Monthly Archives: June 2017

Proposal to Robert Hutchins 1947

In 1946 McLuhan’s friend, Cleanth Brooks (then a visiting professor at the University of Chicago), facilitated a meeting between him and Robert Hutchins — the UC chancellor and arguably the most influential education leader nationally. Some 18 months later1, McLuhan submitted a proposal to Hutchins for an inter-disciplinary seminar and associated journal.  In his cover latter of December 7, 1947, McLuhan explained:

The enclosed proposal for an “editorial community” is a direct outgrowth of the talk I had with you about the college at Chicago.

The proposal is given below (with the permission of the McLuhan estate). It will be discussed in future posts.2 Suffice it to note here only that it clearly looks forward to the Culture and Communication seminar that the Ford Foundation would finance beginning in 1953 with a grant of $44,000 over three years.  But McLuhan’s proposal to Hutchins, 5 years before, was looking for $200,000 annually (or well over $2million annually in today’s dollars)!

Surely McLuhan was correct, however, that the extent of our response to our spiritual and cultural collapse would have to be commensurate with the threat. So the astonishing thing is not the audacity of McLuhan’s proposal, but the fact that it has never even much been contemplated, let alone implemented.


Dear Mr. Hutchins:

The enclosed proposal for an “editorial community” is a direct outgrowth of the talk I had with you about the college at Chicago. The project is really conceived with a sense of the urgency and probable brevity of our affairs. But that note of alarm was kept out of these pages since they were intended not so much for your eye as for that of some wealthy sponsor who might occur to you, and who would prefer a longer view.

Somebody of the stature of Henry Luce or Marshall Field is indicated as the “angel” for this venture. Might not that indeed be a plan well-suited to the fulfillment of Luce’s hope for a fourth magazine?

Nothing is said of the actual personnel of the editorial community, but I have men in mind. You, however, would know of some who would be even more suitable. Eric Voegelin is a “must” for Political Science, I think. As for the locale of the venture, that would have to be settled on lines of expediency. Proximity to a big center like New York or Chicago is indicated.

Etienne Gilson, with whom I have discussed the project, approved it, but was most sceptical about the financial possibilities. Given the financial backing he would not, I think, hesitate to join the venture. This fact might be a useful one to hold in reserve, though.3 There are, I am aware, reasonable objections to having Gilson associated with the review. The community idea calls for younger men on the whole.

Should you see fit to approve this plan, would you, then, forward it to Luce or some likely sponsor? Naturally I would not ask such a thing as a merely personal favor to myself, but rather for the merits, if any, of the plan itself.

Very sincerely yours,
Marshall McLuhan



The Situation

Not since the scholars fled westwards from Constantinople in 1453 has there been a movement to rival the present accumulation of European specialists in the United States.5 And the role of the U.S. as host and custodian of the refugees and their learning can only be envisaged as a second Westward Movement of the scholars.

The resulting stimulus to American learning has been and will continue to be comparable to that which produced the developments in Italy, France, and England in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. So that the twentieth and twenty-first centuries will be the American centuries in a sense more decisive than that of economic and political initiative. But without the economic and political hegemony these larger functions and fulfillments would be impossible.

The Possibilities

There is much that is involuntary about the role of Custodian of Western Civilization which has descended on the United States. So far as the larger drama of Western ideas and culture was concerned the United States in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries thought of its role not even as a “walk-on” part but rather as a “walk-off” bit.

Everything involved in the trauma of emigration suggested to the emigrants a minimal rather than a maximal continuity with Western civilization. But it is important to realize that not merely external events but also a deep fidelity to the basic


European heritage which was brought to America, has reversed the conscious intention to attenuate the traditions of the West.

The American North fostered speculation in theology, philosophy, and science, in harmony with the great European current which flowed through Aristotle, Abelard, Albertus Magnus, Descartes, and Locke. The American South typically developed the correlative tradition of “Ciceronian” humanism which cultivates the practical virtues in the attainment of artistic taste, forensic eloquence, and legal and political skill.

Thus the United States has within her own immediate traditions rich points of contact with the entire range of European civilization. And this is a fact of the utmost value at present; since the new responsibilities and tasks do not impose any need for hasty initiation but call only for an enlargement and a comprehension of the native traditions.

