Monthly Archives: November 2015

Heyer on Innis and Havelock

In his 2003 book, Harold Innis, Paul Heyer describes the relation of Innis and Havelock as follows:

Havelock’s importance [for Innis] was due to the interdisciplinary vision he shared with Innis, which eschewed any hard-and-fast division between the humanities and the social sciences, and because of his interest in the interplay between power and and knowledge in historical change. It has been argued [Heyer cites Watson here] that Havelock eventually became more indebted to Innis than vice versa and that his work is an extension of Innis’s take on Greek civilization, the alphabet, and the social consequences of technological change in communication media. Since Innis’s death Havelock has written extensively on these subjects — in ways that have significantly influenced Marshall McLuhan — but he has attributed  the similarity between his project and Innis’s to “a matter of happy coincidence”. (42)1

Like Watson, Babe and Carey, Heyer sees no significant tie between the communications work of Innis and Havelock while Havelock was at UT and any influence between the two as extending from Innis. And like Babe, he sees the influence of Havelock on McLuhan operating only “since Innis’s death”. Neither view seems tenable.

  1. The closing quotation is from Havelock’s 1982 (originally a 1978 lecture) Harold Innis: A Memoir.

Carey on Innis and Havelock

James W Carey’s ‘Introduction’ to Harold Innis’s Changing Concepts of Time (2004) describes the relation of the communication work of Innis and Eric Havelock as follows:

[Innis] was aided by the fact that the University of Toronto had a splendid Department of Classics and within the department a great student of Greek thought, Eric Havelock. Havelock and Innis worked independently and only discovered one another four years after Havelock left Toronto for Harvard. (xiv)

This is a bald variation on the view taken by Babe and Watson. It simply ignores the evidence of the extensive contact, both personal and intellectual, between Innis and Havelock over the almost two decades Havelock taught at UT.


McLuhan’s second conversion

Have discovered the meaning and value of [interior] landscape (…) paysage intérieur à la Rimbaud Pound Joyce as means of unifying and digesting any kind of experience. Should have got to it 20 yrs ago if I hadn’t the rotten luck to bog down in English lit [ie, bog down with Leavis/Scrutiny]… (McLuhan to Ezra Pound, January 5, 1951, Letters 216)

Between the ages of 35 and 40 (roughly, 1946-1951) McLuhan experienced a second conversion, a decade after his first one.  

His first conversion (formalized at Easter, 1937) brought him into the Catholic Church from his vague Protestant upbringing and represented no fundamental change in his core beliefs in God and traditional values. Like many converts today from Protestant denominations to Orthodoxy or Catholicism, this first conversation reflected his doubtless prayerful view that the Catholic Church best attested what he already strongly believed.  While this had great meaning for McLuhan himself, of course, it was nothing particularly unusual or significant for the world at large.

In contrast, his second conversion (a second conversion to the same place!) was driven by the determination (forced on him, as he often pointed out, by contemporary research in anthropology, psychology, archaeology, classics, linguistics, even evolutionary biology) that there is no such thing as privileged experience and that traditional beliefs and values therefore had to be validated, if at all, on the strange foundation of the relativity of all human experience and culture. This conversion, unlike the first, was of fundamental significance generally.

Since McLuhan’s own core beliefs could not be immunized from this insight into experiential relativity, the effect of it was to dissolve his previous world of lived experience.  It had been based on ‘continuity’1 which he now saw to be fundamentally broken. Hence identity, too, as the correlate of experience, was necessarily broken and was inexorably exposed at every moment to an unbridgeable gap. As he specified two decades after the event in Take Today (1972):

Managing The Ascent from the Maelstrom today demands awareness that can be achieved only by going Through the Vanishing Point. (13)

Now The Maelstrom was plainly no longer viewed as escapist entertainment (as it was in 1946). In fact, it was now experienced as describing that synchronic (or simultaneous) process of Descent/Ascent through which all human cognition, individual and social, is continually (or diachronically) achieved.2 

Partly through the fact that Leavis and the Scrutiny school assigned the care of traditional values to literary culture and partly through the recognition via Havelock and Innis that societies have maintained their cultures through differing modes of communication (especially orality and literacy, but now also the electric), McLuhan came to describe his second conversion as a turn from an exclusive valorization of print and literary values to the inclusive valorization of all forms of communication and culture, literary or not: 

defenders of book-culture have seldom given any thought to any of the media as art forms, the book least of all. The result is that their “defense” might as well be staged on an abandoned movie lot for all the effect it has on the actual situation. When I wrote The Mechanical Bride some years ago I did not realize that I was attempting a defense of book-culture against the new media. I can now see that I was trying to bring some of the critical awareness fostered by literary training to bear on the new media of sight and sound. My strategy was wrong, because my obsession with literary values blinded me to much that was actually happening for good and ill. 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… (‘Sight, Sound, and the Fury’, Commonweal, 60:1, April 9, 1954, 7-11, here 10-11; emphases added)

