Monthly Archives: October 2016

Parry and Lord in McLuhan

There are many reasons to think that Eric Havelock had crucial influence on McLuhan long before the publication of Havelock’s Preface to Plato in 1963:

  • Havelock’s orality research was well known at Toronto when McLuhan arrived in 1946.1
  • By 1947 at the latest the same was true at Harvard (after Havelock’s guest lectureship there in the 1946-1947 academic year and his joining the faculty in 1947). In the fall of that year I.A. Richards, McLuhan’s old professor from Cambridge and at Harvard since 1939, described Havelock’s orality research in a BBC talk. A transcript appeared in the BBC Listener and McLuhan may well have seen it since news of it must have been abroad at UT among Havelock’s many friends and former colleagues there.2
  • In 1946-1947 Havelock published Virgil’s Road to Xanadu in three parts in the new UT journal Phoenix.  This essay details a view of poetic composition that McLuhan would explore in depth over the next decade and that led him to his central findings (a relativity theory of human experience and the roll of co-variable senses in demarcating different types of experience within that theory).3
  • Havelock and McLuhan appeared in the same issue of UTQ in 1948 where Havelock’s review specifically raised the question of oral vs literate composition.4
  • McLuhan’s 1954 lecture, ‘Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry’, mentions Havelock’s 1951 Crucifixion book: “Today many thoughtful people are torn between the claims of time and space, and speak even of The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man as he is mentally torn in these opposite directions.”5

Aside from these markers in which Havelock is explicitly involved, it may be that McLuhan’s references to the work of Milman Parry and Albert Lord point in the same direction.6 For aside from a  footnote to an obscure paper from Parry7 in Innis’ Empire and Communications (itself doubtless owing to Havelock), Havelock would seem to have been the source of the immense importance attributed by McLuhan to the work of Parry and Lord on oral composition and performance.

In fact, McLuhan begins The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962) by situating it in relation to Parry (who died in 1935, age only 33) and Lord (who was a colleague of Havelock at Harvard during Havelock’s time there from 1946 to 1961).  His ‘Prologue’ begins:

The present volume is in many respects complementary to The Singer of Tales [1960] by Albert B. Lord. Professor Lord has continued the work of Milman Parry, whose Homeric studies had led him to consider how oral and written poetry naturally followed diverse patterns and functions. Convinced that the poems of Homer were oral compositions, Parry “set himself the task of proving incontrovertibly if it were possible, the oral character of the poems, and to that end he turned to the study of the Yugoslav epics.” His study of these modern epics was, he explained, “to fix with exactness the form of oral story poetry … Its method was to observe singers working in a thriving tradition of unlettered song and see how the form of their songs hangs upon their having to learn and practice their art without reading and writing.” [The Singer of Tales, p. 3] Professor Lord’s book, like the studies of Milman Parry, is quite natural and appropriate to our electric age, as The Gutenberg Galaxy may help to explain. (…) The enterprise which Milman Parry undertook with reference to the contrasted forms of oral and written poetry is here extended to the forms of thought and the organization of experience in society and politics. That such a study of the divergent nature of oral and written social organization has not been carried out by historians long ago is rather hard to explain. Perhaps the reason for the omission is simply that the job could only be done when the two conflicting forms of written and oral experience were once again co-existent as they are today. Professor Harry Levin8 indicates as much in his preface to Professor Lord’s The Singer of Tales (p. xiii): “The term ‘literature’, presupposing the use of letters, assumes that verbal works of imagination are transmitted by means of writing and reading. The expression ‘oral literature’ is obviously a contradiction in terms. Yet we live at a time when literacy itself has become so diluted that it can scarcely be invoked as an esthetic criterion. The Word as spoken or sung, together with a visual image of the speaker or singer, has meanwhile been regaining its hold through electrical engineering. A culture based upon the printed book, which has prevailed from the Renaissance until lately, has bequeathed to us — along with its immeasurable riches — snobberies which ought to be cast aside. We ought to take a fresh look at tradition, considered not as the inert acceptance of a fossilized corpus of themes and conventions, but as an organic habit of re-creating what has been received and is handed on.” (…) Such a reverse perspective of the literate Western world is the one afforded to the reader of Albert Lord’s Singer of Tales. But we also live in an electric or post-literate time when the jazz musician uses all the techniques of oral poetry. Empathic identification with all the oral modes is not difficult in our century. (…) The work of Milman Parry and Professor Albert Lord was directed to observing the entire poetic process under oral conditions, and in contrasting that result with the poetic process which we under written conditions, assume as “normal.” Parry and Lord, that is, studied the poetic organism  [before]9 the auditory function was suppressed by literacy. They might also have considered the [contrasting] effect on the organism when the visual function of language was given extraordinary extension and power by literacy. (The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1-2, 3)

After the 1963 appearance of Preface to Plato, McLuhan continued to cite the work of Parry and Lord, usually along with Havelock, as follows:

The invention of script provided a technology that created extensive new environments. The content of script was at first the oral tradition of poetry and wisdom. Just how the content of script was affected by the new medium of writing is a story that has been told by Albert Lord in his Singer of Tales and by Eric Havelock in his Preface to Plato. The new technology, in creating new environment for the old technology, maximizes change. Yet the environmental is also the unnoticeable. We seem to be least conscious of the most archetypal technologies. (New Media and the Arts, 1964)

Eric Havelock in Preface to Plato (…) explains the relation of Homer to the “tribal encyclopedia”. In presenting the bard as the traditional educator of Greeks, Havelock indicates that poetic performance was a kind of group ritual that involved the public like any jazz or rock festival. As Parry and Lord have indicated in The Singer of Tales, in an oral culture performance is also composition. Havelock devotes much of his book to explaining the effect of the phonetic alphabet on the Greek sensibilities and culture, pointing to the rise of self awareness and identity as an immediate result of this unique form of codifying experience. What especially needs to be noted about the phonetic alphabet in our time is its power to impose its assumptions on wide fields of operation and experience. (Reading and the Future of Private Identity, 1973)

