McLuhan and Kenner (Dublin’s Joyce, chap 6)

Kenner’s long chapter 6 treats Joyce’s Exiles

Exiles frees Joyce from Ibsen (…) whose (…) pseudo-rigours of revolt had for some years compromised a portion of his spirit. The repudiation of the Norwegian (…) is explicit. (Dublin’s Joyce69)

Kenner’s Joyce thinks progressively against himself though his fiction:

The artist lives in two worlds, the world he understands and the world his characters understand (…) he defines the former by disdaining the latter… (Dublin’s Joyce75)

“Naturalism”, as Joyce saw instantly, is an essentially ambivalent convention. It parades an ironic obsession with what the characters see in order to express what they ignore. (Dublin’s Joyce76)

Joyce’s works are read by Kenner as stages of liberation from “worlds” that make equally for limited art and limited polity — limited polity at all levels from that of the soul to that of the city.1 In this way “worlds” are conceived as in “battle” with one another and growth in art or life amounts to turns or shifts in that battle. The thought goes back at least to Plato, but the imagery goes back to wars of the gods in mythology that was already ancient in Plato’s time and was frequently represented on the most important Greek temples like the Parthenon in Athens and the Altar of Zeus at Pergamon.  

The theme of Exiles is Richard’s agon2 (Dublin’s Joyce85)

[in Exiles] Robert Hand (…) proposes to Richard (…) “a battle of (…) souls (…) against all that is false in them and in the world”:
“All life is a conquest, the victory of human passion over the commandments of cowardice. Will you, Richard? Have you the courage? (…) The blinding instant of passion alone — passion, free, unashamed, irresistible — that is the only gate by which we can escape from the misery of what slaves call life.” (Dublin’s Joyce70)

Two matters are fused here which must be detached from one another and considered separately. There is the “agon“, the “battle of (…) souls (…) against all that is false in them and in the world”; and there is “the blinding instant of passion (…) that is the only gate by which we can escape”. Joyce’s language is precise. The “instant of passion alone” is “blinding” in multiple senses. It succeeds, so far as it succeeds, only because it is “alone” and “blinding”. The claim is that it thereby achieves the “conquest” and “victory” in the aforesaid “battle of (…) souls”. Hence, the “battle” is not actually to be engaged — it is to be put one-sidedly to rest by “escape” through “the only gate” of “the blinding instant of passion alone“.

But the notion that “blinding” can represent “victory” in the “battle of (…) souls” is itself blinding. It does not see that this supposed resolution of the battle does not work in multiple respects — respects Kenner describes Joyce at work recognizing and rejecting in Exiles. And yet it remains very much with us as McLuhan unsuccessfully attempted to explain to Norman Mailer, a modern champion of this “only gate”.

Joyce always weighs the parody against the parody(Dublin’s Joyce70)

That is, he insists that the battle actually be a battle. All “worlds” are to be retained for investigation and the resulting information they exhibit. No world is simply to be cancelled. Further, strictures applied against any one world must be applied against all, “parody against (…) parody”.

We must not be misled (…) into supposing that this [talk of “the sea, music and death”] is any less “faded green plush” than the armchairs of the (…) drawing-room. Ibsen imagined talk like this to be an absolute and a defiance of the drawing-room. Joyce exhibits them as continuous modes. (Dublin’s Joyce71)

“Continuous” here means that the “worlds” at stake must not be lifted somehow out of the “battle of (…) souls” through some or other “gate”. They must be left in contesting “agon” with each other. In this context, Joyce found cant as much in existential declaration as in drawing-room cocktail conversation. The test was always how open was any such “world” to the complex real.

Joyce the citizen-exile confronting the dual Dublin, the Dublin of “sordid and deceptive details” and that of civic intelligibility (…) had “all but decided to consider the two worlds as aliens to one another”. (Dublin’s Joyce, 72-73, citing Stephen Hero)3

The real consists ineluctably of multiple “worlds”, both collectively and individually, and the great question concerns the relations of these worlds. When they are conceived exclusively as “aliens to one another”, any resolution of their antagonism will necessarily be one-sided. Since there is no middle that could account for the orchestration of their plurality, a solution to their “battle” can lie only in their dissolution into some variety of supervening singularity.