For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was, and I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience — from trash to treasures. I ceased being a moralist and became a student. As someone committed to literature and the traditions of literacy, I began to study the new environment that imperiled literary values, and I soon realized that [it] could not be dismissed by moral outrage or pious indignation. Study showed that a totally new approach was required, both to save what deserved saving in our Western heritage and to help man adopt a new survival strategy. I adapted some of this new approach in The Mechanical Bride by attempting to immerse myself in the advertising media in order to apprehend its impact on man, but even there some of my old literate “point of view” bias crept in. (Playboy Interview. March 1969, pp. 26-27, 45, 55-56, 61, 63, here 63; emphasis added)

Already in early 1951, the year of its publication, McLuhan saw The Mechanical Bride as prelapsarian, as a document reflecting conditions before the fall (as he had come to experience it in Poe’s Maelstrom and Joyce’s “pftjschute of Finnegan”):

Mechanical Bride is something that happened before the Flood. Assumed an audience …. It is a wedding announcement found 1000 years from now in a block of concrete… 3

That is, The Mechanical Bride had been written as if the collapse of the tower of Babel had not occurred, as if an author could assume continuity of language, perspective, reason and values with the audience of readers.  Having undergone his second conversion, McLuhan could now see not only that this assumption could not be made (and was therefore not made by the best of modern art), but also that this assumption stood in the way of genuine communication. From now on he would have to take up the question of the symbolists and Pound and Joyce of how to communicate the process of communication (dual genitive!) as the most important step in communication. (The strikethroughs here are not deletions. They are markers of ineluctable gaps in these nouns.)

  1. The title of the first collection of Scrutiny papers by F.R. Leavis in 1933 was For Continuity.
  2. Physical materials are maintained as integral solids in space and time through a dynamic process of surface cohesion and/or adhesion. Individual and social identity qua modes of perception are maintained through an analogous but completely different (though no less dynamic) process that is linguistic in character. Just as language presupposes a series of unconscious choices regarding what is to be considered significant noise (among all possible noises) and what is to be considered significant variation in those noises (among all possible variations of them), so perception always reflects choices made among possible forms.  Poe’s Maelstrom may be read as a depiction of this usually unconscious process. His mariner undergoes a radical change of identity and experience by entering the strom and choosing a different vehicle for them in it: he “survived by pattern recognition. He perceived (in) the action of the strom, that there were certain objects which recurred and survived (its cataclysmic descent). He attaches himself to the recurring (ascending) objects and survives” (‘Art as Survival in the Electric Age’, 1973). Any reading of human experience (reading which can then lead to science) must be based on and from this strange ano/kato (Heraclitus) or up/down way of identity formation and integrity. (Notably, one of the epigrams to Eliot’s Four Quartets is the Heraclitian fragment ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω μία καὶ ὡυτή (hodos ano kato mia kai houte, the way up and the way down are one and the same). Further Maelstrom posts will have the aim of describing this process and its significance in detail.
  3. McLuhan to Hugh Kenner, 30 January 1951, cited in Andrew Chrystall, ‘A Little Epic: McLuhan’s Use of Epyllion‘. Cf, My own book, The Mechanical Bride, took as theme ‘the Love Goddess Assembly Line’ with the car as bride, just when the prior American economy and culture (ie, the car) was altering its stress from industrial hardware to the world of design and software.” (‘The Implications of Cultural Uniformity’, 1973, in Superculture: American Popular Culture and Europe1975)

A “trick of analysis” in the Maelstrom

Cleanth Brooks’s poem, ‘Maelstrom’, written in 1944, was published in the first 1946 issue of The Sewanee Review.1 Later, in the fourth issue of the Review that year, McLuhan would discuss Poe’s Maelstrom for the first time in ‘Footsteps in the Sands of Crime’2. The concluding passage of this essay reads as follows:

The sailor in [Poe’s] story The Maelstrom is at first paralyzed with horror. But in his very paralysis there is another fascination which emerges, a power of detached observation which becomes a “scientific” interest in the action of the strom. And this provides the means of escape. Like everything else in Poe the recital proceeds in a casual off-hand manner. Like the chat of a well-bred man of the world. But in this parable Poe embalms the mystery of the sleuth himself. His sailor escapes from the strom by a trick of analysis. The sleuth produces the murderer in the same way. And at the same time the sleuth also enables the reader to “escape” from the horror of his own world by conferring on him the sense of detached power associated with the scientific attitude. To that extent at least the whodunits must be accredited with the formula for happiness which Swift noted as dear to man — the possession of being perpetually well deceived.3

The first three sentences represent a kind of pre-view4 in which McLuhan looks forward to his upcoming second conversion (“the means of escape”) and to his life’s work thereafter (in which the Maelstrom will be cited, and sometimes quoted at length, over and over again)5:

The sailor in his story The Maelstrom is at first paralyzed with horror. But in his very paralysis there is another fascination which emerges, a power of detached observation which becomes a “scientific” interest in the action of the strom.  And this provides the means of escape.