The source of inspiration and the group who are to be helped or enlightened are one and the same in an oral culture. We are all familiar with the work called The Singer of Tales, about the conditions of oral composition in the Yugoslav epic. Parry and Lord, the authors of this book, studied the conditions of oral composition, those of Homer but also those of the modern jazz musician. Even in the popular art of jazz, the public is the immediate participant in the composition. There is no written score; there is a vast store of formulas which are used according to the needs of the moment and the particular occasion. Improvision is the mode of composition. It is only by improvising that the public can participate in Art, in the creative activity of Art. This event, as big an upheaval in human affairs as ever occurred, puts the Third World directly in the centre of the picture as the kind of world we are now beginning to share everywhere, the kind of world we need to understand in order to understand ourselves. I think we should concentrate on that theme: Third World as centre of the picture, because it is now also the First World, since we are systematically transforming the First World into another Third World by our own electronic technologies. If we keep that in mind we can then turn to the Third World for enlightenment, just as Parry and Lord turn to Yugoslavia for enlightenment on the Homeric Epic. They discovered that they performed exactly the same way our jazz musicians perform. (UNESCO statement, 1976)


  1. See here for further discussion.
  2. See here for further discussion.
  3. See here for further discussion.
  4. See here for further discussion.
  5. See here for further discussion.
  6. McLuhan could not have seen Lord’s 1960 book until he was in the last year of his construction of The Gutenberg Galaxy, which had been underway since 1952 and was finally completed in 1961. The importance attributed to The Singer of Tales, to the extent of beginning GG with a discussion of it, must have derived from some other source. That other source was Havelock.
  7. Empire and Communications, 72 n89: “Milman Parry, ‘The Homeric Gloss: a Study in Word Sense’ (Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, lix, 1928, pp. 233 ff”).
  8. Levin was a colleague of Richards, Lord and Havelock at Harvard.  His work on Joyce (especially his 1941 James Joyce: A Critical Introduction) was frequently cited by McLuhan.
  9. McLuhan has ‘when’ here which confuses his point.

The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land

In 1949 Eric Havelock gave a lecture at the annual meeting of the Classical Association of New England, ‘The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land’.1 He repeated it at Vassar in that same year as recorded in an announcement for a later (1952) lecture there:

His lecture here in 1949 on Aeneas’ Journey through the Waste Land, one of the most memorable ever presented at Vassar, traced the parallelism between T. S. Eliot’s poem and the quest of Virgil’s Aeneas. (Vassar Chronicle, Volume IX, Number 25, 10 May 1952, p 1)2

That the 1949 lecture on ‘The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land’ was indeed “memorial” is amply demonstrated by this announcement for another lecture three years later. But Havelock never published it and ongoing attempts to locate it in the Eric Havelock papers at Yale have proved unsuccessful. However, Havelock did publish ‘The Aeneid and Its Translators‘ in The Hudson Review in 1974 and there are convincing reasons to suppose that Havelock used his earlier ‘Journey through the Waste Land’ lecture in composing it.

Havelock’s abstract of the 1949 lecture has been preserved in the Annual Bulletin of the Classical Association of New England (#44, 1949, p 17-18):

The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land
The Aeneid has been estimated as the work of a semi-official poet-laureate celebrating Rome’s history and destiny, as these are prefigured in the career of its hero, To counterbalance its official optimism, critics have thought they discerned a mysterious sadness lingering in the poem, and bordering on the sentimental. The tenor of the first book in particular, with its confident prophecies and lacrimae rerum, lends superficial support to this estimate. But in fact the poetic equation is more complicated. (a) The smooth and dignified surface of the theme is continually violated by the upthrust of something emotionally uncontrolled and violent, an internal disturbance of the poetic consciousness which almost cancels the poem’s basic faith in heaven, history, and man. (b) The narrative epic of action is in part an illusion, devised to put on parade a series of states of the inner consciousness. The poem is to some degree a dream, or more correctly a nightmare. These contradictions are conspicuous in the second, fourth, and sixth books, though not peculiar to them. The Aeneid is a work of divided genius. 

This abstract and the 1974 essay correspond closely. For one thing, Eliot’s 1922 Waste Land which appears in the title of the 1949 lecture has a significant role, or roles, in ‘The Aeneid and Its Translators’. It is specifically cited in a passage which may be taken as suggesting that ‘the rise and fall of cities’ is a central topic of Virgil’s epic:

The city that at once confronts us in the twelfth line of the poem is Carthage — urbs antiqua fuit (I, 12) — which, as [Aeneas] abandons it in the conclusion of the Dido episode, is prefigured as a city overwhelmed and set on fire by its enemies (IV, 669-671; V, 3-5). The second is Troy which collapses in ashes  — urbs antiqua ruit, multos dominata per annos; the formula varies, the theme is constant, and when he adds “for many years mistress of the world,” he could be talking of Rome herself. He carries both these cities of destruction with him into Italy. As the last battle of the epic rises to its climax, he summons his forces to destroy utterly the capital of the Latins. The city is set on fire (XII, 572-611) and its ultimate fate is, in the poem, left unresolved. Yet these are the people with whom he is supposed to unite his Trojans in a peaceful union in order to achieve a common destiny.
What is the city over the mountains
Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air
Falling towers
Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria
Vienna, London

In short, as Havelock continues this passage in the 1974 essay, “The Waste Land can furnish better comment on the Aeneid than is found in Mr. Eliot’s essays on the same subject.”

