McLuhan and Leavis: For Continuity

When McLuhan began his MA studies in Cambridge in 1934, he was exposed for the first time to close consideration of great modern figures like Hopkins, Eliot, Pound, Joyce and Lewis. While these writers were generally in the air at the time, in Cambridge if not in Winnipeg, McLuhan’s initiation to them, and to engaged attention with them, came especially through the quarterly literature journal, Scrutiny, which was published at Cambridge, beginning in 1932, by F R Leavis (1895-1978). 

A collection of Leavis essays, nearly all from Scrutiny, were published in 1933, just before McLuhan’s arrival. The title of this collection, For Continuity, captured a life-long fascination of McLuhan. While he was in process then of developing a fundamentally different notion of the nature of continuity from that of Leavis1, Leavis’s view of it did resonate with McLuhan and came to exercise a decided influence on him, especially over the next 10 to 15 years of his career.

The following texts from For Continuity illustrate Leavis’s sense of continuity which McLuhan took upon himself to think together with somewhat related, but ultimately incompatible, ideas from Chesterton, Eliot, Pound, Joyce, Lewis and Maritain. 

we — those of us who (…) deduce the need to work very actively for cultural continuity….
Change has been so catastrophic that the generations find it hard to adjust themselves to each other, and parents are helpless to deal with their children. It seems unlikely that the conditions of life can be transformed in this way without some injury to the standard of living (to wrest the phrase from the economist [and therefore to mean something like the ‘spiritual standard of living’]): improvisation can hardly replace the delicate traditional adjustments, the mature, inherited codes of habit and valuation, without severe loss, and loss that may be more than temporary. It is a breach in continuity that threatens: what has been inadvertently dropped may be irrecoverable or forgotten.
social changes (…) have virtually broken continuity. The standards that, maintained in a living tradition, constituted a surer taste than any individual as such can pretend to, have gone with the tradition; there is now no centre and no authority, so that Mr. Eastman, Mr. Nicolson, Mr. Priestley or Mr. Walpole can assume authority without being in the eyes of the world ridiculous.
It is to the culture that transcends the individual as the language he inherits transcends him that we come back; to the culture that has decayed [along] with tradition. The standards maintained in such a tradition (…) constitute a surer taste than any individual can pretend to. And it is not merely a matter of literary taste. The culture in question, which is not, indeed, identical with literary tradition but which will hardly survive it, is a sense of relative value and a memory — such wisdom as constitutes the residuum of the general experience. It lives only in individuals, but individuals can live without it; and where they are without it they do not know what they miss. And the world, troubled as it is, is unaware of what is gone. So nearly complete is the gap in cultural consciousness…
To revive or replace a decayed tradition is a desperate undertaking; the attempt may seem futile. But perhaps there will be some agreement that no social or political movement unrelated to such an attempt could engage one’s faith and energy. The more immediate conclusions would seem to bear upon education. No one aware of the problem will entertain easy hopes, for, inevitably, the machinery of education works in with the process of the modern world…

Unhappily, the connotations of the term “academic” are of ill augury: the concern for “tradition” that I have in mind will not be that commonly associated with formal education. Everything must start from and be related to the training of sensibility, that kind of training in which Mr. Richards2 [1893–1979] was a pioneer.

Mass-production, standardisation, levelling-down — these three terms convey succinctly, what has happened. Machine-technique has produced change in the ways of life at such a rate that there has been something like a breach of continuity (…) for the tradition has dissolved : the centre — [Mathew] Arnold’s ” centre of intelligent and urbane spirit”3 which, in spite of his plaints, we can see by comparison to have existed in his day — has vanished. 
Civilised life is certainly threatened with impoverishment by education based on crude and defective psychology, by standardisation at a low level, and by the inculcation of a cheap and shallow emotional code.
[D H Lawrence’s] crude hope of picking up (for he certainly believed a casting-back to be necessary) the lost continuity here, or there, in this or that primitive people.
It is plain from his books that [Lawrence] was not able to maintain steady confident possession of what he sought — wholeness in spontaneity; a human naturalness, inevitable, and more than humanly sanctioned; a sense, religious in potency, of life in continuity of communication with the deepest springs, giving fulfillment in living, “meaning” and a responsive relation with the cosmos
“Thank God,” said Lawrence, “I’m not free, any more than a rooted tree is free.” While he said also, “Unless from us the future takes place we are death only,” it was in the past that he was rooted. Indeed, in our time, when the gap in continuity is almost complete, he may be said to represent, concretely in his living person, the essential human tradition4; to represent, in an age that has lost the sense of it, human normality, as only great genius could.
We assume an “inner human nature,” and our recognition that it may be profoundly affected by the “economic process” persuades us that it must rally, gather its resources and start training itself for its ultimate responsibility at once.
It is an order that is gone (…) and there are no signs of its replacement by another: the possibility of one that should offer a like richness of life, of emotional, mental and bodily life in association, is hardly even imaginable. Instead we have cultural disintegration, mechanical organisation and constant rapid change.
We have poets in our own day, and James Joyce wrote Ulysses. For how long a cultural tradition can be perpetuated in this way one wonders with painful tension. Language, kept alive and rejuvenated by literature, is certainly an essential means of continuity and transition — to what? We are back at the question, which has been raised in Scrutiny before and will be again, if Scrutiny performs its function, whether there can be a culture based on leisure, and if so, what kind. We can demand no more than the certitude that there are certain things to be done and cared for now.


  1. Where Leavis regretted any “gap” in continuity and urged its repair, McLuhan would come to emphasize the gap as fundamental to continuity — a difference between the two which was ultimately religious.
  2. I A Richards, arguably the leading figure in English studies in Cambridge during McLuhan’s time there, influenced McLuhan in many ways which will be considered in future posts. See his Meaning of Meaning (with C K Ogden) and Practical Criticism.
  3. Leavis cites from Arnold’s 1864 “The Literary Influence of Academies”
  4. Lawrence increasingly came to represent “the essential human tradition” for Leavis. This valorization hinged on Lawrence’s supposed integrity. The difference between Leavis and McLuhan on this point mirrors that later between Mailer and McLuhan as regards what Mailer called “alienation”. In the video see especially 24:05ff.

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