Monthly Archives: May 2017

Poe’s Maelstrom and Plato’s Phaedo

Finally, lurking behind the roar of these romantic waters was that ancient pre-Socratic cosmology of the “waters under the earth”, the “vast sea…in the depths of the earth” (the phrases are Seneca’s). This subterranean sea was the source at once of all the world’s great rivers, and also of the circumambient Ocean, to which [source] they all return. (Eric Havelock, ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’, 2: 6)1

In his 1946 essay ‘Footsteps in the Sands of Crime’, McLuhan began to use Poe’s Descent into the Maelstrom as a master image2 for the process of the genesis of human experience throughout its register from sense perception to high theory. It was also the year that Eric Havelock began to publish his three-part essay on ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’ in the then new UT classics journal, Phoenix.3

Havelock’s essay concludes with a consideration of Plato’s description of the waters of the earth from Phaedo 111c-112e.  This section of the Phaedo and Poe’s Maelstrom are mutually illuminating and together they supply an outline of what was even then beginning to unfold as McLuhan’s lifetime topic: the soul’s moment to moment (synchronic) katabasis into the fund of “human potentialities” (MB 3) and “potencies” (Innis letter).4  The fund-amental idea is that human beings are at every moment essentially exposed to different media, different basic forms of experience, and that this navigation among media in their plurality (the “worldpool”) is what constitutes the significance, or message, of humans as humans. The medium is the massage is the message.

In Poe’s story, some authorities are said to hold that the Maelstrom is a kind of axis mundi about which all else turns:

Kircher and others imagine that in the centre of the channel of the Maelstrom is an abyss penetrating the globe

Something very similar from Plato (Phaedo 111e-112d) is cited in Havelock’s essay:

One of the earth-chasms, besides being the largest, is pierced right through the whole earth (…) Into it flow all the rivers in confluence, and out of it they issue again, each afterwards taking on the individual character of the territories through which they happen to flow. The reason for the inflow and outflow of the streams is that the liquid, having no bottom or fundament, hangs suspended in space and moves in tidal waves up and down, and the air and wind about it does the same thing (…) Some waters go right round the earth, coiling once or several times like serpents (…) and sink down as far as they can and come up again. (3:17)

The waters of the Maelstrom are, of course, also “coiling (…) like serpents” and it likewise “moves in tidal waves up and down” so that its “waters (…)  sink down as far as they can and [then] come up again“. Indeed, it is precisely this perpetual change in the horizontal and vertical motions of the Maelstrom (caused by the alteration of the ebb and flood tides driving it) that saves Poe’s mariner.5

At the extremes of the two tides, the Maelstrom is propelled violently into a circular motion (one direction with one of the tides, then its reverse with the other6), and it is this vorticular motion that drives the Maelstrom downward into the abyss like a screw:

As the old man spoke, I became aware of a loud and gradually increasing sound, like the moaning of a vast herd of buffaloes upon an American prairie; and at the same moment I perceived (…) the chopping character of the ocean beneath us, was rapidly changing into a current which set to the eastward. Even while I gazed, this current acquired a monstrous velocity. Each moment added to its speed — to its headlong impetuosity. In five minutes the whole sea (…) was lashed into ungovernable fury; (…) the vast bed of the waters, seamed and scarred into a thousand conflicting channels, burst suddenly into phrensied convulsion — heaving, boiling, hissing — gyrating in gigantic and innumerable vortices, and all whirling and plunging on to the eastward with a rapidity which water never elsewhere assumes except in precipitous descents.
In a few minutes more, there came over the scene another radical alteration. The general surface grew somewhat more smooth, and the whirlpools, one by one, disappeared, while prodigious streaks of foam became apparent where none had been seen before. These streaks, at length, spreading out to a great distance, and entering into combination, took unto themselves the gyratory motion of the subsided vortices, and seemed to form the germ of another more vast. Suddenly — very suddenly — this assumed a distinct and definite existence, in a circle of more than half a mile in diameter. The edge of the whirl was (…) the mouth of the terrific funnel, whose interior, as far as the eye could fathom it, was a smooth, shining, and jet-black wall of water, inclined to the horizon at an angle of some forty-five degrees, speeding dizzily round and round with a swaying and sweltering motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven.

When Poe ends his paragraphs here with “precipitous descents” and “the mighty cataract of Niagara”, his trope is directed to the kata-basis or going-down of the Maelstrom.

But after that tide (either ebb or flood, as the case may be) reaches its extreme and begins to subside — begins, that is, to reverse into the opposite tide — so does the violence of the Maelstrom subside with it. And the effect is to unscrew it out of the abyss and to initiate its ana-basis or going-up:

a great change took place in the character of the whirlpool. The slope of the sides of the vast funnel became momently less and less steep. The gyrations of the whirl grew gradually less and less violent. By degrees (…) the bottom of the gulf seemed slowly to uprise.

The general atmosphere is ameliorated as well:

The sky was clear, the winds had gone down…

Plato notes the same phenomenon:

the liquid (…) moves in tidal waves up and down, and the air and wind about it does the same thing…

Plato’s description of the physical state of the world in this section of the Phaedo is pointedly accompanied by a matching description of the state of the soul. And both immediately precede his execution.  They constitute his final testament.  Regarding the soul he says:

if the soul is immortal, we must care for it, not only in respect to this time, which we call life, but in respect to all time, and if we neglect it, the danger [we are in] now appears to be terrible. For if death were an escape from everything, it would be a boon to the wicked, for when they die they would be freed from the body and from their wickedness together with their souls. But now, since the soul is seen to be immortal, it cannot escape from evil or be saved in any other way than by becoming as good and wise [in this life] as possible. For the soul takes with it to the other world nothing but its ability to learn and to change [ἡ ψυχὴ ἔρχεται πλὴν τῆς παιδείας τε καὶ τροφῆς], and these are said to benefit or injure the departed greatly from the very beginning of his journey thither. And so it is said that after death, the tutelary genius7 of each person, to whom he had been allotted in life, leads him to a place where the dead are gathered together; then they are judged and depart to the other world with the guide whose task it is to conduct thither those who come from this world; (…) And the journey is not (…) a simple path [that] leads to the lower world, but I think the path is neither simple nor single, for if it were, there would be no need of guides, since no one could miss the way to any place if there were only one road. But really there seem to be many forks of the road and many windings; this I infer from [all] the [different] rites and ceremonies practiced here on earth. Now the orderly and wise soul follows its guide and understands its circumstances; but the soul that is desirous of the body (…) after much resistance and many sufferings is led away with violence. (Phaedo 107c-108b)

By bringing the state of the soul together with the state of the world and its waters, Plato is indicating that the demand made on the soul is to follow the tropical ano-kato movement of the cosmos.

Poe’s sailor in “The Maelstrom” saved himself by cooperating with the action of the “strom” itself. (Mechanical Bride, 75)

It is the primitive fact and everything depends on whether this is recognized or not. 

Here again the parallel with Poe’s story is striking.  When the mariner and his brother are carried on their ship into the Maelstrom, the mariner gradually “understands its circumstances”, like Plato’s “wise soul” in its sojourn in the land of the dead, and is able to use this understanding to save himself. But his brother remains overcome with fear (too “desirous of the body”) and therefore, as Socrates recounts about the soul that is not wise, “after much resistance and many sufferings, is led away with violence” into the abyss.

Thus it is that the key to salvation in both accounts is what Plato calls παιδεία τε καὶ τροφή: the ability to learn and to change.  For “the soul (…) cannot escape from evil or be saved in any other way than by becoming [in its mortal life] as good and wise as possible”. Now becoming implicates change and the most important change required of the soul in this life, as Socrates shows in the tranquil manner of his death, is to value its immortal life more than its mortal one. And for this, as Poe’s mariner concretely demonstrates by daring to abandon ship in the midst of the Maelstrom, the necessity is to be able to learn and to change — radically.

In the utterly different circumstances of the other world, nothing from this life can aid the soul except such an ability to learn and to change because, as Socrates says, it must navigate a road there that has “many forks (…) and many windings” such that “one could miss the way” all too easily. This road “leads to the lower world” — from which ascension may be made to a place where the soul “finds gods for companions” (108c).  Missing the right way, however, leaves the soul, like the mariner’s brother, only down — missing, that is, the naturally correlated up.

Implicated in the requisite radical change is a complicated notion of time. Plato puts it in the following way: “if the soul is immortal, we must care for it, not only in respect to this time (τοῦ χρόνου), which we call life, but in respect to all time (τοῦ [χρόνου] παντός)”. There is the time of this mortal life and the time of immortality, both of which, despite their fundamental difference, may be termed a sort of χρόνου; and ‘at the same time’ there is also a third time of critical decision (κρίση) between these, which the Greeks termed καιρός — the decisive moment for learning and for radical change (παιδεία τε καὶ τροφή) which is always at hand.

Poe presents these three times in serial or chronological fashion in terms of the tides. (The etymology of ‘tide’ is ‘tid‘ = ‘time’.)8 There is the flood tide and the ebb tide and the “slack” between them when, so to say, time (tid) stands still. Everything depends on the relation of the soul to the in-between time of “the hour of the slack”.