The sort of “better comment” furnished by The Waste Land is captured in this paragraph of Havelock’s essay:

The world which [Virgil] reports is already old and its inhabitants are living in a time of trouble. His Latin deserves to be read with an attention close enough to recapture for this generation a view of reality imprisoned in his verse which is more complex and also more contemporary than at first appears. If, in the contradictions of his tale, success is so often flawed by doubt and security so often undercut by hate, terror or despair, this need not surprise us. We encounter an experience closer, I dare say, to our own ambiguous image of ourselves in this the second half of the twentieth century than we are likely to discover in the clearer light and simpler affirmations of the Homeric saga. When Homer lived and sang, the world was younger and the gods still walked the earth with men.

Compare the 1949 abstract:

the poetic equation is (…) complicated. (a) The smooth and dignified surface of the theme is continually violated by the upthrust of something emotionally uncontrolled and violent, an internal disturbance of the poetic consciousness which almost cancels the poem’s basic faith in heaven, history, and man. (b) The narrative epic of action is in part an illusion, devised to put on parade a series of states of the inner consciousness. The poem is to some degree a dream, or more correctly a nightmare.

It is not so much in content, however, but in poetic technique where Havelock (himself a published poet) finds “better comment” on Virgil in The Waste Land:

the particular critical error to which this essay has tried to call attention lies in the field of poetics. It has consisted in an initial misjudgment of the style of the Virgilian verse and therefore of the canons to which its translation should respond. These have been set by the notion that the theme of the poem is historical and that its content is a narrative of epic action. (…) A preconception of epic continuity has prevailed to smooth over an arresting heaviness of rhythm, employed by Virgil to mark an abrupt descent of the mind to a level below previously expressed experience. (…) My present purpose is addressed to the way in which the psychological dimension is so often inserted into the poem discontinuously by way of that kind of interruption which has the effect of reversing or cancelling with poetic rudeness a mood of security and relaxation, or of confidence and hope, into which the reader has been seduced, as it were, by previous description.  (…) A calm surface previously prepared is suddenly and deliberately disrupted by the upthrust of an experience which is psychological. The shift, that is to say, from bright light to the colors of gloom, is also a shift from the description of events occurring in the external world, the world of action and movement and consciously articulated speech, to the internal world of the human consciousness. A change in levels of poetic description has occurred. The poet’s verse has taken a plunge downward below the surface of the conscious life. (…) Not action, but reflection, and not sinuous sweep, but interruption and arrest, constitute the genius of the lines.4

It may be significant that in 1973, the year before ‘The Aeneid and Its Translators’ appeared, Havelock published ‘The Sophistication of Homer’ in a Festschrift for I.A. Richards. This 1973 essay was originally a lecture given at UT in 1946. ‘The Aeneid and Its Translators’ seems to have had a similar history.  For one reason or another, Havelock, then in his seventies, may have been putting his affairs in order at this time. Publication of these two lectures from the 1940s may have been on his bucket list.

It is not (yet) known exactly to what extent Havelock used ‘The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land’ in composing ‘The Aeneid and Its Translators’. Nor is it known if McLuhan had access to Havelock’s 1949 lecture (and his 1946 one?) in some way. But what is clear, despite these admitted unknowns, are the many striking parallels between Havelock’s 1973 and 1974 essays and McLuhan’s publications 25 years earlier around 1950. Now either these originated independently or one was dependent on the other. In turn, if there were dependence, it must have been McLuhan on Havelock, and not vice versa, since the points at stake appear suddenly in McLuhan’s work at this time, but have roots in Havelock’s work going back at least to his 1939 Lyric Genius of Catullus. Finally, if McLuhan’s essays around 1950 grew out of Havelock’s poetics, they of course did not do so out of work that was to be published only far in the future. The hypothetical conclusion follows that McLuhan came to know one or both of Havelock’s 1946 and 1949 lectures, ‘The Sophistication of Homer’ and ‘The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land’, soon after they were  delivered.  And that they then had truly decisive influence on his thought.

Future posts will need to consider in detail how Havelock’s poetics were put to use in McLuhan’s developing project.  Only an overview can be offered here:

  • In 1949 McLuhan and Hugh Kenner were working together on a projected Eliot book. McLuhan published an article (‘Mr Eliot’s Historical Decorum’, 1949) and a review of eleven books on Eliot (1950) in this period.
  • In his correspondence, particularly with Ezra Pound, McLuhan would record his on-going research into Virgil and especially the figure of the labyrinth, or labyrinths, in the Aeneid. Concerns with Eliot and the labyrinthine were not new to McLuhan at this time, of course, but this existing interest would surely have attracted him to Havelock’s 1949 Aeneas essay and supplied the seedbed for its fertility within his work.
  • Even at the level of vocabulary, Havelock’s influence seems clear. In ‘The Aeneid and Its Translators’ he writes of Virgil’s poetics in terms of  ‘arrest’, ‘reversal’, ‘interruption’, ‘discontinuity’ and ‘disruption’ — all terms McLuhan would start to employ around 1950 in describing what he called ‘the aesthetic moment’ (leading, later, to ‘the gap where the action is’). 
  • Havelock introduces his main concern as follows: “My present purpose is addressed to the way in which the psychological dimension is so often inserted into the poem discontinuously by way of that kind of interruption which has the effect of reversing or cancelling with poetic rudeness a mood of security and relaxation, or of confidence and hope, into which the reader has been seduced, as it were, by previous description.”  This “psychological dimension” is called “an exposure of his own consciousness, his animus” and represents “a shift from the description of events occurring in the external world, the world of action and movement and consciously articulated speech, to the internal world of the human consciousness.” McLuhan would appeal to such an “interior landscape” for the rest of his life (to the extent of giving the collection of his literary essays this title in 1969) and would find in its elaboration the distinctive movement of modern art and, indeed, science.
  • “Description of events occurring in the external world, the world of action and movement and consciously articulated speech” may be called ‘epic’ and epic in this sense contrasted with “the internal world of the human consciousness”. So: “A preconception of epic continuity has prevailed to smooth over an arresting heaviness of rhythm, employed by Virgil to mark an abrupt descent of the mind to a level below previously expressed experience,” Again: “These words emerge from his inner consciousness, not from the external requirements of the epic narrative.” By denying the “preconception of epic continuity” Havelock was denying its unbroken singularity and affirming its divided plurality. Instead of epic singular, then, epics plural.  But epics plural are necessarily smaller than epic singular and may therefore be called ‘little epic’ or ‘epyllion’ or ‘epiclet’ (Joyce5). As Marchand and others have described, McLuhan became fascinated by this topic of the epyllion around this time and remained so for decades.
  • Havelock writes that “not action, but reflection, and not sinuous sweep, but interruption and arrest, constitute the genius of [Virgil’s] lines.” They thereby represent “a shift from the description of events occurring in the external world, the world of action and movement and consciously articulated speech, to the internal world of the human consciousness.” A plurality of worlds is at stake here, then, as well as a plurality of times within and between these worlds. Hence, as McLuhan has it in The Gutenberg Galaxy (citing Georges Poulet): “For the man of the Middle Ages, then, there was not one duration only. There were durations, ranked one above another, and not only in the universality of the exterior world but within himself, in his own nature, in his own human existence” (14; also Through the Vanishing Point, 9). And now today in the “electric era”, superseding the Gutenberg galaxy, once again “plurality-of-times succeeds uniformity-of-time.” (Understanding Media, 152)  McLuhan was still trying to think through the implications of this plurality when he died in 1980.  It is broached repeatedly in the notes used for the posthumous Global Village.

