Autobiography – encountering Chesterton

McLuhan first read a bit of G.K. Chesterton in 1930 when he was still in his teens, a preface by GKC to an edition of Great Expectations. Gordon reports McLuhan commenting on the fact (without evident enthusiasm) in a diary entry from June 17 that year (Escape, 358, n21).   A year later, a diary entry from July 1931 records a very different impression:

Few writers, yes I can say, no other writer, has ever before been able to arouse my enthusiasm for ideas as has G.K.  (Escape, 32)

Between these two dates seems to have fallen an incident that has been variously dated and variously located (eg, Letters 10; Marchand 28; Escape 32; Medium and the Light xiv) when Tom Easterbrook either gave him, or traded to him, or brought to his attention, Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World (1910).

Both McLuhan and Easterbrook must have developed a mutual interest in Chesterton thereafter. A letter to his parents about their experiences in Montreal prior to their embarkation for England in the summer of 1932 has McLuhan reporting:

Since a further shower of rain was impending we hastened into a library (…) and each [of us] sat down with a book of G.K.C. and spent a very pleasant 2 hours. (Letters, 11) 

Two years later, in his first month at Cambridge (October, 1934), he could already speak of Chesterton’s “social (not faddish) philosophy based on a completely adequate religion” (Letters, 24) and was subscribing (as he had perhaps already done in Winnipeg) to the G.K Weekly (Letters, 27, 45 and 62).  From this and from the fact that McLuhan was already talking up Chesterton from Cambridge to his Winnipeg friends at this time (eg, by circulating copies of  the G.K Weekly among them)1, it would seem that McLuhan’s engagement with Chesterton must have crystallized in Winnipeg when he was in his early twenties (age 20 to 23) — between his July 1931 diary entry given above and his departure for Cambridge in the fall of 1934.2

Several of his letters from his first months in Cambridge illustrate conclusions he must have brought with him from Canada. A letter from November to his family has this recommendation for his brother:

I can heartily recommend GK’s book on St Thomas as being of use to you in your philosophy. He deals with Plato and Aristotle and their influence on Christendom — incidentally there is a very clear exposition of their theories of knowledge (how we know and know we can know). (Letters, 39, McLuhan’s emphasis)

The question of “how we know (…) we can know” would remain central for him throughout his career. On the one hand, it points toward his religion — toward his notion of, and response to, the nature of the real (within which mortals can come to know). On the other hand, it points toward those complex problems of communication he would consider for the next 45 years — how does communication both with things (eg in the sciences) and among humans (eg in the arts, but also in all the provinces of practical life) take place at all and how may consideration of these questions about communication be communicated?

A letter to his brother Maurice from December 1934 broaches some of the implicated problematics:

But in psychology the confusion arises from the fact that the thing which [studies] is also the thing studied. The psychologist forgets that a man does know some things about a man long before he is cloven in 2 and 1/2 becomes a psych-ist and the other a psychol-al problem. When he plunges into the dark sea of the subconscious he forgets that there is such a thing as the broad daylight of human nature. You will remember Coleridge saying that “Shak keeps to the main highway of the human affections”. (Letters, 44-45)

Decades later, in 1968, McLuhan would set out a view of “the modes of experience” as constituting a spectrum between white SI (sensory input) and black SC (sensory completion): see Key texts #1 — “physiological and psychological balance”.  It is noteworthy that in both these 1934 and 1968 reflections, McLuhan associates light with external SI (” broad daylight”) and darkness with internal SC (“the dark sea of the subconscious”).

At the same time (late 1934) he was already planning the article on Chesterton that would become his first scholarly publication. As he reported to his mother:

My head is teeming with ideas for the GK article which will be written on a sudden shortly. I have kept jotting down separate notions as they came from all sorts of reading I have been at lately, so the longer it waits the better it will be. I intend to send it to the mgr of GK’s Weekly before sending it to Canada, to have any criticism or suggestion he can offer. (December 17, 1934, Letters, 48)

It is significant that the article was already intended for Canada — in fact for The Dalhousie Review — and that Elsie would have understood this.  As will be detailed in a further post, it would seem that she had met Fr Gerald Phelan in Toronto, perhaps at one of his lectures on Chesterton, and that she had then brought Phelan into contact with McLuhan (whose enthusiasm for Chesterton she knew all too well). Phelan was from Halifax, was a long-time friend of the founding (and continuing) editor of The Dalhousie Review (Herbert L. Stewart) and had published in it himself. Just as he would later help McLuhan obtain his first teaching position at St Louis University in 1937, so (it may be guessed) did Phelan pave the way for his first published article the year before. McLuhan’s conversion fell between these two events, again helped along by Phelan who was the first to learn of McLuhan’s decision in a letter of November 26, 1936 (Letters 93) and who then proofed McLuhan’s intention when he traveled from Madison to visit his mother in Toronto that Christmas. 

