Monthly Archives: October 2015

Richards and Havelock before 1947

I.A. Richards and Eric Havelock became colleagues at Harvard in 1947. How their personal relationship developed thereafter may be seen in the dedication Havelock (now chair of the classics department at Yale) prefaced to his contribution to the 1973 Festschrift for Richards:

For Ivor Richards, revered friend and former colleague, who in all that he has taught and written has held a lamp for us to see by. (259)

Havelock’s essay for Richards was titled ‘The Sophistication of Homer’. Originally, this was a public lecture he gave at UT on January 31, 1946 (as recorded at the time in the UT Monthly, January 1946 (Vol 46, Issue 4). While it is clear from contemporary references in the 1973 essay that it somewhat updated the lecture, a 1948 UTQ review by Havelock1 makes it equally clear that the essay must largely have reproduced the lecture — the examples used in the review to illustrate “the sophistication of Homer” are just those of the ‘later’ essay.

Part of Havelock’s purpose in contributing this early lecture to the Festschrift may have been to recall that time in 1946 when he and Richards first became acquainted.2 In that 1946 year, prior to his appointment at Harvard, Havelock was a guest lecturer there — a position which functioned both as a recruiting tool and as a test run. During this time, Havelock’s published scholarship, and some of his unpublished manuscripts like his Homer lecture, had presumably been supplied to Harvard for use in its evaluation process.

However that may be, by 1947 Havelock’s work was well enough known to Richards3  that he could observe in a BBC Third Programme radio broadcast in October of that year on ‘The Spoken and the Written Word’4:

Professor Havelock has suggested that we may see in Plato’s rejections of Homer the revolt of the writing mind’s mode of apprehension against the pre-literate mind’s other, less abstract and intellectual, ways of ordering itself. (Complementarities, 204)5 

Going back from 1947, it seems that Havelock, at least, had long studied Richards’s work, probably beginning already as a student at Cambridge. In those years, 1922-1926, Richards was a popular lecturer in the nascent English School and had published The Foundations of Aesthetics (1922), The Meaning of Meaning (1923), both with C.K. Ogden, The Principles of Literary Criticism (1924) and Science and Poetry6 (1926).  For his part, Havelock, when he began his university studies at Cambridge in 1922, was already a practising and even published poet. As he notes in his preface to The Lyric Genius of Catullus (1939), whose first half consists of “imitations” of poems by Catullus:

If apology is needed for a book which has been a labour of love rather than learning, I may plead that the discovery of the charms of Catullan lyric has been my diversion ever since my schooldays. Some of the responsibility for this must rest with W. H. Balgarnie, of Leys School7, who as my form-master once encouraged my early attempts at imitation. I believe, indeed, that the fourteenth [poem] in this collection appeared in the school magazine…(viii)

Then, once Havelock began his teaching career in Canada in 1926 (at Acadia University, until 1929, thereafter at UT) his first publications were poems in The Canadian Forum. For a Cambridge man writing and publishing poetry in the 1920’s, Richards’s work could hardly not have been of intense interest.

In any case, there is clear evidence of Havelock’s continuing engagement with Richards. The first essay of commentary in The Lyric Genius of Catullus is titled ‘The Canons of Catullan Crititicism’ — an echo of Richards’s 1924 Principles of Literary Criticism, which Havelock would specifically reference in 1946 (as detailed below).

The Catullus book goes on to cite Poe’s poem To Helen as an “analogy” to the Catullan Lesbia (130). Havelock then returned to this same matter in 1943 in a short contribution to The Classical Weekly (Vol. 36, No. 21 , pp. 248-249) titled ‘Homer, Catullus and Poe’. Significantly, this piece begins:

Readers of [John Livingston] LowesRoad to Xanadu are aware that poets sometimes build highly imaginative structures out of miscellaneous materials recollected from the books they have read. Poe’s famous address To Helen seems to be a poem of this order.

These lines look both backwards and forwards.  Backwards, not only to Havelock’s reference to Poe in his Catullus a few years before, but also to Richards’s Imagination in Coleridge (1934) which treats Lowes’ Road to Xanadu as a rival attempt to investigate imagination in Coleridge.8 And forwards, because Havelock, in a kind of sweeping swansong to his almost two decades at UT, would publish a 3-part essay in the first volume of Phoenix, the new journal of the Ontario (later Canadian) Classical Association (of which he was the founding president). The essay was titled ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’9, clearly signaling that Lowes’ Road to Xanadu had been its inspiration.  Here, too, however, the theme had already been anticipated in the 1939 Catullus:

Virgil responded to [the novi poetae] readily, not only in his occasional pieces, but in his Ecologues and above all in the great episode of Orpheus and Eurydice which closes the Fourth Georgic. This tale of romantic regions under the sea, of passionate love and tragic separation, is too rarely recognized for what it is — an example of what the epyllion could become in Latin when handled with emotional sincerity and sure taste. Constructed on the sort of mechanical plan perfected by Callimachus, of a plot within a plot, (…), it yet manages to combine romantic mystery, prettiness, passion and pathos in a kind of literary tapestry. (172)

Havelock’s 1946-1947 Virgil essay is exactly a detailed exposition of this “tapestry” from the Fourth Georgic, using Lowes’ katabasis theme (aka the road to Xanadu) for its structure.

The Catullus book, like the 3-part Virgil essay taking off from it, would have been in the package of texts submitted by Havelock to Harvard and the word “sincerity” here would have struck Richards as a tip of the hat to his work. And, indeed, Richards’s 1924 Principles of Literary Criticism is specifically cited in the essay.10

Meanwhile, the word “epyllion” in this passage will strike the reader of McLuhan as potentially of great interest, since he reverted to the form throughout his career and sometimes gave the impression that practically anything of aesthetic value necessarily exemplified it. In fact, the “epyllion” and “little epic” are referenced several times in Havelock’s Catullus (he notes on 186,n7 that “the story-within-a-story was a device of the epyllion”) and again, repeatedly, in ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’. 

Now this essay from Havelock was published in McLuhan’s first year at UT in a new journal published by the university press.  This would already have attracted general notice. But its motivating force, the first president of the classics association publishing the journal, namely Havelock, was already at Harvard as a guest lecturer and was no doubt tipped to leave UT permanently. At a time when the classics department was already sorely depleted by the death of Charles Cochrane in 1945 and the poor health of E.T. Owen (who would die early in 1948), the prospective loss of such an energetic figure as Havelock would doubtless have aroused further comment.

Havelock’s essay would, however, have attracted McLuhan’s notice in particular. In that same year of 1946, he had published a cross-disciplinary essay of his own (‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’) in another classics periodical (The Classical Journal).  Then, when he published ‘Henry IV, A Mirror for Magistrates’ in UTQ, 1948, the Owen review by Havelock was in the same issue. Here Havelock described his ‘oral encyclopedia’ theory of illiterate culture as contrasted to the textual information storage and resulting social forms constituting a literate one. This encounter was surely an important milestone on McLuhan’s intellectual journey and one that would have sent him to other work by Havelock like the Phoenix pieces (if he had not already seen them).

