Through the vanishing point 2 – Shakespeare

All of Shakespeare exists in auditory depth… (Verbi, Voco, Visual Explorations, 16)

When we say, therefore, that Shakespeare draws his people in the round, we are noting the auditory depth with which his music invests the least gesture or intonation of his characters. The complexity of his characters is often the effect of all the other characters being simultaneously present in the auditory space provided by the music of his language. (Printing and Social Change, 25)

The Shakespearean moment (“that time of year”) includes several times at once… (Through the Vanishing Point, p 103)

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. (As you like It, 2.7)1

The Gutenberg Galaxy is typical of McLuhan’s work in turning repeatedly to Shakespeare to explicate his project.2 He introduces his central concern in it, referring to Shakespeare, as follows:

His theme in Lear is that of John Donne in An Anatomy of the World3:
‘Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
All just supply, and all Relation:
Prince, subject, Father, Son, are things forgot.
For every man alone thinks he hath got
To be a Phoenix… (13)

McLuhan cites Lear itself in naming the controlling problem of that theme:

The breaking of “the most precious square of sense”…4 (13)

He then turns to Troilus and Cressida to specify the sure sign of the breaking of sense — “mere oppugnancy”:

O, when degree is shak’d,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
The enterprise is sick! How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenity and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows! Each thing melts
In mere oppugnancy5. (19)

The reconstitution of sense requires that thought and identity go “through the vanishing point” and this is again described by a citation from Lear:

Come on, sir; here’s the place: stand still. How fearful
And dizzy ’tis, to cast one’s eyes so low!
The crows and choughs that wing the midway air6
Show scarce so gross as beetles: half way down
Hangs one that gathers samphire, dreadful trade!
Methinks he seems no bigger than his head:
The fishermen, that walk upon the beach,
Appear like mice; and yond tall anchoring bark,
Diminish’d to her cock; her cock, a buoy
Almost too small for sight: the murmuring surge,
That on the unnumber’d idle pebbles chafes,
Cannot be heard so high. I’ll look no more;
Lest my brain turn, and the deficient sight
Topple down headlong.7  (16)

McLuhan poses the questions: when (in what time) is the string of the world tuned? how can we attend such tuning? how are we to understand it in relation to the lack of tuning that is manifest everywhere? why does a pathway pursuing these questions lead “through the vanishing point”? how does this take us beyond “mere oppugnancy”?

The goal (“Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deeps”) is taken from Troilus and Cressida and is cited in Understanding Media, Take Today, and Laws of Media

The providence that’s in a watchful state
Knows almost every grain of Plutus’ gold,
Finds bottom in the uncomprehensive deeps,
Keeps place with thought, and almost like the gods
Does thoughts unveil in their dumb cradles.8

The dark that must be confronted in going “through the vanishing point” into “the uncomprehensive deeps” (as discussed previously in regard to McLuhan’s use of Milton and Pope) is an ineradicable aspect of human existence that must have a central place in any fitting consideration of it.  Again, it is Shakespeare who supplies the definitive rendition of such “death’s second self” in Sonnet 73, which McLuhan cites in full both in Through the Vanishing Point (102) and in Voices of Literature (1.181):

That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.9

A speech from As you like It (2.7), included in Voices of Literature (1.135), and discussed in Through the Vanishing Point, is called by McLuhan “The Seven Ages of Man”.  Here “mere oblivion (…) sans everything” is seen as the concluding “part” of the different roles a person “plays” in a lifetime:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.10 

  1. Cited in full below from Voices In Literature (1.135).
  2. It is note-worthy (although ignored by most academic research) that McLuhan turns back to the tradition in this way to explicate the path thought must take in “understanding media”. Indeed, the indirection and multiplicity of time is one of McLuhan’s fundamental themes.
  3. 1611
  4. King Lear 1.1
  5. Troilus and Cressida 1.3 — also cited in the 1948 ‘Where Chesterton Comes In’, but omitting there, strangely, the last 2 great lines : “And hark what discord follows! Each thing melts/In mere oppugnancy.”
  6. See Wallace Stevens “mid-day air” here.
  7. King Lear 4.6; this same text is cited in the introductory chapter (“Sensory Modes”) of Through the Vanishing Point, p 14, and later again in the same text on p 74.
  8. Troilus and Cressida 3.3; on the same page (13) of The Gutenberg Galaxy cited repeatedly above, McLuhan speaks of “the very constitution of rationality”. For the correlation of “the uncomprehensive deeps” with the “dumb cradles” of thought, see “The Seven Ages of Man” cited below where Shakespeare brings together “oblivion” and “second childishness”. That humans cannot escape first and “second childishness” may be taken to reveal an unbreakable bond with the pluripotent springs of “language itself” (also discussed here).
  9. McLuhan also cites this sonnet in part in ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’ (1955)  and in From Cliché to Archetype, 84, In ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’, he comments on the first 4 lines of the sonnet as follows: “Here the time of year, designated as a mental state, is visualized swiftly in three different ways in the second line and then a fourth and fifth time in the third and fourth lines. First, bare boughs as choirs for birds of the air, and then ruined abbey choirs, as former scenes of the choirboys’ efforts, provide a superimposed visual image. The rapid transition of brief visual shots creates a kaleidoscopic sense of speed and complexity which is controlled only by the solemn music of the lines.”
  10. When “The Seven Ages of Man” are considered synchronically, “all at once”, they may be taken to define the spectrum of “language itself” as the repository of the possibilities of human existence: “one man in his time plays many parts”. In Through the Vanishing Point (65) McLuhan comments on these lines: “The mode of song and of festival is inclusive, all-at-onceness. As a means of creating involvement and participation, nothing seems to rival a simple catalogue. Compare ‘The Seven Ages of Man’ in As You Like It.”
    See the wonderful evocation of this spectrum or “catalogue” by Wallace Stevens in Esthétique du Mal.

Leave a Reply