But the remainder of this 1946 passage looks backward to what he will later, in 1954, on the other side of his second conversion, call his “obsession with literary values”6, an “obsession” he had exercised for more than a decade following his graduation from Cambridge in 1936 as an energetic member of the F.R.Leavis-Scrutiny branch of the Cambridge English school.7 (In a letter to Ezra Pound, January 5, 1951, McLuhan remarked on his “rotten luck to bog down in English lit at university” (Letters 216) where he apparently meant “the rotten luck to bog down” with Leavis.)

It was near the end of this preliminary period of his career that McLuhan’s attention was drawn to A Descent into the Maelstrom, presumably by Brooks’s poem in the Sewanee Review. Of course he knew of Poe’s story before this time, but apparently without seeing any special significance in it for him and his work. However, with a series of other factors at this time in the late 1940’s (like his study of the symbolists, his rereading of Joyce and Eliot with Hugh Kenner, his meeting and subsequent correspondence with Ezra Pound, his introduction to cybernetics via Sigfried Giedion, his learning of Havelock’s research on Greek orality, his introduction to Innis’s communication work, his beginning reading of modern management theory with Bernard Muller-Thym, etc etc), Poe’s Maelstrom would soon cease from being one more piece of furniture in his familiar world. Instead, it would transform that world — and McLuhan himself along with it. The Maelstrom would help instigate McLuhan’s second conversion which would fundamentally change his tune:

…organic harps
And each one’s Tunes be that, which each calls ‘I’
– Coleridge, The Eolian Harp (draft of 1795)

In 1946, however, that earthquake had not yet occurred — McLuhan had not yet exposed himself to the transformative power of the Maelstrom. Instead he regarded it as merely one more item to be accommodated within his established perspective. This was accomplished by his reading it as a variation on Poe’s detective stories:

Like everything else in Poe the recital proceeds in a casual off-hand manner. Like the chat of a well-bred man of the world. But in this parable Poe embalms the mystery of the sleuth himself. The sleuth produces the murderer in the same way [as the mariner solves the case of the Maelstrom].

In both sorts of fiction, mystery and nautical, an “escape” was seen to be provided in multiple senses:

And at the same time [as he unravels the mystery of his case and so finds an “escape” from it] the sleuth also enables the reader to “escape” from the horror of his own world by conferring on him the sense of detached power associated with the scientific attitude. To that extent at least the whodunits [and their Maelstrom parallel] must be accredited with the formula for happiness which Swift noted as dear to man — the possession of being perpetually well deceived

The reader of Poe was provided with pseudo-escape from the “horror of his own world” by the fictional escapes of the detective and the mariner from their predicaments.  That is, Poe’s readers were captured, as we say, exactly through tales of escape — tales of escape which then provided them with illusory escape from the world in which they were actually captured (not least by their recourse to ‘escape’ entertainment in it!). A double real attachment (to escapist entertainment and to a world which had escaped its foundations) was achieved via a double fictional detachment (tales of escape in escapist entertainment)

However this analysis may have been fitting in part, it is noteworthy that McLuhan at this time saw no need in his own right for “detached observation”, “scientific interest” and a “scientific attitude”. He already had the correct “point of view” (“my old literate ‘point of view’ bias”, as he called it in his Playboy interview) and any detachment from it could only be negative (with, given his theology at the time, potentially eternal consequences for him). Only everybody else was bound to “the horror of his own world” by being “perpetually well deceived”. He himself, however, was Catholic and, as he wrote to Corinne Lewis before their marriage in 1939, years before she herself became Catholic, “there is nothing good or true which is not Catholic”.8

The “horror” here is that industrialism and general modernity “associated with the scientific attitude” which had, in the Leavisite analysis, caused the world to slip its moorings from the established values of the tradition. (The partial fit of this analysis with the Chesterbelloc valorization of tradition provided McLuhan with his Catholic variation on Scrutiny criticism, which itself was a variation on the criticism of I.A. Richards.) So it was that McLuhan dismissed “detached observation” and “scientific interest”, the motors of modernity, as deceptions similar to those of “whodunits” — deceptions amounting to nothing more than “a trick of analysis”.9

The whole world was deceived, this is to say, except McLuhan and some like-minded few. More, the world had in this process somehow achieved escape velocity from the power and grace of God. “Modern times” were no longer subject to them, it seemed, and therefore demanded McLuhan’s summary rejection of them:

For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism.  (Playboy Interview)10

At this time in the middle 1940s McLuhan — now age 35 — exercised a starkly oppositional mindset, in fact a type of gnosticism. (The aggressive animus he would show against gnosticim in the early 1950’s may have reflected his rueful awareness of his own long constriction in it.) Coming loose from it would define his life’s work. But just how he came to do so is a highly complicated question (to be treated in a series of future posts). Suffice it to note here only that Corinne McLuhan’s entrance into the Catholic Church in 1946 may have signaled the beginning of an easing of his former rather brittle and hyper-intellectualized faith. Corinne was anything but a brittle and hyper-intellectual person and her conversion at this time may well have helped to ease his way into a second one of his own.  She and the life experience of a family with 6 kids — his four girls were all born in the time-span of his second conversion — could well have taught him, as nothing else could, that “there are more [good or true] things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy”. 11

