Autobiography – encountering Alfred Adler

McLuhan frequently discusses Freud and Jung in his texts (often citing Joyce’s “yung and easily freudened” from FW 115), but Alfred Adler, the third member of the founding troika of psychoanalysis, is (to my knowledge) never mentioned.  But Adler appears to have played an important role in McLuhan’s late twenties as he transitioned from bachelor student to teacher and then husband.

McLuhan’s attention to Adler was probably elicited through the fact that an English translation of his Individual Psychology was issued in 1924 as one of the first volumes in C.K. Ogden’s International Library of Philosophy (later The International Library of Psychology, Philosophy and Scientific Method).  Other early volumes in this very distinguished series included Wittgenstein’s Tractatus (1922), Moore’s Philosophical Studies (1922), Jung’s Psychological Types (1923), and Vaihinger’s Philosophy of ‘As If’ (1924).  Ogden was a major figure in Cambridge as a publisher, author and translator (of, eg, Wittgenstein) and the close friend of I.A. Richards, with whom he authored The Meaning of Meaning.

In a letter to his brother, Maurice (‘Red’), January 11, 1940, McLuhan, now in his first year of marriage and back in Cambridge to do research for his PhD thesis, writes:

Have been reading a bit of Alfred Adler recently. See whether you can obtain his “Social Interest”, “Understanding Human Nature”, or “The Nervous Character”. Quite certainly, you would find these of great interest, and incidentally, you would find a patient account of all the kinds of neurosis which can grip a person whose life pattern or life-style is that of a second child.1 I’m not exaggerating when I say that you will be in a much better position to conquer your habits of procrastination, of systematic inefficiency in studies, etc etc. Above all he will put you on your guard against reposing in facile explanations of “failure”. He proves that all people who for various reasons have an acute and special interest in avoiding any real [recognition of] failure such as a partial achievement in initial attempts, such people invent an elaborate system of evasions and never permit themselves to come to any test which they would admit to be a test. His mode of explaining these things I have found extremely helpful to myself… (Letters, 125)

McLuhan may have been reading Adler as early as 1936.  A letter to his Mother from April that year records some sobering thoughts which have a decided Adlerian ring to them:

I think there is latent in my mind a fear to exert myself fully on any occasion, lest I should have to admit the result to be my best; and the best not good enough. I have a strong sense of superiority that is utterly incommensurate with my abilities — by superiority, I mean superior ability to do, not superiority of personal value. (…) My very ordinary mind having been stimulated somewhat beyond the ordinary by whatever queer motives… (McLuhan to his Mother, April 12 1936, Letters 82)

A further letter to Maurice, apparently from 1937 (when McLuhan was teaching in Madison), again has the flavor of Adler’s style of big boy advice (here applied by McLuhan both to himself and to his brother):

I realize more and more that I am “grown up” and that I need look for no miracle to happen now! What I am now, I must be, more or less, for the rest of my life, and it gives me a queer feeling of hopelessness to think that all those large dreams of the powers and talents which I was to possess at this time for the bedazzlement of men and perhaps the “disembowelment of Heaven with high-astounding terms” are just a chimerical blank. I have no affection for the world. I cannot be sure whether my present indifference to its objectives and its pleasures is genuinely grounded in the love of God or merely in the despair of myself. At least I can say this, that my dissatisfaction is so deep that I cannot imagine anyone in history or anyone alive who I would [not?2] choose to be (…) rather than myself. My malady is of the marrow. It is a hunger in the bone for something which cannot be satisfied by flesh and blood. (…) If you consider the pettiness of so many of our troubles (to be matched only by the meanness of our delights) I think you may give your worries a fall or two, Red.3

  1. Maurice was, of course, the second child in the 2-child McLuhan family.
  2. McLuhan”s meaning here may have been that his “dissatisfaction” with himself was “so deep” that it amounted to a kind of individual calling which he could not imagine belonging to anyone else. Or he may have been thinking that his “dissatisfaction” with himself was “so deep” that he could not imagine it not being better to be anyone else. Much of McLuhan’s writing — increasingly so as he aged — must be read as a kind of compromise expression between such conflicting notions.
  3. Parts of this letter have appeared in the biographies of Gordon (73-74) and Coupland (66). Gordon substitutes “bedazzlement of Heaven” for McLuhan’s “disembowelment of Heaven” and Coupland copies this error.

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