McLuhan and Plato 5 – Peter Pan

Although only indirectly, McLuhan also pointed to another Greek mythological figure to augment his analysis of Narcissistic experience (discussed in McLuhan and Plato 4 – Narcissus). This was Icarus, who met his demise by flying too close to the sun with the wings fabricated for him by his father, Daedalus. While McLuhan never seems to have discussed Icarus specifically, he did refer to Daedalus as the “the inventor of flight” (Take Today, 70) and he had a lot to say about that modern day Icarus, Peter Pan.

The first paper he published after he obtained his first fulltime teaching position, at St Louis University in 1937, was titled ‘[Saint] Peter or Peter Pan’ (Fleur de Lis, 37:4, May 1938).  The paper begins with a citation (not identified by McLuhan) from Nikolai Berdiaev’s 1936 Dostoievsky: an Interpretation:

When he has reached an extremity of inner division and is psychologically unbalanced, with all the customary land-marks wiped out and no new ones in sight, then man hears the call of Anti-Christ.

McLuhan comments (in a moralistic tone which he would later come to mock in himself):

Europe and America have heard the call of Anti-Christ without alarm, for it is the voice of Peter Pan1 (…) The complexity of life ha[s] begun to frighten people. (…) And the mists of Never-Never-Land begin to obliterate the landmarks and frontiers of civilized life.

This fear and obliteration combined to precipitate, in McLuhan’s view, a desire to escape with Peter Pan “from the ‘gwate bid world’ of mature responsibilities”.

Still, he could see the black humor in the fact that “life grows as solemnly farcical as the pageant of the Emperor’s new clothes”.2 And he could vaguely make out as well that he was just the man to document that farce, as he was to do more than a decade later in The Mechanical Bride:

A book might easily be filled if one were simply to list the means adopted in the past five years to knock away the last props of personal life.3

Ten years later, now in Toronto, he continued in the same vein in ‘Time, Life and Fortune’ (View Magazine, 1947):

Perhaps the most persistently risible feature of T.L.F. [Time, Life and Fortune] is the assumption of “god-like heights of observation.” It is an inseparable feature of paranoid megalomania shared by every Dagwood who dreams of flying his own plane or leading an expedition to the top of Mount Everest.

Similarly in The Mechanical Bride (23):

The reader is to be habitually soused with sex and violence but at all times protected from the harsh contact of the critical intellect. This comment leads one smack up against a door marked “Peter Pan, Inc.,” behind which sit the amalgamated forces of Henry Luce, the Comic Books, and the syndics of the book clubs.

And similarly again in the 1954 Counterblast:

The media are not toys; they should not be in the hands of Mother Goose and Peter Pan executives. (‘Media Log’)

Fourteen years later, in Through the Vanishing Point (1968), Peter Pan still figured as the archetype of too tender experience:

The Waste Land (…) presents a disconnected space, psychologically and socially, of anguished Peter Pans. (235)

Culture is our Business (1970), one of McLuhan’s last books, brought this regression to childhood into connection with the new media environment of advertising and TV:

Today, through ads, a child takes in all the times and places of the world “with his mother’s TV.” He is gray at three. By twelve he is a confirmed Peter Pan, fully aware of the follies of adults and adult life in general. These could be called Spock’s Spooks, who now peer at us from every quarter of our world. (…) Four years old may already have become the upper limit of tolerable emotional maturity. (7)

“Spock’s Spooks” aka “the paralyzed child” would appear again in Take Today (1972, 260). But precisely these themes of the appeal of childishness and the corresponding need for a rigorous critique of media had already been present more than three decades before in ‘Peter or Peter Pan’:

For almost a century now, the intelligence of the ablest men has been systematically bought and set to work to exploit the weakness and stupidity of the rest of mankind. This is the exact reverse of the traditional procedure of all civilizations. Hitherto the ablest men have been selected to govern, to educate, rather than to exploit, the others. Today however, copywriting and luxurious advertisement displays swallow up the best artistic talent of several countries.
But this is only one of the techniques of the anonymous masters of our civilization. One hundred and seventy years ago4, Edmund Burke detected an even wider range of symptoms: “The revolutionists leave nothing unchanged. The consequences are upon us; they menace private enjoyment. They dwarf the growth of the young; they break the quiet of the old. If we travel they stop our way. They infest us in town; they pursue us to the country. Our business is interrupted; our repose is troubled; our pleasures are saddened; our very studies are poisoned and perverted, and knowledge is rendered worse than ignorance by the revolutionary harpies sprung from night and hell.” 5



  1. This rather strange identification of Peter Pan with the Anti-Christ might have been mediated by the passage in Isaiah 14:12: “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!”, where Luci-fer as the light-bringer and harbinger of the dawn as the morning star might be thought to equate with Peter Pan + Tinker Bell.
  2. McLuhan would still be writing about “the Emperor’s new clothes”, as well as the Emperor’s old clothes, forty years later. Everything depended on whether experience was tied to the rear-view mirror (in which only “the Emperor’s old clothes” could be seen) or had gone “through the looking-glass” with Alice and could therefore perceive his “new clothes” aka his nakedness.
  3. This and the citations above all come from ‘Peter or Peter Pan’.
  4. Sic: 140 years ago. McLuhan may have been thinking of Burke first taking his seat in Parliament which did date to “one hundred and seventy years ago”.
  5. As with his initial citation from Berdiaev, McLuhan does not identify his source. It is from Burke’s ‘A Letter to a Noble Lord’, 1796, with emphasis added here, not by McLuhan. With his “revolutionary harpies sprung from night and hell” Burke may have been alluding to Pope. As discussed in a prior post, McLuhan would use Pope’s memorable description of “Night Primaeval, and of Chaos old” to conclude The Gutenberg Galaxy 25 years later.

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