  1.  ‘Maelstrom’, Cleanth Brooks, Sewanee Review, 54(1), 1946, 116-118.
  2. Sewanee Review, 54(4), 617-634, 1946.
  3. Sewanee Review, 54(4), 634.
  4. Scottish “second sight”.
  5. See McLuhan on Poe’s Maelstrom
  6. ‘Sight, Sound, and Fury’, Commonweal, April 1954.
  7. Hugh Kenner to Philip Marchand: “McLuhan in those days took the Leavis line on nearly everything” (Marchand, The Medium and the Messenger, 103).
  8. McLuhan to Corinne Lewis, January 21, 1939, Letters 102.  One can well imagine a properly raised eyebrow on the receiving end of this observation.
  9. McLuhan took the same view of Joyce. In a letter to Philip Marchand, Hugh Kenner recalled that at this time, “McLuhan despised (Joyce) as merely ‘mechanical’, a ‘contriver’.” (Marchand, The Medium and the Messenger, 103).  A contemporary letter from McLuhan to Felix Giovanelli from May 10, 1946 notes in related fashion: “Looking at Joyce recently. A bit startled to note last page of Finnegan is a rendering of the last part of the Mass. Remembered that opening of Ulysses is from 1st words of the Mass. The whole thing an intellectual Black Mass.” (Letters, 183)
  10. For further discussion, see McLuhan’s second conversion.
  11. As if to force home to McLuhan the “good or true” things on the margin, only one of his children, Eric, remained Catholic.

McLuhan on Poe’s Maelstrom

Art as Survival in the Electric Age 1973
The strom of which Poe spoke in 1850 was nothing compared to the stroms in which we are involved at the present moment.


Starting at age 35 — the halfway mark of life according to Dante, life’s roofbeam — until he died 35 years later on New Year’s eve 1980, McLuhan cited A Descent into the Maelstrom over and over (and over) again.  Leaving aside his very frequent general references to the whirlpool (sometimes “worldpool”), and his even more frequent discussions of the vortex and vortices, the following are passages in his work (in chronological order) that take off from Poe’s short story:

McLuhan to Brinley Rhys1, June 16, 1946
Here is the key to the sleuth.  He is that part of Poe which eluded the strom by studious detachment. 

Footprints in the Sands of Crime, 1946
The sailor in his story The Maelstrom is at first paralyzed with horror. But in his very paralysis there is another fascination which emerges, a power of detached observation which becomes a “scientific” interest in the action of the strom. And this provides the means of escape.

The Mechanical Bride, 1951
Poe’s sailor saved himself by studying the action of the whirlpool and by co-operating with it. The present book likewise makes few attempts to attack the very considerable currents and pressures set up around us today by the mechanical agencies of the press, radio, movies, and advertising. It does attempt to set the reader at the center of the revolving picture created by these affairs where he may observe the action that is in progress and in which everybody is involved. (v)

The Mechanical Bride, 1951
It is here suggested that the outlines of world order are already quite visible to the student of the swirling flood released by industrial technique. And they are to be discerned in the very way in which the flood operates. Poe’s sailor in “The Maelstrom” saved himself by cooperating with the action of the “strom” itself. (75)

The Mechanical Bride, 1951
our situation is very like that of Poe’s sailor in “The Maelstrom,” and we are now obliged not to attack or avoid the strom but to study its operation as providing a means of release from it. (151)

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962
What could be more practical for a man caught between the Scylla of a literary culture and the Charybdis of post-literate technology to make himself a raft of ad copy? He is behaving like Poe’s sailor in the Maelstrom who studied the action of the whirlpool and survives. May not it be our job in the new electronic age to study the action of the new vortex on the body of the older cultures? (77)

Understanding Media, 1964
Now, however, in the electronic age, data classification yields to pattern recognition, the key phrase at IBM. When data move instantly, classification is too fragmentary. In order to cope with data at electric speed in typical situations of “information overload,” men resort to the study of configurations, like the sailor in Edgar Allan Poe’s Maelstrom. (vii)

Technology and World Trade 1966
Any economy is an information pool and, under electronic conditions, the world is a single information pool; therefore, there can and must be just one economy. As the world becomes a total information pool, and therefore simultaneous, the natural tendency is for all the older patterns and barriers and structures to be swept aside.

Technology and World Trade 1966
There is a well-known story by Edgar Allen Poe. It is called ‘The Maelstrom’ — about a sailor who goes fishing one afternoon and becomes so absorbed in his thought that he forgets to notice the turn of the tide and suddenly is caught in a great whirlpool. He realizes he can’t row his boat out of the maelstrom and so he begins to study the action of the maelstrom. He observes that certain kinds of materials are sucked down into it and never return while other kinds pop up again. He attaches himself to one of these recurring objects and survives. This is pattern recognition. My point is: to understand the process is an indispensable way of coping with information overload. 