For reasons to be detailed in a future post, it seems manifest that McLuhan read Havelock’s Xanadu essay at some point and was deeply influenced by it, though in a different way than he was by Havelock’s review of Owen. However, absent firm dating, especially relative to his roughly contemporaneous exposure to the work of Harold Innis (who had his own relations with Havelock) and to his rereading of Joyce with Hugh Kenner, it is not possible, or not yet possible, to judge precisely how this cloud of influences functioned to rejigger his thinking. What can be said at present is only that these influences, together with others in the late 1940’s (like his introduction to cybernetics through Sigfried Giedion, his meeting and subsequent correspondence with Ezra Pound and his introduction to management theory via Bernard Muller-Thym) melded together in these years around 1950 (McLuhan turned 40 in 1951) to prompt the new directions in his work which would gradually emerge in the 1950’s.  

This process would amount to — McLuhan’s second conversion


  1. Havelock reviewed The Story of the Iliad by his former UT colleague E.T. Owen.  For further discussion see here.
  2. Or, perhaps, this may have been when the two became better acquainted, if they had met before then — for example in their common years in Cambridge, 1922-1926.
  3. The academic community in Toronto had a similar knowledge of Havelock’s work at this time. A. John Watson has recorded an anecdote from Ernest Sirluck about a conversation he had with E.T Owen prior to March 1948 (when Owen died): “At this period there was much discussion among classicists concerning the use of epic poetry as a technique for inter-generational communication of the ‘cultural baggage’ of a non-literate people. Sirluck recalls a stimulating conversation with Owen on this subject, with (Harold) Innis as a quiet, note-taking witness.”
  4. Recorded on September 17, 1947, broadcast on October 5 that year. A transcript was published in The Listener, Vol xxxviii, Nr 977, October 16, 1947, 669-670. A slightly revised version appeared thirty years later as ‘Literature, Oral-Aural and Optical’ in Complementarities, (ed) John Paul Russo, 1976, 201-208.
  5. In The Lyric Genius of Catullus (1939), Havelock had already observed: “Plato was right when he refused metaphysical honours to poetry. It belongs to the flux, and apologists who try to explain away Plato’s doctrine concerning poetic art merely seek to disguise this essential truth. If poetry teaches anything which is permanently valid, it does so by accident, because it may happen to deal with grave ideas which could be clearly rendered in prose…” (159). Relatedly, in his 1941 review, ‘The Riddle of Plato’s Politics’: “the so-called ‘Theory of Forms’ is justly expounded as a necessary contribution to the methodology of the sciences, both physical and social, without which they could not advance beyond the stage of barren empiricism” (Canadian Forum, April 1941, 15-19, here 16). These observations should not be taken to valorize the “permanently valid” and “science” over “the flux” and “barren empiricism”, however. Havelock was himself a published poet and appreciated what he called “the impermanence of poetry” (the title of a chapter in The Lyric Genius of Catullus) as an essential aspect of its value and necessity. Furthermore, as an outspoken socialist, Havelock did not at all discount what he found in Dewey — that “man’s significance is to be discovered not in cloistered concentration of thought, but in his daily attempt to control his material environment, with plough and test tube and machine tool” (‘The Philosophy of John Dewey’, The Canadian Forum, July 1939, 121-123, here 121). Finally, looking back on his career in 1987 shortly before his death in 1988 Havelock concluded: “The gifts of Greece on which I have sought to place an accent concern technology and the social and political sciences rather than the realm of metaphysical and moral values — not on beauty, truth, and goodness of the Platonic model but on the nuts and bolts of linguistic communication” (Literacy and Orality, 19). As will be treated in detail in further posts, Havelock sought to give just weight to both orality and literacy and opposed any attempt to tip the balance in one way or the other.
  6. If ‘science and poetry’ are taken as modes of information storage, the title of this short 1926 work from Richards may be seen to capture Havelock’s life work  in nuce.
  7. Havelock studied at the Leys School in Cambridge in the school-years 1917 to 1921.
  8. In the meantime, Richards had joined Lowes in the English Department at Harvard.
  9. Virgil’s Road to Xanadu: (1) The poet of the Orpheus-fantasy, Phoenix, Vol. 1, No. 1 pp. 3-8, 1946; (2) The Laboratory of a Poet’s Mind, Phoenix, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 2-7, 1946; (3) The Waters of the Great World, Phoenix, Supplement to Volume One, pp. 9-18, 1947.
  10. In ‘(2) The Laboratory of a Poet’s Mind’, p 2, full reference above.

Havelock on the interpretation of all epochs

What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication. Modern technology presumes to attempt a total transformation of man and his environment. This calls in turn for an inspection and defense of all human values. And so far as merely human aid goes, the citadel of this defense must be located in analytical awareness of the nature of the creative process involved in human cognition. For it is in this citadel that science and technology have already established themselves in their manipulation of the new media. (McLuhan, ‘Sight, Sound, and Fury’, Commonweal, April 1954)

this process of arrest and retracing, which has been consciously followed by poets since the end of the eighteenth century (…) provides the very technique of empathy which permits intimate insight into the processes and impulses behind products utterly alien to our own immediate experience. In fact, the Coleridgean awareness of the modes of the imagination as producer [of human experience and so of all art and science] represents an enormous extension of the bonds of human sympathy and understanding, socially and historically. (…) This has more than a neo-Platonic doctrinal interest at the present time when the instantaneity of communication between all parts of the world has brought into involuntary juxtaposition the whole diversity of human cultures. (McLuhan, ‘Coleridge As Artist’, 1957)1

In 1987, less than a year before his death, Eric Havelock presented a lecture on “The oral-literate equation: a formula for the modern mind”. Here he noted:

The gifts of Greece on which I have sought to place an accent concern technology and the social and political sciences rather than the realm of metaphysical and moral values — [an accent] not on beauty, truth, and goodness of the Platonic model but on the nuts and bolts of linguistic communication. (Literacy and Orality, 19)2

To understand what Havelock meant here, and also what he did not mean, it is helpful to go back 50 years to his review of John Dewey’s work in 1939.3

On the one hand, Havelock approved of Dewey’s practical approach:

Here is the philosopher of the machine age, the modern Socrates who has striven to call down philosophy from heaven to earth. For a generation he has proclaimed (…) that the proper object of philosophic inquiry is the day’s work, that man’s significance is to be discovered not in cloistered concentration of thought, but in his daily attempt to control his material environment, with plough and test tube and  machine tool. (121)

…conditioned by the American scene, Dewey turns upon the classic philosophies of the old world and attacks them for divorcing “knowing” from “doing,” for failing to come to terms with the machine age. “They brought with them the idea of a higher realm of fixed reality, of which alone true science is possible, and of an inferior world of changing things with which experience and practical matters are concerned. They glorified the invariant at the expense of change (…). They bequested the notion, which has ruled philosophy since the time of the Greeks, that its office is to uncover the antecedently real, rather than, as is the case with our practical judgements, to gain the kind of understanding which is necessary to deal with problems as they arise.” (121)

Dewey’s turn against “the classic philosophies of the old world” could not, however, keep him from re-enacting them:4

He represents in modern times that same revolt against metaphysics, and against the separation of [universal] ends from [particular] means, which the Epicureans represented in antiquity. But he no more than they can really solve the dilemma of directing the activity of human life by [particular] ends which on his premises are to be inferred from the very activity [or means] which is to be directed. (123)

The convoluted implications of this passage will be treated in future posts.5 Suffice it to note here only that Havelock presents the view in it that the forms of human experience are both plural and recurrent. As he observed in his contemporary monograph, The Lyric Genius of Catullus (1939):

true originality is to be found not in new form, but in a powerful spirit; (…) new wine is ever poured into old bottles. (135)

That is, the forms of human expression constitute an ideal order (comparable to the ideal order of the table of chemical elements) that is always available: the store of “old bottles”. It is the office of a “complete” or “powerful spirit” to confront the possibilities and puzzles of that plurality:

