with the mediation of Thoth, sets out a gigantomachia peri tes ousias (the battle of the gods and giants over the nature of reality) that is structurally parallel to that of Plato 2500 years later — and to our contemporary versions 2500 years later still.2

Horus was the hawk god of the sky and the representative of the Egyptian council of the gods, the Ennead. He was the eye of the world. Seth was the desert animal of the earth — the testicles of the world. Like the gods and giants in the Greek gigantomachia, their battle of the above and the below, the Nile and the desert, the black and the red, abstraction and sensuality, was ‘always going on’ — but so was their peace as brought about by, and as represented in, Thoth.3   

The perennial situation of humans is to be the effect of this complex of times and spaces before them: the dynamic contest of Being itself. Such is human being.

The fate of humans is to have increasingly lost a sense of this definitive situation, a loss that amounts to a tower of Babel assault on the divine. But the tower of Babel assault is itself a mode of the gigantomachia! Hence the rejection and forgetfulness of the gigantomachia takes place, and can take place, only by a mimicking of what it would reject.

Of course there is no escape for beings from Being.

Herman te Velde’s Seth, God of Confusion (1967) sets out the figure of Thoth relative to Horus and Seth as follows:4

Thoth: “the son of the two rivals” (44)5

The moon [Thoth] comes forth out of Seth, who has devoured the seed of Horus. (51)

Thoth: “I am he who limits the flood, who separates the two men.” (60)

“I am he who separated the two brothers” (44)

Thoth: “the cutter” [of the “two brothers” apart from one another], “the sickle” [of the moon and as “cutter”] (44)6

The separating of Horus and Seth is equalled to setting a boundary between the cosmos and the chaos surrounding it like a flood. The separation, indeed, has creative significance, for it is a decisive mythical event. The Egyptians could link all kinds of distinctions or contrasts in contemporary reality with the separation of Horus and Seth: heaven and earth, earth and underworld, right and left, black and red, to be born and to be conceived, rulership and strength, life and dominion. The separation also means a dividing of the world. In the Pyramid texts there are mentioned the places of Horus and the places of Seth. This horizontal division is traversed by a vertical one, that of above and below. (60)

A hymn to Thoth says: “come and behold Thoth, who has appeared in his crown, which the two lords [Horus and Seth] have made fast for him in Hermopolis” [= city of Hermes = city of Thoth] (…) Horus and Seth are not usually imagined as working together in concord. The two combatants bring forth the god of peace [Thoth]. He appears and places himself between the two gods, thereby interceding in the struggle and ending their homosexual relationship.7 He makes separation between the two gods. The third ends the discord of the two gods. (45)

In sacrificial liturgies where the offering is termed the eye of Horus, lapidary sentences enumerate what may happen. Seth seizes the eye; he treads it underfoot; he has stolen it, etc. (…) All texts in which one can read open combat and a militant conflict [between Horus and Seth], are to be placed in this setting of myth and not elsewhere [eg, in historical events]. Yet even here it is not always necessary to imagine a violent fight. Together with the cause of the conflict, peace also becomes apparent: the mediator, Thoth. (45) 

Thoth has constructed the eye [of Horus] in such a way, that he has designed a new image of reality, which takes account of the existence of Seth. According to the Egyptians, reality is not only being, but being and non-being [together]. (48)

Van Baaren remarks “… the originator of confusion, like the creator who sets in order, is an aspect of total reality which cannot be spared.” This aspect of reality in cosmic, social and personal life, which finds expression in the key words ‘storm’, ‘tumult’, ‘illness’, the Egyptians could typify by means of [the hieroglyph of] a Seth-animal with a curved snout and a straight tail. Thus this disturber of the peace became an element of order in the Egyptian system of writing… (31)8

Van Baaren remarks: “In Egypt sacrifice is not so much a gift from men to the gods, as a sacred act whereby man can contribute to the  restoring or the maintaining of cosmic harmony.” (…) This harmony is attained when both Horus and Seth have received their attributes, eye and testicles respectively. (50)

Kerenyi said in [his commentary to Paul Radin’s The Trickster]: ”Disorder belongs to the totality of life, and the spirit of this disorder is the trickster. His function in an archaic society, or rather the function of his mythology, of the tales told about him, is to add disorder to order and so make a whole, to render possible, within the fixed bounds of what is permitted, an experience of what is not permitted”. The testicle symbol is the counterpart of the wedjat-eye, that [Egyptian] symbol of all good and holy things in sound and unimpaired condition. This other aspect of reality could not be ignored. The symbol of the testicles played a part in Egyptian religion from the time the Pyramid texts were composed until Graeco-Roman times [3000 years later]. Horus is appeased with his eye, but Seth must also be appeased with his testicles. Thus he is recognised and worshipped as the “spirit of disorder”, as the lord of the unbridled forces in nature and in civilisation. (56)