The Medium is the Massage, 1967
The family circle has widened. The
worldpool of information fathered by electric media -– movies, Telstar, flight -– far surpasses any possible influence mom and dad can now bring to bear. Character no longer is shaped by only two earnest fumbling experts. Now all the world’s a sage. (14)

The Medium is the Massage, 1967
“I must have been delirious, for I even sought amusement in speculation upon the relative velocities of their several descents towards the foam below.” In his amusement born of rational detachment from his own situation, Poe’s mariner in “The Descent into the Maelstrom” staved off disaster by understanding the action of the whirlpool. His insight offers a possible stratagem for understanding our predicament, our electrically-configured whirl. (150)

Playboy Interview, 1969
The electronically induced technological extensions of our central nervous systems (…) are immersing us in a
world-pool of information movement and are thus enabling man to incorporate within himself the whole of mankind. (…) But the instant nature of electric-information movement is decentralizing — rather than enlarging — the family of man into a new state of multitudinous tribal existences.

Playboy Interview, 1969
The extensions of man’s consciousness induced by the electric media could conceivably usher in the millennium, but it also holds the potential for realizing the Anti-Christ — Yeats’ rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Cataclysmic environmental changes such as these are, in and of themselves, morally neutral; it is how we perceive them and react to them that will determine their ultimate psychic and social consequences. If we refuse to see them at all, we will become their servants. It’s inevitable that the world-pool of electronic information movement will toss us all about like corks on a stormy sea, but if we keep our cool during the descent into the maelstrom, studying the process as it happens to us and what we can do about it, we can come through.

McLuhan to The Listener, 1971
Poe provided clues for ascending from The Maelstrom (Letters 443)

Take Today, 1972
The following chapters explore both the gradual variations and the sudden transformations that occur in the figure-ground interplay of man and his artifacts, as each remakes the other. Our chief resources are the gripes and jokes, the problems and breakdowns, of managers themselves; for therein lie the solutions and breakthroughs via pattern recognition of the processes involved. Managing The ‘Ascent’ from the Maelstrom today demands awareness that can be achieved only by going Through the Vanishing Point. (13)

Art as Survival in the Electric Age, 1973
[Poe’s sailor] survived by pattern recognition. He perceived [in] the action of the strom, that there were certain objects which recurred and survived. He attaches himself to the recurring objects and survives. (…) Poe hit upon the key to the electric age, programming from effects in order to anticipate cause.

Art as Survival in the Electric Age 1973
“It was not a new terror that thus affected me, but the dawn of a more exciting hope. This hope arose partly from memory, and partly from present observation. I called to mind the great variety of buoyant matter that strewed the coast of Lofoden, having been absorbed and then thrown forth by the Moskoe-strom.
By far the greater number of the articles were shattered in the most extraordinary way — so chafed and roughened as to have the appearance of being stuck full of splinters — but then I distinctly recollected that there were some of them which were not disfigured at all. Now I could not account for this difference except by supposing that the roughened fragments were the only ones which had been completely absorbed (…) I made, also, three important observations. The first was, that as a general rule, the larger the bodies were, the more rapid their descent; – the second, that, between two masses of equal extent, the one spherical, and the other of any other shape, the superiority in speed of descent was with the sphere; – the third, that, between two masses of equal size, the one cylindrical, and the other of any other shape, the cylinder was absorbed the more slowly (…)
“There was one startling circumstance which went a great way in enforcing these observations, and rendering me anxious to turn them to account, and this was that, at every revolution, we passed something like a barrel, or else the broken yard or the mast of a vessel, while many of these things, which had been on our level when I first opened my eyes upon the wonders of the whirlpool, were now high up above us, and seemed to have moved but little from their original station.

“I no longer hesitated what to do. I resolved to lash myself securely to the water cask upon which I now held, to cut it loose from the counter, and to throw myself with it into the water. (…)
“The result was precisely what I had hoped it might be. As it is myself who now tell you this tale – as you see that I did escape – and as you are already in possession of the mode in which this escape was effected, and must therefore anticipate all that I have farther to say – I will bring my story quickly to conclusion.”2

Man and Media, 19753
Edgar Allan Poe’s story “A Descent into the Maelstrom” had tremendous influence on the nineteenth-century poets and symbolists like Baudelaire, Flaubert, and others. In this story, Poe imagines the situation in which a sailor, who has gone out on a fishing expedition, finds himself caught in a huge maelstrom or whirlpool. He sees that his boat will be sucked down into this thing. He begins to study the action of the strom, and observes that some things disappear and some things reappear. By studying those things that reappear and attaching himself to one of them, he saves himself. Pattern recognition in the midst of a huge, overwhelming, destructive force is the way out of the maelstrom. The huge vortices of energy created by our media present us with similar possibilities of evasion of [their] consequences, of [our] destruction [by them]. By studying the pattern of the effects of this huge vortex of energy in which we’re involved, it may be possible to program a strategy of evasion and survival.

