Autobiography – the experience of the second conversion

McLuhan’s portrait of Tennyson in his  ‘Introduction’ to Alfred Lord Tennyson Selected Poetry is in many respects a self-portrait.1 For example, he says of Tennyson what he himself learned via his exposure to the Maelstrom in the late 1940s:

the way of escape from the dangers of excessive spiritual isolation was through wholehearted participation in the great stream of human experience and endeavor. (‘Introduction’, Tennyson: Selected Poetry, 1955, vii, emphasis added)2  

McLuhan’s description of Tennyson’s “In Memoriam” in this ‘Introduction’ captures one aspect of the ‘second conversion’ he experienced in the late 1940’s as he approached his fortieth birthday:

“In Memoriam” (…) Tennyson himself described (…) as a “Way of the Soul”, which locates it in the company of the literature of spiritual quests — a record of separate moments of growth and illumination, moving from the early astonishment and confusion of grief through a gradual affirmation mediating between pain and acceptance to the finale of peace and joy. (xi-xii, emphasis added)

But “pain” (our own, but especially what we have caused in others) cannot be forgotten or in any way overcome in some “finale of (…) joy”. These are “separate moments”3 such that the pain is not subject to ‘continuous’ improvement or ablation, but is always simultaneously there  — 

in the uncertainty of the interval between the pram and the coffin, between birth and death. (‘Spiral — Man as the Medium’)4

The crucial question concerns the nature of time — is it chronologically (or diachronically) continuous or simultaneously (or synchronically) contrapuntal?

The structural theme of [the film] Spiral presents (…) the synchronique  worlds of birth and death. Spiral is not (…) diachronique or lineal (…) but a synchronique and contrapuntal interplay in a resonating structure (Ibid, 125)

Chronological time yields to time as spaced-out moments of intensity. (Ibid, 127)

The conversion, then, is between “Way[s] of the Soul”5 — one of them aspiring to be “moving (…) from the  (…) confusion of grief through a gradual affirmation  (…) to the finale“, where the confusion and grief would in some way be brought to conclusion; the other of them finding itself already situated “in a resonating structure” that includes confusion and grief and all other human possibilities of perception and emotion — even joy. Even a painful joy.

The “astonishment and confusion of grief” which McLuhan must have experienced as he found he had to give up his fiercely held literary values — values he had melded with his religious persuasion — would in this case need to be cherished, both as having instigated his awareness of this “resonating structure” and as an ineradicable aspect of its fullness. As McLuhan cited Heidegger in his Man and Media’ lecture from 1975, the pain and confusion and grief and joy are all swept up (and down) in a dynamic vortex of

the wordless joy of having once more withstood want, the trembling before the impending childbed and shivering at the surrounding menace of death. (‘Man and Media’, Understanding Me, 278-298, here 291)

So it was, to repeat, that

the way of escape from the dangers of excessive spiritual isolation was through wholehearted participation in the great stream of human experience and endeavor.

This is what McLuhan so often called, following Yeats in 1903, “the emotion of multitude”.6 Or, as ‘Spiral — Man as the Medium’ specified — this “multitude” could be designated simply as ‘man’.

  1. See also Autobiography – the experience of Cambridge.
  2. This ‘Introduction’ was written years earlier than its publication date of 1955, probably in 1951.
  3. “In art as in physics fission preceded fusion.” ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape’,1951.
  4. In Etrog & McLuhan, Images from the Film Spiral, 1987, 125-127.  McLuhan’s piece was written in 1976.
  5. This is a conversion from one way of the soul to another, a conversion whose possibility lies in the fact that both are situated in the labyrinthine spiral of the Maelstrom. “In the interval between time the preserver, and time the destroyer, is the creative interval which constitutes both continuity and arrest…” (‘Spiral — Man as the Medium’, emphasis added).
  6. See Lévi-Strauss on method in anthropology. In a 1970 lecture, ‘Discontinuity and Communication in Literature’, McLuhan read the complete 2-page text of ‘Emotion of Multitude’ by way of saying, ‘Here is the font — consider it well’: “I (Yeats) have been thinking a good deal about plays lately, and I have been wondering why I dislike the clear and logical construction which seems necessary it one is to succeed on the modern stage. It came into my head the other day that this construction, which all the world has learnt from France, has everything of high literature except the emotion of multitude. The Greek drama has got the emotion of the multitude from its chorus, which called up famous sorrows, even all the gods and all heroes, to witness as it were, some well-ordered fable, some action separated but for this from all but itself. The French play delights in the well-ordered fable, but by leaving out the chorus, it has created an art where poetry and imagination, always the children of far-off multitudinous things, must of necessity grow less important than the mere will. This is why, I said to myself, French dramatic poetry is so often a little rhetorical, for rhetoric is the will trying to do the work of the imagination. The Shakespearian drama gets the emotion of multitude out of the sub-plot which copies the main plot, much as a shadow upon the wall copies one’s body in the firelight. We think of KING LEAR less as the history of one man and his sorrows than as the history of a whole evil time. Lear’s shadow is in Gloucester, who also has ungrateful children and the mind goes on imagining other shadows, shadow beyond shadow, till it has pictured the world. In Hamlet, one hardly notices, so subtly is the web woven, that the murder of Hamlet’s father and the sorrow of Hamlet are shadowed in the lives of Fortinbras and Ophelia and Laertes, whose fathers, too, have been killed. It is so in all the plays, or in all but all, and very commonly the subplot is the main plot working itself out in more ordinary men and women and so doubly calling up before us the image of multitude.  Ibsen and Maeterlinck have on the other hand created a new form, for they get multitude from the Wild Duck in the Attic, or from the Crown at the bottom of the Fountain, vague symbols that set the mind wandering from idea to idea, emotion to emotion. Indeed all the great masters have understood that there cannot be great art without the little limited life of the fable, which is always the better the simpler it is, and the rich far-wandering many imaged life of the half-seen world beyond it. There are some who understand that the simple unmysterious things living as in a clear noonlight are of the nature of the sun, and that vague, many-imaged things have in them the strength of the moon. Did not the Egyptian carve it on emerald that all living things have the sun for father and the moon for mother, and has it not been said that a man of genius takes the most after his mother?”