Kerenyi called the trickster: “the spirit of disorder, the enemy of boundaries”. (56)

Thoth, like Plato’s philosophical child or childish philosopher as portrayed in the Sophist, will have ‘both together’. But this is an ontological force, not an ontic one. It is therefore a real and perpetual possibility for humans, if we will submit ourselves to it; but at the same time it is a ‘contested’ possibility, not a singular one. Moreover, exactly on account of this plurality, its recognition requires the paradoxical recognition of its equally powerful siamese rivals, Horus and Seth in Egypt, the gods and the giants in Greece. It is this ontological plurality of the fundamentally different which then grounds the both together of ontology and the ontic in their fundamental difference!

In art as in physics fission preceded fusion.9


  1. In other tellings, Isis played this intermediary role: “the great Isis who renders the two men contented” (te Velde, 48).
  2. Of course these dates are very rough. The first hieroglyphic writing in Egypt is attested around 5000 years ago. The contendings of Horus and Seth are evidenced in the pyramid texts only five or six centuries later. But the mythological cycle seems to have been common knowledge then and doubtless had its origins far back in pre-historic (pre-scriptural) time. It may be a story that is as old and as various as mankind. In McLuhan this 3-fold is to be seen in many different forms, ear-eye-tactility, for example, or in the two wings of the Gutenberg era and the both together of the electric Marconi one.
  3. Along with the Egyptians and the Greeks, McLuhan insisted that an understanding of peace depends upon an understanding the antagonists who would be brought together in that peace: “In art as in physics fission preceded fusion.” (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape,1951). ‘Understanding’ in this sense begins by allowing the antagonists their independent place in reality — peace does not confuse and annul, but brings together in the third possibility of respected difference.
  4. Page numbers in brackets refer to Herman te Velde, Seth, God of Confusion (1967).
  5. In Plato’s Sophist, the third figure is a child “begging for both” sides of the gods/giants battle.
  6. Compare Plato’s third gender in the Symposium which is said to be descended from the moon on account of the ‘mixed’ nature of the two.
  7. The “homosexual relationship” of Horus and Seth mirrors their shared identity as universal monists and exactly therefore as antagonists. As with Plato, it is the role of the third to introduce sexual generation based on the combination of the two as a complex synchronic alternative to the asserted monism of the contesting gods and giants: “the third ends the discord of the two”. (Re ‘alternative‘: *al — Proto-Indo-European root meaning “beyond.” It is the hypothetical source of/evidence for its existence is provided by: Sanskrit anya “other, different,” arana- “foreign;” Avestan anya-, Armenian ail “another;” Greek allos “other, different, strange;” Latin alius “another, other, different,” alter “the other (of two),” ultra “beyond, on the other side;” Gothic aljis “other,” Old English elles “otherwise, else,” German ander “other”.)
  8. Th.P. Van Baaren is cited here, and in the next passage, from Menschen wie Wir, 1964.
  9. ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape’,1951. See note 3 above.

Olympus, Pelion and Ossa in Hamlet

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (Act 5, Scene 1)

LAERTES: O, treble woe
Fall ten times treble on that cursed head,
Whose wicked deed thy most ingenious sense
Deprived thee of! Hold off the earth awhile,
Till I have caught her once more in mine arms:
[Leaps into Ophelia’s grave]
Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead,
Till of this flat a mountain you have made,
To o’ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head
Of blue Olympus.
HAMLET: ‘Swounds, show me what thou’lt do:
Woo’t weep? woo’t fight? woo’t fast? woo’t tear thyself?
Woo’t drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I’ll do’t. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart!

These references in the last act of Hamlet to the gigantomachia of the Aloadai1 are reinforced by the earlier exchange of Laertes with Claudius:

CLAUDIUS: What is the cause, Laertes,
That thy rebellion looks so giant-like?
(Act 4, Scene 5)

Shakespeare’s Hamlet, like the gigantomachia, concerns the rights of rulership, of fatherhood and of inheritance, as these are fought over between generations. In the end, Hamlet and Laertes kill each other with foils in a dénouement recalling the end of the rebellion of the twin Aloadai giants against the gods: “Artemis finished off the Aloadai in Naxos by means of a trick: in the likeness of a deer she darted between them, and in their desire to hit the animal they speared each other.” (Apollodorus, Library 1.53)

Just before their final duel Hamlet says to Laertes:

Let my disclaiming from a purposed evil
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts,
That I have shot mine arrow o’er the house,
And hurt my brother.
(Act 5, Scene 1)

Later in the same scene:

I’ll be your foil, Laertes: in mine ignorance…. 