The article was published in January, 1936 and must have been finished sometime in the middle of 1935.  Letters to his family from early in 1935 record:

Heard GK on the wireless again to-night. Will turn to the completion of my article on him as soon as [Lent] term ends. If it is accepted I will feel impelled to further essays and efforts. (February 27, 1935, Letters, 62; Lent term in Cambridge extends from January to March)

The GK article — ignoble me — is not done yet, but much more has been written. It shall be complete before [Easter] term commences. (March 30, 1935, Letters, 66; Easter term in Cambridge extends from April to June.)

Not long thereafter, on June 1st, McLuhan attended a dinner in London of the Distributist League at which Chesterton was present.  He described the event in a letter from June 2, 1935:

Well, GK was at the dinner! I had seen his pictures, heard his voice, and thought his thoughts, and knew what to expect. But I was not prepared for his quick, light-blue eye, or the refinement and definition of his features. He has much that reminds me of R.B. Bennett, but a larger head, and as I say, finer features. His hair is not very long but it curls up at the back of his head — like his light moustache, it is quite white. His bulk is unexaggerated by accounts. He is 6 feet 2 or 3 and much thicker (at the equator) than he is wide at the shoulders, or elsewhere. His voice is not tiny or high-pitched but it is not very powerful. He holds himself quite erect when he  stands — necessarily he moves slowly, and because he is GK, he imparts a sense of largesse, ample humour, tolerance, and significant dignity to the necessity which nature has laid upon him. His eye and head and face might easily, in a more portable figure, have been consonant with the speedy active agitator and leader (…) GK made several short speeches at various times. His chair was directly opposite an emergency exit and he feigned each time he rose that the morbid grip of the prepensive suggestion which he was sure was in our minds had tightened on his mind. At 10.15 when he rose to go he announced that he had conquered the morbid desire to fling himself through the emergency exit and would content himself with breaking several stairs as he departed in the usual manner. He urged us to go on with our songs and recitations (which we did) and hoped that his departure would occasion only a geographical deficiency (which it did). (Letters, 68-69)

A few months later (September 5, 1935) McLuhan summed up the first five years of his encounter with Chesterton in a letter to his Mother:

Had I not encountered Chesterton I would have remained agnostic for many years at least. Chesterton did not convince me of religious truth, but he prevented my despair from becoming a habit or hardening into misanthropy. He opened my eyes to European culture and encouraged me to know it more closely. He taught me the reasons for all in me that3 was simply blind anger and misery. He went through it himself; but since he lived where much Catholic culture remained and since he had genius he got through it quicker. He was no fanatic. He remained an Anglo-Catholic as long as he was able to do so (19224). (Letters 73)

But this same letter from September 1935 also records the fact that a year in Cambridge had effected a decisive change in McLuhan’s view of Chesterton. He was no longer seen as McLuhan had viewed him in Winnipeg — as a great personality heroically standing against the tide of modernity.5

The very definition of an enthusiast is that he has seized a truth which he cannot and would not if he could, relate to other truths of life. He is invariably unsympathetic and lacking in humanity. l have some elements of enthusiasm which have  been more than occupied in hero-worship —- e.g. Macaulay and Chesterton. Them days is gone forever but I shall always think that my selection of heroes was fortunate. Both were calculated to suppress effectively any tendency I had towards harping on one truth at a time.6 (Op. cit. — McLuhan to his Mother, September 5, 1935, Letters 72)

In this same month, a letter from McLuhan was published in Chesterton’s newsletter, G.K.’s Weekly, in which he took earlier correspondents to task over this same point:

They assume that the stock-in-trade of this paper consists in two vials, one of wrath and one of ardour, to be poured automatically upon unjust and righteous causes. (McLuhan to the Editor, G.K.’s Weekly, September 19, 1935)

