McLuhan and Kenner (the plotline of Dublin’s Joyce)

moving self-consciously from the alone to the alone… 

Kenner’s phrase here (from the first page of chapter 7, Dublin’s Joyce95) speaks to his reading of Joyce, but through it, as with a palimpsest, may be read the action of “the permanent mind of Europe” (from the last page of chapter 6, Dublin’s Joyce94).

Earlier in Dublin’s Joyce Kenner had compared Joyce with Pope and recalled how that “mind of Europe” with “intellectual traditions running back through St. Augustine to Cicero and Homer” now “entered the (…) night-world”:1 

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. (Dublin’s Joyce23

Here is the passage in Pope from the end of the 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.

McLuhan ended his unpublished Typhon in America,2 written at a time in the late 1940s when he and Kenner were in intense communication, with this passage. The last sentence of his typescript runs:

In this darkness we must learn to see.

Around 15 years later, he ended The Gutenberg Galaxy3 with this same passage from Pope but with a changed summary sentence:

This is the Night from which Joyce invites the Finnegans to wake.

Compare Kenner:

In Finnegans Wake (…) Joyce reversed for the western world that current that has flowed from Milton’s exile-myth4 into the romantic night-world.5 (Dublin’s Joyce90)

McLuhan’s revision in the Gutenberg Galaxy to reference Joyce and FW does indeed seem to have come about through the reconsideration he made of Joyce in the late 1940s together with Kenner.6 On the other hand, Kenner’s reading of Joyce, as it came to be formulated over the decade leading to Dublin’s Joyce in 1955, owed to McLuhan this plotline of “the mind of Europe enter[ing] the (…) night-world”.7 The great question was, how to go from an isolated perspective — “moving self-consciously from the alone to the alone” (Dublin’s Joyce95) — to the common life of Dublin and doublin?8

This plotline goes back in “the permanent mind of Europe” at least to Plato, and arguably to Parmenides and Heraclitus. The central question is, again, how is thinking to break from captivity in “the alone to the alone” and instead join itself with the ‘common world’ (κόσμος κοινός)?

An abysmal circularity is implicated here, since joining is an act of ‘bringing together’ and cannot even be attempted unless the possibility of it is already at hand. But how to get to what is already at hand, especially when a start has long since been made elsewhere with what is equally but fundamentally differently also at hand? Having started with the ‘alone’, how start again with another possibility? Especially with another possibility that is hardly known or even utterly unknown?

A peculiar kind of backwards somersault through the dark is required — a Gestalt switch or paradigm shift in accord with which the action of mind is to be reordered from the start (at a time when it has already started, and been deeply ordered, elsewise).

In “the permanent mind of Europe” it was just such a break with linearity that Plato’s ‘dialectic’ aimed, if not to accomplish — for to accomplish would privilege a student’s chain of thought and the point was to break with that chain, certainly not to reinforce it. Instead, a new start was to be prompted through such a backward break — to ‘occasion’ it somehow.

Dublin’s Joyce traces one more attempt in the action of “the mind of Europe”, this time by Joyce, to relocate itself to where it already is.

τοῦ λόγου δὲ ἐόντος ξυνοῦ ζώουσιν οἱ πολλοί ὡς ἰδίαν ἔχοντες φρόνησιν
Heraclitus DK B29

Although logos is common to all, the many live as if they had a wisdom of their own.

Although the logos is shared, most men live as though their thinking were a private possession

τοῖς ἐγρηγορόσιν ἕνα καὶ κοινὸν κόσμον εἶναι τῶν δὲ κοιμωμένων ἕκαστον εἰς ἴδιον ἀποστρέφεσθαι
Heraclitus DK B89

The waking have one common world, but the sleeping turn aside each into a world of his own.

The waking have one world in common; sleepers have each a private world of his own.


  1. Kenner writes of “the Romantic night-world”. But this threatens to place in an historic era what is a “permanent” possibility. Or did Kenner consider “the Romantic” a “permanent” possibility which the Romantic age may have particularly realized, though not exclusively?
  2. See Typhon/Minotaur/Dionysus parallels.
  3. The Gutenberg Galaxy book, as opposed to ‘The Gutenberg Galaxy’ main section of the book, has a kind of appendix, ‘The Galaxy Reconfigured’. But that McLuhan considered ‘Pope’s Dunciad’ (pages 255-263 of GG) to be the chief conclusion of The Gutenberg Galaxy follows from the inclusion of this section of GG in The Interior Landscape in 1969.
  4. Kenner’s phrase “Milton’s exile-myth” recalls his quotation a few pages before from William Empson’s Some Versions of Pastoral: “Milton uses (the myth) to give every action a nightmare importance, to hold every instant before the searchlight of the conscious will. It is a terrific fancy, the Western temper at its height; the insane disproportion of the act to its effects implies a vast zest for heroic action.” Kenner comments: “Joyce chose to construct his drama (around) 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”. (Dublin’s Joyce88-89)
  5. With “the romantic night-world” Kenner is referring to Pope’s Dunciad. As cited above from Dublin’s Joyce23: ” the universal darkness that (Pope) predicted at the end of the Dunciad fell exactly as he foretold; the mind of Europe entered the romantic night-world.”
  6. This is not to say that that revision itself came from Kenner! Although Dublin’s Joyce appeared in 1955, seven years before the 1962 Gutenberg Galaxy, the latter had been under construction since at least 1952. It is entirely possible, therefore, that the impetus here came from McLuhan and not from Kenner.
  7. Dublin’s Joyce does not have only a single plotline. Kenner’s own plotline follows Joyce through two “cycles” of the Aristotelian lyric-epic-drama progression: Chamber Music, Dubliners, Exiles; Portrait, Ulysses, FW. Against this, McLuhan had became fascinated with the epyllion or “little epic” form after encountering it in the work of Eric Havelock in the mid 1940s. (For discussion see The Road to Xanadu.) This cut across Kenner’s progression of genres. In his 1960 ‘Tennyson and the Romantic Epic’ McLuhan referred succinctly to “the little epic fusion of lyric, epic, and dramatic”. Here was not only a further complicating genre, but also a whole different notion of time. (For detailed exposition see McLuhan’s Times.)
  8. Doublin’ is the action of participation in the ‘common world’ (κόσμος κοινός). Using a phrase from Jacques Maritain, Kenner describes Dublin as “the world of generality” (Dublin’s Joyce88).
  9. This is one of the two epigraphs from Heraclitus to Eliot’s Four Quartets. Kenner has recorded in regard to McLuhan and himself in the late 1940s: “the passion (…) with which we two (…) studied Eliot! We penciled notes on the yellow postwar paper of a Faber Four Quartets.” (1985 ‘Preface’ to the reprinting of Kenner’s The Poetry of Ezra Pound from 1951.)