For McLuhan, the Descent into the Maelstrom is the story of what never ceases to take place, recognized or unrecognized, in every moment of every human life:

Every human being is incessantly engaged in creating an image of identity for himself (McLuhan to R.J. Leuver, July 30, 1969, Letters 386)

This is the moment of καιρός as a katabasis into the chaos of the multiple forms of potential experience — out of which in an anabasis we emerge with whatever form of experience we are ‘putting on’, that is, with whatever form of experience has first been ‘chosen’ there. Our experience is always a product or effect and McLuhan’s whole bent is to inquire backwards after what light it reflects of its prior formal cause.9

For McLuhan, then, what Plato describes as facing the soul between lives is always occurring between moments of experience:

And here, my dear Glaucon, is the supreme peril of our human state; and therefore the utmost care should be taken. Let each one of us leave every other kind of knowledge and seek and follow one thing only (…) to learn and discern between good and evil, and so to choose always and everywhere the better life as he has opportunity. (Republic 618)

this is the hour of agony and extremest conflict for the soul (Phaedrus 648a)

It is because all human perception and experience is generated through such katabasis-anabasis navigation of a labyrinthine vortex, McLuhan can claim: 

One major discovery of the symbolists (…) was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties… (Letter to Innis, 1951)

Just as the mariner and his brother go down into the labyrinth of the Maelstrom, and learn there, or fail to learn there, what decides life or death, so every human soul is momentarily exposed to all the forms of potential experience, to all the possible formations “of the senses and faculties”. This represents the soul’s opportunity to learn and to change and is exactly what is exercised when the arts are practiced and when the various sciences are born. Hence McLuhan’s continuation of his sentence in the Innis letter:

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences.

Arts and sciences are born, this is to say, when the same sort of double-clutch or Gestalt-switch demonstrated by Poe’s mariner in the Maelstrom is exercised in regard to some new domain of nature or society (a domain that is suddenly illuminated only with the Gestalt-switch). A different vehicle or medium of experience (like the mariner’s cask) is adopted through which a new sort of investigation becomes possible. What remained, McLuhan perceived, was to exercise such a Gestalt-switch in regard to this Gestalt-switch process itself. The medium is the message — and is therefore what must at last become the message of new sciences of inquiry.

McLuhan would dedicate the remaining 35 years of his life, often in terrible health, to the attempt to dis-cover and to probe this possibility and great need.

 

 

  1. The bracketed observation re Seneca is original to Havelock. References to ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’ are given to the three sections in which it was published in the University of Toronto journal Phoenix in 1946-1947 (issues 1:1, 1:2 and 1:supplement), followed by the page number in the corresponding issue. 1946 was McLuhan’s first year at UT and Havelock’s last.
  2. See McLuhan on Poe’s Maelstrom.
  3. Havelock was the founding president of the Ontario (later: Canadian) Classical Association and a co-founder of Phoenix, the association’s journal.
  4. Both MB and the Innis letter date from early 1951 (although MB was, of course, written earlier).
  5. See “Great change” in Descent into the Maelstrom.
  6. Phaedo 112e: “Now these streams are many and great and of all sorts, but (…) the greatest and outermost of which is that called Oceanus, which flows round in a circle, and opposite this, flowing in the opposite direction, is Acheron…”
  7. Because the experiencing subject is the result of this process, it cannot construct or otherwise manage it itself. Hence the idea that every human being has a known or unknown “guide”, as Socrates says, a guardian angel, or birth day saint, who helps with the navigation of life — if it is acknowledged and attended.
  8. Poe nearly always broaches the “slack” at the turning of the tides in connection with time: “the fifteen minutes’ slack”, “time for slackwater”, “a minute or so behind or before the slack”, “slack water, which we knew would be at eight”, “the time of the slack”, “the hour of the slack”.
  9.  “I am not a ‘culture critic’ because I am not in any way interested in classifying cultural forms. I am a metaphysician, interested in the life of the forms and their surprising modalities.” (McLuhan letter to Joe Keogh, July 6, 1970, Letters 413)

Lodge on ‘Science and Literature’

The following column appeared in the Manitoba Free Press, October 10, 1931,  p 11.  It appears to have caught the interested attention of  W.O. Mitchell1 and Marshall McLuhan2 who were then both underclassmen at the University of Manitoba.

Science and Literature
Prof. Rupert C Lodge 

Dept of Philosophy and Psychology
University of Manitoba

I notice that a most interesting controversy is being carried on in your columns and, like the Irishman who asked whether this was a private fight or whether he might join in,3 I wonder whether a student of philosophy might express his opinion. The fundamental point at issue appears to be whether science and literature are, or are not, essentially parallel functions of the human mind. Both parties of the controversy regard science as a body of ascertained truth, such that each new generation starting where the last generation left off makes impersonal additions to this body of “fact”. [Reader] TBR, who believes in the parallelism of literature and science, argues that each generation of writers should similarly start where the previous generation left off and should make creative additions to “literature” and should not waste time on such “literary curiosities” as Chaucer and Shakespeare, who are apparently studied at some length at the University of Manitoba. On the other it is claimed that “literature” is not a “body of fact” to which simple additions can be made but is a unique creation of the human spirit distinct from science and that Chaucer and Shakespeare, unlike an Aristotle or Newton, have an especial kind of significance which makes the study them permanently valuable.

To a student of philosophy, the premises apparently accepted by both parties to the controversy seem unreliable. Science is essentially inquiry and discovery, continued and refined by successive generations of scientists. The content of a scientific textbook does not consist of a body of “facts” or “ascertained truths”, but represents, rather, a cross-section through a particular stage of scientific inquiry, with a history reaching back into the past and an outlook directed toward the future, and entirely dependent upon the efforts of particular human personalities. Science thus represents an adventure of the spirit quite as much as poetry and has quite as much power to thrill the imagination and liberate the mind from instinctive and local prejudices. This has, indeed, always been one of the chief reasons for studying science and it is in this respect similar to literature in its influences. The history of science in many universities constitutes a definite part of the curriculum and it is felt that if the student is to be more than a technician, he will study the history of science in order to acquire background and culture.

Literature seems to occupy a parallel position. A particular epic or drama is not something altogether out of time, but it is the product of its age and can be understood only in its historical relations, and as a cross-section through a particular stage of literary technique. Here, too, it is possible, by narrow insistence on creative writing, to turn out students who are technicians. It is also possible, by a judicious use of the great literature of the past, to broaden and deepen a student’s powers so that, with the background and culture thus acquired, he may be given the chance to create, not merely technical writing, but “literature”. In some universities there is a distinct department of “rhetoric” or “journalism”, which aims at developing technicians and may be entirely separate from the department of “English”, which devotes itself to emphasizing the cultural influences of literature. In most universities, as in the University of Manitoba, a certain compromise is effected in both scientific and literary departments.

As to the actual controversy, TBR is surely right in supposing that science and literature are parallel, and in deducing the possibility of training in the technique of writing without much reference to the great writers of ages which past. But both in science and in literature the study of history is of cultural value, and it is hardly fair to criticize departments either of science or of literature for not turning out large numbers of technicians in their particular fields, unless that is the avowed aim of the departments In question. The primary function of our university departments is, surely, to enlighten and liberate the minds of our students so that, whatever their professions or interests in after-life, they may be able to bring an educated and cultured outlook to bear upon their problems. 

  1. See W.O. Mitchell on Rupert Lodge.
  2. See the following note.
  3. Lodge’s quip about “the Irishman who asked whether this was a private fight or whether he might join in” appears, 40 (!) years later, in Take Today (212):  ‘Is this a private fight, or may anyone join in? – An Irishman’ . McLuhan is known to have used the quip as well in lectures around the same time in the early 1970s. Since he recalled Lodge in his Speaking of Winnipeg interview in 1970, this may have brought Lodge’s quip back to mind.

Innis and “the conditions of freedom of thought”

Science, technology and the mechanisation of knowledge are in grave danger of destroying the conditions of freedom of thought, and, in destroying the conditions of freedom of thought, bringing about the collapse of what we like to think of as western civilisation. (‘A Critical Review’, The Bias  of Communication, 190)

In 1948 Harold Innis gave a presentation at a conference of commonwealth universities in Oxford.1 In it he averred:

My bias is with the oral tradition, particularly as it has been reflected in Greek civilisation, [and] with the necessity of recapturing something of its spirit. For that purpose we should try to understand something of the importance of [the] life or of the living tradition which is peculiar to the oral as against the mechanised tradition…

Fundamental questions were implicated: What exactly characterizes an “oral tradition” vs a “mechanised” one?  Could classical Greece, for example, be said to be “mechanised” once it was no longer only “oral”?  If not, where and how to draw the line between the two?2 And just what is the “spirit” or the “life” of a civilisation or a tradition — how is this knot of questions to be approached?

Innis gestured in the direction of questions like these when he spoke of the need “to make some critical survey” and to render “a critical review” (the name he gave to his remarks when they were printed). But for a “systematic overhauling” of this sort, it was necessary to establish “a common point of view”.  And to achieve “a common point of view” it was necessary to recognize its absence in a time of “the pervasive influence of discontinuity”:

Knowledge has been divided in the modern world to the extent that it is apparently hopeless to expect a common point of view. (…) Western civilisation has reached the point that a conference largely composed of University administrators [like ourselves] should unconsciously assume division in points of view in the field of learning and (…) should have been so far concerned with political representation as to forget the [cultural] problem of unity in Western civilisation; or, to put it in a general way, (…) all of us here together seem [ourselves] to be [just] what is wrong with Western civilisation.

How had this come about?