McLuhan had come to see that the mark of truth is not certainty based on singularity (“the very definition of an enthusiast is that he has seized a truth which he cannot and would not if he could, relate to other truths of life” aka the “vial…of ardour”), but insight or perception based on a fundamental complexity:

the greatest fact about man [is] that he is a creature and an image, and not sufficient unto himself. It is the whole bias of the mind that it seek truth, and of the soul (…) that it seek that which gave7 it. The great difficulty about Truth is that it is not simple… (Op. cit. — McLuhan to his Mother, September 5, 1935, Letters 72)

Chesterton had helped McLuhan to this insight, but would now himself (along with all else) be subject to it. Chesterton would now be appreciated as “a creature and an image” through whom could be witnessed the complex interaction of contesting fundamental truths, of contesting forms of reality: “the great difficulty about Truth is that it is not simple”. The imperative question (that in the following year McLuhan would answer for himself with his decision to convert) was which one of these contesting truths best reflected this complexity of truths — ie, which one of these truths fundamentally committed itself to the creation and maintenance of plural difference both on the level of these contesting truths themselves and as regards the relation of such creative power (or powers) and the existence of less-than-fundamental creatures like ourselves?  This one would then be exemplary as an account of the real by explicating how and why it was not alone.8



  1. Letters 45
  2. Cf Marchand, 27: “Chesterton’s influence permeated McLuhan’s experiences in his last year at the University of Manitoba…”
  3. McLuhan: “all that in me”
  4. Chesterton converted to Catholicism in 1922 at age 48.
  5. “Until I came to the Cambridge English School, my principal qualification was a boundless enthusiasm for great books, great events, and great men. Dr. Richards and Dr. Leavis have proved to  be a useful supplement and corrective to that attitude.” (McLuhan to Prof E.K. Brown, December 12, 1935, Letters 79)
  6. The contentions here are that there are plural “truths of life”, and that “harping on one truth at a time” is an evasion of that plurality. The implication is that time, too, must be plural. But when would multiple truths deploy if not “one truth at a time” — and then another truth at another time? In this case, the plurality of truth would depend upon diachrony or lineality: because lineal time constitutes itself in plural moments, so can plural truths be constituted in the sequence of those moments. This would, however, be nothing other than “harping on one truth at a time”, even if different truths might be harped upon, in different moment after different moment.  Instead, it is McLuhan’s contention that if the plurality of truth is fundamental, the contest of truths must take place synchronically — “an interminable battle is always going on” as Plato says — and this time of the contesting plural “truths of life” must occur as an essentially different chronology from that of sequential historical moments. Times cross, in this view, and humans are that type of being that stands, knowingly or unknowingly, at their intersection. Only so can multiple truths be in contest at the same time. In sum, multiple truths are possible only if there are multiple times and multiple times are possible only if there are multiple truths.  As will be described in detail in a further post, this knot of truths and times may be imagined in terms of the maelstrom, where the waves of the surface of the sea may be taken to represent the on-going moments of lineal (diachronic) time, the maelstrom to represent vertical (synchronic) time, and the different sorts of debris in the maelstrom to represent contesting truths, some of which save and some of which doom — by leading between, or failing to lead between, these differing vertical and horizontal axes of time. For further discussion of time as times, see McLuhan and Plato 2 – When is myth?
  7. On giving, see this footnote and its associated post.
  8. In regard to this knotted combination of plurality and singularity, cf McLuhan to John Dunaway, September 1, 1976, Letters 521): “I discovered Maritain simultaneously with the work of I. A. Richards, and T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, and James Joyce, and Wyndham Lewis. All of these people seem to relate to each other in many different ways, and each seems to enrich the other. Along with the work of contemporary painters and ballet and the world of Sergei Eisenstein and music, one had the experience of a very rich new culture, in which the great intellectual Maritain was a notable ornament. Maritain helped to complete the vortex of significant components in a single luminous logos of our time” (emphasis added throughout). Similarly (even featuring the same word “luminous”), McLuhan to Serge Chermayeff. Dec 19, 1960: “The answer, of course, must lie in the direction of pluralism, rather than monism, and here is where the image of the City is an inevitable and necessary model. Because the city is precisely the area of multiple modes of awareness in a montage of luminous unity.”

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