If the complete philosopher — and history has admittedly produced few such — is one prepared to accept the full paradox of man’s life, steeping himself in the flux of vital activity and manipulation of men and things only to fly from the flux again in order to separate his formulas, contemplate them in detachment. and ask, What of permanence is here? then Dewey is not a complete philosopher. His very “realism” has had the effect of making him the prophet of one particular historical epoch rather than the interpreter of all epochs. (123)

Interpreting epochs in their fundamental plurality, instead of being the mouthpiece of “one particular historical epoch”, is the deep intent of Havelock’s focus on “the nuts and bolts of linguistic communication” (1987 lecture).  His thinking may be seen in terms of passage he cites from Dewey:  

“The significant difference is that of two types of possible operation, material and symbolic. This distinction when frozen into the dogma of two orders of being, existence and essence, gives rise to the notion that there are two types of logic (…), the formal and the material, of which the formal is higher and the more fundamental. In truth, the formal development is a specialized offshoot of material thinking. It is derived ultimately from acts performed and constitutes an extension of such acts…” (122-123)

Havelock could not endorse this view as stated by Dewey without an important qualification to the penultimate sentence of the passage as follows:

“In truth, the formal development is a specialized offshoot of [some particular type of] material thinking.”

That is, “material thinking” is no singular. If formality is to be understood as the correlate of material behavior, then material behavior, in turn, must be understood in its fundamental plurality. And it is just this that Havelock proposed to do by investigating “the nuts and bolts of linguistic communication”. Hence the significance of Havelock’s comment in his lecture:

Observing (…) that Plato’s text contained an explicit rejection of both Homer and Greek drama as unsuitable for the curriculum of higher education that his academy was designed to offer, I concluded that a great divide in Greek culture had begun to occur, perhaps at the time when Plato was born [c. 425 BC] or a little earlier, which separated an oralist society relying mainly on metrical and recited literature for the content of its cultural knowledge to a literate society that was to rely in the future on prose as the vehicle of serious reflection, research, and record.  (Literacy and Orality, 23)

By “the nuts and bolts of linguistic communication” Havelock did not mean only the grammar, vocabulary, phonology etc of a certain place and time (though he certainly did not consider these unimportant), but how language was used in carrying out the full range of social functions (schooling, worshiping, entertaining, commercial trading, ruling, warring, etc) in their material particularity. The divide between oral and literate Greece emerged when the full spectra of these functions were compared over time.

Prerequisite to such analysis was, on the one hand, acknowledgement of the material differences between societies in space and time as manifested in them by “the nuts and bolts of linguistic communication”. No such acknowledgement, no appreciation of their individual particularity.  On the other hand, however, there must be communication across such divides if comparative analysis of them is to be possible. It is with intimations of just such inter-cultural communication that Havelock concludes his Dewey review using, however, the rubrics of “pessimism” and “failure”:

In American capitalist society during its expanding period, the interaction of ends and means, of ideas and functions, seemed automatic, but as man progressively extends scientific technique to the purpose of dominating his fellow men, the activities of totalitarian communities are going to force the thoughtful to turn with renewed attention to that old fashioned question. What after all is the chief end of man? Put in this form Mr. Dewey would probably deny that the question has much relevance. His philosophy has grappled more completely than any other with the analysis of daily habit and operation. But it lacks that dash of pessimism, that sense of failure in the midst of success, which has turned many a thinker since Plato towards the notion that the good for man cannot be fully comprehended within the span of his mortal life. (123)

Such “pessimism” and “failure” have to do with the inevitable lack of “success” of any “one particular historical epoch”, or any one “span of (…) mortal life”, measured against against the immensity of cosmic space and time.  Or even against the full range of potential human experience.  Or even against what the each of us could and should have done — but failed to do. Havelock would examine this question at length in 1950 and would call its dawning realization the “crucifixion of intellectual man”.

But for Havelock — and, indeed for Innis and McLuhan as well (and it is just here where the knot of their complicated relations must above all be illuminated) — consciousness of limit and of the resulting relativity of all human experience was not debilitating and depressing, but enabling and energizing. For once “the  great divide” between forms of particular material life were exposed and appreciation exercised for each of them across the divide, it became possible for the first time to correlate the effects of human action, especially war and other sorts of strife, with their causes in those forms. (It is just this new possibility in human culture that McLuhan called the movement from the ivory tower to the control tower.) 

The requirement, as Havelock put it, was to abdicate being “the prophet of one particular historical epoch rather than the interpreter of all epochs”. And the key to this, in turn, was awareness of the “great divide” that both limits all the forms of particular human life and enables their comprehensive study.

If such study may well be called “communication”, namely across the “great divide” between the forms of human life, the ground is exposed for the idea that it is exactly some particular type of communication that structures every material culture and even every moment of every individual human life. Exactly because communication is ground in this way, deeper than all the forms of human life, and so both linking and delimiting them, so does it figure in their “nuts and bolts”. Innis (b 1894), Havelock (b 1903) and McLuhan (b 1911) shared this fundamental determination.


  1. Reprinted in The Interior Landscape, 1969, 115-133, here  116.
  2. Compare Havelock already in a book review in 1941: “Conforming to the demands of a historical interpretation, the author very properly devotes well over half his work to establishing Plato’s context in the unfolding process of Greek society, a process conditioned by economic forces and determined by deep underlying class conflicts. (…) This account of Plato and his times has one great merit: it is synoptic, and at the same time dynamic. Greek history is presented not as a series of (separate) events (linked only by their chronology), but as an organic process in which Plato’s philosophy appears not as an isolated creation, but as part of a pattern of Greek behavior.” (‘The Riddle of Plato’s Politics’, The Canadian Forum, April 1941, 15-19, here 15, 16)
  3. ‘The Philosophy of John Dewey’, review of Intelligence in the Modern World, (an anthology of) John Dewey’s Philosophy, edited by Joseph Ratner, Canadian Forum 19:22, 121-123, July 1939.  All page references below, unless otherwise noted, are to this review.
  4. The same point both is central to McLuhan’s 1943 Nashe thesis and to his 1946 (originally 1944) ‘Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’.
  5. Nietzsche showed already in the 1880s that the reduction of ends to means abolished not only ends but means as well: “With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one!”.

Innis on the pulp and paper industry 1937

In her ‘Economic History and Economic Theory: Innis’s Insights’1, Irene (Biss) Spry writes of a time when she was working closely with Innis:

His [Innis’s] work on the pulp and paper industry never reached publication as a book but appeared as an article in The Encyclopedia of Canada (1937, vol. 5, 176-85). The conclusion of this article makes it clear that this study was leading him into his later work on communications. (107)

Her reference is to the following concluding remarks to Innis’s Encyclopedia of Canada article, ‘Pulp-and-Paper Industry’:

The demand for newsprint has been closely dependent on advertising activity and on the efficiency of publishing houses in securing increased circulation. Wars have been important in increasing the consumption of newsprint and in increasing the efficiency of the printing press in securing increased speed. The radio tends to be complementary and competitive, and demands for economy have led to the narrowing of the margin of newspapers, to standardization of size to 20″ (8 columns of 12 ems), and to the emergence of smaller-size papers such as the tabloid. Expansion of press services and of advertising agencies has accompanied the marked improvements in communication and in the distribution of newspapers. The metropolitan press has steadily encroached on the papers of smaller centres, forcing amalgamation or abandonment. Compulsory education and the decline of illiteracy have been basic factors in the development of the industry. The power of the press [has been] increased by effective organization and expansion of large units (Hearst and Howard Scripps in the United States; Southam and Sifton in Canada)… (184)

Spry’s point seems to be that Innis here broaches factors in social history — war, education, entertainment, media — in addition to his usual concentration on more purely economic factors (treated, indeed, earlier in this same encyclopedia entry) like the availability of raw materials, access to water transportation, labour costs and financing.  And just as he had long been driven to investigate the complex inter-relations of the latter in his staple studies, so, Spry could see, would he now be drawn to understand the interconnections of the former in somewhat analogous fashion.