  1. Apollodorus describes the war of the Aloadai on the gods as follows: “Aloeus married Triops’ daughter Iphimedeia, who, however, was in love with Poseidon. She would go down to the sea, gather the waves in her hands, and pour the water on her vagina. Poseidon mated with her and fathered two sons, Otos and Ephialtes, who were known as Aloadai. Each year these lads grew two feet in width and six feet in length. When they were nine years old and measured eighteen feet across by fifty four feet tall, they decided to fight the gods. So they set Mount Ossa on top of Mount Olympos, and then placed Mount Pelion on top of Ossa, threatening by means of these mountains to climb up to the sky; and they also said that they would dam up the sea with mountains and make it dry, and make the dry land a sea. Ephialtes paid amorous attention to Hera, as did Otos to Artemis. And they also bound up Ares. But Hermes secretly snatched Ares away, and Artemis finished off the Aloadai in Naxos by means of a trick: in the likeness of a deer she darted between them, and in their desire to hit the animal they speared each other.” (Apollodorus, Library 1.53)

McLuhan and Plato 8½ – Gigantomachia in the Symposium

Plato’s treatment of the gigantomachia peri tes ousias (the battle of the gods and giants over the nature of reality) in the Sophist is discussed in McLuhan and Plato 8 – Gigantomachia. In the Symposium, Plato repeatedly reverts to the topic but more allusively:

You must begin your lesson with the nature of man and its development. For our original nature was by no means the same as it is now. In the first place, there were three kinds of human beings, not merely the two sexes, male and female, as [we have] at present: there was a third kind as well, which had equal shares of the other two…

The number and features of these three sexes were owing to the fact that the male was originally the offspring of the sun, and the female of the earth; while that which partook of both sexes was born of the moon, for the moon also partakes of both.1 They were globular in their shape (…) since they took after their [spherical] parents. Now, they were of surprising strength and vigor, and so lofty in their notions that they even conspired against the gods; and the same story is told of them as Homer relates of Ephialtes and Otus,2 that, scheming to assault the gods in battle, they essayed to mount to high heaven.3 Zeus and the other gods debated what they should do (…) Then Zeus, putting all his wits together, spoke at length and said: ‘I can contrive [a way] that [this now spherical mankind], without ceasing to exist, shall give over their iniquity through a lessening of their strength. I propose now to slice every one [of the three kinds] of them in two, so that while making them weaker we shall find them more useful by reason of their multiplication; and they shall walk erect upon two legs [instead of circulating].4

Our original form was [spherical and of three kinds] as I have described, and we were entire [whole]; and the craving and pursuit of that [now lost] entirety is called Love [Eros]. Formerly, as I have said, we were one; but now for our sins we are all dispersed [cut in ½ by the gods] (…) and we may well be afraid that if we are [again] disorderly towards Heaven we may once more be cloven asunder [down to ¼].

Diotima: ‘You are a person who does not consider Love [Eros] to be a god.’
Socrates: ’What then can Love be? A mortal?’
‘Anything but that.’
‘Well what?’
‘As I previously suggested, between a mortal and an immortal.’
‘And what is that, Diotima?’
‘A great spirit, Socrates: for the whole of the spiritual is between divine and mortal.’
‘Possessing what power?’ I asked.
‘Interpreting and transporting human things to the gods and divine things to men; entreaties and sacrifices from below, and ordinances and requitals from above: being midway between, it makes each to supplement the other, so that the whole is combined in one. (…) God with man does not mingle: but the spiritual is the means of all society and converse of men with gods and of gods with men, whether waking or asleep. Whosoever has skill in these affairs is a spiritual man; to have it in other matters, as in common arts and crafts, is for the mechanical. Many and multifarious are these [interrelating] spirits, and one of [the greatest of] them is Love.’

Notable characteristics of Plato’s thoughts on the gigantomachia are displayed in these passages:

  • Being — reality — is 3. In the Symposium: sun-earth-moon; male-female-hermaphrodite; immortals-mortals-spirits. In the Sophist: gods-giants-child. The 3rd is always the fundamental mixture or bond of the other 2, the ‘both together’.
  • The main question‘ concerns the relation of 3 to 2. On the one hand, the 3 cannot do without the two: it is their combination or harmony and without them it itself would not be.5 On the other hand, the fall into 2 represents the loss and even the death of the 3. The 3rd lives through death.
  • Human beings have an original relation to the 3 even under the reign of the 2 (“as in common arts and crafts”). For the 2 and the 3 imply each other. The 2 requires relation (a 3rd factor!) in order to be 2 — “the medium is the message” — and the 3 requires the 2 in order to be 3 (both because it is their harmony and to avoid falling into an undifferentiated 1) — “the medium is the message”.
  • Division — 2 — is the mark of revolt against the original configuration of the 3. The amelioration of the revolt consists in the re-version or re-turn from the point to the sphere, from linearity to circularity, from the mechanical iteration of the limit, the πέρας, in search of the ultimate limit, to the end-less circular generation of the original forms (subj gen!): the ἄπειρον.6 
  • The possibility of reversion and retrieval is original due to the interrelating power of the third form. Humans are this power — and its denial. Zeus: “I propose now to slice every one [of the three kinds] of them in two, so that while making them weaker we shall find them more useful by reason of their multiplication; and they shall walk erect upon two legs’…7