As indications of the readiness and ability of Americans to undertake the business of exploration and re-adaptation of the entire Western heritage, consider on one hand F.S.C. Northrop’s The Meeting of East and West [1946], and on the other hand the testimony of Cyril Connolly in the American number of Horizon [1947]. Northrop’s sense of the fragmentary and scrappy character of American life when measured against the entire range of available civilized values and achievements is nothing less than a portent. Especially since Northrop speaks from within a specialized and limited portion even of American experience. He thereby gives evidence of an intellectual resilience and hospitality which is utterly different from that which once prompted the discontented American to live abroad in order to  


redress the pragmatic bias of life at home. Northrop really proclaims the fitness of contemporary America for the new task, in the very act of calling for major readjustments. Connolly, on the other hand, speaks as an apprehensive Englishman carefully testing our intellectual resources and climate for their immediate possibilities. He, too, provides a verdict of a most favorable kind. America is equal to the new intellectual and spiritual role.


The radical deficiency of American intellectual life vis-a-vis the new tasks of revaluation, synthesis, and exploration, is its lack of communal sense. This is true even of the academic scene. But outside the academic world there is certainly no likelihood of finding the leisure, the erudition or the disinterestedness for the work at hand. The first step, therefore, is to perform a basic overhaul job on the academies. To redirect the energies of the American college from the immediate goal of preparing students for a local commercial society to preparing students for the fullest kind of citizenship, such as is actually demanded of us as a condition of present survival — that is the task.

To accomplish this end it would be pointless to talk to presidents and deans and department heads. What must be done is rather to re-energize the entire body of the arts and sciences. That such a flow of energy into long dormant arts and sciences as poetics, rhetoric, and metaphysics has actually occurred is already evident to many. In fact, no such major revisions have taken place within the main provinces of human knowledge since the time of Hume and Kant.


At the end of the eighteenth century the main lines of human thought and action had been established for the ensuing century and a half. And in England and America the major means of making effective the new adjustments in the arts and sciences was the Edinburgh Review. In this Review the consequences of the positions of Adam Smith, Bentham, and Hume were thrashed out for and by economists, historians, philologists, critics, and scientists. What the French encyclopedists had been to France, the Edinburgh Review was for England and America. All the provinces of learning and investigation were opened up to discussion and revaluation. The due inter-relation between them was decided and the degree of cognizance which one was to take of the other was considered and settled.

That great positivist synthesis lasted until the time of Herbert Spencer and petered out in the popular fantasies of the encyclopedic H.G. Wells. Meantime it was increasingly challenged by the more speculative synthesis which stemmed from Vico and Hegel and was carried on through Marx on the economic side and through Nietzsche on the psychological and philological fronts. However, it has never been understood that the second-rate character of the English and American nineteenth century as compared with the German and French was owing to the German and French having adopted psychological rather than the biological experience as the source of the guiding analogies for the synthesis of social study and discussion. Adam Smith introduced into the


intellectual currency the analogy of a vague evolutionary providence operating through both human and animal appetites. This analogy fructified the minds of Malthus and Darwin. But it was analogy quite incapable of stimulating the great anthropological and cultural histories which, under Viconian and Hegelian inspiration, appeared on the continent. Sir James Frazer and Arnold Toynbee are by-products of Max Muller and Oswald Spengler rather than of their own traditions.

Every age has its reigning analogy in terms of which it orients itself with respect to the past and directs its energies through the present to the future. To be contemporary in the good sense is to be aware of this analogy. To be “ahead of the time” is to be critically aware of the analogy. That is, to be aware that it is only one analogy. To be creative and directive of the currents of the age is, while admitting the limitations of the dominant analogy, to carry out as complete as extension and synthesis of the arts and sciences as it will permit. But also to explore as much new terrain in each art and science as it will allow. To recover as much of the past as can be made creatively relevant to the present. To be aware of the past as presently useful and of much of the present as already irrelevant — all this is to be a contemporary mind. And this mode of awareness is itself based on an analogy derived from relativity physics (as also from the correlated Jungian conception of the collective consciousness of the race) whose usefulness to a society faced with the problems of world government and international community is as immense as it is as yet unexploited.



