Monthly Archives: March 2015

Autobiography 1930

In Speaking of Winnipeg (ed John Parr, 1974) McLuhan reported:

I walked to school many times in 50-below zero along Osborne Street across from the Parliament grounds to the old quondset huts that used to be called Manitoba University.

In the postcard vista of downtown Winnipeg from ca 1935 here, Osborne is the street on the right. What was then the downtown campus of the University of Manitoba, where McLuhan apparently took many of his courses,  was located between the auditorium in the front left and the Legislative building in the back centre. A view of the university at this site in 1922 is shown here.

The McLuhan family home on Gertrude St  was located in the back right of the postcard view. McLuhan’s walk to school was only a little over a mile.




Autobiography — Richards and Empson

Sometime after a 1973 dinner1 with William Empson, Northrop Frye and William Wimsatt , McLuhan memorialized Empson’s description there of his first encounter with the new critical methods of I. A. Richards.  This would have been 1927-1928, around 6 years before McLuhan himself arrived in Cambridge to study in the English school with Richards.2

When visiting U of T in the spring of 1973 Empson and Frye and  Wimsatt had dinner. It was there that Empson told of days when he had begun supervisions under Richards. He said that he was in the habit of regaling his undergraduate friends after each supervision with a detailed account of what he and they regarded as Richard’s utter absurdity. They would literally roll on the grass, howling with merriment as the crazy psychological and linguistic ideas were reviewed. Empson said it was more than a year before he began to detect some sense in I.A.R.3

McLuhan described his own first impression of Richards in a contemporary letter to his mother on January 18, 1935:

Richards is conducting mass experiments in the criticism of prose extracts this term. He hands out sheets with the extracts, and gives us 20 minutes. He produced a huge volume by this method using poems, and made the “great” discovery that nobody admired or was repelled from anything for any “good” reason. I have some doubts about the method of giving one poem of any person as a test. A really cultivated taste might hit the nail most all the time, but uncultivated people can enjoy many things in a volume by one writer, where the merits of his craft  and ideas and feelings are permitted to permeate the consciousness from 1000 different angles. Richards is a humanist who regards all experience as relative to certain conditions of life. There are no permanent, ultimate, qualities such as Good, Love, Hope, etc., and yet he wishes to discover objective, ultimately permanent standards of criticism. He wants to discover those standards (what a hope!) in order to establish intellectualist culture as the only religion worthy [of] a rational being and in proportion to their taste for which all people are “full sensitive, harmonious personalities” or “disorganized, debased fragments of unrealized potentiality”. When I see how people swallow such ghastly atheistic nonsense, I could join a bomb-hurling society.4

It is noteworthy that McLuhan’s experience with Richards replicated Empson’s. Empson quickly went from the “utter absurdity” of Richards to the writing of Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930), a classical text in ‘practical criticism’.5 Similarly, what McLuhan here calls “ghastly atheistic nonsense”, the contrast between “full sensitive, harmonious personalities” and “disorganized, debased fragments of unrealized potentiality” was close to what was to become in his work the contrasts of inclusive vs exclusive structures and of electric form vs print. And McLuhan, too, would go on to “regard all experience as relative to certain conditions of life (…) and yet (…) wished to discover objective, ultimately permanent standards of criticism.”

Perhaps Richards may be seen as a proto-structuralist for whom ambiguities were the key to unlocking the underlying laws expressed in texts and (as another Richards student, F. R Leavis, would explore before McLuhan) in the environment generally. The fertility of his insights may be judged from the range and extent of the work to which it led in his students.

Notes McLuhan made for his 1938 essay, ‘The Cambridge English School’, show how far he had revised his opinion of Richards by this time6:

Dr. Richards improved the instruments of analysis [at the English School], and has consolidated and generally made accessible the contribution of Coleridge — a contribution which had been obscured by a mass of academic criticism. (…) “The one and only goal of all critical endeavours (…) is improvement in communication” 7 (…) Dr. Richards has been a pioneer in the training of sensibility (…) Today, language, the indispensable mode of thought, is in danger from an organised cynicism which insists on exploiting the stupidity of the Many (…) modern advertising, in itself, presents an utterly irresponsible force exploiting language for the deception, or rather coercion, of the Many (…) And advertising is only one of the forces that are disintegrating [our] medium of expression, and destroying the major means of effective communication among men. (…) Dr. Richards and others at the English School, in advocating a strenuous and practical criticism, have welcomed the warning of Mr. Pound in his vigorous book How to Read: “Has literature a function in the state, in the aggregation of humans, in the republic, in the res publica? (..) It has (…) It has to do with the clarity and vigour, of ‘any and every’ thought and opinion. It has to do with maintaining the very cleanliness of the tools, the health of the very matter of thought itself.” 8