In his 1951 essay ‘Dos Passos: Technique vs. Sensibility’, McLuhan noted the demand placed on the artist:  

to explore the interior landscape which is the wasteland of the human heart6 

And in another 1951 essay he described this demand in relation to Eliot at some length:

The principal innovation was that of le paysage interieur or the psychological landscape. This landscape, by means of discontinuity, which was first developed in picturesque painting, effected the apposition of widely diverse objects as a means of establishing what Mr. Eliot has called ‘an objective correlative’ for a state of mind. The openings of ‘Prufrock’, ‘Gerontion’ and The Waste Land illustrate Mr. Eliot’s growth in the adaptation of this technique, as he passed from the influence of Laforgue to that of Rimbaud, from personal to impersonal manipulation of experience. Whereas in external landscape diverse things lie side by side, so in psychological landscape the juxtaposition of various things and experiences becomes a precise musical means of orchestrating that which could never be rendered by systematic discourse. Landscape is the means of presenting, without the copula of logical enunciation, experiences which are united in existence but not in conceptual thought. (Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry)

  1. See here under ‘3/18-19/1949’.
  2. The full announcement reads: “Harvard Faculty’s Prof Havelock Will Discuss The Trial of SocratesWhy Was Socrates Tried?  Professor E. A. Havelock of Harvard University will examine one of the fundamental problems in the development of Western humanism in his lecture next Tuesday evening (May 13, 1952) at 8:30 in Taylor. Professor Havelock, who is speaking under the auspices of the Department of Classics, will use part of the material from his courses on “The Estate of Man” as conceived by the poets and thinkers of classical antiquity. After his lecture, which is open to the public, the Classical Society will entertain in his honor. Before joining the Harvard Faculty, Professor Havelock. who was educated at Cambridge University, taught at the University of Toronto, where Dean Tait (Marion Tate, born in Saskatoon) studied with him. His lecture here in 1949 on Aeneas’ Journey through the Waste Land, one of the most memorable ever presented at Vassar, traced the parallelism between T. S. Eliot’s poem and the quest of Virgil’s Aeneas. Professor Havelock has published two interpretations of classical literature: The Lyric Genius of Catullus and The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man, a study of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. Both books incorporate Professor Havelock’s verse translations of the originals. His forthcoming book is Socrates and the Soul of Man. an examination of a subject in which he has long been interested.” Havelock’s 1952 Vassar lecture Why Was Socrates Tried? was published that same year in the Festschrift for his friend and former colleague at UT, Gilbert Norwood (Studies in Honour of Gilbert Norwood, ed Mary E. White, 1952).
  3. The Waste Land, v. What the Thunder Said
  4. The Aeneid and Its Translators‘, The Hudson Review, 27:3 (Autumn, 1974), pp. 338-370; the text blocks given here are verbatum, but they have been reordered.
  5. In a letter to Constantine Curran from July 1904: “I am writing a series of epiclets — ten — for a paper. I have written one. I call the series Dubliners to betray the soul of that hemiplegia or paralysis which many consider a city.” This term has been a matter of some controversy in Joyce research owing to the fact that it was mistranscribed as ‘epicleti‘ in his Letters and has been taken as an allusion to Gk epiklesis — which, among other meanings, is the evocation of the Holy Spirit in the liturgy of sacrifice in the mass. But surely there is no need to see an either/or at work here — Joyce’s genius worked exactly through such multi-lingual puns.
  6. The  Interior Landscape, 53, emphasis added.


Just as he does with the “vacuum”, McLuhan takes “abcedmindedness” in two different ways, one seemingly only negative, reflecting literal (ABC…) thought, the other a difficult positive, enabling complex insight into “the gestures of being itself”.  But where he treats the “vacuum” first in negative (empty) fashion, then in positive (replete), here the order is reversed to treat “abcedmindedness” first in its positive aspect (“to be abced-minded is to be part of the dream of history that is Finnegans Wake“), then in its negative one (“just alphabetically controlled”). As with the “vacuum”, the great question is, of course, the relation between these two senses of the term.