To impinge at the most decisive point with the most adequate materials. To this end it is proposed that there be established a Review of an entirely new sort. It will consist of eight or ten full-time editors who will for the most part write it. Each editor is to be a specialist. but a specialist with encyclopedic interests and tendencies. A genuine intellectual community is indispensable. The first business of the editors will be during some months to conduct a mutual inquisition into each other’s specialty and to develop a full sense of the congruities of method and pursuit among their specialized interests. The study of methods and results is to be both of investigation and transmission or pedagogy. The editors should represent at least

  • Philosophy (metaphysics, logic, cosmology)
  • Mathematical Physics
  • Political Science
  • Anthropology
  • Analytical Psychology
  • Philology (classics, modern languages, art, music, history. and criticism)

Associated with each of the permanent editors should be two or more temporary editorial fellows recruited on a leave-of-absence basis from the universities. These men would be selected with regard to such considerations as the following:

(a) Youth and ability to discuss and express the problems of their specialized fields


(b) Advanced development of some new concepts in their fields.

(c) Variety of experience at several leading institutions.

The reason for this selection is two-fold. First to insure a fresh flow of perceptions and problems to the editorial community.  Second, to provide a free flow of editorial influence into the major institutions of the country.


The procedure of the review would be to present, in the first place, a clear picture of the total situation in each province of knowledge. This would also involve a thorough critique of each subject and of the best methods of pursuing and teaching it. A sharp scrutiny of the actual pursuits and teaching methods at the dominant institutions would, even as a rhetorical strategy, assure an attentive body of readers among the entire faculties and graduate students of the universities.

The contents of the Review would include new contributions to specialized studies; but a press associated with the Review could, in general, handle such matters more expediently. More typically the contents would follow the lines of definitely established projects, doing on an advanced level what Fortune magazine does for the casual reader. The method of each project would ideally be that of genetic investigation of each problem. The genetic method insures a maximum of comprehension with a minimum engendering of irrelevant emotion.

For example, F.S.C. Northrop offers an excellent instance


of the genetic method as applied to the total absence of developed sensibility in American life coincident with the hypertrophy of action. The notable superiority of the Chinese culture in the matter of esthetic and moral discrimination is a fact from which much can be learned. One major deficiency in American life and education calls precisely for redress of the balance between theoretic and esthetic or particular perception and judgement.

The editorial community would function as a super-seminar in which the projects of each person would be submitted to the constant inspection and discussion of all the rest. In this way alone is it possible (a) to escape the intellectual isolation of the present-day specialist and (b) to inter-animate one knowledge with the due life and results of the others.


Estimated annual cost of projected Review (exclusive of its earnings), $200,000.6



  1. The delay between the meeting with Hutchins and the submission of McLuhan’s proposal may have had several grounds. In the first place, McLuhan must have needed time to think through his ideas and to find a way to express them clearly.  This was especially the case, second, that he suspected even before his 1946 meeting with Hutchins that work with him and with UC generally might be fruitless: McLuhan wrote to Cleanth Brooks on March 29, 1946, “I came increasingly to feel that Hutchins was beyond any hope from our point of view, and my tone, therefore, became uncompromising. I’m sure that he’ll put this in the hands of Adler, McKeon, and Crane, but nothing is to be gained by playing ball with those lads” (letter cited in Mark Royden, Cleanth Brooks and the Rise of Modern Criticism, 1996, 205). Third, he was unsure himself of the wisdom and goodness of his ideas.  As he wrote to Clement McNaspy at Christmas, 1945: “What an object lesson a Christian has to-day in seeing so much good produce so much ill. Not for a moment do I imagine that I can frame a course of action which will do good. (…) How easy it would be to set up a school on these lines, utilizing the encyclopedic learning of our age. But whether that is desirable?” (Letters 180)
  2. See Nef on McLuhan’s proposal. Some discussion of the meeting and proposal may be found in Marchand’s McLuhan bio, 98-99. But Marchand had not seen the proposal himself and some of the details reported to him are wrong. The connection of the proposal with Sigfried Giedion’s ideas is very important. And Harold Innis had comparable suggestions. Nef on McLuhan’s proposal discusses these ties with Giedion and Innis.
  3. Minor corrections to McLuhan’s cover letter and proposal have been made. So here, the word ‘though’ appears in McLuhan’s letter not at the end of this sentence, but at the start of the next. McLuhan often composed by dictation to his wife at this point in his career and then seldom corrected the result.
  4. Page numbers of the original proposal are given in square brackets.
  5. McLuhan specifically suggested only two scholars for his proposed project and both were Europeans, Eric Voegelin and Etienne Gilson.
  6. $200,000 in 1947 dollars = $2,050,000 in 2012 dollars.