The result would be his communication studies where the new staple, apparently drawing on Eric Havelock’s work on the Greeks, was to be information storage over space and time. (For further consideration of this crucial period in Innis’ career, 1935-1937, see here.)

  1. In Harold Innis in the New Century, ed C.R. Acland and W. J Buxton, 1999, 105-113.

Havelock on the ‘oral-literate equation’

Eric Havelock died on April 4, 1988.  Less than a year before, in June 1987, he participated in a 3-day conference in Toronto on ‘Literacy and Orality’.1 

Havelock’s lecture, titled ‘The oral-literate equation: a formula for the modern mind’, amounted to his last word on this topic. This 1987 lecture forms a book-end to Havelock’s introduction, almost forty years before, to his translation of Prometheus by Aeschylus (1950). In the lecture, the “modern mind” is said to be undermined by “the dilemmas posed by the deconstructionist methods of interpretation” (17-18).  This corresponds in the earlier essay to “the crucifixion of intellectual man”, which is depicted as deconstruction on a universal scale:

Our relationship to time and space is no more a matter of metaphysics but of precise [scientific] calculation, and the calculation yields an equation which crushes us by its reduction of our stature. This is the new burden we bear. We learn not only that we are alone, that in time we are a temporary event, but also that the territory on which we have a foothold [namely, earth itself] is like a boulder on a mountainside, not to be distinguished from a thousand others; capable of being kicked [down the slope at any time] into insignificance. The knowledge is too much for us, and it may yet kill us. We may end ourselves (…) because we think we have nothing left in ourselves to respect. In any case, our species will come to an end [at some point, having been merely] a tiny insignificant event (…) — so utterly ephemeral is our whole story. To know these things, and to live with this knowledge, is the special burden of our age.2

Seventy-five years before, Nietzsche had set out a comparable vision:

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe (…) there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history”, but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet it still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly — as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself. (…) It is remarkable that this was brought about by the intellect, which was certainly allotted to these most unfortunate, delicate, and ephemeral beings merely as a device for detaining them a minute within existence. 3

In his 1987 lecture, Havelock suggests that “the rediscovery of the rules of orality may be part of the answer (…) to the dilemmas posed by the deconstructionist methods of interpretation” (17-18). The great question is, how might such an “oral-literate equation” or “formula for the modern mind” function as an “answer” in the face of the Nietzschean concerns Havelock set out in 1950? Havelock’s response to this question is given in his lecture as follows:

The competition between orality and literacy continues to flourish: It is announced in a growing chorus of publications. But has the chorus any concordance? Is there not a need to construct some overall pattern into which these various perceptions can fit — some overarching body of theory covering the oral-literate equation both as it has operated historically and as it may still operate in the present; a theory that will state certain fundamentals of the situation to which all investigators can relate themselves? (19, emphasis added.)4

Havelock also gives some clues as to the sort of “oral-literate equation” which might present such an “overarching body of theory” or “fundamentals (…) to which all investigations can relate”:

The two, orality and literacy, are sharpened and focused against each other, yet can be seen as still interwoven (…). It is of course, a mistake to polarize these as mutually exclusive. Their relationship is one of mutual, creative tension, one that has both a historical dimension (…) and a contemporary one (…). The tension can sometimes be perceived as pulling one way in favor of a restored orality and then the other way in favor of replacing it altogether by (…) literacy. (11)

There are two keys to this suggestion:

First there must be insight into the plurality of time: “theory covering the oral-literate equation both as it has operated historically and as it may still operate in the present”, “both a historical dimension (…) and a contemporary one”.  Crossing times like these function in all scientific explanation.  On the one hand there are unfolding events in linear time, like rust accumulating on an iron fence; on the other, there are chemical laws which account for these events in an ‘if>then’ chronology of their own: Fe + O => Fe2O3 . The time of the accumulation of rust and the time of the laws governing such oxidation are different — but, as Havelock, says, they are “interwoven”.  So the accumulating rust on the iron fence occurs gradually in clock-time; but in doing so it exemplifies the chemical laws of oxidation which express themselves in a kind of ideal chronology and set out what always occurs given certain conditions. Havelock’s suggestion is simply that a comparable sort of explanation, situated at the crossing of historical and theoretical times, be exercised in and on human experience.

Second, the prerequisite to such explanation is the isolation of “fundamental” theoretical structures “to which all investigations can relate”.  The law-governed interrelation between these structures constitutes that ‘if>then’ chronology which crosses the time of historical events and provides their background explanation. Havelock’s suggestion is that the set of possible oral-literate relations be taken as fundamental to social change and that this set be envisioned as a spectrum stretching between pure orality at one end and pure literacy at the other. All the points along the spectrum between these poles would represent a correlative “tension” of the two together where “the tension can sometimes be perceived as pulling one way in favor of a restored orality and then the other way in favor of replacing it altogether by (…) literacy”.  In the middle of the spectrum, the oral and literate ‘sides’ would be evenly balanced, with neither of them having “favor” over the other. (Cf Coleridge, The Aeolian Harp: “A Light in Sound, a sound-like power in Light”.)

How this sort of explanation might function is described by Havelock in terms of his own experience:

Observing (…) that Plato’s text contained an explicit rejection of both Homer and Greek drama as unsuitable for the curriculum of higher education that his academy was designed to offer, I concluded that a great divide in Greek culture had begun to occur, perhaps at the time when Plato was born [c. 425 BC] or a little earlier, which separated an oralist society relying mainly on metrical and recited literature for the content of its cultural knowledge to a  literate society that was to rely in the future on prose as the vehicle of serious reflection, research, and record. (23)

This break, which has a rough analogy in the life of any individual who learns to write, showed that

the narrative requirement, the activist syntax, and the living agents required for all oral speech held in the memory could also be laid aside, replaced by a [literary] reflective syntax of definition, description, and analysis. Such was the prose of Plato and all his successors, whether philosophic, scientific, historical, descriptive, legal, or moral. European culture slowly moved over into the ambience of analytic, reflective, interpretative, conceptual prose discourse. (25)

On the one hand there was the flow of unfolding events in the Greek world between, say, 900 BC and 400 BC; on the other an underlying set of oral-literate ratios.  Havelock’s intuition was that as these ratios changed, so did Greek culture in correlative ways. It followed that such oral-literate ratios could be used to map the course of social and cultural events, just as proton-electron ratios (constituting the different chemical elements) can be used to map material events.