Whereas the ethical world of Ulysses is presented in terms of well-defined human types the more metaphysical world of the Wake speaks and moves before us with the gestures of being itself. It is a nightworld and, literally, as Joyce reiterates, is “abcedminded.” Letters (“every letter is a godsend”), the frozen, formalized gestures of remote ages of collective experience, move before us in solemn morrice1 [dance]. They are the representatives of age-old adequation of mind and things, enacting the drama of the endless adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world. The drama of cognition itself. (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953)2

Throughout Finnegans Wake Joyce plays some of his major variations on his theme of “abcedmindedness” in “those pagan ironed times of the first city . . . when a frond was a friend.” His “verbivocovisual” presentation of an “all nights newsery reel” is the first dramatization of the very media of communication as both form and vehicle of the flux of human cultures. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press, 1954)

Throughout Finnegans Wake Joyce sends telegraph messages to the “abced-minded.” That is, to the sleepers locked up in what he calls the nightmare of history, he tries to get through by a sort of telegraphic seance method. But, paradoxically, the abced-minded are the literate. Just as speech is a sort of staccato stutter or static in the flow of thought, letters are a form of static of oral speech. And letters, requiring as they do translation into inner speech, set up a complex group of mechanical operations between eye and ear which cause physical withdrawal. So to be abced-minded is to be part of the dream of history that is Finnegans Wake. (‘Radio and Television vs. The ABCED-Minded’, Explorations 5, 1955)

In From Script to Print, H.J. Chaytor suggests that with writing comes inner speech or the dialogue with oneself. This would seem to be the result of the action of translating the verbal into the visual (writing) and of translating the visual into the verbal (reading). This is an extremely complex process for which we pay a heavy psychic and social price — the price, as James Joyce put it, of ABCED-mindedness. Literate man experiences an inner psychic withdrawal from his external senses which gives him a heavy psychic and social limp. But the rewards are very rich. (Historical Approach to the Media, 1955; also in Counterblast, 1969, 117)

The phonetic alphabet and all its derivatives stress a one-thing-at-a-time analytic awareness in perception. This intensity of analysis is achieved at the price of forcing all else in the field of perception into the subliminal. For 2500 years we have lived in what Joyce called “ABCED-mindedness.” We win, as a result of this fragmenting of the field of perception and the breaking of movement into static bits, a power of applied knowledge and technology unrivaled in human history. The price we pay is existing personally and socially in a state of almost total subliminal awareness. In the present age of all-at-onceness, we have discovered that it is impossible — personally, collectively, technologically — to live with the subliminal. Paradoxically, at this moment in our culture, we meet once more preliterate man. For him there was no subliminal factor in experience; his mythic forms of explanation explicated all levels of any situation at the same time. (‘Introduction’ to Explorations in Communication, 1960)

everywhere in Finnegans Wake Joyce reiterates the theme of the effects of the alphabet on “abced-minded man,” ever “whispering his ho (here keen again and begin again to make sound sense and sense sound kin again)” and urges all to “harmonize your abecedeed responses”. (Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962, 152)

It would be difficult to exaggerate the bond between print and movie in terms of their power to generate fantasy in the viewer or reader. Cervantes devoted his Don Quixote entirely to this aspect of the printed word and its power to create what James Joyce throughout Finnegans Wake designates as “the ABCED-minded,” which can be taken as “ab-said” or “ab-sent,” or just alphabetically controlled. (Understanding Media, 1964, 285)

“(Stoop) if you are abcedminded … in this allaphbed!” (FW 18) (War and Peace in the Global Village, 1968, 92).

In the sixteenth century religion went inward and private with Gutenberg hardware. Liturgy collapsed. Bureaucracy boomed. Today liturgy returns. Bureaucracy fades. The present electric ESP age of multiple interfaces finds no problem in metamorphosis or transubstantiation such as baffled abced–minded culture of the sixteenth century and after. (Culture is our Business, 1970, 82)



  1. For “move before us in solemn morrice” compare Ulysses 2.155: “the symbols moved in grave morrice”.
  2. McLuhan was Don Theall’s adviser for his 1954 PhD thesis, ‘Communication Theories In Modern Poetry: Yeats, Pound, Eliot, And Joyce’. The remove necessary to investigate the nightworld is treated by Theall as follows: “The reader is continually reminded that he must be ‘abced-minded’ in reading the Wake, for it is through the individual word that the ‘communionistic’ technique occurs at the intellectual level. It is from HCE, HeCitEncy, that the intellectual act begins, for it is the stammer of HCE that breaks the flow of ALP. The ‘He’, ‘Cit’ and ‘Ency’ suggest the pattern of realization of the self, realization of the social nature of man, and realization of the arts of knowledge. Hesitency suggests the patience of thought and the stuttering of HCE himself.”

The “Vacuum of the Self”, the “Abced-minded”

Just as with “Abced-mindedness“, McLuhan deploys the “Vacuum of the Self” in two fundamentally different ways.  But these two ways are not opposed as two poles at odds with one another.  Instead, one considers everything in terms of such mutually exclusive poles and the other does not.

The “vacuum” considered in The Book of Tea has the characteristic action of ‘giving way’: the water pitcher gives way to water and to its management in being stored and carried and poured:

The usefulness of a water pitcher dwelt in the emptiness where water might be put, not in the form of the pitcher or the material of which it was made. Vacuum is all potent because all containing.” (Okakura KakuzōThe Book of Tea, as cited in ‘The Brain and the Media’, 1978, and the posthumous Laws of Media, 78)

 Such a “vacuum” essentially gives way to what is not vacuous and so expresses itself in and as what the other sense of “vacuum” would consider to be complete opposites (the vacuum vs material stuff).

This difference is so fundamental that it even applies to the two senses or poles of the “vacuum” itself. The sense of “vacuum” as empty and annihilating considers the other sense of “vacuum” as replete and enabling to be its utter opposite — an utter opposite that in its view is nonsensical. But the sense of “vacuum” as replete and enabling considers the other sense of “vacuum” as empty and annihilating to be what most expresses its fundamental creativity and communicability, what most demonstrates how strangely essential it is to it — to give way.