Ms. Found In A Bottle – Edgar Poe

Qui n’a plus qu’un moment à vivre
N’a plus rien à dissimuler. Quinault — Atys [1676]

Of my country and of my family I have little to say. Ill usage and length of years have driven me from the one, and estranged me from the other. Hereditary wealth afforded me an education of no common order, and a contemplative turn of mind enabled me to methodise the stores which early study very diligently garnered up. Beyond all things, the works of the German moralists gave me great delight; not from any ill-advised admiration of their eloquent madness, but from the ease with which my habits of rigid thought enabled me to detect their falsities. I have often been reproached with the aridity of my genius; a deficiency of imagination has been imputed to me as a crime; and the Pyrrhonism of my opinions has at all times rendered me notorious. Indeed, a strong relish for physical philosophy has, I fear, tinctured my mind with a very common error of this age — I mean the habit of referring occurrences, even the least susceptible of such reference, to the principles of that science. Upon the whole, no person could be less liable than myself to be led away from the severe precincts of truth by the ignes fatui of superstition. I have thought proper to premise thus much, lest the incredible tale I have to tell should be considered rather the raving of a crude imagination, than the positive experience of a mind to which the reveries of fancy have been a dead letter and a nullity.

After many years spent in foreign travel, I sailed in the year 18——, from the port of Batavia, in the rich and populous island of Java, on a voyage to the Archipelago of the Sunda islands. I went as passenger — having no other inducement than a kind of nervous restlessness which haunted me as a fiend.

Our vessel was a beautiful ship of about four hundred tons, copper-fastened, and built at Bombay of Malabar teak. She was freighted with cotton-wool and oil, from the Lachadive islands. We had also on board coir, jaggeree, ghee, cocoa-nuts, and a few cases of opium. The stowage was clumsily done, and the vessel consequently crank.

We got under way with a mere breath of wind, and for many days stood along the eastern coast of Java, without any other incident to beguile the monotony of our course than the occasional meeting with some of the small grabs of the Archipelago to which we were bound.

One evening, leaning over the taffrail, I observed a very singular, isolated cloud, to the N. W. It was remarkable, as well for its color, as from its being the first we had seen since our departure from Batavia. I watched it attentively until sunset, when it spread all at once to the eastward and westward, girting in the horizon with a narrow strip of vapor, and looking like a long line of low beach. My notice was soon afterwards attracted by the dusky-red appearance of the moon, and the peculiar character of the sea. The latter was undergoing a rapid change, and the water seemed more than usually transparent. Although I could distinctly see the bottom, yet, heaving the lead, I found the ship in fifteen fathoms. The air now became intolerably hot, and was loaded with spiral exhalations similar to those arising from heated iron. As night came on, every breath of wind died away, and a more entire calm it is impossible to conceive. The flame of a candle burned upon the poop without the least perceptible motion, and a long hair, held between the finger and thumb, hung without the possibility of detecting a vibration. However, as the captain said he could perceive no indication of danger, and as we were drifting in bodily to shore, he ordered the sails to be furled, and the anchor let go. No watch was set, and the crew, consisting principally of Malays, stretched themselves deliberately upon deck. I went below — not without a full presentiment of evil. Indeed, every appearance warranted me in apprehending a Simoon. I told the captain my fears; but he paid no attention to what I said, and left me without deigning to give a reply. My uneasiness, however, prevented me from sleeping, and about midnight I went upon deck. As I placed my foot upon the upper step of the companion-ladder, I was startled by a loud, humming noise, like that occasioned by the rapid revolution of a mill-wheel, and before I could ascertain its meaning, I found the ship quivering to its centre. In the next instant, a wilderness of foam hurled us upon our beam-ends, and, rushing over us fore and aft, swept the entire decks from stem to stern.

The extreme fury of the blast proved, in a great measure, the salvation of the ship. Although completely water-logged, yet, as her masts had gone by the board, she rose, after a minute, heavily from the sea, and, staggering awhile beneath the immense pressure of the tempest, finally righted.