The published essay cites Leavis from Scrutiny9 and concludes in his vein: 

In view of the generally recognized collapse of serious standards of living, of taste, and of judgment, it has become almost impossible for an individual to find his bearings amidst the hubbub of cheap excitements today. The attainment of genuine critical judgment was never so difficult, or so rare. If in view of this situation alone, the Cambridge English school might easily vindicate its insistence on the rigorous training of sensibility. And literature, properly considered, remains one of the few uncontaminated sources of nutrition for impulse and the education of emotion. With the failure of the external environment to provide such nutrition, or anything except confused sensations, it has become the major instrument of education.10



  1. This must have been in the first weeks of January.  McLuhan mentions the dinner in a letter to Muriel Bradbrook from Jan 12, 1973 (Letters 462) and to Hugh Kenner from Feb 2, 1973 (Letters 464).
  2. Empson was gone from Cambridge by the time McLuhan arrived, having been expelled for possessing prophylactics. Later he would be knighted.
  3. McLuhan’s note was written on the fly-leaf of his copy of Some Versions of Pastoral by William Empson (1935) as recorded here and here.
  4. McLuhan to Elsie McLuhan, January 18, 1935, Letters 50.
  5. As footnoted in his Letters, 462n3, McLuhan recorded reading Empson’s Seven Types of Ambiguity in his diary for December 30, 1935 and January 4, 1936,  — “Found it excellent”.
  6. In a letter 25 years years later to Bascom St John, McLuhan brings Richards together with Freud: “Much of the significant work of our time, whether it be that of Freud or I.A. Richards in criticism (…) has indicated a very wide breakdown of communication between individuals and between societies.” (June 15, 1964, Letters 302)
  7. McLuhan here cites Richards from Practical Criticism, 1929: “the one and only goal of all critical endeavours, of all interpretation, appreciation, exhortation, praise or abuse, is improvement in communication”.
  8. Cited from McLuhan’s papers in the National Archive Canada in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 365-366, n33.
  9. “A serious interest in literature starts from the present and assumes that literature matters, in the first place at any rate, as the consciousness of the age. If a literary tradition does not keep itself alive here, in the present, not merely in new creation, but as a pervasive influence upon feeling, thought, and standards of living (it is time we challenged the economists’ use of this phrase), then it must be pronounced to be dying or dead. . . . Practical criticism of literature must be associated with training in awareness of the environment — advertising, the cinema, the press, architecture, and so on — for, clearly, to the pervasive counter-influence of this environment the literary training of sensibility in school is an inadequate reply.” (For Continuity, 1933 — a collection of Leavis essays from Scrutiny).
  10. ‘The Cambridge English School’, Fleur de Lis, 1938.

Autobiography 1932-1934

In his Foreword to The Interior Landscape (1969), McLuhan remembered:

In the summer of 1932 I walked and biked through most of England1 carrying a copy of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury [of Songs and Lyrical Poems in the English Language]. There had never been any doubt in my mind that art and poetry were an indictment of human insentience past and present:

Aye, many flowering islands lie
In the waters of wide Agony.

In the Lake Country I reveled in Wordsworth phrases: 

Most sweet it is with unuplifted eyes
To pace the ground, if path be there or none,
While a fair region round the traveller lies.

Every poem in that book seemed to have been written to enhance my pilgrimage:

Yes, there is holy pleasure in thine eye!
The lovely cottage in the guardian nook
Hath stirr’d thee deeply; with its own dear brook,
Its own small pasture, almost its own sky!

“Pied Beauty,” the single poem of Hopkins in my copy, was quite startling. I assumed he was a Victorian eccentric who had been noted for one or two small poems such as this. Nobody could tell me about him.

After a conventional and devoted initiation to poetry as a romantic rebellion against mechanical industry and bureaucratic stupidity, Cambridge was a shock. Richards, Leavis, Eliot and Pound and Joyce in a few weeks opened the doors of perception on the poetic process, and its role in adjusting the reader to the contemporary world.

My study of media began and remains rooted in the work of these men. (…) 

The effects of new media on our sensory lives are similar to the effects of new poetry. They change not our thoughts but the structure of our world.

All this is merely to say that my juvenile devotion to Romantic poetry is closely related to my present concerns with the effects of the media in our personal and political lives.

