McLuhan’s Topic #1 – “the law of writ”

Some pieces of what would become McLuhan’s topic were already in place when he left Winnipeg for Cambridge in the fall of 1934. Most importantly, Henry Wright had introduced him to the central role of communication in all the provinces of human activity from individual thought to social life and culture.  And Wright and Rupert Lodge (see here for further discussion) together had introduced him to the idea going back to Hegel and ultimately to Plato that there are plural possible approaches to the consideration of all things and that a prior consideration of these approaches1 was necessary if a new foundation was to be won for civilization (which the first world war and the depression beginning in 1929 had already showed — not needing the second world war — to be in extremis).2

At Cambridge, further pieces of his topic came into focus.  As will be shown at length in future posts, the project of I.A. Richards to establish a new basis for criticism, specifically in the service of communication, supplied McLuhan with problems and methods which would occupy him for the rest of his life. Jacques Maritain gave him a more sophisticated way to approach the philosophical notions he had from Manitoba and a way to link these both to aesthetics and to religion, specifically Catholicism. First exposure to Eliot, Pound, Joyce and Lewis revealed developments in literary practice which were new to him and which necessitated a complete renovation of his ideas about literature and the literary tradition. 

In early November, 1934, only a month into his Cambridge career, McLuhan attended a lecture before the Cambridge English Club by “the great Dover Wilson” (Letters 32) on ‘Hamlet’s Make-up’.  Dover had just published his controversial edition of Hamlet within the New Cambridge Shakespeare where, for example, he replaced “O that this too solid flesh would melt” with “this too sullied flesh”. McLuhan declared himself “unconverted” (ibid). But the occasion seems to have acted as a catalyst in setting all the new influences flooding into him at Cambridge into combined motion.3 He immediately began to report in his letters home how he was experiencing a strange sort of welcome unsettling (that he would ever after associate with “perception”):

My mind is a ferment these days — boiling with new ideas and experience. (McLuhan to his family, December 6, 1934, Letters 44; see similarly in his letters from January and February, 1935, as discussed in Autobiography – encountering Shakespeare.)

Biographers and commentators have described McLuhan at this time as a kind of hayseed from the prairies who was bowled over by the sophistication of Cambridge. But this is to underestimate both McLuhan and Cambridge.  How could anybody — be they from Winnipeg or from Paris — not be impressed, even incredulous, at the intellectual firepower assembled at Wilson’s lecture?  Here were people, including Muriel Bradbrook4, Arthur Quiller-Couch5, Joan Bennett, George (Dadie) Rylands and others from the English School whose knowledge of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan age was so precise and so alive that the discussion following Wilson’s lecture lasted, as he reported, “far into the night” (What Happens in Hamlet, 22). McLuhan was stunned by the vivacity of the occasion, not because he was a hayseed, but because he was smart enough and prepared enough to appreciate what was taking place before him. In comparison, he would shortly afterwards judge his own competence as “scarcely literary”6, but would then spend the remaining 45 years of his life turning out an enormous volume of published and unpublished writings whose main aim would be to help resuscitate the tradition to which Cambridge had exposed him in unforgettable ways. (Uniquely among literature and communication scholars, McLuhan saw that such resuscitation work entailed a confrontation with nihilism and it is just in this — as yet completely unappreciated, of course — that the fundamental importance of that work lies.)

Here is a part of what McLuhan would have heard from Wilson:7

… it is probable that the aesthetic standard of both playwright and audience is lower to-day than it was in the age of Elizabeth. It was killed, like so many of the old art-forms, by mechanical invention. The printing-press brought about the multiplication and the cheapening of books, and, as the reading habit became general, dramatists took more and more to writing with publication in mind, until today plays with any pretension to literary merit appeal quite as much to the reader as to the spectator. This is one, perhaps even the chief cause of the decline of the poetic drama; for, directly a dramatist begins to keep one eye upon a reading public, he is obliged, or at least feels himself obliged, to conform to the rigid consistency which the novelist must observe.  Nor dare he leave points in doubt or intentions obscure. Both the chiaroscuro and the orchestral scope of the Elizabethans are denied him. Yet modern critics, instead of envying Shakespeare the liberty of his art and praising the masterly use he makes of it, condemn him for not obeying the “law of writ”8 that binds an Ibsen and a Bernard Shaw.9

If The Gutenberg Galaxy could be seen as a footnote to the work of Harold Innis, as McLuhan himself observed, so can it be read as an expansion, thirty years removed, of what McLuhan heard in Dover Wilson’s lecture at the very beginning of his Cambridge studies regarding the “law of writ”.