Havelock proposed that the work of Harold Innis was dedicated to just such a goal:

[Innis] saw the forests of his native land [being] converted into a moment’s reading on a New York subway. Recalling his own upbringing in a small town, where communication besides being personal was economical, unhurried, and to a degree reflective, he leapt to the conclusion that the mass media of modernity did not give modern man time to think. Instant news robbed him of historical sense, to look backward, and of the power to look forward, to envisage a probable future of consequences that follow from present decisions. This was the bias of modern mass communication. The technology itself encouraged a state of mind that he regretted. He set himself the historical task of pursuing the ways in which previous technologies of the word had worked to produce their corresponding social and cognitive effects. (14)

It is notable that Havelock brings together Innis’s regret at the loss of “historical sense” (the ability “to look backward and (…) forward to envisage a probable future of consequences that follow from present decisions”5) and the need for an “overarching body of theory covering the oral-literate equation” (the “task of pursuing the ways in which [oral and/or literate] technologies of the word had worked to produce their corresponding social and cognitive effects”). This  loss of an “unhurried and (…) reflective (…) historical sense” was exactly a reduction of the plurality of time as times to a singular “moment’s reading” or “instant news”, which gave no “time to think”.  The rediscovery of the plurality of time and the formulation of an “overall pattern” were therefore each necessary for the other. Neither was possible alone.

Such an “historical sense” needs to be made explicit today when “the mass media of modernity [do] not give modern man time to think”.  For time was, even in the recent past of Innis’s youth, and continuing more or less unnoticed even into the present, when “communication besides being personal was economical [ie ecological], unhurried, and to a degree reflective”. For the most part, indeed, even for “intellectual man” and the “modern mind”, life is always already lived in the crossing of times where we are all able, to greater or lesser extent, “to envisage a probable future of consequences that follow from present decisions”.

Just as chemistry did not invent new elements that were not already at hand, but instead represented the discovery of how to see what was already present before us, so Innis and Havelock proposed that we learn to study the “technologies of the word”, conceived as oral-literate ratios, as already functioning “to produce their corresponding social and cognitive effects”.

Such study would combat the “time-denying”6 effects of modern media (which include continuous war and authoritarianism); it would bond us to our past (and so exercise piety) by giving us a new respect for the “small town” thinking of our grandparents; it would relativize nihilism by exposing its presuppositions; and it would institute progressive research into human experience which would revolutionize our understanding of it as much as our understanding of the physical world has been revolutionized in the last two centuries by the discovery of its “fundamentals (…) to which all investigators can relate themselves”.

Is there not a need to construct some overall pattern into which these various perceptions can fit — some overarching body of theory covering the oral-literate equation both as it has operated historically and as it may still operate in the present; a theory that will state certain fundamentals of the situation to which all investigators can relate themselves?7 (19)


  1. Papers from the conference have been printed in Literacy and Orality, ed David R Olson and Nancy Torrance, 1991. All page references below, unless otherwise noted, are to this volume.
  2. The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man, 1950, 6. Both Innis and McLuhan took specific note of this essay by Havelock: Innis in The Strategy Of Culture (1952); McLuhan in his unpublished lecture ‘Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry’ (1954).
  3. On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense‘, 1873.  The German original is given here.
  4. Havelock has ‘investigations’, not ‘investigators’. But ‘themselves’ would seem to require ‘investigators’ and ‘investigations’ would seem to require the passive:  ‘to which all investigations can be related’.
  5. This sort of backwards and forwards prognostication is, of course, just what scientific law enables.
  6. Innis, A Plea for Time, 1950.
  7. Cf McLuhan to Pound, January 5, 1951, where he declares his aim “to open up inter-communication between several fields. To open eyes and ears of people in physics, anthropology, history, etc. etc., to relevant developments in the arts which concern them so that they in turn contribute their newest insights to the arts (…) to ideogram important new books in such wise as to indicate precise bearings of techniques involved in other fields. To ideogram single issues of Life, Vogue, Satevepost occasionally in order to indicate interrelations between popular and serious culture.” (Letters, 218)

Havelock’s ‘Professional Technique of the Sophists’, 1940

Havelock lectured at the annual meeting of the American Philological Association in 1940.  His lecture revisited the essay he had published in the Ontario College of Education monthly magazine, The School (Secondary Edition) in May and June 1938, ‘The Significance of the Greek Sophist’.

His abstract of the lecture appeared in the Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, vol. 71 (1940), p xli:

The Professional Technique of the Sophists, by E. A. Havelock, Victoria College.

Aside from apprentice systems in the crafts and trades, fifth century Athens afforded neither a curriculum nor any institutions designed for the specific purpose of giving instruction to the adolescent youth after leaving school. The state undertook some responsibilities in this connection in the fourth century, but it is incorrect to read these back into earlier times. Hence adult character (arete) was conceived as relying on “native endowment” plus “experience” (Pindar, Theognis). However, arete did in fact rely for its communication between the generations on an arrangement which could be described as “family group association” (synousia), which brought the adolescents under regular influence if not discipline.

The sophists sought to offer both a curriculum and some organized educational discipline, i.e. lectures by professionals. But initially they also strove to preserve continuity with the past. Hence (a) they constructed formulas to reconcile “native endowment” with “instruction” (Protagoras, Democritus, Anonymus Iamblichi) and (b) they continued to describe their organized teaching in non-professional terms (epidemia, synousia, diatribe, etc.). However, their activities gradually professionalized these terms, as a comparison with fourth century usage shows. These activities were bound to precipitate a collision within the city state, both of theory and of practice. This is reflected acutely in Athenian comedy, from Cratinus onwards. The challenge to the “family group system” was dramatized as a conflict between two generations over the rights of parents. Eventually the sophists, possibly in self-defense, rationalized their claims in the form of an avowed profession with its proper technique, content and standing (Discoi, Logoi, etc.).

This fifth-century background affords a perspective by which to interpret the positions taken up by Plato and Aristotle in these educational controversies. Both philosophers were committed to positions more ambiguous than they cared to admit. On the other hand, Epicurean contubernium1 marked an attempt to return to pre-professional condition.

Of particular note is Havelock’s observation that “arete did in fact rely for its communication between the generations on an arrangement which could be described as ‘family group association’ (synousia)”.  Havelock was well aware that such inter-generational communication was necessarily oral in the centuries before the invention of the alphabet and even after its invention during the extended time of its gradual adoption throughout Greek society. What would happen in the following decade is that he would reverse his thinking between what was ground and what was figure here.  Where the oral/literate contrast was formerly seen as figured on education (and on educators like Socrates and the Sophists) as its background, now changes in education and other functions of society would be seen to figure against the background of communication modes and their associated techniques of information storage.2

So it was that by 1947 Havelock could write of 

that enormous weight of tribal baggage, of lore, precept, genealogy, custom, which the [oral] poet has to drag along in his epic. (…) Homer the encyclopaedist, the didactic recorder of oral tradition, freighted with catalogues and memories… 3

And in that same year I. A. Richards could report from Harvard:

Professor Havelock has suggested that we may see in Plato’s rejections of Homer the revolt of the writing mind’s mode of apprehension against the pre-literate mind’s other, less abstract and intellectual, ways of ordering itself. 4

And Ernest Sirluck could report:

At this period [middle 1940s] there was much discussion among [UT] classicists concerning the use of epic poetry as a technique for inter-generational communication of the ‘cultural baggage’ of a non-literate people. 5


  1. The epicurean contubernium was treated in an article of this name by Havelock’s colleague, Norman W. DeWitt, in Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 67 (1936), pp.55-63. See here
  2. Six years before his death Havelock would title his 1982 collection of essays, representing a summation of his life’s work, The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences.
  3. Havelock’s review of E.T. Owen, The Story of the IliadUTQ, Jan 1948, 17:2, 209-211, here 211.
  4. BBC Third Programme radio broadcast on October 5, 1947, ‘The Spoken and the Written Word’ (recorded on September 17, 1947). A transcript was published in The Listener, xxxviii:977, October 16, 1947, 669-670; a slightly revised version appeared thirty years later as ‘Literature, Oral-Aural and Optical’ in Complementarities, (ed) Russo, 1976, 201-208.
  5. A. John Watson, Marginal Man, 297. For discussion, see here.