  1. McLuhan traveled with his Winnipeg friend and future UT colleague, Tom Easterbrook.

Autobiography 1944-1946

On October 5, 1973, McLuhan wrote to his old Winnipeg friend, colleague at UT, fellow editor of Explorations and now president of the University of Western Ontario, Carlton Williams, as follows:

Fr. Stan Murphy (Basilian) of the University of Windsor (formerly Assumption College) has sustained the Christian Culture Series with zero staff and zero budget for more than thirty years. Almost every famous writer, painter, philosopher, and  head of state, to say nothing of whole symphonies, ballet troupes, and choirs of world reputation have performed for him for free. The reason is they admire Stan Murphy so much for his cultural work…

…to put the matter mildly, there has never been anything approaching the scale of Murphy’s [Windsor] operation in Toronto. The international greats he has brought to Windsor are not people who perform in Toronto…

You may remember that Murphy came to Toronto when he heard of the presence of Wyndham Lewis here during the war. He rescued Lewis from absolute poverty and total neglect by Toronto and took him back to Windsor where Lewis began to teach Comparative Literature. It was when Lewis gave a lecture in the Culture Series on Rouault that my mother, who attended the lecture, wrote me in St. Louis. I could not credit the possibility that the great Lewis was actually in Windsor. After all, he was one of the greatest men of the century, both in painting and in prose. I got on a train at once and went to Windsor and met Lewis. When I got back to St. Louis, I arranged sitters and lectures for him, and he came to St. Louis for a  year. One day he said: “Why don’t we go back to Windsor and start up my old art magazine The Enemy?” I wrote Murphy at Assumption and he arranged for me to have a job at Assumption at once, so Lewis joined me in Windsor, just as the war ended. Lewis decided to go back to London and I stayed on at Assumption, whence I moved up to Toronto via the Basilians. (Letters, 482-483)

Autobiography 1934-1936

In 1974, McLuhan looked back 40 years in ‘English Literature as Control Tower in Communication Study’:

lt was a little book by F. R. Leavis and D. Thompson called Culture and Environment (London: Chatto and Windus, 1933) that first directed my attention to the role of advertising and movies in shaping the awareness of students in general.
l began teaching at the University of Wisconsin in 1936, having come from Cambridge, where language and popular culture as forms of perception and perceptual training were a somewhat new and exciting development. After all, it was the radio age, and sound movies were well established. A holistic attitude toward the planet as a single human environment had become natural and acceptable. Radio had created a simultaneous world of information, which in effect, bypassed all the existing divisions of knowledge with their schematic and visual classifications. Physics and astrophysics and anthropology alike were asserting the new claims of the inclusive and resonating world of quantum mechanics on one hand, and the “Third World,” on the other. For the Third World arrived with radio and anthropology and with the study of preliterate or “traditional” societies.  


The Beginnings of Gutenberg Galaxy 3 – Proof-reading in progress

On Christmas Day, 1960, McLuhan wrote to Corinne McLuhan’s family in Fort Worth as follows:

You would have heard from me sooner except that I’ve been so keyed up this book job [The Gutenberg Galaxy] that until Sunday comes I’m useless for anything else. However, the end is in sight. Proof-reading of typescript and chaptering is in progress. So I’ve written a 400-page book in less than one month. (…) it goes into the mail (Tuesday) (…) I’ve been reading and reading and reading for twenty years and now it’s time to put out some things of my own. It’s going to mean some extra cash eventually. (Letters 276)

Researchers sometimes repeat the claim (in wonder or blame) that GG was written “in less than one month”. In fact, of course, GG was written over a full decade and required, in 1960, as much assembly as writing. Even in 1960, it took up more of McLuhan’s time than he acknowledged to the Lewis’ in Fort Worth. A letter to John Wain in March of that year noted

Shall take the whole of this summer off to do the Gutenberg book…


Genesis 11:4-9
4 And they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower whose top is in the heavens; let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” 5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built.
6 And the Lord said, “Indeed the people are one and they all have one language, and this is what they begin to do; now nothing that they propose to do will be withheld from them. 7 Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they ceased building the city. 9 Therefore its name is called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth. 

Over the course of his career McLuhan took a variety of views on the Biblical story of the tower of Babel. It might be taken to symbolize the fundamental human condition of finite fragmentation; or it might be taken to signify the reign of “witless assumption”1; or it might be taken to reflect the perennial denial of the human condition “by which man sought to scale the highest heavens”. With these, however, McLuhan also listened for “the babble of Anna Livia”. He was well aware that the condition of Babel/babble can never be put entirely aside and that meaning, if to be found at all, must be found in it/them. As he observed in ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’:

the daily paper is not lacking in moral edification, for the hubbub of appetites and protests to be found among the advertisements and announcements proclaims each day the ‘original servitude’ of man and the confusion of tongues of the tower of Babel.