By what miracle I escaped destruction, it is impossible to say. Stunned by the shock of the water, I found myself, upon recovery, jammed in between the stern-post and rudder. With great difficulty I gained my feet, and looking dizzily around, was at first struck with the idea of our being among breakers; so terrific, beyond the wildest imagination, was the whirlpool of mountainous and foaming ocean within which we were ingulfed. After a while, I heard the voice of an old Swede, who had shipped with us at the moment of our leaving port. I hallooed to him with all my strength, and presently he came reeling aft. We soon discovered that we were the sole survivors of the accident. All on deck, with the exception of ourselves, had been swept overboard; the captain and mates must have perished as they slept, for the cabins were deluged with water. Without assistance, we could expect to do little for the security of the ship, and our exertions were at first paralyzed by the momentary expectation of going down. Our cable had, of course, parted like pack-thread, at the first breath of the hurricane, or we should have been instantaneously overwhelmed. We scudded with frightful velocity before the sea, and the water made clear breaches over us. The framework of our stern was shattered excessively, and, in almost every respect, we had received considerable injury; but to our extreme joy we found the pumps unchoked and that we had made no great shifting of our ballast. The main fury of the blast had already blown over, and we apprehended little danger from the violence of the wind; but we looked forward to its total cessation with dismay; well believing, that in our shattered condition, we should inevitably perish in the tremendous swell which would ensue. But this very just apprehension seemed by no means likely to be soon verified. For five entire days and nights — during which our only subsistence was a small quantity of jaggeree, procured with great difficulty from the forecastle — the hulk flew at a rate defying computation, before rapidly succeeding flaws of wind, which, without equalling the first violence of the Simoon, were still more terrific than any tempest I had before encountered. Our course for the first four days was, with trifling variations, S. E. and by S.; and we must have run down the coast of New Holland. On the fifth day the cold became extreme, although the wind had hauled round a point more to the northward. The sun arose with a sickly yellow lustre, and clambered a very few degrees above the horizon — emitting no decisive light. There were no clouds apparent, yet the wind was upon the increase, and blew with a fitful and unsteady fury. About noon, as nearly as we could guess, our attention was again arrested by the appearance of the sun. It gave out no light, properly so called, but a dull and sullen glow without reflection, as if all its rays were polarized. Just before sinking within the turgid sea, its central fires suddenly went out, as if hurriedly extinguished by some unaccountable power. It was a dim, silver-like rim, alone, as it rushed down the unfathomable ocean.

We waited in vain for the arrival of the sixth day — that day to me has not arrived — to the Swede, never did arrive. Thenceforward we were enshrouded in pitchy darkness, so that we could not have seen an object at twenty paces from the ship. Eternal night continued to envelop us, all unrelieved by the phosphoric sea-brilliancy to which we had been accustomed in the tropics. We observed too, that, although the tempest continued to rage with unabated violence, there was no longer to be discovered the usual appearance of surf, or foam, which had hitherto attended us. All around were horror, and thick gloom, and a black sweltering desert of ebony. Superstitious terror crept by degrees into the spirit of the old Swede, and my own soul was wrapped up in silent wonder. We neglected all care of the ship, as worse than useless, and securing ourselves, as well as possible, to the stump of the mizen-mast, looked out bitterly into the world of ocean. We had no means of calculating time, nor could we form any guess of our situation. We were, however, well aware of having made farther to the southward than any previous navigators, and felt great amazement at not meeting with the usual impediments of ice. In the meantime every moment threatened to be our last — every mountainous billow hurried to overwhelm us. The swell surpassed anything I had imagined possible, and that we were not instantly buried is a miracle. My companion spoke of the lightness of our cargo, and reminded me of the excellent qualities of our ship; but I could not help feeling the utter hopelessness of hope itself, and prepared myself gloomily for that death which I thought nothing could defer beyond an hour, as, with every knot of way the ship made, the swelling of the black stupendous seas became more dismally appalling. At times we gasped for breath at an elevation beyond the albatross — at times became dizzy with the velocity of our descent into some watery hell, where the air grew stagnant, and no sound disturbed the slumbers of the kraken.