Babe on Havelock, Innis and McLuhan

Robert Babe’s essays on Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan (in Canadian Communication Thought: Ten Foundational Writers, 2000) are undermined by his taking Eric Havelock and McLuhan at their word regarding the timing of their encounters with Innis.  Leaving aside the questionable readings he makes of the texts of these figures (to be considered in future posts), Babe’s work illustrates an ongoing general failure to come to grips with the facts, let alone with the meaning and significance, of Canada’s fundamental contributions to the social sciences and humanities.

Referring to Havelock’s statement in his Innis Memoir (1982) that he was “only on the edge of [Innis’s] acquaintence, not one of his close circle of friends” (Canadian Communication Thought, 376 n460), Babe concludes that “Havelock attested that while at Toronto he had little contact with Innis” (ibid 272). These are hardly the same thing and, significantly, this passage from Babe’s original essay from 2000 was excised when it was republished in 2011 in Media, Structures, and Power: The Robert E. Babe Collection. Indeed, Havelock’s statement is qualified in this same Memoir by his detailed description of some of his contacts with Innis beginning already in 1930.1 Moreover, Havelock’s account could have described many further contacts between the two: the fact that Havelock and Innis’s wife, Mary Quayle Innis, were contributing to The Canadian Forum, sometimes in the same issue, even before Havelock came to the University of Toronto from Acadia University in 1929; the fact that Innis himself, along with his wife, contributed to The Canadian Forum at a time when Havelock was not only continuing his contributions to the magazine, but had assumed a leadership role in its publication; the fact that, as described by Ernest Sirluck, “Innis used to dine regularly with faculty colleagues at Hart House” where “there was much discussion among classicists concerning the use of epic poetry as a technique for inter-generational communication of the ‘cultural baggage’ of a non-literate people”2 — a topic plainly reflecting Havelock’s work.

It is evident that when Havelock reported being “only on the edge of [Innis’s] acquaintance, not one of his close circle of friends”, he was not describing the extent of their contact — which was considerable — but one aspect of its quality (or lack thereof). This was especially to be seen, given Innis’s great influence with the UT administration, in the fact that Havelock, after almost 20 years at UT, was never promoted to professor despite the acknowledged expertise of his scholarship.3 In contrast, at both Harvard and Yale Havelock became not only a distinguished professor but, in turn, chairman of the classics departments at both of these great institutions.

Given the “little contact” Babe reports between Innis and Havelock during their almost two decades together at UT, and given that McLuhan came to UT just as Havelock was leaving for Harvard4, Babe accounts for the many striking commonalities in the work of the three through the postulation that only “after leaving the University of Toronto (…) Havelock developed themes parallel to those of McLuhan”5 and Innis. This claimed chronology overlooks the Sirluck anecdote cited above and, more importantly, unaccountably ignores Havelock’s published work while he was at UT.

Here is Havelock already in 1934(!):

Dramatized conversation was a traditional method of rendering abstract ideas, as examples from the poets and historians show. Hence the “Socratic Logoi“, whether of Xenophon or Plato, owe their form to literary reasons, and not to a desire to represent the historic Socrates [who, as Havelock stressed, did not write]. It is only modern prejudice and literary fashion which prevents the fact from being appreciated.6

And, at the very end of his UT career, written in 1947 in a UTQ review of E.T. Owen’s The Story of the Iliad:

[Owen] plays down the total effect of that enormous weight of tribal baggage, of lore, precept, genealogy, custom, which the [oral] poet has to drag along in his epic. To Owen, Homer the artist is everything; but Homer the encyclopaedist, the didactic recorder of oral tradition, freighted with catalogues and memories, does not exist. This, it seems to me, actually minimizes Homer’s genius, as though he were able to work within the narrower, more controllable limits of a literate method, a Virgil or Dante or Milton armed with pen, picking his themes with nicety, not a bard operating within the great straggling medium of the [oral] saga. If the Iliad is not only astonishing but unique, it is precisely because a controlling perspective, a single point of view, has been imposed upon the most intractable materials.7

It is known that unpublished manuscripts of Havelock were circulating in Toronto at this time and, to judge by I.A. Richards’s knowledge of his orality research, also at Harvard. At a guess, these would have been from his long-time work on Socrates8 (for which he was awarded a Guggenheim scholarship in 1941) and his January 31, 1946 public lecture in Toronto, ‘The Sophistication of Homer’9. In any case, it was surely even better known in Toronto what I.A. Richards was able to report from Harvard in a BBC broadcast in 1947: “Professor Havelock has suggested that we may see in Plato’s rejections of Homer the revolt of the writing mind’s mode of apprehension against the pre-literate mind’s other, less abstract and intellectual, ways of ordering itself.”

In this general context, the January 1948 UTQ review by Havelock is particularly noteworthy in a series of ways. First, it is a kind of valediction to his time in the UT Classics department.  Just as he would later do in Festschrift essays for his former classics colleagues on the left, Gilbert Norwood and George Grube10, Havelock here celebrates a longtime older colleague (“Owen remains faithful to the Greek as against the modern mind”) who would die (on March 2, 1948) only a month’s time after the appearance of the review.  Second, Owen is the very colleague recalled in the anecdote from Ernest Sirluck cited above. It is plain that Owen did not first learn of Havelock’s oral culture theory from the review (since he did not live long enough after it to have the discussion recorded by Sirluck and since Sirluck left UT for the University of Chicago in 1947). Indeed, since it was Havelock’s practice to recall with his Festschrift essays some earlier significant event shared with the honoree11, it may be that Owen and Havelock had long gone back and forth concerning the implications of Havelock’s theory. Third, since Owen was an old friend of Innis and was to be specifically acknowledged (along with Charles Cochrane) by Innis in his preface to Empire and Communications (1950) and since UTQ was the house organ of UT scholarly life (of which Innis was now the Dean of Graduate Studies), this review could hardly have escaped Innis’s interested notice. This was, of course, especially the case when Havelock’s recent appointment at Harvard and Innis’s role in this event must have been the subject of much faculty gossip. Fourth, in this same issue of UTQ, Marshall McLuhan published an essay (‘Henry IV, A Mirror for Magistrates’, UTQ, 1948, 17:2, 152-60) so that Havelock’s review could not have escaped his notice either.

Furthermore, it may be that this review functioned between Innis and McLuhan as a kind of touchstone of their discovery of their mutual interests.  Havelock writes in his review:

If Homer be compared to a very powerful radio station, which however has to transmit to us over an immense distance, Owen allows himself to intervene as the relay station, picking up the wave length and re-transmitting it to us, so that  we can hear it. (210)

Compare the end of McLuhan’s letter to Innis from March 14, 1951 (Letters, 223):

There is a real, living unity in our time, as in any other, but it lies submerged under a superficial hubbub of sensation. Using Frequency Modulation [FM radio] techniques one can slice accurately through such interference, whereas Amplitude Modulation [AM radio] leaves you bouncing on all the currents.