The replete is so replete that it gives way even, or especially, to the empty.


Encountering Maritain in 1934

According to McLuhan in a late (May 6, 1969) letter to Jacques Maritain: 

My first encounter with your work was at Cambridge University in 1934. Your Art and Scholasticism was on the reading list of the English School. It was a revelation to me. I became a Catholic in 1937. (Letters 371)

As discussed here, in 1934 McLuhan may already have been in touch with Maritain’s colleague and friend, Father Gerald Phelan, and may well have started to read Maritain on Phelan’s recommendation. Since McLuhan arrived in Cambridge in the fall of 1934, his reading Maritain in his first term there at the time of his initial exposure to Eliot, Joyce and Pound, may hint in that direction. Absent such stimulus, it is hard to imagine that he would have had the motivation and time to do so. Similarly with his citation of Maritain in his Chesterton paper (written in 1935) since Phelan almost certainly arranged the publication of that paper in The Dalhousie Review. Similarly again in his note to Maritain that “I became a Catholic in 1937”, an event guided by Phelan. 

As shown by a letter to his family in February 1935, McLuhan also read another book of Maritain in the first months he was in Cambridge, one that would not have been “on the reading list of the English School”:

As a handbook on Philosophy with especial regard to its historical development, I strongly commend Maritain’s Introduction to Philosophy to you, Red. He is the greatest living French thinker and is one of the foremost students and interpreters of Aquinas. Like most French texts it is a marvel of lucidity and order. I have read or dipped into numerous histories (all of which supposed Augustine and Aquinas were spoofers) and which therefore misunderstood everything that happened in society and philosophy after them. It is for his sympathy in this matter as well as his general account that I recommend him to you as certain to prove most coherent and stimulating. (Letters 53) 

A quarter century later McLuhan reviewed a new translation of Art and Scholasticism in his only other appearance in The Dalhousie Review. Here he identified what must have been so important to him in Cambridge:

Maritain’s familiarity with the work of the symbolist poets and the painting of his time provided him with a sensibility that gave him access to scholasticism, not as an historical, but as a contemporary, mode of awareness. (Dalhousie Review, 42:4, 1963, 532,)



McLuhan and Father Gerald Phelan 1934-1936

The biographers all agree.  McLuhan’s article on Chesterton just happened to appear in The Dalhousie Review in Halifax, then just happened to catch the eye of Fr Gerald Phelan in Toronto, who, “oddly enough”, just happened to be a friend of McLuhan’s mother1.

Here is Philip Marchand in Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger:

In 1936 [McLuhan] wrote an article on Chesterton for a quarterly published by Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Father Gerald Phelan, the president of the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto and a friend, oddly enough, of Elsie McLuhan, admired the article and wrote to its author. There followed a correspondence between Phelan and McLuhan that finally nudged McLuhan into becoming a Catholic. On his Christmas visit to his mother in Toronto in 1936, McLuhan met Phelan, and the priest examined McLuhan about the state of his beliefs. It was a satisfactory examination for both parties. On Holy Thursday, March 25, 1937,  McLuhan was received into the Church. Thereafter he never failed to note the anniversary of this epochal event. (50-51)

Similarly from Terrence Gordon in Escape Into Understanding:

In Toronto Elsie approached Father Gerald Phelan, at St Michael’s College, about the prospects for a position for her son after learning from him that he had received a letter from Phelan expressing his appreciation of the Chesterton article in The Dalhousie Review. (…) McLuhan made contact, once again, with Father Phelan at St Michael’s College [by letter in November 1936], and told him to wished to become a Catholic. Visiting Elsie in Toronto over the Christmas holidays [in December 1936], he had several meetings with Phelan, who put questions to him about his faith and satisfied himself that McLuhan could be a candidate for reception into the Church (…) It was Elsie who had been apprehensive about her son’s career if he converted to Catholicism (…) and yet it was Elsie who had made the first contact with Father Phelan that led both to McLuhan’s conversion and support for his Saint Louis [University] appointment. (61, 71, 76)

Similarly again from Judith Fitzgerald (but with her chronology very mixed up) in Marshall McLuhan Wise Guy:

McLuhan settles into a routine of sorts at Wisconsin [beginning in September 1936!] (…) [and] resolves to make the best of what turns out to be a disappointing situation. He turns his hand to honing his writing skills and penning articles for various academic and literary journals. In these, he eloquently discourses on subjects such as the importance of the thought of recent Roman-Catholic convert G.K. Chesterton, the respected English author of the sleuth/priest Father Brown series of novels (…) When McLuhan’s Chesterton piece appears [in January 1936!] in a quarterly published by Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University, Father Gerald Phelan, the University of Toronto’s president of the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at St. Michael’s College (and, incidentally, a friend of McLuhan’s mother), impressed by its contents, writes the first of several letters he sends to the young Turk. It is the correspondence between them — bolstered by a very satisfactory [December] 1936 meeting the pair enjoyed during McLuhan’s Christmas holidays spent in Toronto with Elsie and Red — that convinces McLuhan he must do what he must do… (45)

And finally from Douglas Coupland in Marshall McLuhan: You Know Nothing of My Work!, whose chronology is also confused, apparently following Fitzgerald:

And so there was a lonely young Marshall in a foreign city [Madison], teaching students he considered space aliens. He knew that seven hundred miles away, his family was in the final stages of disintegration; whether by choice or by fate, he was still single and had nobody with whom to share his life. It was at this point that a letter arrived from Father Gerald Phelan, president of the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto. Phelan had read an article by Marshall on Chesterton that had appeared in a university quarterly. The two began a correspondence, and, during Christmas 1936, while visiting Elsie in Toronto, Marshall met with Phelan, who was, coincidentally, an acquaintance of Elsie’s. Her motherly Geiger counter must surely have been bleeping off the dial to see her religion-hunting son Marshall falling into the clutches of the Catholics. In any event, his meeting with Phelan must have gone well. The lonely young man returned to America and, on Tuesday, March 30, 1937, was received into the Church. (60-61)

