W.O. Mitchell and the quest to “embody insight”

W.O Mitchell (1914–1998) was at the University of Manitoba, a couple years behind McLuhan, from 1931 to 1934.  The two published together in the short-lived UM literary review ‘toba1 and certainly knew each other at the time.2 Later, Mitchell became one of the few Canadians in McLuhan’s generation whose fame as a writer and observer of the social scene rivaled his, at least in Canada.

Mitchell characterized his writing method as follows:

There is a special kind of truth that is the writer’s truth. It is not so much so much a scientific truth or an economic truth, a sociological or a political one, as it is a human truth. There are actually certain of these human truths which can be communicated in no other way than through the creation of characters, their conflict and their success or failure, because only after the reader has identified himself with them can he receive the particular truths to be communicated. . . . The artist must manipulate the characters, their sights, sounds, tastes, feelings, wonderings, hopes, disappointments in such a way that they embody insight into [particular sorts of] order and significance.3

Elsie McLuhan could easily have maintained the exact same position with the change of only a few words:

There is a special kind of truth that is the elocutionist’s truth.  It is not so much so much a scientific truth or an economic truth, a sociological or a political one, as it is a human truth. There are actually certain of these human truths which can be communicated in no other way than through the creation of characters, their conflict and their success or failure, because only after the listener has identified himself with them can he receive the particular truths to be communicated. . . . The performer must manipulate the characters, their sights, sounds, tastes, feelings, wonderings, hopes, disappointments in such a way that they embody insight into [particular sorts of] order and significance.

Elsie in particular, and by extension all artists in general, supplied McLuhan with what he called in ‘Canadian Poetry’ (1965) “equations for inner mental states”.  The idea (termed by McLuhan “the drama of cognition itself”) is that any mental state results from a (usually unconscious) selection of one “adequation of mind and things”, one “adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world”, from among the rainbow array of them available to us simply  as human beings — an array exposed and illuminated in modern times by literary criticism, anthropology, linguistics, psychology, sociology, etc, as well as by exploration, world commerce and entertainment).4

In an analogous way, language may be conceived as the selection of certain sounds and certain grammatical forms from the array of all possible sounds and forms. In neither case does this ‘action’ take place consciously or in linear clocktime or as performed by an identifiable ‘manager’.  Still, it is natural to humans not only to put onmental states”, but also to take them off and to try on others. This is what happens when a child first learns to speak and what happens continually throughout life (such that McLuhan calls the action “endless”5). But only artists take up (and down) this somersault action as a vocation and only some of them realize what they are up (and down) to.

Everything depends, for McLuhan, on our learning, at last, what it means to be a human being as a maker of culture and value through “the endless adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world”.  But this does not at all mean that humans do this ex nihilo, like little gods (as Nietzsche definitively demonstrated and as Beckett reiterated). Instead, as can be seen only when “the endless adjustment” is at last itself adjusted to reveal what is to be revealed, the possibility and conditions of such making are given.

It is the uttermost gift of this giving that it itself may be overlooked and for the most part is overlooked — “true strength is that strength which, mobile as it is hidden, concentrates on the work without being outwardly visible6. But it is equally an aspect of its uttering-outering that it may be seen!

Lps. The keys to. Given! (FW 628.15)

The giving is like a true kiss/kees7/keys in which there is no ‘I’, so the kiss/keys is given by ‘Lps’ which lack an ‘i’. The absence of the ‘I’ in the kiss/keys of giving is what enables it to express itself “without being outwardly visible”; but also, exactly because this loosing has no ‘I’ and therefore no withholding, this is just as much what enables it to express itself also as “outwardly visible“!

Since this invisible visibility or visible invisibility is “true strength“, it stamps all being with its form.  So it is that humans spend half of life in the “nightworld” of sleep “abced” to themselves; and even when they are supposedly awake they are under-going “the endless adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world” by taking the labyrinthine way to and among the diverse possibilities sleeping in their soul.  

It is a nightworld and, literally, as Joyce reiterates, is “abcedminded”.8

McLuhan was given a model of this synchronic up/down9 action of the human soul first of all by his mother, Elsie. What she presented on the stage, as “a one woman theater” who “played all the parts”, he came to see as what everybody does all the time. Through a series of mentors — Rupert Lodge, I.A. Richards, Wyndham Lewis, Étienne Gilson, Sigfried Giedion, T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, Harold Innis, and James Joyce — he was introduced to ways along which he, practicing this same action himself, sought to articulate it for himself and for others.

  1. McLuhan published in the first two issues of ‘toba in late 1933 and early 1934 (1:1 and 1:2); Mitchell published in these same two issues plus the next one (1:3) later in the spring of 1934. All of Mitchell’s pieces (together comprising ‘Panacea for Panhandlers’) reported on his summer trip to Europe in 1933, while one of McLuhan’s (‘A Grand Tour for $300‘) described his trip to England with Tom Easterbrook in 1932. So McLuhan and Mitchell appeared together in the same issue of ‘toba twice, and in one of these wrote on the same topic.  McLuhan’s other piece in ‘toba was ‘Heavens Above‘.
  2. Mitchell worked in Toronto from 1948 until 1951 (at a time when both he and McLuhan were doing side-work for the CBC) and was later a writer in residence in the English department at the University of Toronto for 6 months in 1973-1974.  Indeed, he was very often in Toronto working for the CBC and for Maclean’s, accepting awards, and giving speeches and lectures. McLuhan must have known about Mitchell’s frequent presence in Toronto, especially (of course) when Mitchell worked in the UT English department. Just as Mitchell must have known of McLuhan’s presence in the department. But there does not seem to be any record of their meeting there. Perhaps McLuhan didn’t know that W.O. Mitchell was the Billy Mitchell he knew from Winnipeg. Or, more likely, there may have been some kind of issue between the two. For one thing, both required most of the oxygen in a room and may not have been able to breathe satisfactorily in the presence of the other.
  3. ‘Grace and Illusion’, in The English Teacher 3.2, June 1963, cited in The Life of W.O Mitchell 1, 1914-1947, Mitchell and Mitchell, 1999, 315.
  4. All quotations in this sentence are taken from James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953.
  5. Ibid.
  6. I Ching, cited by McLuhan, Take Today 22.
  7. ‘Kees’ is the pronunciation of ‘kiss’ in much of Ireland and Scotland.
  8.  James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953.
  9. Heraclitus, ὁδὸς ἄνω κάτω DK B60. This fragment is one of the epigrams for Eliot’s Four Quartets.