“The main question” in Valéry

In L’Idée Fixe (1932), Paul Valéry observes that

the mind (…) has to be supplied — with disorder! (…) And it takes its disorder where it finds it. Inside itself, outside, everywhere . . . It requires an Order-Disorder difference to function.1

On this view, the crooked timber of human being — the unrivaled source of disorder on the planet (and now beyond it) — may be said to be a prerequisite of mind.  So whereas our 401k nihilists moan about a semantic disorder that threatens to disable the very idea of meaning (or at least their very idea of meaning), in fact disorder and mind are mutually implicating — and are not at all incompatible with meaning.  How have meaning without mind?  And how, asks Valéry, have mind without disorder?

Now McLuhan cited Valéry repeatedly over his career from the 1940s to the 1970s, but especially between 1949 and 1954.2 His friend Allen Tate, whom he visited at home in Sewanee (Tenn) in 1944 and with whom he published many of his early articles in the Sewanee Review, was a leading American champion of Valéry’s work. And Valéry was often discussed by T.S. Eliot, of course, whom McLuhan began studying in Cambridge (if not before) and then intensively read in the late forties with Hugh Kenner when the two were working on a book on Eliot together.

Another source of McLuhan’s interest in Valéry may have been S.I Hayakawa. Hayakawa was from Winnipeg3 and graduated with a BA in English from the University of Manitoba, six years before McLuhan.  He then preceded McLuhan at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, graduating with his PhD in 1935 — the year before McLuhan arrived. During McLuhan’s one year in Madison, Hayakawa was back in Canada and visiting his parents in Japan, so it is unlikely they ever met at UW (although Hayawaka returned to Wisconsin in 1937 to marry and to teach for the university).  But even if they didn’t meet at UW, McLuhan would certainly have heard in the English department of someone from Canada, indeed from Winnipeg, who had just completed his PhD and had published an interesting article on one of McLuhan’s main interests, T.S. Eliot.4 Later, in the early 1940’s, it may have been Hayakawa who called McLuhan’s attention to Korzybski’s ‘general semantics’ via his popular book, Language in Action (1941).5 Then, in 1943, Hayakawa founded (and edited for decades) a journal for general semantics, ETC, whose fall number for 1948 featured the abbreviated translation of L’Idée Fixe cited above.

  1. Translated by Eleanor Wolff. Her abbreviated translation of L’Idée Fixe appeared originally in Meja, Number Two (Autumn 1946), edited by Herbert Steiner. It was reprinted in ETC, ed Hayakawa, 6:1, 1948.
  2. McLuhan mentions Valéry in all of: Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum (1949), T.S. Eliot (1950), Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry (1951), Review of Ruskin and the Landscape Feeling (1952), Network No 2 (1953), James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial (1953), Poetry and Society (1954), Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters (1954) and Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press (1954). In the last essay, McLuhan cites a passage from Valéry which might be thought to characterize his (McLuhan’s) career: “Chacun dit son nom. . . . O langage confus, langage qui t’agites, je veux foudre toutes tes voix / Cent mille feuilles mues font ce que le reveur murmure aux puissances du songe.” (Dialogue de I’Arbre)
  3. Like McLuhan, Hayakawa was born in the far west (in his case, in Vancouver) and moved with his family to Winnipeg when he was in primary school.
  4. S.I. Hayakawa, ‘Mr Eliot’s Auto da Fe’, Sewanee Review, 42: 3 (1934), 365-371.
  5. Hayakawa’s book became an academic sensation when it was selected for the Book of the Month Club. McLuhan would certainly have heard of it and thought it fully compatible with his view of the social function of criticism. Further, he would have been intrigued by the authors cited at the start of the book as having contributed to its stance — including William Empson, Ezra Pound, C. K. Ogden, I. A. Richards and Q.D. Leavis, all of whom were intensely studied by McLuhan and sometimes known to him personally from Cambridge. (Hayakawa’s acknowledgements included Thurman Arnold’s 1937 The Folklore of Capitalism and may thereby have suggested the subtitle of The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man.) Hayakawa concluded his credits as follows: “My greatest indebtedness, however, is to Alfred Korzybski. Without his system of General Semantics, it appears to me difficult if not impossible to systematize and make usable the array of linguistic information, much of it new, now available from all quarters, scientific, philosophical, and literary.” McLuhan repeatedly referred positively to Korzybski in this early 1940s period, including in his PhD thesis and his 1944 programmatic essay ‘Rhetorical Exegesis: The Case for Leavis against Richards and Empson’.