The impact of science on cultural development has been evident in its contribution to technological advance, notably in communication and in the dissemination of knowledge. In turn it has been evident in the types of knowledge disseminated, that is to say, science lives its own life not only in the mechanism which is provided to distribute knowledge but also in the sort of knowledge which will be distributed.3 (…) We are compelled to recognise the significance of mechanised knowledge as a source of power and [the associated] subjection [of education] to the demands of force through the instrument of the State. The Universities are in danger of becoming a branch of the military arm. The [critical] problem of Universities in the British Commonwealth is to appreciate [the] implications [of this fact] and to attack in a determined fashion the problems created by a neglect of the position of culture in Western civilisation. Centralisation in education in the interests of political organisation has disastrous implications.

Innis had a great deal of practical experience dealing with this situation in the concrete, sometimes criticizing government interference in university affairs, sometimes criticizing academics for their myopia and for their failure to address the deep cultural problems of “Western civilisation”. But he did not have a solution in theory to the problem of establishing “a common point of view”.4  It is just here where McLuhan’s contribution must be assessed.5

 

  1.  Report of Proceedings of the Sixth Congress of the Universities of the Commonwealth, 1948; also: ‘Appendix’ to Minerva’s Owl (1948); also: Bias  of Communication, 1951, 190-195; also: ‘The Mechanization of Knowledge’, in Staples, Markets and Cultural Change, 1995, 350-355.
  2. The Gutenberg Galaxy may be read as addressing this question.
  3. “The mechanism (…) to distribute knowledge” shapes “the sort of knowledge which will be distributed”: the medium is the message.
  4. Innis could not see his way to “a common point of view” on account of his twin convictions that “it is impossible for (the economic historian) to avoid the bias of the period in which he writes” and that the current period is characterized by “fundamental solipsism”. For references and discussion of these points, see Innis, McLuhan and “the power of metamorphosis”.
  5. McLuhan noted to Gerald Stearn that “(Sigfried) Giedion influenced me profoundly — (reading) Space, Time and Architecture was one of the great events of my lifetime.”  Now in Space, Time and Architecture one of the central points that caught McLuhan’s attention was the following chain of thought: “Historians quite generally distrust absorption into contemporary ways of thinking and feeling as a menace to their scientific detachment, dignity, and breadth of outlook. But one can be thoroughly the creature of one’s own period, embued with its methods, without sacrificing these qualities (of scientific detachment, dignity, and breadth of outlook). Indeed, the historian in every field must be united with his own time by as widespread a system of roots as possible. The world of history, like the world of nature, explains itself only to those who ask the right questions, raise the right problems. The historian must be intimately a part of his own period to know what questions concerning the past are significant  to it.” (6) With Giedion, McLuhan would deny both of Innis’ convictions that there is no escape from one’s period and that the present period implicates a “fundamental solipsism”. For discussion, see Innis, McLuhan and “the “power of metamorphosis”.

“Great change” in Descent into the Maelstrom

Poe’s story reverts over and over again to “the power of metamorphosis”:

about three years past, there happened to me an event such as never happened before to mortal man — or at least such as no man ever survived to tell of — and the six hours of deadly terror which I then endured have broken me up body and soul. You suppose me a very old man — but I am not. It took less than a single day to change these hairs from a jetty black to white, to weaken my limbs, and to unstring my nerves

*

As the old man spoke, I became aware of a loud and gradually increasing sound, like the moaning of a vast herd of buffaloes upon an American prairie; and at the same moment I perceived that what seamen term the chopping character of the ocean beneath us, was rapidly changing into a current which set to the eastward. Even while I gazed, this current acquired a monstrous velocity. Each moment added to its speed — to its headlong impetuosity. In five minutes the whole sea, as far as Vurrgh, was lashed into ungovernable fury; but it was between Moskoe and the coast that the main uproar held its sway. Here the vast bed of the waters, seamed and scarred into a thousand conflicting channels, burst suddenly into phrensied convulsion — heaving, boiling, hissing — gyrating in gigantic and innumerable vortices, and all whirling and plunging on to the eastward with a rapidity which water never elsewhere assumes except in precipitous descents.

*

In a few minutes more, there came over the scene another radical alteration. The general surface grew somewhat more smooth, and the whirlpools, one by one, disappeared, while prodigious streaks of foam became apparent where none had been seen before. These streaks, at length, spreading out to a great distance, and entering into combination, took unto themselves the gyratory motion of the subsided vortices, and seemed to form the germ of another more vast. Suddenly — very suddenly — this assumed a distinct and definite existence, in a circle of more than half a mile in diameter. The edge of the whirl was represented by a broad belt of gleaming spray; but no particle of this slipped into the mouth of the terrific funnel, whose interior, as far as the eye could fathom it, was a smooth, shining, and jet-black wall of water, inclined to the horizon at an angle of some forty-five degrees, speeding dizzily round and round with a swaying and sweltering motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven.

*

It was on the tenth of July, 18—, a day which the people of this part of the world will never forget — for it was one in which blew the most terrible hurricane that ever came out of the heavens. And yet all the morning, and indeed until late in the afternoon, there was a gentle and steady breeze from the south-west, while the sun shone brightly, so that the oldest seaman among us could not have foreseen what was to follow. (…) In the meantime the breeze that had headed us off fell away, and we were dead becalmed, drifting about in every direction. This state of things, however, did not last long enough to give us time to think about it. In less than a minute the storm was upon us

*

the seas, which at first had been kept down by the wind, and lay flat and frothing, now got up into absolute mountains. A singular change, too, had come over the heavens.

*

a great change took place in the character of the whirlpool. The slope of the sides of the vast funnel became momently less and less steep. The gyrations of the whirl grew, gradually, less and less violent. By degrees, the froth and the rainbow disappeared, and the bottom of the gulf seemed slowly to uprise. The sky was clear, the winds had gone down, and the full moon was setting radiantly in the west, when I found myself on the surface of the ocean, in full view of the shores of Lofoden, and above the spot where the pool of the Moskoe-strom had been.

*

A boat picked me up — exhausted from fatigue — and (now that the danger was removed) speechless from the memory of its horror. Those who drew me on board were my old mates and dally companions — but they knew me no more than they would have known a traveller from the spirit-land. My hair, which had been raven-black the day before, was as white as you see it now. They say too that the whole expression of my countenance had changed.

*

Changes to the weather, the sea, the heavens, the mariner and the whirlpool itself are radical and precipitous. But the greatest change lies in the reversal of the mariner’s fate in the maelstrom: he somehow finds life in “the inmost recesses of the abyss”. “The power of metamorphosis” envelops and constrains, it seems, even death.

The bubble of life in Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Havelock and Innis

In infinite time, in the infinity of matter, in infinite space, a bubble-organism separates itself, and that bubble holds out for a while and then bursts…
(Tolstoy, Anna Karenina, 1873-1877)

Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of the universe (…) there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of “world history”, but nevertheless, it was only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star cooled and congealed, and the clever beasts had to die. One might invent such a fable, and yet it still would not have adequately illustrated how miserable, how shadowy and transient, how aimless and arbitrary the human intellect looks within nature. There were eternities during which it did not exist. And when it is all over with the human intellect, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no additional mission which would lead it beyond human life. Rather, it is human, and only its possessor and begetter takes it so solemnly — as though the world’s axis turned within it. But if we could communicate with the gnat, we would learn that he likewise flies through the air with the same solemnity, that he feels the flying center of the universe within himself.
(Nietzsche, ‘On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense‘, 1873)  

The researches carried out by modern man have forced him to look back along the corridor of time at prospects which lengthen on the sight, until they exceed the range of his possible imagination. Our civilization dates from Greece and Rome, but we have learned that it was not the first upon the earth. The record of urbanized man, as revealed by the spade, goes back to at least the sixth millennium before Christ. To the Greek and Roman, for whom human history began with the fall of Troy, a previous span of four thousand years would scarcely have been comprehensible, unless it were the epoch when the gods walked the earth, and there were no men. And our own pious ancestors, who dated all Creation by the Book of Genesis, would have been in no better case.
No sooner has the mind accustomed itself to the antiquity of civilized culture, than it must multiply the backward prospect by tens of thousands of years, to envisage the slow evolution of the human race from the ape. And yet that whole incredible story becomes only a day in the history of the earth. We tap and scratch the surface of the rock on which we stand and find that it is indeed the rock of ages, printed with the map of a violent and illimitable history. Surveying it, our imagination abdicates and our comprehension of time breaks down. In place of the generations and centuries which mark our own frontiers, we substitute the trackless waste of geological aeons, and so drift back to the formless lava of a primeval furnace. In that day our human race was not, and was not thought of. In those temperatures it had no conceivable place. Such is the conclusion we draw, mechanically and meaninglessly. The reality is kept from us by our self-consciousness. Perhaps if we could put God there, he could make of geological time a furnished room for us once more, for us to inhabit, even though the only voice we heard was the voice of consuming fire.
Yet even in geological time, could we imagine it, the mind finds no arrest nor any mansion that abides. The astronomer of our epoch, living beyond Copernicus and Newton, strives to fling our thought out into a universe of light-years, where it is wholly and totally alone and alien. Our own rocks that once boiled like the sun, and later saw the dinosaurs wallowing in the swamp, shrivel to a speck of dust, a passing incident. We strive to make this familiar and intelligible by the skill of multiplication, which accumulates numerals to the nth power, by the skill of words, which reduces the infinity of time to the terminology of years traveled by light. But our own species, in our own eyes, has now become so temporary that it can scarcely be said to exist; it has dwindled to so small a span that we can scarcely be said to be perceptible. We find ourselves utterly alone and naked like worms cast into a field. Then how shall we cover this nakedness, which science has at last, and so fully, exposed? In the eyes of the self-conscious man, the intelligent, the proud, the hopeful, the skillful, the masterful, and the moral man, the simplicity of the exposure becomes unbearable, and therefore almost unthinkable. For it seems to destroy those truisms which the nature of our consciousness demands shall stay true. ’Who dare say that justice is any more eternal in the heavens? It is a name, a sound of approval, voiced by an ephemeral species to indicate some crawling pattern of preference, on a speck of dust, in the vast halls of space and time. Who dare say that man any more keeps company with angels, in those trackless wastes beyond the sun and moon? Who dare say his intelligence, so long mastered by illusion, so long convinced that it stood at the point of judgment in a measurable and estimable environment, a cosmos organized by a permanent and stable providence — who dare say that intelligence has any health in it, any metaphysic, any revelation above the energy of the blind groping of a worm?
(Eric Havelock, The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man, Chapter 1: ‘The Bitter Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge’, 1951)