Here are samples (in chronological order) of McLuhan’s takes on the Tower of Babel:

we have no choice. We have either to surpass any previous age or to collapse into a new Babel. For our problems, like our means and opportunities, are of a scope beyond those of any previous age. (Symbolist Communication 1953)

like Shakespeare and Chesterton, Joyce uses the pun as a way of seeing the paradoxical exuberance of being through language. And it was years after he had begun the Wake before he saw that the babble of Anna Livia through the nightworld of the collective consciousness united the towers of Babel and of sleep. In sleep “the people is one and they have all one language” but day overcomes and scatters them. (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial 1953)

Nineteenth century development of spatial communication widened the gap between knowledge and power, [between] poetry [and] all the arts [on the one hand] and politics [and] business [on the other]. The withdrawal of the arts to an ivory tower and of politics and business to a tower of Babel is the figurative way of citing the current divorce between knowledge and know-how. Irresponsibility and loss of bearings occurred in both domains. Yet major developments in each sphere were strikingly parallel, and recognition of common problems and solutions [however belated] may help mend the broken network. (Network 2, 1953)2

Now for the Platonist as for the Gnostic a symbol or poem is simply a sign linking Heaven and Hell. Art and beauty point from this world to another world from which we have all fallen. In the ancient pagan view, so predominant today, man is a fallen angel. (…) So that granted the pagan premise that man is simply a fallen angel the ideal of modern industrial humanism is quite consistent. Let us doll up the fallen angel and let us put it in ever more powerful machines until the whole world looks like Marilyn Monroe in a Cadillac convertible. (…) In this angelic view the business of art has nothing to do with the analogy of cognition nor with our miraculous power to incarnate the external world. It is a means [like the tower of Babel]3 rather to lift us out of our human condition4 and to restore us to the divine world from which we fell at birth. In this view the artist becomes one with the Nietzschean superman, the transvaluer of values. Reality is not to be trusted or revered but to be remade by social engineers. (Christian Humanism and Modern Letters 1954)

This work of “popular enchantment” which is the daily paper is not lacking in moral edification, for the hubbub of appetites and protests to be found among the advertisements and announcements proclaims each day the “original servitude” of man and the confusion of tongues of the tower of Babel. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press 1954)

It is now obvious that as all languages are mass media, so the new media are new languages. To unscramble our Babel we must teach these languages and their grammars on their own terms. This is something quite different from the educational use of audio-visual aids or of closed-circuit TV. (Media Fit the Battle of Jericho, Explorations 6, 1956)

in the Babel created in North American schools by the new mother tongues or the new media, the case is now that the young know several languages from the cradle which their teachers have acquired, if at all, as ‘second languages’. For the most part, the teachers are oblivious of the fact that most of the experience of their charges is handled in forms for which the teachers express hostility and contempt.  (The Electronic Revolution in North America 1958)

To-day, our new media compel us to notice that English is a mass medium, as is any important language, and that the new media are new languages with unique powers and deficiencies. Not to recognize this situation is to encourage the rise of a new tower of Babel. (Knowledge, Ideas, Information and Communication 1958)

The newspaper will serve as an example of the Babel of myths or languages. (Myth and Mass Media 1959)

Professor [Edward T.] Hall simply states and sustains the proposition that these externalizations, however separate and distinct, speak yet a common language which can be learned even by the occupants of the Tower of Babel. The practical program implicit in The Silent Language is that there can be a consensus for all the separate senses and faculties which we are endlessly externalizing. We can learn how to translate all the diverse, external manifestations of our inner lives into a coherent statement of human motive and existence. (Common Language Nonetheless 1961)

[Alexander Pope, ‘Essay on Criticism’:] “One science only will one genius fit / So vast is art, so narrow human wit”. He [Pope] well knew that this was the formula for the Tower of Babel. (GG 1962)

Throughout Finnegans Wake Joyce specifies the Tower of Babel as the tower of Sleep, that is, the tower of the witless assumption, or what Bacon calls the reign of the Idols. (GG 1962)

Languages as the technology of human extension may have been the Tower of Babel by which man sought to scale the highest heavens; and today, computers hold out the promise of instant change of any code or language into any other code or language. The computer promises, in short, by technology, a Pentecostal condition5 of universal understanding and unity. The next logical step would seem to be, not to translate, but to by-pass languages in favor of a general cosmic consciousness which might be very like the collective unconscious dreamt of by Bergson. The condition of “weightlessness,” that biologists say promises a physical immortality, may be paralleled by the condition of speechlessness that could confer a perpetuity of collective harmony and peace. (UM 1964)6