A contemporary (June 12, 1951) letter to Ezra Pound concludes in a comparable way:

I’m interested in such analogies with modern poetry as that provided by the vacuum tube. The latter can tap a huge reservoir of electrical energy, picking it up as a very weak impulse. Then it can shape it and amplify it to major intensity. [The] technique of allusion as you use it (…) seems comparable to this type of circuit. Allusion not as ornament but as precise means of making available [the] total energy of any previous situation or culture. Shaping and amplifying it for current use. (Letters, 224]

Future posts will detail further noteworthy contacts between Havelock and McLuhan in the 1940s.  Suffice it to note here only that it was arguably Havelock, even more than Innis, who set McLuhan on the path he was to follow into his mature work beginning around 1950.

It remains to be shown here how Babe’s mistaken chronology also distorts his assessment of the relation of Innis and McLuhan.  Babe writes:

McLuhan often referred to himself as being a ‘disciple of Harold Adams Innis.’ However, although they were for several years contemporaries at the University of Toronto, Innis and McLuhan hardly knew one another: as late as December 1948 McLuhan still misspelled Innis’s name, and only in 1951 did he begin reading anything by that great political economist. Upon learning that Innis had placed The Mechanical Bride on his syllabus, however, the future media guru12 decided he should learn more about such a person, and turned immediately to ‘Minerva’s Owl’, where he found instant recognition – so much so that McLuhan referred to his Gutenberg Galaxy as being but a ‘footnote to the observations of Innis’. (273)

Once again, Babe has happily allowed himself to be misled by testimony (this time from McLuhan’s 1964 introduction to The Bias of Communication) that was clearly not accurate.13  Facts overlooked here by Babe (and McLuhan?) include:

– Innis and McLuhan were introduced by Tom Easterbrook, who was a protégée of Innis in the 1930s, then his colleague in the Political Economy Department in the 1940s and finally his intimate friend.  A letter cited by Babe as evidence that Innis and McLuhan “hardly knew one another” (since McLuhan misspelled Innis’s name in it) shows them at lunch together with Easterbrook in December 1948 (Letters, 208).  Babe calls Easterbrook “a boyhood chum” of McLuhan (377 n55), but this characterization widely misses the mark.  Easterbrook and McLuhan became lifelong close friends after meeting in engineering classes at the University of Manitoba in 1928.14 Easterbrook was already in his early 20’s, McLuhan in his late teens: hardly their “boyhood”. In 1932 they then traveled in England together and at some point, variously reported as in Canada or in England, Easterbrook brought Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World? to McLuhan’s notice and thereby helped set the whole course of McLuhan’s life, both personal and intellectual.  So when both started work in Toronto (McLuhan in 1946, Easterbrook in 1947), Easterbrook would have been McLuhan’s closest friend there by far (since he, unlike Easterbrook, had no previous experience at UT). The two must have immediately resumed their lifelong habit of long walks and talks.15 And Innis and his work would inevitably have been an important topic for them given Easterbrook’s increasingly close relation with Innis and his communications work, and given McLuhan’s established interest in the topic of media and communication16.

– It was partly as a reflection of these relationships that Easterbrook, surely with Innis’s blessing and help, and probably at McLuhan’s urging17, arranged a  ‘values discussion group‘ at UT in 1949 financed by the Rockefeller Foundation. Babe seems not to have been aware of this seminar (which is not referenced even in his 2011 collection) in which Innis would never have participated, given his hectic schedule, unless it had been of special interest to him. McLuhan must have been part of that interest, perhaps its greater part. Further, given their lunching together and regular participation in the seminar, how could it be that the two “hardly knew one another”?  Or, since the seminar of April 5, 1949 saw the presentation by Innis of what would later become two important essays18, how seriously maintain that “only in 1951 did he [McLuhan] begin reading anything by that great political economist”? Far more likely, given McLuhan’s voracious reading habits, his access to Innis’s work through Easterbrook and the motivation provided by the seminar, that McLuhan knew all of Innis’s then available communications work (like ‘Minerva’s Owl’ from 1948 and the earlier Political Economy in the Modern State from 1946).

– McLuhan’s March 14, 1951 letter to Innis (Letters, 220-223) was originally written earlier in 1951 (since it was acknowledged by Innis on Feb 26) or even in 1950 (since Innis apologizes in his February letter for his late reply).19 In this letter, McLuhan comments on Empire and Communications, which he must have read in 1950 (presumably via Easterbrook).  So much for the idea that “only in 1951 did he begin reading anything by that great political economist” — especially if the first thing McLuhan read from Innis was not Empire and Communications but (as Babe notes following McLuhan) ‘Minerva’s Owl’ (which was published separately by UTP in 1948).20

Babe sums up his sense of the Innis-McLuhan relationship by noting that McLuhan was “greatly indebted to Innis, a person, incidentally, towards whom he did not feel particularly warm on a personal basis” (274). But it is Babe who has the animus. As for Innis and McLuhan, Innis begins his January 12, 1952 handwritten letter:

