In Through the Vanishing Point (44) McLuhan cites from W.B. Yeats’ Byzantium (1928):
The unpurged images of day recede;
The Emperor’s drunken soldiery are abed;
Night resonance recedes, night walkers’ song
After great cathedral gong;
A starlit or a moonlit dome disdains
All that man is,
All mere complexities,
The fury and the mire of human veins.
It is on the other side of this night (“now that my ladder’s gone”) where (indeed, also when) the “midden heap” — aka “language itself” — is to be found. Here is “where all the ladders start”:
Those masterful images because complete
Grew in pure mind, but out of what began?
A mound of refuse or the sweepings of a street,
Old kettles, old bottles, and a broken can,
Old iron, old bones, old rags, that raving slut
Who keeps the till. Now that my ladder’s gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start,
In the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart.
McLuhan cited these lines from Yeats’ The Circus Animals’ Desertion (1938) over and over again in his late texts: in Take Today, in ‘Man as the Medium’ (the introduction to his 1975 commentary on Sorel Etrog’s film, Spiral) and, especially, in From Cliché to Archetype where they are cited twice, along with the first lines of the poem:
I sought a theme and sought for it in vain,
I sought it daily for six weeks or so.
Maybe at last, being but a broken man,
I must be satisfied with my heart, although
Winter and summer till old age began
My circus animals were all on show,
Those stilted boys, that burnished chariot,
Lion and woman and the Lord knows what.1
- Yeats’ “circus animals” (meaning those ideas and creations through which he obtained social attention) may be taken to correspond to the meaningful sounds of any particular language (“those masterful images” of “pure mind”). These are selected (in a collective process that is deeply mysterious) from the complete range of possibly meaningful sound that is “language itself“ aka “the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart”. McLuhan’s great interest was twofold: (a) how is it that any and all utterly finite sound (or other sensory input) is potentially meaningful? (b) how is it that the sounds (or other sensory input) of any particular language are able to retain this potential in actualizing it (a capability only humans can realize)? Both of these interests pointed him to the fundamentality of the medium in which these are situated. Together these questions ask: how is that there is such a thing as communication? ↩