McLuhan and Kenner (Dublin’s Joyce, chap 4)

Chapter 4 of Hugh Kenner’s Dublin’s Joyce is named ‘Dedalus Abolished’ and the whole first section of the book, chapters 1-7, is titled ‘Icarus’ after Daedalus’ son.1 McLuhan’s unpublished book-length typescript, Typhon in America, dating to 1947-1948, has this style of chapter headings from Bacon’s 1609 Wisdom of the Ancients, and its first two books (of three) have titles from the Daedalus-Minotaur cycle.2 There can be little question that Kenner took this manner of naming, not to say the topic itself, from McLuhan.

One of the epigraphs for Kenner’s chapter is from FW 344:

his face glows green, his hair greys white, his bleyes bcome broon to suite his cultic twalette (Dublin’s Joyce, 1955, 36)

McLuhan would later cite Joyce’s “cultic twalette” over and over again as a kind of Leitmotif for a Celtic style of Romantic ‘integrity’, Kenner’s “lyrical dream” (39).3 Kenner in the late 1940s was doubtless responsible for turning McLuhan to Joyce, or back to Joyce, at a time when he, McLuhan, was wrestling also with a whole series of other new interests: Harold Innis, Eric Havelock, the epyllion, Mallarmé, cybernetics, Giedion’s Mechanism Takes Command, Pound (again through, or at least with, Kenner), Eisenstein — and so on. By 1951, when he turned 40, he would emerge from this multiple confrontation a new man, a “student” rather than a “moralist”:4

For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride [published in 1951, but largely written by 1948], 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. (Playboy interview)

Compare, as broached below, the time of what Kenner calls Joyce’s “pain of depersonalization”, his “maturation” as “dissociation”.

After its epigraphs, Kenner’s chapter begins with a number of passages taken from Yeats’ The Tables of the Law from 1896.5 The first of these passages has:

I shall create a world where the whole lives of men shall be articulated and simplified as if seventy years were but one moment, or as if they were the leaping of a fish or the opening of a flower.6 (Dublin’s Joyce36)

This passage captures, and must indeed have helped to suggest, McLuhan’s notion of the momentary genesis of human experience as “articulated” artifact and effect. The idea is that every moment of human being (verbal, not nominal) is generated through a confrontation with the full range of the “potencies”7 of that being8 — a range which McLuhan found formulated in Yeats’ 1903 Emotion of Multitude as the background chorus in Greek tragedy “which called up famous sorrows, even all the gods and all heroes”. This is Saussure’s synchronic genesis of the diachronic expression of language, but applied to experience conceived as artifact (hence McLuhan’s interest in technology) and effect (ex-facere). Furthermore, these potencies are characterized as dynamic — ex — as captured in Yeats’ “leaping of a fish or the opening of a flower”.9 Thus conceived, “potencies” inherently ‘extend’ themselves such that experience comes from them (McLuhan’s “light through”) as the exfoliation of resulting effect, not (or at least not first of all) potencies through experience (McLuhan’s “light on”) as their purported occasion.

A further epigraph in Kenner’s chapter from Yeats’ Tables has the following:

Just as poets and painters and musicians labour at their works, building them with lawless and lawful things alike (…) these children of the Holy Spirit labour at their moments10 with eyes11 upon the shining [“light through”] substance on which Time12 has heaped the refuse of creation… (Dublin’s Joyce36)

Exactly as described by Yeats, McLuhan’s second conversion from “moralist” to “student” consisted in the realization that “lawful things” could not be isolated and protected from “lawless” ones through judgmental segregation in the style of F.R. Leavis.13 Hence, instead of the selected assertion of the “moralist”, the whole of the “refuse of creation” called for study by the “student”.14 Again:

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. (Playboy interview)

On the one hand, this served to detach McLuhan from a strain of Catholicism that tends to gnosticism and that implicates a loss of divine power and providence through the apparently mistaken act of creation. On the other hand, as McLuhan may or may not have been aware,15 this amounted to a recovery of Hegel’s great point in the Preface to the 1807 Phenomenology:

Das Verschwindende16 ist vielmehr selbst als wesentlich zu betrachten, nicht in der Bestimmung eines Festen, das vom Wahren abgeschnitten, außer ihm, man weiß nicht wo, liegenzulassen sei, sowie auch das Wahre nicht als das auf der andern Seite ruhende, tote Positive. Die Erscheinung ist das Entstehen und Vergehen, das selbst nicht entsteht und vergeht, sondern an sich ist, und die Wirklichkeit und Bewegung des Lebens der Wahrheit ausmacht. Das Wahre ist so der bacchantische Taumel, an dem kein Glied nicht trunken ist… (Phänomenologie des Geistes, Vorrede, 1807)

The demand is to consider all experience as a ‘student”, not some selected supposedly standard experience as a “moralist”. And Kenner’s chapter goes on from this point to consider “multitude” in both Yeats and Joyce — without, however considering, or even broaching anywhere in his book, Yeats’ 1903 Emotion of Multitude.

