McLuhan and Kenner (Dublin’s Joyce, chap 5)

Kenner’s chapter 5 treats Dubliners and does so mostly through textual commentary.

The human cogs and levers of the story [‘Counterparts’] whirr and jerk as the rebuke administered by the employer passes through them and emerges at the other end as the flailing of a cane on the thighs of a small boy. (Dublin’s Joyce57)

In 1968 McLuhan wrote a review of Erich Fromm, The Revolution of Hope: Toward a Humanized Technology (Book World, November 10, 1968). It was titled, ‘Noble Purpose but to What End?’ But the original title of McLuhan’s review, perhaps rejected by Book World, seems to have been: ‘Ye Shall Be As Cogs’.

Its1 layers of meaning are numerous. It is the paralysis of the City, at one level; the rhythm of the Dubliners’ lives rises to no festivity and is sustained by no community; (…) It is the paralysis of the person, at another level, though it is seldom evident that these persons are so circumstanced that they might have chosen differently. But at the most important level it is metaphysical…

McLuhan reverted to “layers of meaning” over and over again his work — see Multi-levels of simultaneous presentation.

But at the most important level it is metaphysical: the Exiles are exiled from the garden, and the key to their plight, as Finnegans Wake brings forward, is the Fall. (…) As the Rev. Walter Ong has written (…) “the great fiction of the West: the self-possessed man in the self-possessed world, the fiction which seeks to erase all sense of plight, of confusing weakness, from man’s consciousness, and which above all will never admit such a sense as a principle of operation.”2 (…) It is precisely this fiction of self-containment that Joyce defines in successively more elaborate images, from Mr Duffy’s careful control over every detail of life through the tightly-bounded ethical world of Exiles and Stephen’s “All or not at all” to HCE’s solipsistic nightmare. What beats against all these people is the evidence of otherness3…. (Dublin’s Joyce, 59-60)

Shared insight into some such vision of the Fall may have been one of the commonalities that drew McLuhan and Kenner closely together for 5 Years or so after they met in 1946. In the 30 years remaining to McLuhan’s life, they would never be close again. McLuhan thought Kenner used many of his ideas without attribution and, worse, without entirely understanding them. This grated in multiple ways especially given Kenner’s increasing influence as a critic which rapidly outpaced McLuhan’s. But McLuhan’s deepest disappointment was surely that Kenner might have been that colleague through whom collective work on a ‘new science’ could have begun — but didn’t. And this was no question of academic reputation but one of the greatest possible practical significance:

Today with the revelation of the poetic process which is involved in ordinary cognition we stand on a very different threshold4 from that wherein Machiavelli stood. His was a door into negation and human weakness. Ours is the door to the positive powers of the human spirit in its natural creativity. This door opens on to psychic powers comparable to the physical powers made available via nuclear fission and fusion. Through this door men have seen a possible path to the totalitarian remaking of human nature. Machiavelli showed us the way to a new circle of the Inferno. Knowledge of the creative process in art, science, and cognition shows us the way either to the earthly paradise or to complete madness. It is to be either the top of Mount Purgatory or the abyss. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)

Walter Ong, SJ, was one of McLuhan’s students In the early 1940s at St Louis University and a good friend. Ong’s work and perhaps Ong himself would have been introduced to Kenner by McLuhan. Quoting Ong concerning self-possession as a “principle of operation” (McLuhan’s ‘technical means’ or ‘medium’) may be taken as a disguised acknowledgement of McLuhan’s contribution to Dublin’s Joyce beyond what Kenner openly avows:

Dr. H. M. McLuhan of the University of Toronto has permitted me free use of his unpublished History of the Trivium, on which my thirteenth chapter depends heavily, and afforded the continual stimulus of letters and conversation. (Dublin’s Joyce, vii)5

McLuhan and Ong (and others at SLU) would long have discussed the “fiction of self-containment” of human beings, indeed of being itself. This is the deep background to the subtitle of the 1964 Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. ‘The Extensions of Man’ is a dual genitive, but it is first of all an objective genitive. Humankind in all the myriad forms of its expression is the product or effect of media extensions beginning with language itself. Considered as a subjective genitive, in contrast, where extensions would belong to humans, ‘The Extensions of Man‘ define “the great fiction of the West: the self-possessed man in the self-possessed world” — the Fall itself. The unprecedented dangers of modernity derive from this confusion between genitives, which is equally a confused inversion between figure and ground. The figure of humankind arrogates itself to ground and consigns to figure and terrible use that very extension through which it is.

Kenner brings out the point through Joyce’s implied contrast of Dubliners at Mass with Dante’s vision in the last canto of the Com-media:

The gentlemen sat in the benches, having hitched their trousers slightly above their knees and laid their hats in security. They sat well back and gazed formally at the distant speck of red light which was suspended before the high altar. D219/195
O abbondante grazia, ond’ io presunsi
ficcar lo viso per la luce eterna
tanto che la veduta vi consunsi!6 (Dublin’s Joyce, 62)

Whereas “the gentlemen (…) gazed formally at the distant speck”, consuming it within the form of their gaze, hence its distance, Dante’s gaze is itself taken up by “la luce eterna” — “la forma universal”.


  1. Kenner seems to be referring to Joyce’s work in general here, but particularly to ‘A Painful Case’ in Dubliners.
  2. Walter Ong, SJ, ‘Kafka’s Castle in the West’, Thought, September 1947, 439-460.
  3. Kenner elaborates: “Man so constituted (…) cannot afford to give, since giving recognizes the fact of otherness, of a portion of being neither susceptible to his control nor violable to his gaze; this works out alike between man and man, and between man and God” (Dublin’s Joyce, 60).
  4. The threshold is the same but the access it gives is to 2 fundamentally different ways. The Machiavelli way was one of fission. The other way of “the positive powers of the human spirit in its natural creativity”, one of fusion.
  5. Some of this acknowledgement is repeated later in the book: “The documentation behind this exceedingly compressed account (of ‘The Trivium in Dublin’) was collected by Prof. H. M. McLuhan in his unpublished History of the Trivium, which he has generously placed at my disposal. (Dublin’s Joyce, 223n) McLuhan’s actual contribution to Kenner’s life (such as his job for 2 years at Assumption College taking McLuhan’s place, or his PhD work at Yale which McLuhan arranged through his close friend, Cleanth Brooks) and thought was much greater than this. And his potential contribution greater yet.
  6. Dante’s vision is given by Kenner, but only (only!) implied by Joyce.