Conversely, “in his best work, Ibsen achieved ‘the syllogism of art’, the mediation between the two worlds“. (Dublin’s Joyce, 75)

Kenner is very much alive to the differing ratios “between (…) worlds” and to their present or absent mediations accounting for those differences: 

A few weeks after his eighteenth birthday [Joyce] published in the Fortnightly Review (April 1, 1900) an account of [Ibsen’s] recently-issued When We Dead Awaken; the opening paean indicates how, in his4 mind, the stress came to fall: “Seldom, if at all, has he consented to join battle with his enemies. It would appear as if the storm of fierce debate rarely broke in upon his wonderful calm. The conflicting voices have not influenced his work in the very smallest degree.”5 (Dublin’s Joyce, 74)

The “battle” of “debate” between “conflicting voices” and differing “worlds” had been put to rest by Ibsen in a “wonderful calm”. This is achieved through a displacement of emphasis — how “the stress came to fall” — between voices and worlds. Ibsen’s solution, admired by the young Joyce, was to move “stress” from multiple “worlds as alien to one another” to “only” one singular world “alone”. The “battle” was to be stilled in a singularizing move Kenner designates as “the vehemence of uneasiness”. (Dublin’s Joyce, 75)

In his 6 March, 1901 letter to Ibsen Joyce was explicit:

“how your battles inspired me — not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead, how your willful resolution to wrest the secret from life gave me heart and how in your absolute indifference to public canons of art, friends, and shibboleths you walked in the light of your inward heroism.” (Dublin’s Joyce, 74)

There is an essential parallel between the agon of the individual soul and the artist’s ‘use of words’. Each requires (but seldom acknowledges) what Kenner treats as “the syllogism of art, the mediation between the two worlds” (Dublin’s Joyce75):

[In Exiles] Joyce chose to construct his drama of beings inadequate to the Miltonic holding of every instant before the searchlight of the conscious will. He chose that image because it was the inadequacy of that formulation to mankind that he sought to display, not just the inadequacy of mankind to the formulation. (…) The battle that Robert proposes to Richard is irrelevant to the context of their plight. It is not “a victory of human passion over (…) cowardice” that will solve their exile. It is not (…) cowardice that inhibits a repetition of the act of love. The conventional marriage into which Bertha and Richard are settling down is not a retreat but as much of a fulfilment as is allowed. As the family, so the City. The City is not a refuge from the demands of alert living but the context of meaningful life. (Dublin’s Joyce89-90)

Kenner closes his chapter on Exiles with a summary of his reading of Joyce’s progress through the play:

Hence Joyce drew off the rebellious heroics and cast them as a running sub-plot to his later works: first Richard Rowan, then Stephen Dedalus, then Shem the Penman; a metamorphosis of sham personae containing and controlling all the errors implicit in the relation between Dublin and its “liberated” victim. These figures, impurities from the chemical process to which the artist was submitting Dublin, prove to be of permanent interest, just as Dublin is; the emancipated victim is not only the nineteenth-century tragic hero, he [also] has affinities, through Prometheus and Oedipus, with the permanent mind of Europe. That is why Joyce directed so much labour to the purification of what he had taken from Ibsen. Ibsen was both a catalyst and a heresiarch: a warning. He understood as did no one else in his time the burden of the dead past and the wastefulness of any attempt to give it spurious life:6 his “I think we are sailing with a corpse in the cargo!” corresponds to Stephen Dedalus’ apprehension of the nightmare of history from which H. C. Earwicker strains to awake. But he had never known, and could not know amid the frontier vacuum of the fiords, the traditions of the European community of richly-nourished life; and the lonely starvation of his ideal of free personal affinity in no context save that of intermingling wills inspired Joyce with [both] a fascination that generated Exiles and a repulsion that found its objective correlative when Leopold Bloom, reversing Gabriel Conroy’s lust for snow,7 shuddered beneath “the apathy of the stars”, U 719/694. (Dublin’s Joyce, 93-94)