Man and Media, 1975
The artist’s insights or perceptions seem to have been given to mankind as a providential means of bridging the gap between evolution and technology. The artist is able to program, or reprogram, the sensory life in a manner which gives us a navigational chart to get out of the maelstrom created by our own ingenuity. The role of the artist in regard to man and the media is simply survival.

Global Village and the Tetrad, 19774
Edgar Allen Poe, one of the key figures in the origins of symbolism and of great influence on Baudelaire and Europe, was very much aware of the technology of his time. In fact in his famous story of the Maelstrom he insisted that art made possible survival by pattern recognition. In the story of the Maelstrom his sailor — caught in a great whirlpool while out fishing — began to study this vast thing in which he was caught and he noticed that some things disappeared downward and other things reappeared and came up. He attached himself to one of these reappearing objects and survived. This is the allegory that Poe presents to the world of the function of art in society, the function of pattern recognition and the function of anticipating effects with causes.

The Possum and the Midwife, 1978 5
Poe’s “Descent into the Maelstrom” has structurally much in common with the vortices of the Cantos. [Pound’s] “Sargasso Sea” is a vortex that attracts multitudinous objects but which also tosses things up again in recognizable patterns which serve for survival. Survival for Poe’s sailor had meant attaching himself to one of the recurring objects in the whirlpool. The same strategy applies to Pound’s readers who need to be alert to the resonance of recurring themes.

  1. As ‘Editorial Assistant’ at the Sewanee Review, Brinley Rhys filled in as its editor in 1946 after Allen Tate resigned and before John Palmer was appointed as the new editor.
  2. Anticipating Andy Kaufman, who began reading The Great Gatsby on Saturday Night Live in 1978, McLuhan read this entire segment of The Maelstrom in this April 9 1973 lecture (‘Art as Survival in the Electric Age’, Understanding Me, 2003, 207-224, here 211-212). McLuhan had premiered the skit twenty years earlier in his 1954 lecture, Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, when he read an even longer passage from Cesare Zavattini. In 1975 he was still at it: a single quotation from Martin Heidegger took up 10% of his ‘Man and Media’ lecture (Understanding Me, 2003, 278-298, here 289-291). (The lecture is misidentified in Understanding Me as being from 1979 instead of 1975.)
  3. ‘1979’ per Understanding Me. But the date should be 1975.
  4. Lecture at Johns Hopkins University.
  5. ‘The Possum and the Midwife’ was a lecture given in 1978 at the University of Idaho. It was printed there in a brochure with this title. It was then reprinted as ‘Pound, Eliot, and the Rhetoric of The Waste Land’ in New Literary History, 10:3, 1979, 557-580.

Innis to McLuhan February 26, 1951

This letter from Harold Innis to McLuhan is included in an online exhibit (since taken down) of McLuhan and Innis materials mounted by Library and Archives Canada:
Its February 26, 1951 date is important since it throws light on the famous March 14, 1951 letter (Letters 220-223) from McLuhan to Innis which we have only as a ‘rewrite’. Because Innis apologizes for his slow reply to McLuhan’s original note, it may be guessed that that note was sent to Innis either in January 1951 or already late in 1950. 

Feb 26 1951

Dear McLuhan,

Needless to say I was very much interested in your letter and, if you have no objections, I would like in have copies typed for circulation to one or two of our mutual friends.

I would like to see your views elaborated since they seem very important [and] could be used as a basis for general discussion. I was interested in your remarks on Deutsch1 and his views as expressed in your pamphlet.  I would be very pleased if you would put me on your list of people receiving copies of the mimeographed sheet.

I am sorry not to have answered your letter at an earlier date, but I have only recently escaped from the demands of the Royal Commission.

With many thanks,

Yours ever, HAI

  1. The reference is to Karl Deutsch (1912–1992), ‘Higher Education and the Unity of Knowledge‘, presented as a lecture in 1948 at the ninth ‘Symposium of the Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion’ and printed in 1950 in Goals for American Education, A Symposium, ed, L Bryson, L Finkelstein, R.M. MacIver, pp 55-139. McLuhan was apparently sent the off-print by his friend, Sigfried Giedion — an offprint of this same article is to be found in Giedion’s papers in Zurich. (McLuhan and Giedion met in the spring of 1943 in St Louis when Giedion lectured there.) Giedion was a visiting scholar at MIT in 1950, where he was a colleague of Deutsch and Norbert Wiener. (In a October 26, 1951 letter to Giedion, McLuhan records: “Friends of mine gave me great pleasure in reporting some of your lectures at MIT last year.”)  It was probably through the Giedion-MIT connection that McLuhan and Wiener would come to correspond in 1951-52 and Deutsch would write a review of Innis’s Bias of Communication in the Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science in 1952. The topic of Deutsch’s paper, ‘Higher Education and the Unity of Knowledge‘ was, of course, a central interest of McLuhan during his whole career, but particularly in the two decades from 1940 to 1960.