The general argument [of The Strategy of Culture, 1952] has been powerfully developed (…) by E. A. Havelock in The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man (Boston, 1951). Intellectual man of the nineteenth century was the first to estimate absolute nullity in time. The present — real, insistent, complex, and treated as an independent system, the foreshortening of practical pre-vision in the field of human action — has penetrated the most vulnerable areas of public policy. War has become the result, and a cause, of the limitations placed on the forethinker [Pro-metheus]. Power and its assistant force, the natural enemies of intelligence, have become more serious since “the mental processes activated in the pursuit and and consolidating of power are essentially short range”.
(Harold Innis, The Strategy of Culture, ‘Preface’, 1952, citing Havelock, The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man, 991)

  1. Havelock: “Those mental processes which are activated in the pursuit and the consolidation of power are essentially short range.” Innis’ Strategy of Culture was immediately republished in his Changing Concepts of Time (also 1952) and its ‘Preface’ incorporated in the ‘Preface’ of the new title.

A Descent into the Maelstrom – Edgar Poe

1841

The ways of God in Nature, as in Providence, are not as our ways; nor are the models that we frame any way commensurate to the vastness, profundity, and unsearchableness of His works, which have a depth in them greater than the well of Democritus. — Joseph Glanville.

*

We had now reached the summit of the loftiest crag. For some minutes the old man seemed too much exhausted to speak. “Not long ago,” said he at length, “and I could have guided you on this route as well as the youngest of my sons; but, about three years past, there happened to me an event such as never happened before to mortal man — or at least such as no man ever survived to tell of — and the six hours of deadly terror which I then endured have broken me up body and soul. You suppose me a very old man — but I am not. It took less than a single day to change these hairs from a jetty black to white, to weaken my limbs, and to unstring my nerves, so that I tremble at the least exertion, and am frightened at a shadow. Do you know I can scarcely look over this little cliff without getting giddy?”

The “little cliff,” upon whose edge he had so carelessly thrown himself down to rest that the weightier portion of his body hung over it, while he was only kept from falling by the tenure of his elbow on its extreme and slippery edge — this “little cliff” arose, a sheer unobstructed precipice of black shining rock, some fifteen or sixteen hundred feet from the world of crags beneath us. Nothing would have tempted me to within half a dozen yards of its brink. In truth so deeply was I excited by the perilous position of my companion, that I fell at full length upon the ground, clung to the shrubs around me, and dared not even glance upward at the sky —while I struggled in vain to divest myself of the idea that the very foundations of the mountain were in danger from the fury of the winds. It was long before I could reason myself into sufficient courage to sit up and look out into the distance.

“You must get over these fancies,” said the guide, “for I have brought you here that you might have the best possible view of the scene of that event I mentioned — and to tell you the whole story with the spot just under your eye.”

“We are now,” he continued, in that particularizing manner which distinguished him — “we are now close upon the Norwegian coast — in the sixty-eighth degree of latitude — in the great province of Nordland — and in the dreary district of Lofoden. The mountain upon whose top we sit is Helseggen, the Cloudy. Now raise yourself up a little higher — hold on to the grass if you feel giddy — so — and look out beyond the belt of vapor beneath us, into the sea.”

I looked dizzily, and beheld a wide expanse of ocean, whose waters wore so inky a hue as to bring at once to my mind the Nubian geographer’s account of the Mare Tenebrarum. A panorama more deplorably desolate no human imagination can conceive. To the right and left, as far as the eye could reach, there lay outstretched, like ramparts of the world, lines of horridly black and beetling cliff, whose character of gloom was but the more forcibly illustrated by the surf which reared high up against it its white and ghastly crest, howling and shrieking for ever. Just opposite the promontory upon whose apex we were placed, and at a distance of some five or six miles out at sea, there was visible a small, bleak-looking island; or, more properly, its position was discernible through the wilderness of surge in which it was enveloped. About two miles nearer the land, arose another of smaller size, hideously craggy and barren, and encompassed at various intervals by a cluster of dark rocks.

The appearance of the ocean, in the space between the more distant island and the shore, had something very unusual about it. Although, at the time, so strong a gale was blowing landward that a brig in the remote offing lay to under a double-reefed trysail, and constantly plunged her whole hull out of sight, still there was here nothing like a regular swell, but only a short, quick, angry cross dashing of water in every direction — as well in the teeth of the wind as otherwise. Of foam there was little except in the immediate vicinity of the rocks.

“The island in the distance,” resumed the old man, “is called by the Norwegians Vurrgh. The one midway is Moskoe. That a mile to the northward is Ambaaren. Yonder are Iflesen, Hoeyholm, Kieldholm, Suarven, and Buckholm. Farther off — between Moskoe and Vurrgh — are Otterholm, Flimen, Sandflesen, and Skarholm. These are the true names of the places — but why it has been thought necessary to name them at all, is more than either you or I can understand. Do you hear any thing? Do you see any change in the water?”

We had now been about ten minutes upon the top of Helseggen, which we had ascended from the interior of Lofoden, so that we had caught no glimpse of the sea until it had burst upon us from the summit. As the old man spoke, I became aware of a loud and gradually increasing sound, like the moaning of a vast herd of buffaloes upon an American prairie; and at the same moment I perceived that what seamen term the chopping character of the ocean beneath us, was rapidly changing into a current which set to the eastward. Even while I gazed, this current acquired a monstrous velocity. Each moment added to its speed — to its headlong impetuosity. In five minutes the whole sea, as far as Vurrgh, was lashed into ungovernable fury; but it was between Moskoe and the coast that the main uproar held its sway. Here the vast bed of the waters, seamed and scarred into a thousand conflicting channels, burst suddenly into phrensied convulsion — heaving, boiling, hissing — gyrating in gigantic and innumerable vortices, and all whirling and plunging on to the eastward with a rapidity which water never elsewhere assumes except in precipitous descents.

In a few minutes more, there came over the scene another radical alteration. The general surface grew somewhat more smooth, and the whirlpools, one by one, disappeared, while prodigious streaks of foam became apparent where none had been seen before. These streaks, at length, spreading out to a great distance, and entering into combination, took unto themselves the gyratory motion of the subsided vortices, and seemed to form the germ of another more vast. Suddenly — very suddenly — this assumed a distinct and definite existence, in a circle of more than half a mile in diameter. The edge of the whirl was represented by a broad belt of gleaming spray; but no particle of this slipped into the mouth of the terrific funnel, whose interior, as far as the eye could fathom it, was a smooth, shining, and jet-black wall of water, inclined to the horizon at an angle of some forty-five degrees, speeding dizzily round and round with a swaying and sweltering motion, and sending forth to the winds an appalling voice, half shriek, half roar, such as not even the mighty cataract of Niagara ever lifts up in its agony to Heaven.

The mountain trembled to its very base, and the rock rocked. I threw myself upon my face, and clung to the scant herbage in an excess of nervous agitation.

“This,” said I at length, to the old man — “this can be nothing else than the great whirlpool of the Maelstrom.”

“So it is sometimes termed,” said he. “We Norwegians call it the Moskoe-strom, from the island of Moskoe in the midway.”

The ordinary accounts of this vortex had by no means prepared me for what I saw. That of Jonas Ramus, which is perhaps the most circumstantial of any, cannot impart the faintest conception either of the magnificence, or of the horror of the scene — or of the wild bewildering sense of the novel which confounds the beholder. I am not sure from what point of view the writer in question surveyed it, nor at what time; but it could neither have been from the summit of Helseggen, nor during a storm. There are some passages of his description, nevertheless, which may be quoted for their details, although their effect is exceedingly feeble in conveying an impression of the spectacle.