Dear McLuhan,
I was immensely pleased to get your warm letter…


  1. For discussion, see here.
  2. Watson, Marginal Man, 297. Watson continues: “Sirluck recalls a stimulating conversation with (E.T.) Owen on this subject, with Innis as a quiet, note-taking witness.  Since Innis had contributed little to the conversation, Sirluck was taken aback to see him that same afternoon borrowing from the library all the authorities Owen had cited. When Sirluck expressed his surprise that Innis should be interested in this area, Innis replied emphatically that he thought the subject was of fundamental importance.”
  3. Havelock was an outspoken socialist whose political views were not appreciated by Ontario politicians or by UT administrators who were dependent on those politicians for their funding.
  4. Havelock’s appointment at Harvard became official in 1947. But in 1946, the year McLuhan came to UT, Havelock was already a guest lecturer at Harvard.
  5. Canadian Communication Thought , 296, emphasis added. As discussed here, A John Watson takes the same position in his Innis biography, Marginal Man.
  6. ‘The Evidence for the Teaching of Socrates’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 65, 1934, 282-295, essay abstract, emphasis added.
  7. Havelock’s review of E.T. Owen, The Story of the Iliad, UTQ, Jan 1948, 17:2, 209-211, here 211.
  8. Havelock’s work on the pre-platonics — a term he preferred to pre-socratics — went back to his studies with F.M. Cornford at Cambridge (1922-1926) and began to see the light of day with ‘The Evidence for the Teaching of Socrates’ in 1934 (cited above). His 1952 essay for Gilbert Norwood, ‘Why Was Socrates Tried?’, came from the same planned multi-volume work. (Havelock’s good friend and colleague at Victoria College at UT, Northrop Frye, noted in his diary for Sept 18, 1942: “Havelock back (ie, from his Guggenheim sabbatical) — his Socrates will run to two volumes”  (The Diaries of Northrop Frye, 1942-1955, NFCW Volume 8).  Havelock’s papers at Yale include work on a third volume as well.)
  9. Frye: “One of my colleagues at Victoria College was a professor of classics, Eric Havelock, who soon afterwards went to Harvard. He has written a brilliant book called A Preface to Plato. But of course he had been thinking about the ideas in this book for many years, and I remember a public lecture that he gave at Victoria (sic, University College) on Homer that impressed me deeply.” (Reading the World: Selected Writings, 1935-1976, 189) An augmented version of Havelock’s 1946 lecture was published in Richards’s 1973 Festschrift. As will be treated in further posts, there are many noteworthy parallels between the lecture and the 1948 UTQ review.
  10. For discussion, see here.
  11. For example, Havelock’s essay in the I.A. Richards Festschrift (1973), ‘The Sophistication of Homer’, was first given as a public lecture at UT a quarter century earlier in January 1946 (as recorded in the UT Monthly and in the UT President’s Report for the Academic Year for 1945-1946). This lecture in typescript was doubtless part of the package that Richards and others at Harvard received at that time for their evaluation of Havelock. In a similar way, as will be discussed in a later post, Havelock’s contribution to the Gilbert Norwood Festschrift in 1952 recalled his 1938 essay on ‘The Significance of the Sophist’.  Presumably Norwood had contributed in some way to Havelock’s thoughts in the earlier essay and it was part of Havelock’s intent to assure Norwood of his thankful memory of this.
  12. The intentionally slighting “future media guru” is amended to “McLuhan” in the 2011 republication of this chapter from Canadian Communication Thought.
  13. McLuhan was notoriously loose with facts, especially about his own work.  In 1965, he told Frank Kermode: “I remember I decided to write that book (Gutenberg Galaxy) when I came across a (1959) piece by the psychiatrist, J.C. Carruthers (sic, Carothers) on the African mind in health and disease, describing the effects of the printed word on the African populations – it startled me and decided me to plunge in. ” (‘The Future of Man in the Electric Age’, Understanding Me, 57).  In fact, McLuhan was already working on the book in 1952 (!) and sent an outline of it to Ezra Pound that year.  Carothers’ article was ‘Culture, Psychiatry, and the Written Word’, Psychiatry, November, 1959.
  14. Cf, Speaking of Winnipeg, ed John Parr, 1974, p 27.
  15. In his Preface to The Mechanical Bride (1951), McLuhan alludes to this ancient practice: “To Professor W. T. Easterbrook I owe many enlightening conversations on the problems of bureaucracy and enterprise.”
  16. See, already in 1947, McLuhan’s ‘Time, Life, and Fortune’, View 7:3, Spring 1947.
  17. As reflected in McLuhan’s later letter to Innis from March 1951, but as already expressed by him throughout the 1940’s, McLuhan was much animated at this time by a seemingly simple conviction. If language and intellect are at home in this world, but modernity has somehow lost this assurance, the first step towards its recovery must be the agreement of a small group of acute minds concerning the formulation of this fundament for further research. The later Culture and Technology seminar with its Explorations magazine represented both a realization of this idea and — something that has been little investigated — its disappointment.
  18. “The Bias of Communication” and “Technology and Public Opinion in the United States”, both later to appear in The Bias of Communication (1951).
  19. See the editorial note to McLuhan’s letter, Letters, 220 n1.
  20. But see Innis and McLuhan in 1936.

Innis to McLuhan January 12, 1952

When McLuhan’s library was donated to the UT Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, among the papers found stuffed into the books was a letter from Harold Innis to McLuhan dated January 12, 1952.1 Innis died later that same year in November.

The letter reads:

Jan 12, 1952

Dear McLuhan,

I was immensely pleased to get your warm letter particularly as it is the first I have had which indicated that the reader had taken the trouble to understand what it [= The Bias of Communication] is all about.

I have not seen the book by [Theodore] Gaster [= Thespis, 1950], but must get it out. I have been very interested in allied problems, but had not thought of attacking that of myth and ritual. I must also get Eliot’s Theory of Communication2 — do not trouble to send your copy.

I have just finished a book3 on the movies by Will Irwin (Adolph Zukor)4  in which the problem is brought out rather sharply in the refusal of the industry over a considerable period to break from the emphasis of the photograph on space and the ultimate recognition of the importance of time in its development of narrative and length. But it may be that I have become too sensitive to implications of the theme.

For this reason I was greatly heartened to find that others are aware of it.

With very many thanks, yours, HAI 

  1. The letter was posted in image here, but has since been removed.
  2. This was Don Theall’s MA thesis from 1951, supervised by McLuhan.
  3.  The House That Shadows Built, 1928
  4. The bracketed insertion here was made by Innis. The reference is to Irwin’s book which was subtitled “The Story of Adolph Zukor and His Circle”.

Sirluck on Innis, Owen and Havelock

In an interview with A. John Watson for Watson’s bio of Harold Innis, Marginal Man, Ernest Sirluck, a successor of Innis as Dean of Graduate Studies at UT and later President of the University of Manitoba, supplied the following anecdote:

At this period (circa 19461), there was much discussion among classicists concerning the use of epic poetry as a technique for inter-generational communication of the ‘cultural baggage’ of a non-literate people. Sirluck recalls a stimulating conversation with [E.T.] Owen on this subject, with Innis as a quiet, note-taking witness.  Since Innis had contributed little to the conversation, Sirluck was taken aback to see him that same afternoon borrowing from the library all the authorities Owen had cited. When Sirluck expressed his surprise that Innis should be interested in this area, Innis replied emphatically that he thought the subject was of fundamental importance. (297)

Watson uses this anecdote to suggest that Havelock (clearly the source of the research described by Owen) may have influenced Innis through such “oral channels” (298). He is forced to this suggestion of oral influence since, in company with other Innis scholars like James Carey and Robert Babe, he holds in regard to “the timing of his [Havelock’s] scholarly publications that deal with themes of interest to Innis” that “only one of these appeared before Innis’s death [namely] Prometheus Bound, 1950″ (ibid). As detailed in other posts2, however, Havelock published a great deal while he taught in Canada and the topic of oral vs literate communication had long been present in his work.

As a result of this general research failure (apparently following Havelock’s own faulty memory instead of looking into the documents), the history of communication theory in Canada has been fundamentally skewed. For example, Watson comes up with the following fantastic conclusion concerning the Innis-Havelock relation that has no other basis than his failure to consult the articles Havelock wrote in Canada between 1927 and 19473:

It is not an exaggeration to say that Havelock’s work is the equivalent of a detailed extension of Innis’ treatment of Greek civilization. At the risk of simplification it seems that Havelock picked up Innis’ concept of media supersession as a focus for looking at Greek literature and society.  (300)

No, as further discussed in Innis and Havelock – 1930 and beyond and in What Havelock knew in 1938, it was Innis who took up Havelock’s insight into information storage as an illuminating focus in social analysis comparable to (and doubtless influenced by) Innis’s own staple theory. Watson was correct, however, to suspect mutual influence between the two during Havelock’s time in Canada — even when he did not consult the texts necessary to discern when and how this took place.

  1. Sirluck’s anecdote concerns Eric Trevor Owen, b 1882, longtime professor of classics at UT, who died in 1948. Sirluck himself served in WW2 and left Toronto for the University of Chicago in 1947. The potential timespan for the anecdote is therefore late 1945 to early 1947.
  2. See
  3. Leaving aside unpublished texts and lectures which seem to have circulated in typescript, like Havelock’s 1946 public lecture at UT on ‘The Sophistication of Homer’, also his important literary publications (which included his full monograph from 1939, The Lyric Genius of Catullus) and most of his frequent contributions to The Canadian Forum, these were: ‘The Evidence for the Teaching of Socrates’, Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 65, 1934, 282-295; ‘The Significance of the Greek Sophist’, The School (Secondary Edition), 1938, May 782-785 and June, 874-877; ‘The Philosophy of John Dewey’, The Canadian Forum, July 1939, 121-123; ‘The Riddle of Plato’s Politics’, The Canadian Forum,  April 1941, 15-19; and his review of E.T. Owen, The Story of the IliadUTQ, Vol. 17:2,  Jan 1948, 209-211.