We were at the bottom of one of these abysses, when a quick scream from my companion broke fearfully upon the night. “See! see!” cried he, shrieking in my ears, “Almighty God! see! see!” As he spoke, I became aware of a dull, sullen glare of red light which streamed down the sides of the vast chasm where we lay, and threw a fitful brilliancy upon our deck. Casting my eyes upwards, I beheld a spectacle which froze the current of my blood. At a terrific height directly above us, and upon the very verge of the precipitous descent, hovered a gigantic ship, of perhaps four thousand tons. Although upreared upon the summit of a wave more than a hundred times her own altitude, her apparent size still exceeded that of any ship of the line or East Indiaman in existence. Her huge hull was of a deep dingy black, unrelieved by any of the customary carvings of a ship. A single row of brass cannon protruded from her open ports, and dashed from their polished surfaces the fires of innumerable battle-lanterns, which swung to and fro about her rigging. But what mainly inspired us with horror and astonishment, was that she bore up under a press of sail in the very teeth of that supernatural sea, and of that ungovernable hurricane. When we first discovered her, her bows were alone to be seen, as she rose slowly from the dim and horrible gulf beyond her. For a moment of intense terror she paused upon the giddy pinnacle, as if in contemplation of her own sublimity, then trembled and tottered, and — came down.

At this instant, I know not what sudden self-possession came over my spirit. Staggering as far aft as I could, I awaited fearlessly the ruin that was to overwhelm. Our own vessel was at length ceasing from her struggles, and sinking with her head to the sea. The shock of the descending mass struck her, consequently, in that portion of her frame which was already under water, and the inevitable result was to hurl me, with irresistible violence, upon the rigging of the stranger.

As I fell, the ship hove in stays, and went about; and to the confusion ensuing I attributed my escape from the notice of the crew. With little difficulty I made my way, unperceived, to the main hatchway, which was partially open, and soon found an opportunity of secreting myself in the hold. Why I did so I can hardly tell. An indefinite sense of awe, which at first sight of the navigators of the ship had taken hold of my mind, was perhaps the principle of my concealment. I was unwilling to trust myself with a race of people who had offered, to the cursory glance I had taken, so many points of vague novelty, doubt, and apprehension. I therefore thought proper to contrive a hiding-place in the hold. This I did by removing a small portion of the shifting-boards, in such a manner as to afford me a convenient retreat between the huge timbers of the ship.

I had scarcely completed my work, when a footstep in the hold forced me to make use of it. A man passed by my place of concealment with a feeble and unsteady gait. I could not see his face, but had an opportunity of observing his general appearance. There was about it an evidence of great age and infirmity. His knees tottered beneath a load of years, and his entire frame quivered under the burthen. He muttered to himself, in a low broken tone, some words of a language which I could not understand, and groped in a corner among a pile of singular-looking instruments, and decayed charts of navigation. His manner was a wild mixture of the peevishness of second childhood and the solemn dignity of a God. He at length went on deck, and I saw him no more.


A feeling, for which I have no name, has taken possession of my soul — a sensation which will admit of no analysis, to which the lessons of by-gone time are inadequate, and for which I fear futurity itself will offer me no key. To a mind constituted like my own, the latter consideration is an evil. I shall never — I know that I shall never — be satisfied with regard to the nature of my conceptions. Yet it is not wonderful that these conceptions are indefinite, since they have their origin in sources so utterly novel. A new sense — a new entity is added to my soul.


It is long since I first trod the deck of this terrible ship, and the rays of my destiny are, I think, gathering to a focus. Incomprehensible men! Wrapped up in meditations of a kind which I cannot divine, they pass me by unnoticed. Concealment is utter folly on my part, for the people will not see. It was but just now that I passed directly before the eyes of the mate; it was no long while ago that I ventured into the captain’s own private cabin, and took thence the materials with which I write, and have written. I shall from time to time continue this journal. It is true that I may not find an opportunity of transmitting it to the world, but I will not fail to make the endeavor. At the last moment I will enclose the MS. in a bottle, and cast it within the sea.


An incident has occurred which has given me new room for meditation. Are such things the operation of ungoverned chance? I had ventured upon deck and thrown myself down, without attracting any notice, among a pile of ratlin-stuff and old sails, in the bottom of the yawl. While musing upon the singularity of my fate, I unwittingly daubed with a tar-brush the edges of a neatly-folded studding-sail which lay near me on a barrel. The studding-sail is now bent upon the ship, and the thoughtless touches of the brush are spread out into the word Discovery.

I have made many observations lately upon the structure of the vessel. Although well armed, she is not, I think, a ship of war. Her rigging, build, and general equipment, all negative to a supposition of this kind. What she is not, I can easily perceive; what she is, I fear it is impossible to say. I know not how it is, but in scrutinizing her strange model and singular cast of spars, her huge size and overgrown suits of canvass, her severely simple bow and antiquated stern, there will occasionally flash across my mind a sensation of familiar things, and there is always mixed up with such indistinct shadows of recollection, an unaccountable memory of old foreign chronicles and ages long ago.


