Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters 1

In a letter to Ezra Pound from December 21, 1948 (Letters 207) McLuhan writes:

the principle of metaphor and analogy [is] the basic fact that as A is to B so is C to D. AB:CD (…) relations in four terms (…) I am trying to devise a way of stating this (…) Until [the principle of metaphor and analogy is] stated and publicly recognized for what it is, poetry and the arts can’t exist (…) Mere exposure to the arts does nothing for a mentality which is incorrigibly dialectical. The vital tensions and nutritive action of ideogram remain inaccessible to this [dialectical] state of mind.

McLuhan’s most sustained attempt at stating “the principle of metaphor and analogy” was made a little over 5 years later in a lecture he delivered in March 1954 at St Joseph Seminary in Hartford, ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (= CHML1 hereafter). Here he begins by asserting the central concern of his lecture: the fundamental relation between metaphor and language:

When we look at any situation through another situation we are using metaphor. This is an intensely intellectual process. And all language arises by this means. (154)

Language, in turn, is said to be the channel or medium of all human experience:

language itself is the principal channel and view-maker of experience for men everywhere. (154)

More than 20 years later, at the end of McLuhan’s career, the same observation appears as follows:

language structures the way in which man thinks and perceives the world. It is the medium of both thought and perception as well as [of] communication. (‘Alphabet Mother of Invention’, 1977)

McLuhan’s point here is not that an individual language structures the way in which all its speakers perceive the world2. Instead, this “medium” of “thought and perception as well as [of] communication” is “language itself” as the repository of the possibilities of meaningful combination (like the table of elements in chemistry). McLuhan’s concern was rather with the fact that a human being has language at all and thereby “thinks and perceives the world”. This is the “miracle” he set out to explore:

As language itself [as “the medium of both thought and perception as well as communication”] is an infinitely greater work of art than [particular works of art like] the Iliad or the Aeneid, so is the creative act of ordinary human perception a greater thing and a more intricate process than any devised by philosophers or scientists. (157)

In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating within themselves, in their interior faculties, the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect — that is, the poetic or creative process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves.  (165)

What happens in perception is that “the exterior world” is apprehended or “recreated” in our interior world. These two ‘worlds’ are at once different3 and yet correlated and it is exactly the “principle” of such correlation over fundamental difference that is the “miracle”. As an example, consider language learning in a child. Although it hears sounds as soon as it is born, and presumably even before it is born in the womb, it must learn the particular sorts of correlation between sound and meaning instantiated in its native language.  This requires a certain distance from the noises it hears so that meaningful sound may be distinguished from random sound and the rules governing the former gradually recognized and reproduced. But this sort of recognition of a correlation between particular sounds and their meanings presupposes a deeper one between the child and the possibility of language learning and this deeper correlation is not subject to learning or any kind of assembly — it is what must already be in place in order for language learning to take place at all. Similarly, the correlations between sound and meaning in the language learned by a child are necessarily given, not created by it.

The “poetic or creative process” of correlation is at work in everything humans do. In language, a finite sign is correlated with meaning and a finite speaker with a finite hearer. In experience, finite perception is correlated with the finite particularities of the external world. And art, according to McLuhan, is so concerned with such correlation as “the principle of metaphor and analogy” that, “until it is (…) recognized for what it is, poetry and the arts can’t exist”4

McLuhan set out to discover the origin and basis of such correlation by working backwards from it as effect “by way of sympathetic reconstruction5. Here he took Poe and the symbolist poets as his models:

the road to this wisdom is by way of sympathetic reconstruction, involving the abeyance of personal prejudice and preconception6. This method of reconstruction (…) appeared first in the Romantic poets of the later eighteenth century, and it went with a conscious concern with the creative process in the arts. (155-156)

Poe saw that poetry should be written backward. One must begin with the effect (…) and then seek out the means for obtaining that effect and no other effect. Thus the same insight which enabled Poe to be the inventor of symbolist poetry also make him the inventor of detective fiction. For the sleuth works backwards from the effect of the event to reconstruct the circumstances which produced the particular event or murder. (156)

The ef-fect (< ex-facere) or e-vent (< ex-venire) which the symbolists and especially Mallarmé set out to reconstruct was perception itself or “human cognition”. What was at stake was therefore the re-cognition of cognition:

The poetic process is a reversal, a retracing of the stages of human cognition. It has and will always be so; but with Edgar Poe and the symbolists this central human fact was taken up to the level of conscious awareness. It then became the basis of modern science and technology. That is what Whitehead meant when he said that the great event of the nineteenth century was the discovery of the technique of discovery. (157-158)

If cognition is the general dis-covery of the world, McLuhan would follow Poe, the symbolists and Whitehead in attempting “the discovery of (…) discovery itself”. Like them, he would work backwards from particular modes of discovery to their enabling principles, but the goal would not be the discovery of any sort of “technique” developed by humans and owned by them to dispose of as they would. Rather, the goal was the dis-covery of the underlying “principle” of correlation (aka “metaphor and analogy”) in Being itself — that ground on the basis of which something like cognition is first possible at all:

the drama of ordinary perception seen as the poetic process is the prime analogate, [it is] the magic casement opening on the secrets of created being (158)

cognition provides that dance of the intellect which is the analogical sense of Being (165)

This sense of Being 7, in turn, is said to point to the “basis” from which “Catholic humanism” springs:

the poetic process as revealed by Poe and the symbolists was the unexpected and unintentional means of reestablishing the basis of Catholic humanism. (157)

The key matter here is “incarnation”: 

And as we trace the rise of successive communication channels or links, from writing to movies and TV, it is borne in on us that in order for their exterior artifice to be effective it must partake of the character of that interior artifice by which in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world. Because human perception is literally incarnation. So that each of us must poet the world or fashion it within us as our primary and constant mode of awareness. And the mechanical or mass media of communication must at least parrot the world in order to hold our attention. (169)

each of us in perception or cognition incarnates the external world of experience. But every word uttered by man requires a large measure of the poetic ability. Our words are analogies of the miracle by which we incarnate and utter the world. I suggest that our faith in the Incarnation has an immediate relevance to our art, science, and philosophy. (169)

“Incarnation” implicates at once both distance and correlation, far and near8. It is like language — or is “language itself” as Logos — as that correlation of finite particularity with meaning that McLuhan called “the principle of metaphor and analogy”.