“Between Lofoden and Moskoe,” he says, “the depth of the water is between thirty-six and forty fathoms; but on the other side, toward Ver (Vurrgh) this depth decreases so as not to afford a convenient passage for a vessel, without the risk of splitting on the rocks, which happens even in the calmest weather. When it is flood, the stream runs up the country between Lofoden and Moskoe with a boisterous rapidity; but the roar of its impetuous ebb to the sea is scarce equalled by the loudest and most dreadful cataracts; the noise being heard several leagues off, and the vortices or pits are of such an extent and depth, that if a ship comes within its attraction, it is inevitably absorbed and carried down to the bottom, and there beat to pieces against the rocks; and when the water relaxes, the fragments thereof are thrown up again. But these intervals of tranquillity are only at the turn of the ebb and flood, and in calm weather, and last but a quarter of an hour, its violence gradually returning. When the stream is most boisterous, and its fury heightened by a storm, it is dangerous to come within a Norway mile of it. Boats, yachts, and ships have been carried away by not guarding against it before they were within its reach. It likewise happens frequently, that whales come too near the stream, and are overpowered by its violence; and then it is impossible to describe their howlings and bellowings in their fruitless struggles to disengage themselves. A bear once, attempting to swim from Lofoden to Moskoe, was caught by the stream and borne down, while he roared terribly, so as to be heard on shore. Large stocks of firs and pine trees, after being absorbed by the current, rise again broken and torn to such a degree as if bristles grew upon them. This plainly shows the bottom to consist of craggy rocks, among which they are whirled to and fro. This stream is regulated by the flux and reflux of the sea — it being constantly high and low water every six hours. In the year 1645, early in the morning of Sexagesima Sunday, it raged with such noise and impetuosity that the very stones of the houses on the coast fell to the ground.”

In regard to the depth of the water, I could not see how this could have been ascertained at all in the immediate vicinity of the vortex. The “forty fathoms” must have reference only to portions of the channel close upon the shore either of Moskoe or Lofoden. The depth in the centre of the Moskoe-strom must be immeasurably greater; and no better proof of this fact is necessary than can be obtained from even the sidelong glance into the abyss of the whirl which may be had from the highest crag of Helseggen. Looking down from this pinnacle upon the howling Phlegethon below, I could not help smiling at the simplicity with which the honest Jonas Ramus records, as a matter difficult of belief, the anecdotes of the whales and the bears; for it appeared to me, in fact, a self-evident thing, that the largest ships of the line in existence, coming within the influence of that deadly attraction, could resist it as little as a feather the hurricane, and must disappear bodily and at once.

The attempts to account for the phenomenon — some of which, I remember, seemed to me sufficiently plausible in perusal — now wore a very different and unsatisfactory aspect. The idea generally received is that this, as well as three smaller vortices among the Feroe islands, “have no other cause than the collision of waves rising and falling, at flux and reflux, against a ridge of rocks and shelves, which confines the water so that it precipitates itself like a cataract; and thus the higher the flood rises, the deeper must the fall be, and the natural result of all is a whirlpool or vortex, the prodigious suction of which is sufficiently known by lesser experiments.” — These are the words of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Kircher and others imagine that in the centre of the channel of the Maelstrom is an abyss penetrating the globe, and issuing in some very remote part — the Gulf of Bothnia being somewhat decidedly named in one instance. This opinion, idle in itself, was the one to which, as I gazed, my imagination most readily assented; and, mentioning it to the guide, I was rather surprised to hear him say that, although it was the view almost universally entertained of the subject by the Norwegians, it nevertheless was not his own. As to the former notion he confessed his inability to comprehend it; and here I agreed with him — for, however conclusive on paper, it becomes altogether unintelligible, and even absurd, amid the thunder of the abyss.

“You have had a good look at the whirl now,” said the old man, “and if you will creep round this crag, so as to get in its lee, and deaden the roar of the water, I will tell you a story that will convince you I ought to know something of the Moskoe-strom.”

I placed myself as desired, and he proceeded.

“Myself and my two brothers once owned a schooner-rigged smack of about seventy tons burthen, with which we were in the habit of fishing among the islands beyond Moskoe, nearly to Vurrgh. In all violent eddies at sea there is good fishing, at proper opportunities, if one has only the courage to attempt it; but among the whole of the Lofoden coastmen, we three were the only ones who made a regular business of going out to the islands, as I tell you. The usual grounds are a great way lower down to the southward. There fish can be got at all hours, without much risk, and therefore these places are preferred. The choice spots over here among the rocks, however, not only yield the finest variety, but in far greater abundance; so that we often got in a single day, what the more timid of the craft could not scrape together in a week. In fact, we made it a matter of desperate speculation — the risk of life standing instead of labor, and courage answering for capital.

“We kept the smack in a cove about five miles higher up the coast than this; and it was our practice, in fine weather, to take advantage of the fifteen minutes’ slack to push across the main channel of the Moskoe-strom, far above the pool, and then drop down upon anchorage somewhere near Otterholm, or Sandflesen, where the eddies are not so violent as elsewhere. Here we used to remain until nearly time for slackwater again, when we weighed and made for home. We never set out upon this expedition without a steady side wind for going and coming — one that we felt sure would not fall us before our return — and we seldom made a miscalculation upon this point. Twice, during six years, we were forced to stay all night at anchor on account of a dead calm, which is a rare thing indeed just about here; and once we had to remain on the grounds nearly a week, starving to death, owing to a gale which blew up shortly after our arrival, and made the channel too boisterous to be thought of. Upon this occasion we should have been driven out to sea in spite of everything, (for the whirlpools threw us round and round so violently that, at length, we fouled our anchor and dragged it) if it had not been that we drifted into one of the innumerable cross currents — here to-day and gone tomorrow — which drove us under the lee of Flimen, where, by good luck, we brought up.

“I could not tell you the twentieth part of the difficulties we encountered ‘on the ground’ — it is a bad spot to be in, even in good weather — but we made shift always to run the gauntlet of the Moskoe-strom itself without accident; although at times my heart has been in my mouth when we happened to be a minute or so behind or before the slack. The wind sometimes was not as strong as we thought it at starting, and then we made rather less way than we could wish, while the current rendered the smack unmanageable. My eldest brother had a son eighteen years old, and I had two stout boys of my own. These would have been of great assistance at such times, in using the sweeps, as well as afterward in fishing — but, somehow, although we ran the risk ourselves, we had not the heart to let the young ones get into the danger — for, after all said and done, it was a horrible danger, and that is the truth.

“It is now within a few days of three years since what I am going to tell you occurred. It was on the tenth of July, 18—, a day which the people of this part of the world will never forget — for it was one in which blew the most terrible hurricane that ever came out of the heavens. And yet all the morning, and indeed until late in the afternoon, there was a gentle and steady breeze from the south-west, while the sun shone brightly, so that the oldest seaman among us could not have foreseen what was to follow.

“The three of us — my two brothers and myself — had crossed over to the islands about two o’clock P. M., and soon nearly loaded the smack with fine fish, which, we all remarked, were more plenty that day than we had ever known them. It was just seven, by my watch, when we weighed and started for home, so as to make the worst of the Strom at slack water, which we knew would be at eight.

“We set out with a fresh wind on our starboard quarter, and for some time spanked along at a great rate, never dreaming of danger, for indeed we saw not the slightest reason to apprehend it. All at once we were taken aback by a breeze from over Helseggen. This was most unusual —something that had never happened to us before — and I began to feel a little uneasy, without exactly knowing why. We put the boat on the wind, but could make no headway at all for the eddies, and I was upon the point of proposing to return to the anchorage, when, looking astern, we saw the whole horizon covered with a singular copper-colored cloud that rose with the most amazing velocity.

“In the meantime the breeze that had headed us off fell away, and we were dead becalmed, drifting about in every direction. This state of things, however, did not last long enough to give us time to think about it. In less than a minute the storm was upon us — in less than two the sky was entirely overcast — and what with this and the driving spray, it became suddenly so dark that we could not see each other in the smack.

“Such a hurricane as then blew it is folly to attempt describing. The oldest seaman in Norway never experienced any thing like it. We had let our sails go by the run before it cleverly took us; but, at the first puff, both our masts went by the board if they had been sawed off — the mainmast taking with it my youngest brother, who had lashed himself to it for safety.

“Our boat was the lightest feather of a thing that ever sat upon water. It had a complete flush deck, with only a small hatch near the bow, and this hatch it had always been our custom to batten down when about to cross the Strom, by way of precaution against the chopping seas. But for this circumstance we should have foundered at once — for we lay entirely buried for some moments. How my elder brother escaped destruction I cannot say, for I never had an opportunity of ascertaining. For my part, as soon as I had let the foresail run, I threw myself flat on deck, with my feet against the narrow gunwale of the bow, and with my hands grasping a ring-bolt near the foot of the foremast. It was mere instinct that prompted me to do this —which was undoubtedly the very best thing I could have done — for I was too much flurried to think.

“For some moments we were completely deluged, as I say, and all this time I held my breath, and clung to the bolt. When I could stand it no longer I raised myself upon my knees, still keeping hold with my hands, and thus got my head clear. Presently our little boat gave herself a shake, just as a dog does in coming out of the water, and thus rid herself, in some measure, of the seas. I was now trying to get the better of the stupor that had come over me, and to collect my senses so as to see what was to be done, when I felt somebody grasp my arm. It was my elder brother, and my heart leaped for joy, for I had made sure that he was overboard — but the next moment all this joy was turned into horror — for he put his mouth close to my ear, and screamed out the word ‘Moskoe-strom!’

“No one ever will know what my feelings were at that moment. I shook from head to foot as if I had had the most violent fit of the ague. I knew what he meant by that one word well enough —I knew what he wished to make me understand. With the wind that now drove us on, we were bound for the whirl of the Strom, and nothing could save us!

“You perceive that in crossing the Strom channel, we always went a long way up above the whirl, even in the calmest weather, and then had to wait and watch carefully for the slack — but now we were driving right upon the pool itself, and in such a hurricane as this! ‘To be sure’, I thought, ‘we shall get there just about the slack — is some little hope in that’ — but in the next moment I cursed myself for being so great a fool as to dream of hope at all. I knew very well that we were doomed, had we been ten times a ninety-gun ship.