I have been looking at the timbers of the ship. She is built of a material to which I am a stranger. There is a peculiar character about the wood which strikes me as rendering it unfit for the purpose to which it has been applied. I mean its extreme porousness, considered independently of the worm-eaten condition which is a consequence of navigation in these seas, and apart from the rottenness attendant upon age. It will appear perhaps an observation somewhat over-curious, but this wood would have every characteristic of Spanish oak, if Spanish oak were distended by any unnatural means.

In reading the above sentence, a curious apothegm of an old weather-beaten Dutch navigator comes full upon my recollection. “It is as sure,” he was wont to say, when any doubt was entertained of his veracity, “as sure as there is a sea where the ship itself will grow in bulk like the living body of the seaman.”


About an hour ago, I made bold to thrust myself among a group of the crew. They paid me no manner of attention, and, although I stood in the very midst of them all, seemed utterly unconscious of my presence. Like the one I had at first seen in the hold, they all bore about them the marks of a hoary old age. Their knees trembled with infirmity; their shoulders were bent double with decrepitude; their shrivelled skins rattled in the wind; their voices were low, tremulous, and broken; their eyes glistened with the rheum of years; and their gray hairs streamed terribly in the tempest. Around them, on every part of the deck, lay scattered mathematical instruments of the most quaint and obsolete construction.


I mentioned, some time ago, the bending of a studding-sail. From that period, the ship, being thrown dead off the wind, has continued her terrific course due south, with every rag of canvass packed upon her, from her trucks to her lower studding-sail booms, and rolling every moment her top-gallant yard-arms into the most appalling hell of water which it can enter into the mind of man to imagine. I have just left the deck, where I find it impossible to maintain a footing, although the crew seem to experience little inconvenience. It appears to me a miracle of miracles that our enormous bulk is not swallowed up at once and for ever. We are surely doomed to hover continually upon the brink of eternity, without taking a final plunge into the abyss. From billows a thousand times more stupendous than any I have ever seen, we glide away with the facility of the arrowy sea-gull; and the colossal waters rear their heads above us like demons of the deep, but like demons confined to simple threats, and forbidden to destroy. I am led to attribute these frequent escapes to the only natural cause which can account for such effect. I must suppose the ship to be within the influence of some strong current, or impetuous under-tow.


I have seen the captain face to face, and in his own cabin — but, as I expected, he paid me no attention. Although in his appearance there is, to a casual observer, nothing which might bespeak him more or less than man, still, a feeling of irrepressible reverence and awe mingled with the sensation of wonder with which I regarded him. In stature, he is nearly my own height; that is, about five feet eight inches. He is of a well-knit and compact frame of body, neither robust nor remarkable otherwise. But it is the singularity of the expression which reigns upon the face — it is the intense, the wonderful, the thrilling evidence of old age, so utter, so extreme, which excites within my spirit a sense — a sentiment ineffable. His forehead, although little wrinkled, seems to bear upon it the stamp of a myriad of years. His gray hairs are records of the past, and his grayer eyes are sybils of the future. The cabin floor was thickly strewn with strange, iron-clasped folios, and mouldering instruments of science, and obsolete long-forgotten charts. His head was bowed down upon his hands, and he pored, with a fiery, unquiet eye, over a paper which I took to be a commission, and which, at all events, bore the signature of a monarch. He muttered to himself — as did the first seaman whom I saw in the hold — some low peevish syllables of a foreign tongue; and although the speaker was close at my elbow, his voice seemed to reach my ears from the distance of a mile.


The ship and all in it are imbued with the spirit of Eld. The crew glide to and fro like the ghosts of buried centuries; their eyes have an eager and uneasy meaning; and when their fingers fall athwart my path in the wild glare of the battle-lanterns, I feel as I have never felt before, although I have been all my life a dealer in antiquities, and have imbibed the shadows of fallen columns at Balbec, and Tadmor, and Persepolis, until my very soul has become a ruin.


