He couldn’t bear a fully conscious existence under the frenetic conditions that he is exposed to (…) He could not register these terrible shocks directly and survive. He’d go mad. I think that all human technology and invention has occurred under this kind of anxious pressure. You don’t outer anything (…) until you’re under some dire pressure and fear. But (…) fear is no longer the problem. Anxiety is the problem. Fear is specific, anxiety is total. (…) You don’t know now precisely what you’re dreading, rather it’s a pervasive state. The condition of man is what you dread. You no longer dread that animal, that famine, and so on, but this condition. (…) Anxiety means utmost alertness, utmost watchfulness, involvement and therefore of course a very heightened kind of existence, a sort of nightmare1
These lines from ‘Prospect’ in Canadian Art (1962) were not written as autobiography. But McLuhan speaks generally here (switching between the first, second and third person) in a way that includes, as he must have been well aware, also himself:
all human (…) invention has occurred under this kind of anxious pressure. You don’t outer anything (…) until you’re under some dire pressure.
According to Carpenter, McLuhan suffered a severe stroke in 1960.2 His condition was acute enough that he received the last rites. This may have been a prodromal sign of the tumor growing in his brain that would be removed seven years later in New York.3 And/or it may have been an effect of the genetic liability to stroke he shared with his mother. It had killed her in 1961, the year before ‘Prospect’, and would eventually kill him as well. But whatever the precise details may have been with McLuhan’s physical health, he certainly knew at this time (age 50) that he was living on borrowed time and that his ability to communicate his message was threatened by more than its inherent conceptual difficulties. The more he felt the importance of relaying his ancient message, at last, the more anxiety he must have felt.
In his major text from this same year, The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan cites some lines from As You Like It (II, vii):
Give me leave
To speak my mind, and I will through and through
Cleanse the foul body of th’ infected world,
If they will patiently receive my medicine.
He then comments in words that may be taken as applying also to himself:
Though engaged in this cathartic enterprise, Shakespeare felt the absence of role bitterly. (GG 195)
- ‘Prospect’ in Canadian Art (1962). Similarly, at the end of the decade: “the story line in the minotaur myth is (…) the confrontation with human identity, which is the monster”. Exploration of the ways, means, and values of museum communication with the viewing public, Museum of the City of New York, 1969 ↩
- This 1960 stroke is mentioned without attribution by Coupland (132) and seems to have been general knowledge in the UT community. From this time, McLuhan was known to have changed markedly. Carpenter describes the stroke in detail in unpublished correspondence and mentions it in a long YouTube interview at 13:41ff (where, however, he dates the stroke erroneously to 1957) and again at 40:24ff where he mentions that “Marshal was very sick at the time to the point where they administered last rites”. ↩
- See the note in Letters, doubtless from Corinne McLuhan, that prior to McLuhan’s brain tumour operation in 1967 “for eight years before (ie, since 1959) he had been afflicted with occasional blackouts and dizziness” (175). ↩