“By this time the first fury of the tempest had spent itself, or perhaps we did not feel it so much, as we scudded before it, but at all events the seas, which at first had been kept down by the wind, and lay flat and frothing, now got up into absolute mountains. A singular change, too, had come over the heavens. Around in every direction it was still as black as pitch, but nearly overhead there burst out, all at once, a circular rift of clear sky — as clear as I ever saw — and of a deep bright blue — and through it there blazed forth the full moon with a lustre that I never before knew her to wear. She lit up every thing about us with the greatest distinctness — but, oh God, what a scene it was to light up!

“I now made one or two attempts to speak to my brother — but in some manner which I could not understand, the din had so increased that I could not make him hear a single word, although I screamed at the top of my voice in his ear. Presently he shook his head, looking as pale as death, and held up one of his fingers, as to say ‘listen!’

“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 as 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!

“When a boat is well built, properly trimmed, and not deep laden, the waves in a strong gale, when she is going large, seem always to slip from beneath her — which appears very strange to a landsman — and this is what is called riding, in sea phrase.

“Well, so far we had ridden the swells very cleverly; but presently a gigantic sea happened to take us right under the counter, and bore us with it as it rose — up — up — as if into the sky. I would not have believed that any wave could rise so high. And then down we came with a sweep, a slide, and a plunge, that made me feel sick and dizzy, as if I was falling from some lofty mountain-top in a dream. But while we were up I had thrown a quick glance around — and that one glance was all sufficient. I saw our exact position in an instant. The Moskoe-strom whirlpool was about a quarter of a mile dead ahead — but no more like the every-day Moskoe-strom, than the whirl as you now see it, is like a mill-race. If I had not known where we were, and what we had to expect, I should not have recognized the place at all. As it was, I involuntarily closed my eyes in horror. The lids clenched themselves together as if in a spasm.

“It could not have been more than two minutes afterwards until we suddenly felt the waves subside, and were enveloped in foam. The boat made a sharp half turn to larboard, and then shot off in its new direction like a thunderbolt. At the same moment the roaring noise of the water was completely drowned in a kind of shrill shriek — such a sound as you might imagine given out by the water-pipes of many thousand steam-vessels, letting off their steam all together. We were now in the belt of surf that always surrounds the whirl; and I thought, of course, that another moment would plunge us into the abyss — down which we could only see indistinctly on account of the amazing velocity with which we were borne along. The boat did not seem to sink into the water at all, but to skim like an air-bubble upon the surface of the surge. Her starboard side was next the whirl, and on the larboard arose the world of ocean we had left. It stood like a huge writhing wall between us and the horizon.

“It may appear strange, but now, when we were in the very jaws of the gulf, I felt more composed than when we were only approaching it. Having made up my mind to hope no more, I got rid of a great deal of that terror which unmanned me at first. I suppose it was despair that strung my nerves.

“It may look like boasting — but what I tell you is truth — I began to reflect how magnificent a thing it was to die in such a manner, and how foolish it was in me to think of so paltry a consideration as my own individual life, in view of so wonderful a manifestation of God’s power. I do believe that I blushed with shame when this idea crossed my mind. After a little while I became possessed with the keenest curiosity about the whirl itself. I positively felt a wish to explore its depths, even at the sacrifice I was going to make; and my principal grief was that I should never be able to tell my old companions on shore about the mysteries I should see. These, no doubt, were singular fancies to occupy a man’s mind in such extremity — and I have often thought since, that the revolutions of the boat around the pool might have rendered me a little light-headed.

“There was another circumstance which tended to restore my self-possession; and this was the cessation of the wind, which could not reach us in our present situation — for, as you saw yourself, the belt of surf is considerably lower than the general bed of the ocean, and this latter now towered above us, a high, black, mountainous ridge. If you have never been at sea in a heavy gale, you can form no idea of the confusion of mind occasioned by the wind and the spray together. They blind, deafen and strangle you, and take away all power of action or reflection. But we were now, in a great measure, rid of these annoyances — just as death-condemned felons in prison are allowed petty indulgences, forbidden them while their doom is yet uncertain.

“How often we made the circuit of the belt it is impossible to say. We careered round and round for perhaps an hour, flying rather than floating, getting gradually more and more into the middle of the surge, and then nearer and nearer to its horrible inner edge. All this time I had never let go of the ring-bolt. My brother was at the stern, holding on to a large empty water-cask which had been securely lashed under the coop of the counter, and was the only thing on deck that had not been swept overboard when the gale first took us. As we approached the brink of the pit he let go his hold upon this, and made for the ring, from which, in the agony of his terror, he endeavored to force my hands, as it was not large enough to afford us both a secure grasp. I never felt deeper grief than when I saw him attempt this act — although I knew he was a madman when he did it — a raving maniac through sheer fright. I did not care, however, to contest the point with him. I thought it could make no difference whether either of us held on at all; so I let him have the bolt, and went astern to the cask. This there was no great difficulty in doing; for the smack flew round steadily enough, and upon an even keel — only swaying to and fro, with the immense sweeps and swelters of the whirl. Scarcely had I secured myself in my new position, when we gave a wild lurch to starboard, and rushed headlong into the abyss. I muttered a hurried prayer to God, and thought all was over.

“As I felt the sickening sweep of the descent, I had instinctively tightened my hold upon the barrel, and closed my eyes. For some seconds I dared not open them — while I expected instant destruction, and wondered that I was not already in my death-struggles with the water. But moment after moment elapsed. I still lived. The sense of falling had ceased; and the motion of the vessel seemed much as it had been before while in the belt of foam, with the exception that she now lay more along. I took courage and looked once again upon the scene.

“Never shall I forget the sensations of awe, horror, and admiration with which I gazed about me. The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic, midway down, upon the interior surface of a funnel vast in circumference, prodigious in depth, and whose perfectly smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony, but for the bewildering rapidity with which they spun around, and for the gleaming and ghastly radiance they shot forth, as the rays of the full moon, from that circular rift amid the clouds which I have already described, streamed in a flood of golden glory along the black walls, and far away down into the inmost recesses of the abyss.

“At first I was too much confused to observe anything accurately. The general burst of terrific grandeur was all that I beheld. When I recovered myself a little, however, my gaze fell instinctively downward. In this direction I was able to obtain an unobstructed view, from the manner in which the smack hung on the inclined surface of the pool. She was quite upon an even keel — that is to say, her deck lay in a plane parallel with that of the water — but this latter sloped at an angle of more than forty-five degrees, so that we seemed to be lying upon our beam-ends. I could not help observing, nevertheless, that I had scarcely more difficulty in maintaining my hold and footing in this situation, than if we had been upon a dead level; and this, I suppose, was owing to the speed at which we revolved.

“The rays of the moon seemed to search the very bottom of the profound gulf; but still I could make out nothing distinctly, on account of a thick mist in which everything there was enveloped, and over which there hung a magnificent rainbow, like that narrow and tottering bridge which Mussulmen say is the only pathway between Time and Eternity. This mist, or spray, was no doubt occasioned by the clashing of the great walls of the funnel, as they all met together at the bottom — but the yell that went up to the Heavens from out of mist, I dare not attempt to describe.

“Our first slide into the abyss itself, from the belt of foam above, had carried us to a great distance down the slope; but our farther descent was by no means proportionate. Round and round we swept — not with any uniform movement — but in dizzying swings and jerks, that sent us sometimes only a few hundred feet — sometimes nearly the complete circuit of the whirl. Our progress downward, at each revolution, was slow, but very perceptible.

“Looking about me upon the wide waste of liquid ebony on which we were thus borne, I perceived that our boat was not the only object in the embrace of the whirl. Both above and below us were visible fragments of vessels, large masses of building timber and trunks of trees, with many smaller articles, such as pieces of house furniture, broken boxes, barrels and staves. I have already described the unnatural curiosity which had taken the place of my original terrors. It appeared to grow upon me as I drew nearer and nearer to my dreadful doom. I now began to watch, with a strange interest, the numerous things that floated in our company. I must have been delirious — for I even sought amusement in speculating upon the relative velocities of their several descents toward the foam below. ‘This fir tree’, I found myself at one time saying, ‘will certainly be the next thing that takes the awful plunge and disappears’ — and then I was disappointed to find that the wreck of a Dutch merchant ship overtook it and went down before. At length, after making several guesses of this nature, and being deceived in all —this fact — the fact of my invariable miscalculation, set me upon a train of reflection that made my limbs again tremble, and my heart beat heavily once more.

“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 — that the others had entered the whirl at so late a period of the tide, or, from some reason, had descended so slowly after entering, that they did not reach the bottom before the turn of the flood came, or of the ebb, as the case might be. I conceived it possible, in either instance, that they might thus be whirled up again to the level of the ocean, without undergoing the fate of those which had been drawn in more early or absorbed more rapidly. 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.