Cleanth Brooks on the Maelstrom

….even if you never wrote another [poem] I should still be in favor of publishing it. It would be the phoenix of modern poetry. (Allen Tate to Cleanth Brooks, September 17, 1944)1

…the poetic process as revealed by Poe and the symbolists was the unexpected and unintentional means of reestablishing the basis of Catholic humanism.
(Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)2

Although nothing is more common in McLuhan research than to suggest Poe’s Descent into the Maelstrom as a, or even the key to his work, there is general ignorance about just when and just how this story came to his particular notice and about the place it was to have in his project.

When McLuhan left Cambridge in 1936 to begin teaching English, first as a graduate assistant at the University of Wisconsin and then in a faculty position at St Louis University, he was a dedicated distributist3 and a follower of the F.R. Leavis-Scrutiny line of the Cambridge English school. Both of these attachments were anchored in his conviction that rigorous thought necessarily enacts (or re-enacts) a bond with the social and cultural tradition.4

Both of these commitments led him to seek out association with the American ‘new critics’. On the one hand, the American distributist movement led by John Rawe, SJ, a colleague of McLuhan at SLU in 1937 (but soon to be assigned elsewhere, apparently on account of a serious illness which would eventually claim his life), had sought common cause with the Agrarians at a combined convention in Nashville in 1936.5 On the other hand, the distinguished southern poets and  so-called ‘new critics’ who participated in the Agrarian movement and who attended this convention (like Donald Davidson, John Crowe RansomCleanth Brooks and Allen Tate) saw themselves as allied with the Cambridge English school and especially (though not without reservations similar to those of McLuhan) with the work of I.A. Richards.6

On both counts, McLuhan sought out intellectual and personal association with the new critics7 and by the middle 1940s was close enough with Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate that he visited them at their homes in Baton Rouge and in Sewanee (Tennessee) in 1945 from Windsor.8  As Brooks recorded to Tate (June 27, 1945):

Marshall McLuhan has written of seeing you and the pleasant time that he had at Sewanee. We were delighted with him here.

The association with Tate, then the editor of Sewanee Review, provided McLuhan with an outlet for the majority of his early publications.  The friendship with Brooks was closer on a personal level and would lead to a very frequent correspondence and an exchange of students between the two in the 1940s and 50s. 

Now Poe held a special place for the new critics in a series of respects. He was a southerner who was yet prized for his modernity by the symbolists in France, particularly by Baudelaire, the translator of Poe’s works into French. (The idea that the tradition could be defended and re-energized by the ultra-modern would, of course, be central to McLuhan following his second conversion after 1950.)  Poe’s high valuation of Coleridge agreed with their own. And Poe’s popular works were prized by them both as imaginative reactions to industrialism and as attempts to reach beyond the literati to the world at large.

It was in this context that McLuhan wrote his essays, ‘Edgar Poe’s Tradition’ (Sewanee Review, 1944)9 and ‘Footsteps in the Sands of Crime’ (Sewanee Review, 1946).10 He had been led to Poe around this time through his work and association with the new critics, and this, in turn, would lead to his engagement with the symbolists and to his reengagement, via the symbolists, with Eliot, Pound and Joyce.

Now just when McLuhan was writing his first essay on Poe, Brooks was writing a poem (not one of his usual occupations)11 on Poe’s Maelstrom:


Cleanth Brooks

“At first I could not make out what he meant — but soon a hideous thought flashed upon me. I dragged my watch from its fob. It was not going. I glanced at its face by the moonlight, and then burst into tears as I flung it far away into the ocean. It had run down at seven o’clock! We were behind the time of the slack, and the whirl of the Strom was in full fury!” — From Poe’s “A Descent into the Maelstrom”

Then when the terror is at its height, you hurl
The useless watch away, fling time away,
Having no more to do with time, and watch
The scudding circles of the empty spray
That are not empty — are competent and clutch
The abandoned rudder, and firm it to their whorl.

Geared to the whirlpool now, destruction’s dial,
The fool can read — the fool that runs, that speeds
On the dial’s hurrying face, knows what’s o’clock,
Himself the second hand, at first hand reads
The timepiece Braille-wise past strained eyes’ denial
Like the scared mouse that climbed inside the clock.

The gleaming funnel into nothing shines
As black as mahogany, as brittle as ice,
Down which the fluid moonlight steadily pours
Past spinning flotsam, past concentric lines
Of ordered wreck, to spill on what far floors
Beneath. You wipe the spindrift from your eyes.

But now, committed to time’s enterprise,
Your boat itself can teach the sought-for poise,
As, neatly tilted to the spinning walls —
Adjusted in an instant to hell’s laws —
It rights itself before your dazzled eyes,
And like a delicate water-fly clings and crawls.