“No man”, [Joyce] began, quoting the outcast Giordano Bruno, “can be a lover of the true or the good unless he abhors the multitude.” Abhorring the multitude, Yeats had done the finest Irish writing of Joyce’s time.17 (Dublin’s Joyce38)

But Kenner himself shows how Yeats, already five years before,18 far from simply “abhorring the multitude”, had offered a more complex slant:

Let the starry winds and the flame and the flood
Cover over and hide, for he has no part
With the lonely majestical multitude.
(To His Heart, Bidding It Have No Fear)

As Kenner justly comments:

it is the concluding couplet that turns the screw. Yeats’ “Lonely majestical multitude” manages to blunt lonely by multitude and turn flame, flood, and the winds of space from terrors to glories with majestical.  (Dublin’s Joyce41)

What Yeats had done, and what Joyce had yet to learn at that time when he was not yet twenty, was to expose the questionability of “multitude”. Such abysmal questions are forever implicated in it such as those raised in Kenner’s chapter 3 regarding “the first formal relationship among parts and whole”, P241/234 and “the first entelechy”, U425/413. For every individual is always already a part of a whole multitude, or a whole multitude of multitudes, and, beyond that, it is not clear just what multitude, or multitudes, should be acknowledged to embrace. In this way, a universal questionability descends on all things (“flame, flood, and the winds”) and it becomes uncertain how to start or who it is that might start:

It is a worthwhile guess that the writing-out of Stephen Hero was the crucially cathartic labour of [Joyce’s] life. The pain of depersonalization was undergone then once and for all. (Dublin’s Joyce44)

Kenner calls this period Joyce’s “time of maturation” and, in the same paragraph, “time of dissociation”. What he saw, it seems, even or especially in regard to his own “integrity”, was that a finitizing and hence pluralizing

snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling (…) faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead. D288/256

the solid world itself, which these dead had one time reared and lived in, was dissolving and dwindling. D287/255

There was something prior and in-between to all that could ever be said, or ever be, definitively pluralizing and relativizing it. It was “general all over Ireland” and to “all the living and the dead”. In fact, “it was falling (…) faintly through the universe” as a whole as its “first entelechy” and “last end”. 

Die Erscheinung ist das Entstehen und Vergehen, das selbst nicht entsteht und vergeht, sondern an sich ist, und die Wirklichkeit und Bewegung des Lebens der Wahrheit ausmacht.  

Hence, as Kenner’s chapter concludes, “the infinite number of ways of saying anything” (44/45) and the implicated call for “the uncompromising craftsman” (44).

  1. Joyce’s spelling of ‘Dedalus’ intentionally varied from the accepted one in English of ‘Daedalus’. McLuhan saw ‘dead are us’ in this, tying Ulysses to the last story in Dubliners, ‘The Dead’. Similarly with Kenner: “In A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (Joyce) excised the diphthong from the hero’s surname so that Dedalus chimed with ‘dead’.” (38) This seems more like a McLuhan idea than a Kenner one and therefore a further appearance of McLuhan in Kenner’s book.
  2. For discussion, see Typhon/Minotaur/Dionysus parallels.
  3. See McLuhan and Kenner (Dublin’s Joyce, chap 2), note 6, for further on ‘integrity’ in this context.
  4. The general importance of this ‘second conversion’ in relation to Kenner’s work on Joyce is discussed in McLuhan and Kenner (Dublin’s Joyce, chap 1).
  5. The Tables of the Law first appeared in issue 5:7 of The SavoyIn a typical McLuhan turn of phrase, ‘Tables of the Law’ became ‘fables of the law’: “the Mosaic fables of the law” (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’,1953).
  6. The Tables of the Law.
  7. “Potencies” is from McLuhan’s long 1951 letter to Harold Innis. Other terms used by McLuhan for these synchronic powers of formation include “archetype” and, all importantly, “medium”. The full range: Yeats’ “the whole lives of men”, “seventy years”.
  8. “Potencies of that being” is a dual genitive, but is first or all a subjective genitive: the multifold forms of human being are the objectivized (thrown forth) effects of a process through which the spectrum of possibilities is, in Yeats’ terms, “articulated and simplified”. The German Auseinandersetzung captures the required abysmal action of confrontation and sorting that is (ids!) at stake here. Regarding ‘ids’, in a letter to Archie Malloch from February 24, 1950, McLuhan writes: “Somewhere a vice is calling.  Once you begin reading F Wake you get into this mood e.g. Flying Sorcerers and a muddle of clearness etc. (…) Very finny (submarine).”
  9. Further on dynamism in McLuhan: The representative ferment.
  10. “Labour at their moments”! The momentary genesis of human experience is broached above.
  11. Whose eyes are these from whose observations our experience and its eyes derive as artifacts and effects?
  12. Time is both vertical and horizontal here. The vertical time of the “shining substance” of the potencies underlies what is “heaped” upon them through their inherent up-thrust, “lawless and lawful things alike”, “the refuse of creation”.
  13. Such dualistic cleavage as between the lawless and lawful McLuhan would come to see as typical of the Gutenberg galaxy (as described in his 1962 book of that name).
  14. McLuhan would later often cite Yeats’ “foul rag and bone shop of the heart” in this context.
  15. McLuhan’s two early mentors at the University of Manitoba, Henry Wright and Rupert Lodge, were ‘Hegelian’ enough that both were contributors to John Watson’s 50-year anniversary volume, Philosophical Essays Presented to John Watson. And McLuhan’s longtime colleague at St Michael’s College, University of Toronto, Etienne Gilson, was decisively influenced by Hegel in his readings of Augustine and Thomas. In McLuhan’s 1943 PhD thesis, Gilson is the single most referenced source.
  16. Das Verschwindende’ names the inability of any finite order to establish itself in itself (an sich), the inevitability of any finite order to ‘disappear’. And this is particularly true, of course, of any order or claim that is demonstrably false. The great question posed by Hegel is therefore how to conceive of what is fleeting and even false as essential. A clue to the answer may be seen in chemistry where any and all physical materials and reactions are subject to elementary or ‘essential’ analysis. Compare Joyce in Stephen Hero: “The artist who could disentangle the subtle soul of the image from its mesh of defining circumstances most exactly and re-embody it in artistic circumstances chosen as the most exact for its new office, he was the supreme artist.” S78/65. (Dublin’s Joyce49)
  17. The Joyce citation is from The Day of the Rabblement (1901).
  18. Five years before: in the 1896 To His Heart, Bidding It Have No Fear.