“Since my escape, I have had several conversations on this subject with an old school-master of the district; and it was from him that I learned the use of the words ‘cylinder’ and ‘sphere.’ He explained to me — although I have forgotten the explanation — how what I observed was, in fact, the natural consequence of the forms of the floating fragments — and showed me how it happened that a cylinder, swimming in a vortex, offered more resistance to its suction, and was drawn in with greater difficulty than an equally bulky body, of any form whatever.1

“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. I attracted my brother’s attention by signs, pointed to the floating barrels that came near us, and did everything in my power to make him understand what I was about to do. I thought at length that he comprehended my design — but, whether this was the case or not, he shook his head despairingly, and refused to move from his station by the ring-bolt. It was impossible to force him; the emergency admitted no delay; and so, with a bitter struggle, I resigned him to his fate, fastened myself to the cask by means of the lashings which secured it to the counter, and precipitated myself with it into the sea, without another moment’s hesitation.

“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. It might have been an hour, or thereabout, after my quitting the smack, when, having descended to a vast distance beneath me, it made three or four wild gyrations in rapid succession, and, bearing my loved brother with it, plunged headlong, at once and forever, into the chaos of foam below. The barrel to which I was attached sunk very little farther than half the distance between the bottom of the gulf and the spot at which I leaped overboard, before a great change took place in the character of the whirlpool. The slope of the sides of the vast funnel became momently less and less steep. The gyrations of the whirl grew, gradually, less and less violent. By degrees, the froth and the rainbow disappeared, and the bottom of the gulf seemed slowly to uprise. The sky was clear, the winds had gone down, and the full moon was setting radiantly in the west, when I found myself on the surface of the ocean, in full view of the shores of Lofoden, and above the spot where the pool of the Moskoe-strom had been. It was the hour of the slack — but the sea still heaved in mountainous waves from the effects of the hurricane. I was borne violently into the channel of the Strom and in a few minutes, was hurried down the coast into the ‘grounds’ of the fishermen. A boat picked me up — exhausted from fatigue — and (now that the danger was removed) speechless from the memory of its horror. Those who drew me on board were my old mates and dally companions — but they knew me no more than they would have known a traveller from the spirit-land. My hair, which had been raven-black the day before, was as white as you see it now. They say too that the whole expression of my countenance had changed. I told them my story — they did not believe it. I now tell it to you — and I can scarcely expect you to put more faith in it than did the merry fishermen of Lofoden.

  1. Poe provides a footnote to “Archimedes, De Incidentibus in Fluido.  While Archimedes apparently did write on whirlpools in ‘De Incidentibus in Humido‘, Poe seems to have found his spurious authority in Sketch of the Progress of Physical Science by Thomas Thomson  (1843), in which De Incidentibus in Fluido appears — in time for the second edition of Descent in 1845.

Vortex atoms in 19th century physics

In 1914 Wyndham Lewis announced the vortex of art in Blast:

Long live the great art vortex sprung up in the centre of this town! (‘Long Live the Vortex!’, Blast 1, 1914)

With our Vortex the Present is the only active thing.
Life is the Past and the Future.
The Present is Art
Our Vortex insists on water-tight compartments.
There is no Present — there is Past and Future, and there is Art.

This is a great Vorticist age, a great still age of artists.

Our Vortex is proud of its polished sides.
Our Vortex will not hear of anything but its disastrous polished dance.
Our Vortex desires the immobile rhythm of its swiftness.
Our Vortex rushes out like an angry dog at your Impressionistic fuss.
Our Vortex is white and abstract with its red-hot swiftness.1 (‘Our Vortex’, Blast 2, 1915)

Long before this, starting in the 1860s and continuing in vogue until almost the end of the century, the vortex had been proposed in physics as nothing less than the elementary structure of the atom. Here is the great figure of William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), in a presentation to the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1867:

After noticing Helmholtz’s admirable discovery of the law of vortex motion in a perfect liquid — that is, in a fluid perfectly destitute of viscosity (or fluid friction) — the author [Kelvin] said that this discovery inevitably suggests the idea that Helmholtz’s rings are the only true atoms. For the only pretext seeming to justify the monstrous assumption of infinitely strong and infinitely rigid pieces of matter, the existence of which is asserted as a probable hypothesis by some of the greatest modern chemists (…) [—] urged by Lucretius and adopted by Newton — [is] that it seems necessary to account for the unalterable distinguishing qualities of different kinds of matter. But Helmholtz has provided an absolutely unalterable quality in the motion of any portion of a perfect liquid in which the peculiar motion which he calls “Wirbelbewegung” has been once created. Thus any portion of a perfect liquid which has “Wirbelbewegung” has one recommendation of Lucretius’s atoms — infinitely perennial specific quality. To generate or to destroy “Wirbelbewegung” in a perfect fluid can only be an act of creative power. Lucretius’s atom does not explain any of the properties of matter without attributing them to the atom itself. Thus the “clash of atoms,” as it has been well called, has been invoked by his modern followers to account for the elasticity of gases. Every other property of matter has similarly required an assumption of specific forces pertaining to the atom. [But] it is [as] easy (…) to assume whatever specific forces may be required in any portion of matter which possesses the “Wirbelbewegung” as in a solid indivisible piece of matter; and hence the Lucretius atom has no prima facie advantage over the Helmholtz atom.

The vortex was, however, not only no less plausible than “a solid indivisible piece of matter” as “the true atom”. It also had the inestimable advantage, as Helmholtz had shown in regard to the vortex in a perfect liquid, that it had definable structure and was subject to mathematical specification. This meant that investigations could relate empirical findings to transformations of the hypothetical structure and to mathematical calculations in a way that could not be done taking atoms as solid lumps.

Furthermore, as Kelvin pointed out in his talk, the vortex atom theory seemed closely related to contemporary research into electricity and magnetism.  Indeed, Kelvin predicted in his presentation: “the velocities [of the vortex circles] at different points are to be in proportion to the intensities of the magnetic forces in the corresponding points of the magnetic field”.

Hence, although the vortex theory ultimately proved untenable, its focus on specifiable structure and mathematical modeling contributed mightily to the nobel prize winning discovery of the electron in 1897 by  J.J. Thomson and to the associated gradual understanding of the true structure of the atom.  In fact, J.J. Thomson’s earlier Treatise on the Motion of Vortex Rings (1884), had had no other goal than to describe the motions of Kelvin’s vortex atoms.

Now McLuhan took the vortex as the atomic structure of media and saw Poe’s Maelstrom as describing the peculiar difference between material and media atoms. Namely, media atoms have a kind of rider2 (like Poe’s mariner) who can detach from one medium in order to ride another — in Kelvin’s terms, “an act of creative power”? — but can also become so attached to a medium, like the mariner’s brother, that no alternative is available but to continue to ride it to certain doom.  (Such a rider apparently cannot dare to go “through the vanishing point” which is the only way between atomic media structures.) ‘Riding’ and ‘detaching’ and ‘reattaching’ in these ways are, McLuhan suggested, what it means to be a human being and are therefore central to its investigation.3 

Just before entering the maelstrom, Poe’s mariner experiences in anticipation what will take place there:

When a boat is well built, properly trimmed, and not deep laden, the waves in a strong gale, when she is going large, seem always to slip from beneath her — which appears very strange to a landsman — and this is what is called riding, in sea phrase. Well, so far we had ridden the swells very cleverly; but presently a gigantic sea happened to take us right under the [ship’s stern or] counter, and bore us with it as it rose — up — up — as if into the sky. I would not have believed that any wave could rise so high. And then down we came with a sweep, a slide, and a plunge, that made me feel sick and dizzy, as if I was falling from some lofty mountain-top in a dream.

The great questions are: what does it mean that humans are riders of forms?  and that these riders are somehow able to undertake (or undergo?) the radical change from one form to another?

The boat did not seem to sink into the water at all, but to skim like an air-bubble upon the surface of the surge.4

As he noted in his 1867 presentation to the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Kelvin’s inspiration for his vortex atom theory came from Hermann von Helmholtz‘s 1858 paper: ‘Über Integrale der hydrodynamischen Gleichungen, welche den Wirbelbewegungen  entsprechen’. Kelvin’s friend and colleague, P.G. Tait, mentioned Helmholtz’s paper in a letter to Kelvin in 1862 and then in 1867 translated it as ‘On Integrals of the Hydrodynamical Equations, Which Express Vortex-motion’.  Between these two events, Kelvin and Tait developed ways of illustrating the workings of vortex motion using smoke rings and Helmholtz himself visited them in Glasgow from Germany in 1863.

Poe’s Descent into the Maelstrom, which was originally published in 1841, and would become McLuhan’s continuing inspiration in 1946, became available in German translation starting in 1846.5 Strangely, it is therefore possible that Poe’s story played central roles, 100 years apart, in unexpected  developments of the physical sciences in the 19th century and of the human sciences in the 20th.6

In the first instance, it may have had some part in suggesting the study of ‘Wirbelbewegungen’ to Helmholtz, which led to Kelvin’s vortex atoms and eventually to J.J. Thomson’s electrons. And in the second, it certainly had a part in suggesting to McLuhan how a Gestalt-switch in media is central to all human experience and communication.

Meanwhile, halfway between these events, Lewis and Pound proclaimed vorticism in art.