All these reports go back to an editorial note to a letter from McLuhan to Elsie April 12, 1936 (Letters 82) in which he comments on her speaking to Phelan, perhaps concerning whether he might help McLuhan find a job:

Father Gerald B. Phelan (1892-1965), whom Elsie McLuhan knew, was at this time Professor of Philosophy at St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, and in the School of Graduate Studies. He was President of the Pontifical Institute of Studies from 1937 to 1946, the year he moved to the University of Notre Dame. On 29 January 1936 (diary) McLuhan had been “immensely gratified by a note of appreciation (of my GK article)” from Phelan. Elsie McLuhan had perhaps offered to speak to Father Phelan about the possibilities of a teaching position for Marshall after he graduated from Cambridge. Later in the year Phelan would have a preliminary role in McLuhan’s conversion to Roman Catholicism — a goal towards which McLuhan was moving when he wrote this letter. To his brother Maurice he had written on 11 April [1936]: “Had I come into contact with the Catholic Thing, the Faith, 5 years ago, I would have become a priest, I believe.”

These accounts don’t entirely accord with each other or with the facts of the matter. It is certainly not the case, for example, that “In 1936 [McLuhan] wrote an article on Chesterton”, as Marchand says, since by January 29 of that year McLuhan, in Cambridge, had already received “a note of appreciation” from Phelan in Canada about its appearance in DR (as recorded in the Letters editorial note above). It was, in fact, written in 1935, in Cambridge, certainly not in Madison as Fitzgerald unaccountably suggests. Nor is it the case that Phelan was then “the president of the Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies at St. Michael’s College” (as Marchand, Fitzgerald and Coupland all have it) since the Institute did not become Pontifical until 1939.2

Furthermore, and more importantly, none of the accounts considers how it was that McLuhan’s article came to appear in The Dalhousie Review in the first place. Clarification of this question works to throw light on McLuhan’s conversion, which all of the accounts situate in this context of the Chesterton paper and Phelan, but do little to illuminate.

As set out in ‘Autobiography – encountering Chesterton‘, McLuhan and Elsie were already corresponding about a Chesterton paper for Canada during McLuhan’s first term in Cambridge in 1934: 

My head is teeming with ideas for the GK article which will be written on a sudden shortly. I have kept jotting down separate notions as they came from all sorts of reading I have been at lately, so the longer it waits the better it will be. I intend to send it to the mgr of GK’s Weekly before sending it to Canada, to have any criticism or suggestion he can offer. (December 17, 1934, Letters, 48)

So McLuhan’s paper was written in 19353 for a destination in Canada and that destination must have already been The Dalhousie Review in Halifax, where it appeared only a year after this letter (lightening speed to go from “ideas” to published copy, especially for a first-time author).4 McLuhan must have been given to understand that publication was assured — if he put together a decent essay. So, unlike most first-time authors, McLuhan did not write his paper on spec in the hope of publication somewhere after the usual review process (first of the idea, then of the paper itself). Instead — as seen by the timing McLuhan’s paper in fact experienced (finished in the late spring of 1935 and in print a little over a half year later, in an era when submissions, queries and corrections could be communicated between England and Canada only by ship post) — the interest of The Dalhousie Review must already have been secured, along with the mechanics required for its immediate publication.

The question is: how was it that McLuhan’s article came to appear in The Dalhousie Review in this rather exceptional fashion?

The answer seems to be that it came to DR through Father Phelan.  Since McLuhan’s paper did not undergo the usual submission process and was published almost instantaneously upon receipt at DR, it must be that this was arranged by someone with excellent connections to the Review.5 Phelan had such connections6 and is cited by all the bios as having a relation with McLuhan only through this DR paper (however unlikely it may be that it was first through the paper that contact was established). Further, Phelan helped to arrange McLuhan’s jobs at SLU in 1937, Windsor in 1944 and Toronto in 1946. And he may have helped to place McLuhan’s 1943 UTQ paper on Hopkins as part of the stepped move from SLU to Toronto. In any case, it seems that it can only have been Phelan who organized McLuhan’s appearance in 1936 in DR. He was from Halifax, was an old friend of the DR editor, Herbert Leslie Stewart 7 and was himself a contributor to the Review.8

Admittedly, all that is known with certainty is that by December 1934 McLuhan and his mother could already discuss an offer to arrange publication in Canada of an article on Chesterton. But such an arrangement could not have been put in place, absent anything on paper from McLuhan, except by someone with enough knowledge of Chesterton to judge that McLuhan’s take on “GK” was accurate enough and interesting enough to warrant publication. Further still, such an arrangement could be put in place at DR only by someone whose judgement of McLuhan’s views on Chesterton was accepted there without question. Only Phelan fits this complex description.

Supposing McLuhan’s appearance came though Phelan, then, it remains to wonder how this process got started.  Since Phelan had no cause to contact McLuhan prior to the appearance of his Chesterton paper in 1936, any contact with him in 1933 or 1934 must have originated with Elsie (who was living in Toronto after September 1933) or McLuhan himself (who came through Toronto on his way to Cambridge in the summer of 1934).