Bloom, “reversing Gabriel Conroy’s lust for snow”, is yet “continuous” (Dublin’s Joyce71) with him. The demand is thus set for a depiction of the City as “the mediation between the two worlds” (Dublin’s Joyce, 75), where a “battle of (…) souls” can play itself out in, or as, “the context of meaningful life”. (Dublin’s Joyce90)

Ibsen confused the impercipient inertia of much human conduct with the matrix of convention and artifice in which social and familial relationships are necessarily enacted(Dublin’s Joyce72)

The guidance of a habitual communal order is not an evasion but a human necessity. (Dublin’s Joyce87)


  1. The central question at stake in these Dublin’s Joyce posts may be put: how far did Kenner’s account of Joyce’s liberation help to spark McLuhan’s liberation from “moralist” to “student”? Further clarification of this question depends upon an investigation of the stages undergone by Kenner’s Joyce book between its initiation in the mid 1940s to its eventual publication as Dublin’s Joyce in 1955. See note 1 to McLuhan and Kenner (Dublin’s Joyce, chap 1.
  2. Kenner continues here concerning the other characters in Exiles: “Robert, Beatrice, and Bertha may be said to exist to explicate aspects of his (Richard’s agonistic) mode of being and phases of his plight”.
  3. Stephen Hero has ‘detail’, not Kenner’s  ‘details’ and ‘one to another’, not Kenner’s ‘to one another’.
  4. Whose mind is this? Ibsen’s? Joyce’s? Both?
  5. In a note in regard to Joyce learning Norwegian to read Ibsen in the original, Kenner references Muriel Bradbrook’s Ibsen the Norwegian(Dublin’s Joyce, 74n) Now Bradbrook was a friend and sometime advisor of McLuhan dating back to his undergraduate years in Cambridge a decade before Kenner and McLuhan met in 1946. This reference to Bradbrook would certainly have come from McLuhan. Similarly, Kenner’s thoughts on Sigfried Giedion’s Mechanization Takes Command (Dublin’s Joyce, 76would have been prompted by McLuhan. Giedion and McLuhan had been acquainted and in correspondence since 1943. And McLuhan reviewed Mechanization Takes Command in 1949 in Hudson Review, where Kenner was also publishing at the time.
  6. Kenner’s Joyce with its emphasis on an imperfect yet best-we-are-allowed sociality may have worked with Corinne McLuhan’s 1946 conversion to suggest the brittleness of McLuhan’s Catholicism to that point. Corinne’s conversion would certainly not have been so ‘theological’ as his own 10 years before. Whatever the complicated motivation, McLuhan’s ‘second conversion‘ from “moralist” to “student” took place in this 1946-1951 period.
  7. This “lust for snow” from the last sentence of the chapter returns to its first sentence: “Gabriel Conroy (from ‘The Dead’ in Dubliners) yearned for the snows. Exiles — an austere ungarnished play — inspects that pseudo-liberation; its Richard Rowan is a Gabriel Conroy liberated by Ibsen.” Kenner seems to have in mind the transition from a pseudo-liberation in what is “yearned for” to its possession — however much dispossession might be implicated in that possession. And however much such a liberation turns out itself to be one more pseudo-liberation. Here is Kenner’s description of Ibsen’s ‘liberation’: “Ibsen unbound Prometheus by dismissing all human bonds as sentiment. The myth that contains his life-work was projected in a (1859) poem, ‘On the Vidda’ (…) In the poem a young man from the valley (…) is visited on holiday in the mountain uplands (the Vidda) by a strange hunter ‘with cold eyes like mountain lakes’ who induces him to stay (…) The youth takes to heart this lesson in detachment. (…) ‘Self-steeled he looks on at joy (in the valley) from above life’s snow-line. The Strange Hunter reappears and tells him he is now free’…” (Dublin’s Joyce, 78).