  1. Lewis seems to have taken his description of the vortex here in part from Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelstrom: “Never shall I forget the sensations of awe, horror, and admiration with which I gazed about me. The boat appeared to be hanging, as if by magic, midway down, upon the interior surface of a funnel vast in circumference, prodigious in depth, and whose perfectly smooth sides might have been mistaken for ebony, but for the bewildering rapidity with which they spun around, and for the gleaming and ghastly radiance they shot forth, as the rays of the full moon (…) streamed in a flood of golden glory along the black walls, and far away down into the inmost recesses of the abyss.”
  2. See McLuhan’s ‘The Implications of Cultural Uniformity’ (in Superculture: American Popular Culture and Europe1975): “William Empson has described the role of the semiconscious navigator between worlds, in his ‘Arachne’ (1928) which opens: “Twixt devil and deep sea, man hacks his caves; / Birth, death; one, many; what is true, and seems; /
    Earth’s vast hot iron, cold space’s empty waves.”
  3. Every human being comes to life in the medium of amniotic fluid (Cameron’s fluid) and is then born into the very different medium of the extra-uterine world.  The in-fant then learns to speak in another global Gestalt-switch whereby it leaves a world of instinctual communication and somehow comes to understand another sort of general communication based on sounds that can carry meaning to it and from it. Now understanding modern art, according to McLuhan, requires an analogous intro-duction or e-ducation into new learning: since late in the nineteenth century, artists, poets and musicians have been attempting to express insight into forms, or media, not content, or messages. As he wrote to Pound (July 16, 1952): “Your own tips are always exact. But they are of little help to the uninitiated. Once a man has got onto technique as the key in communication it’s different. But somehow the bugbear of content forbids that anybody be interested in technique as content” (Letters 231). McLuhan’s wider claim followed: the key to the investigation of human being, therefore to the survival of the species, depended on study of “the life and nature of forms” (‘Introduction’ to Innis’ The Bias of Communication, 1964).
  4. Empson’s ‘Arachne’: “His gleaming bubble between void and void, / Tribe-membrane, that by mutual tension stands, / Earth’s surface film”…
  5. As specified at The Edgar Allan Poe Society website, between 1846 and 1858, when Helmholtz’s ‘Wirbelbewegungen’ paper appeared, Poe’s Maelstrom was translated into German at least 3 separate times: ‘Auf dem Maelstrom: Reiseerinnerungen aus Norwegen’, Frankfurter Konversationsblatt, Oktober 1846; ‘Der Mahlstrom’, Bremischer Beobachter, April 1852; ‘Eine Hinabwirbelung in den Maalstrom’, Deutsche Monatshefte, Dezember 1855.
  6. “In the 20th” — as may perhaps be realized in the 21st!

Giedion on simultaneity

In the middle of a consideration of space in Space, Time and Architecture, Giedion suddenly broaches the topic of time:

Cubism breaks with Renaissance perspective. It views objects relatively: that is, from several points of view, no one of which has exclusive authority. And in so dissecting objects it sees them simultaneously from all sides — from above and below, from inside and outside. It goes around and into its objects. Thus, to the three dimensions of the Renaissance which have held good as constituent facts throughout so many centuries, there is added a fourth one — time. The poet Guillaume Apollinaire was the first to recognize and express this change, around 1911. The same year saw the first cubist exhibition in the Salon des Indépendants. Considering the history of the principles from which they broke, it can well be understood that the paintings should have been thought a menace to the public peace, and have become the subject of remarks in the Chamber of Deputies.
The presentation of objects from several points of view introduces a principle which is intimately bound up with modern life — simultaneity. It is a historical coincidence1 that Einstein should have begun his famous work, Elektrodynamik bewegter Korper, in 1905 with a careful definition of simultaneity.2 (First edition, 1941, 357; fifth edition, 1966, 436.)

As seen in this passage from STA, Giedion evidently considered Apollinaire a key figure. In fact, shortly after first meeting McLuhan in St Louis. Giedion recommended Apollinaire to him in a note from August 14, 1943:

Did you ever study the Alcools [1913] of Guillaume Apollinaire?

This, along with his on-going work on Eliot and on Poe (who was first translated into French by Baudelaire), suggested to McLuhan the need for a close study of French symbolist poetry (especially Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Mallarmé) that would occupy him for the next decade (not without a mass of other interests, of course). The result was an unpublished manuscript in the McLuhan papers in Ottawa discussing Eliot’s encounter with the symbolists that is full of citations in French from them: Prelude to Prufrock.

The central importance of this study for McLuhan’s literary essays and especially for his media work may be seen in a passage from his letter to Innis from March 14, 1951:

One major discovery of the symbolists which had the greatest importance for subsequent investigation was their notion of the learning process as a labyrinth of the senses and faculties whose retracing provided the key to all arts and sciences…

  1. ‘Historical coincidence’ has been substituted for ‘temporal coincidence’ here since ‘the temporal’ in this context is exactly not, or not only, ‘the historical’. While it is not impossible that Giedion intended the full significance of ‘the temporal’ here, that is, ‘the historical’ + simultaneity, the likelihood is that his expression here is an artifact of the translation of STA by Giedion and his aides from his German thinking to English-like writing. His late work would greatly benefit from Jackie Tyrwhitt’s emergence as his editor.
  2. English translation: ‘On the electrodynamics of moving bodies‘.

Giedion to Nef re a “promising young scholar”

On August 3, 1943, Sigfried Giedion wrote his friend John Nef at the University of Chicago (where Nef was one of the founders of the Committee on Social Thought and a close aide to UC President Robert Hutchins) about his meeting with a “promising young scholar” in St Louis that spring: Mr H.M. McLuhan. Giedion wrote Nef (in his somewhat stilted English):

One evening at St Louis I met a young scholar of English literature, Mr H M McLuhan.  I had an excellent impression of this young man who seems to live rather isolated at St Louis University. I heard that he made the PhD at Cambridge (England) and that he became there a catholic (as for instance also T.S. Eliot).  I did not read any of his articles, but I shall ask him to send me some fragments of his book on English literature, and when they are all right, I shall try and do my best that they will be published by a good publisher. Perhaps Chicago University may invite him once [presumably ‘einmal’ = ‘sometime’] for a lecture. (…) I guess, Mr McLuhan would fit into the Chicago environment and I did not find many youngsters of his kind of approach.

Speaking of Winnipeg – “a vast sense of space and time”

In a 1970 interview of McLuhan and Tom Easterbrook by Danny Finkleman1, McLuhan recalled many different aspects of his life in Winnipeg (often with tongue in cheek):

We might as well have a few words about the superiority of the prairie meadowlark to all other songbirds (…) it has a much longer and almost melodic phrase. It isn’t a mere chirp; it has a melody. It talks to you. Besides it is extremely musical. It’s not just the solid glug-glug of the nightingale [championed by uninformed ornithologists like John Keats]. By comparison with the birds I’ve heard in Europe and England, it is enormously superior. (23)

I think of western skies as one of the most beautiful things about the West, and the western horizons. The westerner doesn’t have a point of view. He has a vast panorama; he has such tremendous space around him (…) a total field of vision,  and since he can take this total field at any time, he doesn’t have to worry about goals. He can take his time (…) You have a vast sense of space and time.  (23-24)

I lived on Gertrude Avenue [in the Fort Rouge section of Winnipeg] and there was the Assiniboine River at one end of the street, a few hundred yards away; at the other end, was the Red River.  I had a boat on each river, a rowboat on the Assiniboine (where I skied in winter) and a sailboat on the Red. (32)

Tom and I both started off [university] in Engineering [in the fall of 1928] and because of our long periods of study during the summer [when jobs were not available on account of the depression], we were able to upgrade ourselves into Arts.  I read myself out of Engineering by my long summer [of 1929]. (27)

I walked to school many times in 50-below zero along Osborne Street [over the Assiniboine River via the Osborne Street bridge] across from the Parliament grounds to the old quondset huts that used to be called Manitoba University. (27-28)

We [Easterbrook and McLuhan] had an absolute agreement between ourselves to disagree about everything and this kept up (…) a very hot dialogue [between us] from morning to night for years in Winnipeg which carried us on foot across town at night, late at night till three or four in the morning, back and forth across the city. [McLuhan’s family lived south of downtown, Easterbrook’s north.] (34)

He’s been stubborn always. [Easterbrook on McLuhan] (34)

Tom and I went to Europe [in 1932] during the Depression on our own. (…) We used youth hostels. From portal to portal we spent one hundred dollars in three months and supported ourselves very happily all that period. It was the sort of trip you couldn’t have today.  You couldn’t ride bicycles on the roads we travelled on because of the congestion of traffic in England now. So it was a pastoral event and a fulfillment of a great ideal.  (26)

One peculiar thing happened when Tom and I were travelling in England. We had to decide as we came south on our bike route whether to go to Cambridge or bypass it for London. And we said, No, we’ll go to Cambridge later; we’ll study there. And both of us did. We ducked Cambridge on our tour and went back there to study. He went to Jesus College [as a professor in 1955-1956], I went to Trinity Hall [as a student in 1934-1936]. (36-37)

How fortunate we were [in Winnipeg] in receiving people from every part of United States. Manitoba University, in our time, had great figures from United States and Great Britain (…) like Rupert Clendon Lodge2… (30)

I applied to Wisconsin University for my first job in 1936 in the depth of the Depression and got it. I applied to Wisconsin University because of Lloyd Wheeler3, who was the only [professor] I knew [in the English department] at Manitoba who had been to an American university. I wrote to his alma mater using his name and got the job. (36)

  1. Speaking of Winnipeg, ed John Parr, 1974, 23-38
  2. See note 3 below.
  3. McLuhan to E.K Brown, new head of the UM English Department, December 12, 1935: “I wish merely to introduce myself as one of the products of some of the leanest years of the Manitoba English Department. The last year was somewhat relieved by the presence of Dr. Wheeler, but I had directed my energies to philosophy, and did my best work for Professor Lodge.” (Letters 79)