  1. See the Gutenberg Galaxy citation given in this post on the “tower of Sleep, that is, the tower of the witless assumption”.
  2. To “the withdrawal of the arts to an ivory tower and of politics and business to a tower of Babel” aka “the current divorce between knowledge and know-how”, compare TT 22 twenty years later: “the idealists share with the experienced and practical men of their time the infirmity of substituting concepts for percepts. Both concentrate on a clash between past experience and future goals that blacks out the usual but hidden processes of the present.”
  3. Reading McLuhan on the tower of Babel it is important to bear in mind its two phases of construction and destruction as well as the paradoxical relation between these phases with each other. It is the first construction stage that reflects “a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity” (UM) in which “the people are one and they all have one language” (Genesis 6). But this construction phase proves destructive, since it amounts to an attack on heaven — and this results in God ‘scattering’ mankind over the earth in a confusion of tongues. Contrariwise, the destruction phase proves constructive in restoring the proper relation of finite (“scattered”) humans before God. The same thought is to be found also in the New Testament in Paul’s letters: “Professing themselves to be wise, they become fools.” (Rom. 1:22.) And again: “For seeing that in the wisdom of God the world by wisdom knew not God, it pleased God, by the foolishness of our preaching, to save them that believe. . . .the foolishness of God is wiser than (the wisdom of) men.” (I Cor, 1:21,25)
  4. “It is a means (…) to lift us out of our human condition”. Compare from ‘Technology and the Human Dimension’ two decades later (1974): Now, when you put on an environment or mask of power — a vortex of energy such as radio or telephone or TV — you are both extending your own ego and invading other egos to a fantastic degree. The ability to speak to Peking by telephone is the act of a superman, and we now take for granted that all people on this planet are supermen. What has thus happened to the ‘human scale’ is very important to recognize. Can there be a ‘human scale’ anymore? Or, under electric conditions, does everybody become superman? As far as I know, the answer is absolutely yes. Any child is superhuman today — on the telephone or radio or on any electric medium. The traditional human dimension hardly exists anymore (…) but the electric surround of information that has tended to make man a superman at the same time reduces him into a pretty pitiable nobody by merging him with everybody. It has extended man in a colossal, superhuman way, but it has not made individuals feel very important. (…) Electrically, the corporate human scale has become vast even as private identity shrinks to the pitiable. The ordinary man can feel so pitiably weak that, like a skyjacker (= hijacker), he’ll reach for a superhuman dimension of world coverage in a wild desperate effort for fulfillment”.)
  5. Especially in the 1940s and 1950s, the work of Etienne Gilson was discussed extensively by McLuhan: “Gilson has used the method of reconstruction in the history of philosophy as a new creative technique which permits a new kind of communication between the present and the past” (‘Christian Humanism and Modern Letters’). In particular he was very familiar with Gilson’s The Unity of Philosophical Experience (1938) and would hardly have been able to bring Bergson and Pentecost together without thinking of Gilson on Descartes: “During the same night (November 10, 1619), Descartes had dreams when he ventured to find a confirmation of his extraordinary and almost supernatural mission. Was that, as has been suggested by a modern historian, the Pentecost of reason? It merely was the Pentecost of mathematical reasoning, and less a Pentecost than a deluge. In the joy of a splendid discovery, mathematics began to degenerate into mathematicism and to spread as a colourless flood over the manifold of reality. Descartes was a great genius, but I sometimes wonder if his dream were not a nightmare” (The Unity of Philosophical Experience, 136).
  6. Texts like this have frequently been used to support the contention that McLuhan’s thought was “utopian” and that he predicted a return to “the garden of Eden”. Once this reading was in place, others could be cited where he was highly critical of any such ideal. Ergo, he not only made ridiculous predictions, he also contradicted himself. But McLuhan was clearly “putting on” his readers here. He was assuming their attraction to the ideal of “a Pentecostal condition of universal understanding and unity”. But in the Bible (as discussed above) such unity “of collective harmony and peace” is exactly what the Tower of Babel narrative represents as negative in the sight of God: “the people is one and they have all one language (…) Come, let Us go down and confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.” Hence, as McLuhan notes, this supposed ideal is realized only in “the tower of Sleep, that is, the tower of the witless assumption, or what Bacon calls the reign of the Idols” (GG). “But day overcomes and scatters them” (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial). Compare the UM Pentecostal passage with the one cited above from CHML: “granted the pagan premise that man is simply a fallen angel, the ideal of modern industrial humanism is quite consistent. Let us doll up the fallen angel and let us put it in ever more powerful machines until the whole world looks like Marilyn Monroe in a Cadillac convertible.”