As already seen above, McLuhan held that “the road to this wisdom is by way of sympathetic reconstruction [of the poetic process], involving the abeyance of personal prejudice and preconception”. This is a “road” on which a fundamental turn of 180° is required from “light on” (“personal prejudice and preconception”) to “light through” (“the miracle”, “the principle of metaphor and analogy”). He describes the genesis of this notion in the modern arts and sciences as follows:

The whole of nineteenth century art and science is charged with the implications of the poetic process and its discovery. Our own century has seen that process put to work in the so-called mass media. Before Poe and Baudelaire the impressionism of Romantic art had taught the artist to pay minute attention to his perceptions, to their mode and inner effect. These experiences he practiced to arrest and to fix in external landscapes as we see in Keats, Tennyson, and Hopkins. Romantic impressionism unexpectedly opened the door to the creative process by developing new resources of introspection. Impressionism was the parent of symbolism. And impressionism and symbolism alike insisted on attention to process in preference to personal self-expression. Self-effacement and patient watchfulness preceded the discovery of the creative process. Poets and artists literally turned their own psyches into laboratories where they practiced the most austere experiments in total disregard of their personal happiness. Gradually it dawned on Mallarmé that pure poetry was impossible — a poetry which would have as its theme the poetic process itself. Henceforth the subject and framework of a poem would be the retracing of a moment of perception. For some of the Romantic poets the doctrine of the aesthetic moment as a moment out of time — a moment of arrested consciousness — had seemed the key to all poetry. The pre-Raphaelites had pushed this doctrine as far as they could. But Mallarmé saw deeper… (160-161)

As with language learning in a child, indeed with learning of any kind, “the road to this wisdom is by way of sympathetic reconstruction, involving the abeyance of personal prejudice and preconception”. So the first step here, taken in “impressionism and symbolism alike”, was “attention to process in preference to personal self-expression”: “self-effacement and patient watchfulness preceded9 the discovery”. This step backward as the only way forward — the way up as the way down10 — already illustrated (and itself presupposed) that correlation whose investigation was underway.  But the decisive step, or turn, was achieved when “it dawned on Mallarmé that pure poetry was impossible”.

What happened in this decisive — or catastrophic11 — moment was that Mallarmé turned against a knotted notion of time, structure and reality which the best poets of the century before him had formulated:

For some of the Romantic poets the doctrine of the aesthetic moment as a moment out of time — a moment of arrested consciousness — had seemed the key to all poetry. The pre-Raphaelites had pushed this doctrine as far as they could. But Mallarmé saw deeper…

What Mallarmé saw will be treated in a series of further posts here and here.


  1. Page numbers refer to the reprint of this lecture in The Medium and the Light.
  2. McLuhan was well aware that perception varies fundamentally between individuals speaking the same language. Indeed, one of his major concerns was the failure of perception in those he was addressing in their common language.
  3. The difference between what McLuhan calls the exterior and interior worlds is evident socially in all the different cultures of historical time and contemporary space and individually in our different moods. To survive, each must relate to a common world; to be recognizably different from each other, each must distinguish itself from a common world.
  4. McLuhan to Pound from December 1948 as cited above. Emphasis added. With the phrase “stated and publicly recognized” here, McLuhan does not mean, absent these,  that no “poetry and the arts” can exist at all. Clearly, they can. Instead he means something like: “Until (the principle of metaphor and analogy is) stated and publicly recognized for what it is, poetry and the arts can’t (properly) exist”, that is, poetry and the arts can’t be seen (or for that matter produced) as what they really are. Therefore he adds: “mere exposure to the arts does nothing for a mentality which is incorrigibly dialectical”. “Exposure to the arts”, even where it “does nothing”, requires that they be present in some sense, however deficient a sense this may be.
  5. Emphasis added.
  6. Until a child practises “the abeyance of personal prejudice and preconception”, it cannot begin the separate meaningful sound from noise.  Only then can it begin to learn language “by way of sympathetic reconstruction”.
  7. The nature of the genitive in “this sense of Being” is the great question. The genitive is both subjective and objective and the riddle within which human life is situated has to do with the correlation between these. This is the “dialogue” that “came before, and goes beyond” of Take Today 22.
  8. The primary signs of Incarnation in Christianity are the Nativity and the Cross. They reveal an utter finitude of coming to be and of ceasing to be that is meaningful, indeed supremely meaningful, because they remain fundamentally correlated with God — despite (or exactly through) the absolute release implicated in them. The knot of such absolute release with the equally absolute hold of God in and with it is the mystery.
  9. With “preceded” a complication of time is introduced here which is essential.
  10. McLuhan cites this fragment from Heraclitus in Take Today. Eliot uses it as one of his mottoes for Four Quartets.
  11. “Catastrophic” in the etymological sense of the word as an overturning, originally of the soil in ploughing.

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