  1. That a consideration of approaches cannot dispense with an approach of its own, one that has necessarily not yet been proofed in “a consideration of approaches”, is not only not an insuperable barrier to this quest, it is a kind of milestone on its way to which it is imperative to pay explicit attention.  It is exactly because an unproofed approach can relate itself successfully to the world that it is possible to learn and use language, to comport oneself unreflectively in all sorts of practical ways — and to learn how to proof approaches.
  2. These two notions — the centrality of communication and the analysis of approaches to experience — were first brought together by McLuhan in his PhD thesis written in the early 1940’s.  The thesis traced the disciplines of the trivium as contesting structures of experience over the 2000 years from the Greeks to Thomas Nashe. Then, following his exposure to the work of Harold Innis around 1950, he would come to combine these notions explicitly in the study of modes of communication as variable forms of experience.
  3. McLuhan described the lecture in a letter to his family from November 3, 1934, Letters 32-33. For further discussion see Autobiography – encountering Shakespeare.
  4. According to Marchand  (53) on the basis of an interview with her, Bradbrook was McLuhan’s first PhD research supervisor before leaving Cambridge to work in the war effort in 1941 (but see Letters 118 and 121 for indication that F.P. Wilson was his already his supervisor in 1939). At the least, however, Bradbrook was certainly a good friend of McLuhan (and later also of Corinne) and a lifelong correspondent. In 1934, although only two years older than McLuhan, she was already the author of Elizabethan Stage Conditions: A Study of Their Place in the Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Plays (1932) and was about to issue Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (1935). It appears that Bradbrook and McLuhan met early in his Cambridge career since he reports going to tea with her in May 1935 (Letters 65).
  5. “Q” was Wilson’s fellow editor of the New Cambridge Shakespeare, an edition that would take them almost half a century to complete. McLuhan would be privileged to take a “course” with Quiller-Couch that at least on one occasion amounted to a tutorial since only one other student attended (as described by McLuhan in a letter to his family, Feb 7, 1935, Letters 57).
  6. “I can see that I would perhaps have been better to have taken History to teach, not only because my faculty is scarcely literary….” (McLuhan to his Mother, Jan 18, 1935, Letters 51)
  7. Taken from What Happens in Hamlet (1935), chapter vi, pages 231-232. In the book, Wilson describes his lecture at Cambridge as follows: “But the final stroke of fortune (in the composition of the book) came as a chance sequel to a lecture delivered last November (1934) before the Cambridge University English Club, in which I tried out the argument of Chapter vi” (What Happens in Hamlet, 22). The lecture and chapter vi had the same title, ‘Hamlet’s Make-up’, and, as Wilson writes, the same “argument”.
  8. The phrase is from Polonius in Hamlet II:2 — “The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited. Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the liberty, these are the only men.”
  9. Wilson appended a footnote to this passage which reads: “Since these paragraphs were written I have been reading Miss Muriel Bradbrook’s Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy (1935). Had I done so earlier I might have enriched and strengthened this chapter. As it is, I will only say that her book seems to me the first systematic attempt to deal with Elizabethan dramatic technique on satisfactory lines.” Now Muriel Bradbrook, as noted above, seems to have been McLuhan’s supervisor in the initial stages of his PhD research in Cambridge in 1939 (and was a good friend and unofficial adviser to boot). It is therefore remarkable that Wilson cited her work in just this “law of writ” context to which McLuhan would subsequently (first beginning more than 15 years after Wilson’s book) dedicate himself. The potential role of Bradbrook in this development invites investigation.  Suffice it to note here only that Wilson and Bradbrook were clear that Elizabethan society in general, and Elizabethan drama in particular, had very different notions of the relations between individual and society (and character and play) than did Victorian and early twentieth century England. Further, they were clear that this difference had much to do with the economic and communications organization of the country. Further still, they knew that this difference, or differences, were necessarily also expressed in such contexts as religious belief and political practice.

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