It is possible that one or both of them heard (or heard of) a Phelan lecture on Chesterton:

He [Phelan] had an interest in the careers of men who put intellect at the service of the Church: Kenelm Henry Digby, Virgil Michel, Hippolyte Delehaye, Cardinal Newman, St. John Eudes, Jacques Maritain, Alexander Joseph Denomy, and G.K. Chesterton on the last of whom he produced an often-delivered, but never published, paper with the subtitle: “Confessor non-Pontiff.” (Arthur G. Kirn, ‘Introduction’ to G. B. Phelan: Selected Papers, 1967, 10)

The Phelan papers at St Michael’s have notes and incomplete drafts for this lecture. The fragmentary draft for the version delivered in New York on November 24, 1936, begins: “Twelve months ago a young Canadian author, writing in The Dalhousie Review, said this about G. K. Chesterton: ‘He has become a legend while he yet lives. Nobody could wish him otherwise than he is’.” This “young Canadian author” was, of course, McLuhan.

Another indication of Phelan’s interest in Chesterton is the fact that he quoted him three times in Phelan’s short 1937 book Jacques Maritain (which had originated in another lecture of his). So McLuhan was discovering Maritain in Cambridge just when Phelan was lecturing on Maritain and putting together a book on him. If McLuhan and Phelan were indeed already in contact, as seems highly likely, it may be guessed that it was Phelan who prompted this attention to Maritain (a close personal friend of Phelan and a sometime colleague of his at St Michael’s).9

The usual story of McLuhan’s conversion is that he was thinking about it more or less on his own until he came into contact with Phelan, in 1936, through his Chesterton paper. All the biographers (with the exception of Gordon) attribute some importance to McLuhan’s conversion a year later to the continuing correspondence with Phelan that resulted from this contact initiated by Phelan.  The suggestion here is that their dialogue probably began much earlier and was initiated by McLuhan and/or his mother. In this view, McLuhan and Phelan were already in contact by 1934,10 at the latest, such that Phelan became a, or the, great influence on the process of McLuhan’s thinking leading up to his decision to convert two years later. This influence would have been due both to Phelan’s broad knowledge of Catholic thought, medieval (especially Thomas, whom he translated) and modern (especially Maritain, whom he also translated), and to his decided but wide-ranging and open personality.11  Indeed, surely it was Phelan whom McLuhan had in mind as a model when he wrote to his brother Maurice from Cambridge on April 11, 1936: “Had I come into contact with the Catholic Thing, the Faith, 5 years ago, I would have become a priest, I believe.” (Letters, 82n)

  1. Elsie McLuhan moved to Toronto from Winnipeg in 1933. See ‘Elsie McLuhan Leaving To Take Toronto Post‘, Winnipeg Tribune, September 9, 1933, p4, with discussion here.  A year or two later Maurice McLuhan joined her there to attend UT. That both knew and were friendly with Fr Phelan is attested in a 1946 letter from McLuhan to Elsie where he describes a visit with Phelan at St Mike’s just prior to his move there from Windsor: “Phelan delighted me.  Asked much about you and Red.” (Letters 181)
  2. Phelan did become head of the not-yet-Pontifical institute in 1935 (as acting president) and in 1936 was confirmed in that position. The Letters note claims that Phelan became president of the institute in 1937, but this is an error.
  3. Other letters cited in Autobiography – encountering Chesterton‘ record its progress.
  4. It is remotely possible that “Canada” refers to Father Phelan in Toronto with the expectation of publication in some journal through him. As the ex-president (1931) of the American Catholic Philosophical Association, a central figure at St Michael’s and its Mediaeval Institute and the author over 20 academic papers by 1935, Phelan had the connections necessary to place McLuhan’s paper in a variety of publications.
  5. As  described in further posts, McLuhan had other Winnipeg connections — Rupert Lodge, Watson Kirkconnell and John Defoe — who published in DR in the 1934-1936 period.  His first introduction to the Review may have come from any one of them, of course. But the Chesterton topic of McLuhan’s paper suggests that Phelan must have played the major role in the publication of his paper.
  6. See the following note.
  7. Phelan and Stewart were among the small handful of teachers of philosophy in Halifax after WWI (Stewart at Dalhousie, Phelan at St Mary’s, but Phelan was also working at Dalhousie with Stewart where he founded its Newman Club and regularly lectured on ethics) and had a mutual interest, originating with Stewart, in the relation of philosophy to psychology. (Stewart’s book Questions of the Day in Philosophy and Psychology was published in 1912, immediately before he began his long career at Dalhousie.) Phelan would go on from Halifax to do advanced graduate work in Stewart’s area, philosophical psychology, in Europe (he was based in Louvain from 1922 to 1925, where he obtained his PhD) and became a recognized expert in the field.
  8. The first item in the January 1936 issue of DR, immediately before a paper by Harold Innis, was ‘Fifteen Years Of The Review‘ by the editor, H.L. Stewart. In it he observes that the review’s “catholicity of interest is illustrated by the appearance, within a short space, of critical papers on Bertrand Russell and Cardinal Mercier”. The Mercier article (DR 6:1, 1926, 9-17) was one of Phelan’s contributions. A more recent Phelan article was ‘The Lateran Treaty‘ in DR 9:4, 1930, 427-438. Since Phelan was regularly publishing in Journals like New Scholasticism and Philosophical Review, it appears that he regarded DR as a publication for writing that was not strictly theological or philosophical — like his piece on Cardinal Mercier or McLuhan’s on Chesterton.
  9. Phelan was the translator of a series of books by Maritain and even one by his wife.
  10. Phelan became the acting president of the Mediaeval Institute in 1935 and was confirmed in that role in 1936. That he found the time to guide and assist McLuhan at a time when he must have been very busy must have impressed McLuhan.
  11. “Gerald Phelan’s interest in art and the philosophy of art reflected, not only his own abilities (he was an accomplished musicologist), but also a number of close personal friendships with artists (notably Arnold Walter and Eric Gill), and is attested by several articles. (…) As a man, he impressed me as one of those rare people to whom Providence has granted the power to look the emptiness of his own success in the face.” (Arthur G. Kirn, ‘Introduction’ to G. B. Phelan: Selected Papers, 1967, 11)