What is at stake in and through these 3-fold descriptions is ontological perception — the perception of Being (dual genitive!). The transition to this perception cannot succeed by way of beings — even by piling Ossa and Pelion on Olympus. Instead, a flip or Gestalt-switch must be made to come from Being — ‘where’ we always already are, of course — to beings.

The means or medium of relation to Being is first of all at work in Being. Otherwise it could not be. It is through this dynamic third that beings first of all eventuate from Being. It is on the same pathway of ‘from’ that beings are able to take the course of ontological perception.

Ontology as big-B Being and the ontic as little-b being are linked by the 3rd which is at work in Being, and in being, and in-between Being and being.

Plato in describing Being itself is at the same time describing the way to  Beings for beings. But the way to = the way from.

Ontological perception situates itself in the 3rd through what McLuhan designated as “pattern recognition”. 

The pattern recognized is that of the prior 3-fold. Dual genitive.


  1. The moon partakes of both the sun and the earth, since it illuminates like the sun, but does not do so from itself, like the earth.
  2. Ἐφιάλτης (“nightmare”, literally “he who jumps upon”) and Ὦτος (“insatiate”) were the Aloadae, the sons of Aloeus. Their plan was to pile 3 mountains (Olympus, Ossa and Pelion) on top of one another to gain access to the heavens and to confront the gods in battle there. This version of the gigantomachia joins it to the story of Babel and the resulting disbursement of the sexes by Zeus in the Symposium version of the gigantomachia is cognate with God’s disbursement of language through the destruction of the tower of Babel. The three mountains of the Aloadae are mentioned in Hamlet (Act 5, Scene 1) before the ‘brothers’, Hamlet and Laertes, kill each other in a similar way to the mutual slaying of Otus and Ephialtes brought about by the gods.
  3. A surprising variation on the Aloadae cycle had them, instead of rude giants, as culture bringers in the role usually assigned to Prometheus. Here they were priests of the muses, founders of cities and teachers of culture. This variation of the Aloadae myth serves to bring Prometheus into the context of the gigantomachia.
  4. The result of Zeus cutting each of the 3 original sexes in half was that only 2 sexes remained. The halves of the third sex of the ‘both together’ gender were now either male or female, just like the halves of the all-male and all-female ones. In this way, the originally 3 kinds of humans lost their family relation with the sun, earth and moon, in regard to their shape, mode of motion and number. But notably, what Zeus decreed in this way merely reiterated what the 3 genders of humans had already de-cided on their own, namely, to cast aside their original relation with the gods, as expressed in rites and sacrifices, and to attack them instead.
  5. “In art as in physics fission preceded fusion.” (‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape’,1951)
  6. The ‘unlimited’ is end-less circularity, the ‘limited’ is repetitive linearity attempting to find its de-finitive end. What is at stake is the nature of the πέρας. Is it transitive or, in the end, intransitive?
  7. The transition from 4 legs (‘supports’ or ‘grounds’, as well as ‘modes of motion’) to 2 amounts to a denial or forgetting or slaying of the mediating 3! Hence it is a denial of the 3-fold gigantomachia form of Being — even while carrying a gigantomachia out!

Mac to Lewis, 1944

McLuhan’s first contribution to The Sewanee Review was ‘Edgar Poe’s Tradition’ which appeared in the Winter Number of 1944 (52:1, pp. 24-33).

McLuhan gave an offprint of his essay to Wyndham Lewis with the inscription: “For Lewis with the most friendly esteem – from Mac”.

In it, describing both Poe’s situation, and his own, McLuhan wrote:

While the New England dons primly turned the pages of Plato and Buddha beside a tea-cozy, and while Browning and Tennyson were creating a parochial fog for the English mind to relax in, Poe never lost contact with the terrible pathos of his time. Coevally with Baudelaire, and long before Conrad and Eliot, he explored the heart of darkness.

A couple years later, also in Sewanee, he would begin a lifelong characterization of such exploration of the heart of darkness, again with Poe, as ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom’.1

  1. ‘Footprints in the Sands of Crime’ (Sewanee Review, 54:4, 1946): “The sailor in (Poe’s) story The Maelstrom is at first paralyzed with horror. But in his very paralysis there is another fascination which emerges, a power of detached observation which becomes a “scientific” interest in the action of the strom. And this provides the means of escape.” For discussion see Cleanth Brooks on the Maelstrom.