And tranced by the murderous organ-roar, or cleared
By the monstrous centrifuge, the chilling brain
Is hardened to a screen across which run
The pretty patterns: spar, green branch, broached tun,
Smashed dory, orange-crate, each carefully steered
And keeping like a racer, each his lane.

And you, the railbird, loll and eye the track
That’s lightning fast, the field of wreck that’s slow.
You back the rakish derelict to beat
The bluff Dutch brig
And lose! But win the heat,
For your own boat, now on her easiest tack,
Creeps past both downward toward the spume below.

And then you see! Prepare to abandon ship,
Explain to the frantic brother, your clumsy hands
Futilely gesturing physics. But the leap
Asks too much of his mind; the tilting boat
Is the sole formula he understands.
He shouts you down with screams from the mute throat.

But hands keep up their argument until
Your brain, now tingling like the rat’s gray fur
Alive with prescience, hauls them from the craft
Onto the polished water that does not spill
Or foam like water, is darker and thicker far
Than the thinned blood that rides your crazy raft.

But is the expedient desperate enough?
You have abandoned everything but hope
That scuds too fast — that would anticipate
The last gyrations down the nether slope
And after, when the spent vortex shall slough
Its fury off, and like a flower dilate.

Yet hug hope to you like the empty cask
And strictly purge the brain as dry as cork
That it may bob, dry-shod, outside the gates
Of the abyss, may bob, and dip, and lurk
Above the false rainbows of spume that mask
The final gyres of Dante and of Yeats.

Who knows the whirlpool’s season or the hour
That ripens it to peace? Who thinks to catch
Time’s phoenix on her nest? Not even the fool
With the fool’s luck. Yet stare; prepare to watch —
Since nothing’s left but staring — the calm floor
Ascend, the surge become the stagnant pool.12 

Brooks’s poem appeared in the Sewanee Review, volume 54, issue 1, 1946. It was later that same year in volume 54, issue 4 of the Review that McLuhan would first appeal to the Maelstrom in ‘Footsteps in the Sands of Crime’.


  1. Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate Collected Letters 1933-1976, ed Alphonse Vinh, 1998, 114. In 1944 Tate, a longtime close friend of Brooks, was then the new editor of the Sewanee Review.
  2. Reprinted in The Medium and the Light, 1999, 153-174, here 157.
  3. Cf, Letters 27 (October 1934), 37 (November 1934), 43 (December 1934), 46 (December 1934), 48 (December 1934), 62 (February 1935) and 68-69 (May, 1935).
  4. Future posts will detail his thinking as it developed in the 1930s around this conviction, particularly in reference to his encounter with Chesterton.
  5. Cf, Men Astutely Trained: A History of the Jesuits in the American Century, by Peter McDonough, 1992, 518n66: “that year (1936) Rawe had attended a meeting of the Agrarians in Nashville that promoted closer ties between the Americans and the English Distributists. (…) Donald Davidson, Cleanth Brooks, John Crowe Ransom, and Allen Tate were among the Southern luminaries (attending). (…) Rawe and several of the Distributists contributed essays in 1936 to Who Owns America?, edited by Tate and Herbert Agar.”
  6. As late as 1973, Brooks contributed an essay to the IAR Festschrift of that year, I.A. Richards, Essays In His Honor.
  7. Other not unimportant factors were McLuhan’s 1939 marriage to a southern belle, Corinne Lewis from Fort Worth, and his teaching position in St Louis, 1937-1944, a border city with considerable southern sympathy. Further, McLuhan understood that Canada and the south had comparable relations to the north, aka industrial, America.
  8. This trip would have represented a not inconsiderable outlay for McLuhan at this time — a measure of its importance to him. Corinne was pregnant again (their twin girls would be born in October that year) and he was teaching at Assumption which was almost a high school compared to SLU, where McLuhan had been teaching, or LSU, where Brooks was teaching.  Marchand: “Certainly after he arrived (in Windsor) in 1944, McLuhan felt that he was sinking into what he called ‘a little backwater in a stagnant stream’ (the “stagnant stream” being Canada). He discovered that students in his day classes were even more lethargic and dull-witted than the students at St. Louis — a harsh assessment considering that he felt he had not had any good students in his last years at St. Louis. Even the physical setting was unfortunate. His heart must have sank when (in Windsor) he first walked into the old wooden barracks, once used to house R.C.A.F. trainees, warmed by a coal furnace, where he was to teach.” (The Medium and the Messenger, 81)
  9. Sewanee Review 52(1): 24-33, 1944.
  10. Sewanee Review54(4), 617-634, 1946.
  11. In a March 1, 1945 note to Tate, Brooks calls his poem “the first in 15 years”.
  12. ‘Maelstrom’, Cleanth Brooks, Sewanee Review, 54(1), 1946, 116-118. Although written in 1944, Brook’s poem was published only in 1946 due to Tate’s misgivings about it which Brooks seems subsequently to have come to share. See Cleanth Brooks and Allen Tate Collected Letters 1933-1976, 110-118.  The poem is reprinted in the Collected Letters at 265-267.