McLuhan and Kenner (Dublin’s Joyce, chap 2)

Continuing a reading of Hugh Kenner’s Dublin’s Joyce as background to McLuhan’s second conversion from “moralist” to “student”:

“Coition”, as Joyce is exploiting it in these pages, is the basic Aristotelian and Aquinatian metaphor for the intercourse between the mind and things. It was a classroom commonplace of his Jesuit schooling that the phantasm gathered by the senses fertilizes the active intellect,1 and a concept is generated and flung in affirmation out into existence. The word “conception” unites biology and epistemology. We start with sensory beguilements, whether in begetting or in cognizing; we end with an articulated concept, a begotten Logos, word; an affirmation that this or that exists: is, is irreducibly there, ineluctable. Things are before we know them, that is the first condition; they doubly are after they are known, that is the second. The mind is nourished and impregnated by things, the mind affirms the existence of things, the mind by thousands of successive acts of conception generates an intellected order (…) in (…) analogy [with] the intelligible order [of things] with which it copulates.2 (…) The verb “to be” is a copula in every sense. (…) Words flourish in the soil of known things. (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 19-20)

The abstraction and circumlocution of the language derives from the fact that not a mind in the [Dublin][ assemblage is in contact with any but a sort of spectral colloquial reality. Their meeting-ground is the idée reçue.3 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 21)

If we want an English analogue for Joyce, it is Pope; their orientations and procedures are surprisingly similar. Pope is conscious of intellectual traditions running back through St. Augustine to Cicero and Homer; and the universal darkness that he predicted at the end of the Dunciad fell exactly as he foretold; the mind of Europe entered the Romantic night-world.4 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 23)

“under sleep, where all the waters meet”: Stephen’s two fathers during song for an instant one.5 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 25)

Since nostalgia is the sole comprehensive emotion now, integrity beckons to death.6 (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 25)

  1. A memorial volume for John Watson‘s 50th anniversary at Queen’s was published in 1923, Philosophical Essays Presented to John Watson. Two of its 13 contributors were McLuhan’s early mentors at the University of Manitoba, Henry Wright and Rupert Lodge. Another contributor to the volume was Henry Carr (1880-1963), then the superior of St Michael’s College, later the founding president of the Institute of Medieval Studies there in 1929, and the person most responsible for bringing Etienne Gilson to Canada and the Institute. McLuhan was, of course, to teach at St Michael’s for 35 years starting two decades later in 1946 and Hugh Kenner would be a student there for his MA, finishing in 1946. The two would be brought together by Fr Gerald Phelan who was the outgoing President of what was now the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies. Carr’s contribution to the Watson memorial volume was titled ‘The Function of the Phantasm in St Thomas Aquinas’. A great many lines crossed at this juncture — Thomas, Aristotle and Joyce, then Watson (Hegel), Wright, Lodge (Plato) and Carr, along with McLuhan and Kenner. It was a key nodal point in Canadian intellectual history — one that could not possibly be less researched than it is.
  2. Italics added. Kenner has “the mind by thousands of successive acts of conception generates an intellected order in more or less exact analogy of the intelligible order with which it copulates”. As usual with writing that does not quite come off, Kenner is trying to say too much here. “Analogy of the intelligible order” (rather than ‘with’ or ‘to’ the intelligible order) wants to make the additional (admittedly highly important) point that “the intelligible order” supplies not only the ground and model for our “intellected order”, but also the possibility of correlation (however imperfect) between the two.
  3. Both ‘their meeting-ground’ and ‘the idée reçue‘ are ambiguous. On the one hand, they lack real “contact with (…) reality”; on the other hand, they are “a distortion, but a distortion of something real” (11). The very existence of such a “meeting-ground” (a good definition of language) and ‘idée reçue‘ (ditto) is marvelous and thought-provoking.
  4. McLuhan ended his unpublished Typhon in America from the late 1940s (probably 1947-1948)  — just as he would conclude the major portion of the Gutenberg Galaxy 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.
    The Gutenberg Galaxy then immediately concludes: “This is the Night from which Joyce invites the Finnegans to wake.” Typhon in America, 15 years before The Gutenberg Galaxy, at a time when McLuhan and Kenner were in intense communication, similarly: “In this darkness we must learn to see.”
    McLuhan often complained that Kenner was loose with his credits for points which he, McLuhan, had shared with him in unpublished work and in conversation and letters. The Dunciad passage may be a major exhibit in this general case.
  5. The feminine matrix of the unconscious harbors all the masculine (extending, re-presenting) forms of possible experience. It might be said that this is the one subject of all icons, with their gold background, and the theotokos who re-presents that background, serving to bring forth mostly male divinities, angels and saints. The great question at stake in this topic is the lost relation between between finite insight and universal truth and how, or if, this might be regained.
  6. Modern ontologies have been unable to preserve “the gap where the action is” which alone can valorize and protect plurality at any level — ontological, international, social, familial, individual. Integrity has seemed possible only by a collapse into One. A complex integrity has proved inconceivable.
    In the same year that Dublin’s Joyce was published, 1955, McLuhan reviewed Kenner’s 1954 book, Wyndham Lewis. ‘Integrity’ is said by McLuhan to be at the heart of Lewis’ work: “it is precisely the courage of Lewis in pushing the Cartesian and Plotinian angelism to the logical point of the extinction of humanism and personality that gives his work such importance in the new age of technology. For, 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 (the dominance of) sensuality at one end of the spectrum, and by (the dominance of) sheer abstraction at the other. (…) Now the gnostic and neo-Platonist and Buddhist can gloat: “I told you so! This gimcrack mechanism is all that there ever was in the illusion of human existence. Let us rejoin the One.” (Nihilism Exposed)