McLuhan and Kenner (Dublin’s Joyce, chap 1)

Joyce (…) focussed (…) on what was actually there, and strove so to set it down that it would reveal itself as what it was, in its double nature: a distortion, but a distortion of something real. (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 11)

“Distortion, but (…) distortion of something real” is what McLuhan opposed to ‘matching’ as ‘making’. This complex doublin’ — “distortion of something real” — is the great question at stake in all of Joyce’s tales of the ‘Dubliners’. But did Kenner get this fundamental insight from McLuhan, or McLuhan from Kenner, or both from Father Gerald Phelan — or does any of these alternatives fit the case?

McLuhan was already familiar with what he called Kenner’s ‘book on Joyce’ in 1947. This book was then rewritten multiple times until it appeared almost a decade later as Dublin’s Joyce in 1955. One of its manifestations in the meantime was James Joyce: Critique in Progress, Kenner’s 1950 Yale PhD thesis.1 At some point, the various stages of this book need to be collected2 (so far as they still exist), their progressive innovations specified, and these compared to McLuhan’s ongoing contemporaneous work with its innovations. Importantly, the years of the book’s metamorphoses overlapped with McLuhan’s ‘second conversion’ from “moralist” to “student”.3 It is this conversion that the world desperately needs to understand if it is ever to wake from its suicidal woke.4

Further commonalities between the 2 (McLuhan and Kenner) — or 3 (with Phelan):

So the usual criterion of style, that it disappear like glass before the reality of the subject, doesn’t apply to [Joyce’s] pages.5 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 12)

Paul Valery tells us how “a literary langue mandarine is derived from popular speech, from which it takes the words, figures, and ‘turns’ most suitable for the effects the artist seeks”…6  (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 13)

educed order from Babel7 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 14)

“It was revealed to me that those things are good which yet are corrupted which neither if they were supremely good nor unless they were good could be corrupted.” U140/132 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 15)

the faded eloquence (…) illustrates the decorums of the whole book, an articulation of the city of the dead.8 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 16)

He started always from the material nearest to hand. He was interested in bad operas because they contained all the dramatic components listed by Aristotle, still held in some sort of classical balance…  (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 16)

He was interested in advertising and journalism because they both were and were not aligned with classical rhetoric. He was interested in Leopold Bloom because nothing was in that philosopher’s intellect that had not first been in his senses, though not exactly as St. Thomas stipulated. (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 17)

“Methought as I was dropping asleep somepart in nonland of where’s please (and it was when you and they were we)”9 FW 403 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 17)

we are not for a moment tempted to suppose that we ought to be seeing a subject through a style; what is on the page is quite frankly the subject. The subject is “style” and what style implies.10 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 17)


  1. From Kenner’s ‘Acknowledgements’: “Earlier versions of parts of this book have appeared in James Joyce : Two Decades of Criticism (Vanguard Press, 1948), Hudson Review, Kenyon Review, Sewanee Review, Essays in Criticism, Shenandoah, and English Institute Essays 1952 (Columbia University Press); I am grateful to the editors concerned for permission to reprint. An early draft of the entire book was written in 1950 as a Yale doctoral thesis, under the guidance of Cleanth Brooks. Though the work has been completely rewritten since then, the effect of his patient counsel has not been obliterated.” (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, viii)
  2. Eg: ‘The Portrait in Perspective’, Kenyon Review, 10:3, 1948 (reprinted in James Joyce : Two Decades of Criticism, 1948); ‘A Communication’, Hudson Review, 3:1, 1950; James Joyce: Critique in Progress, 1950 Yale PhD thesis; ‘Joyce and Ibsen’s Naturalism’, Sewanee Review, 59:1,1951; ‘Joyce’s Ulysses: Homer and Hamlet’, Essays in Criticism, 2:1, 1952; ‘Pound on Joyce’, Shenandoah 3:3, 1952; ‘Joyce’s Exiles‘, Hudson Review, 5:3, 1952; ‘The Trivium in Dublin’, English Institute Essays 1952; ‘Joyce’s Anti-Selves’, Shenandoah, 4:1,1953.
  3. Playboy interview: “For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach (…) But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was (…) I ceased being a moralist and became a student.”
  4. The required conversion is not at all to be understood as something peculiar to McLuhan. As Kenner was well aware, something like such a conversion is the topic of Joyce’s whole oeuvre. In happier and less dangerous ages, it was thought to be the mark of maturity as undergone by most people most of the time in ‘growing up’. The present situation of the world is exactly that children, ages 30 to 90, have their hands on the levers of terrible power.
  5. On ‘style’, see the last passage below from p17 and its note 9.
  6. Typical of McLuhan, he took “the effects the artist seeks” not as ‘effects’ in the audience the artist addresses with her works, not as audience reactions to those works, but as those works themselves, the artist’s productions as ef-fects (ex-facere) in multiple senses (what is made, what is outered, what is secondary to something(s) prior). Taking all human expressions as effects in this way is the key move to McLuhan’s ‘new science’ — just as it was the key move in the genesis of chemistry to begin taking all physical materials — facts — as effects of underlying elements. For arti-facts those underlying elements are media.
  7. The wonderful un-gnostic insight that ‘in order’ to exist at all, Babel, even as the revolt against God, even as linguistic and social chaos, could not be without order (as little as any event in the physical universe can be without order).
  8. Compare McLuhan, ‘T.S. Eliot’s  Historical Decorum’, Renascence II:1, 1949.
  9. The “nonland of (…) when you and they were we” is McLuhan’s ‘unconscious’ out of whose  “potencies” (Innis letter from 3/14/51) all human experience in its myriad forms is born as “effect”.
  10. Kenner’s ‘style’ = McLuhan’s ‘effect’.