When I look around me, I feel ashamed of my former apprehensions. If I trembled at the blast which has hitherto attended us, shall I not stand aghast at a warring of wind and ocean, to convey any idea of which the words tornado and simoon are trivial and ineffective? All in the immediate vicinity of the ship is the blackness of eternal night, and a chaos of foamless water; but, about a league on either side of us, may be seen, indistinctly and at intervals, stupendous ramparts of ice, towering away into the desolate sky, and looking like the walls of the universe.


As I imagined, the ship proves to be in a current — if that appellation can properly be given to a tide which, howling and shrieking by the white ice, thunders on to the southward with a velocity like the headlong dashing of a cataract.


To conceive the horror of my sensations is, I presume, utterly impossible; yet a curiosity to penetrate the mysteries of these awful regions, predominates even over my despair, and will reconcile me to the most hideous aspect of death. It it evident that we are hurrying onwards to some exciting knowledge — some never-to-be-imparted secret, whose attainment is destruction. Perhaps this current leads us to the southern pole itself. It must be confessed that a supposition apparently so wild has every probability in its favor.


The crew pace the deck with unquiet and tremulous step; but there is upon their countenances an expression more of the eagerness of hope than of the apathy of despair.

In the meantime the wind is still in our poop, and, as we carry a crowd of canvass, the ship is at times lifted bodily from out the sea! Oh, horror upon horror!—the ice opens suddenly to the right, and to the left, and we are whirling dizzily, in immense concentric circles, round and round the borders of a gigantic amphitheatre, the summit of whose walls is lost in the darkness and the distance. But little time will be left me to ponder upon my destiny! The circles rapidly grow small — we are plunging madly within the grasp of the whirlpool — and amid a roaring, and bellowing, and thundering of ocean and of tempest, the ship is quivering — oh God! and — going down!


Note.—The “MS. Found in a Bottle,” was originally published in 1831; and it was not until many years afterwards that I became acquainted with the maps of Mercator, in which the ocean is represented as rushing, by four mouths, into the (northern) Polar Gulf, to be absorbed into the bowels of the earth; the Pole itself being represented by a black rock, towering to a prodigious height.


McLuhan’s realism 5: Cambridge 1934-1935

In two letters to his family from Cambridge at the turn of the year, 1934-1935, McLuhan offered advice to his younger brother Maurice (‘Red’) on the question of “Plato and Aristotle”. Tellingly, the two modern authorities cited in the letters are Chesterton and Maritain. In both letters McLuhan ends by advocating “Aristotle”, aka, a “fleshly” realism.

Now I can heartily recommend GK [Chesterton]’s book on St Thomas as being of use to you in your philosophy. He deals with Plato and Aristotle and their influence on Christendom — incidentally there is a very clear exposition of their theories of knowledge (how we know and know we can know). (…) In any case these ideas are not simple. I remember what difficulty I had. I never understood the importance or meaning of Plato and Aristotle until I read Kant a year later. (…) It is useful broadly to distinguish PI. and Arist as tending towards Bhuddism [sic] and Christianity respectively. Plato was an oriental in mind (…) Aristotle heartily accepts the senses just as Browning did and says: (…) “All good things / Are ours, nor soul helps flesh more, now, than flesh helps soul”. [“Rabbi Ben Ezra”, #12, 1864]. And that is why great Aquinas accepted Aristotle into Christian theology. (McLuhan to Elsie, Herbert & Maurice McLuhan, November 10, 1934, Letters 39)

As a handbook on Philosophy with especial regard to its historical development I strongly commend Maritain’s “Introd. to Phil.” to you Red. He is the greatest living French thinker and is one of the foremost students and interpreters of Aquinas. Like most French texts it is a marvel of lucidity and order. I have read or dipped into numerous histories (all of which supposed Augustine and Aquinas were spoofers) and which therefore misunderstood everything that happened in society and philosophy after them. It is for his sympathy in this matter, as well as his general account, that I recommend him to you as certain to prove most coherent and stimulating. Lodge is a decided Platonist and I learned [to think] that way as long as I was trying to interpret Christianity in terms of comparative religion. Having perceived the sterility of that process, I now realize that Aristotle is the soundest basis for Xian doctrine.  (McLuhan to Elsie, Herbert & Maurice McLuhan, February 1935, Letters 53)

Rupert Lodge, chair of the Philosophy Department at the University of Manitoba, had been one of McLuhan’s favorite professors there.  He had helped McLuhan obtain his scholarship for Cambridge with a glowing review. Lodge practiced what he called “comparative philosophy” in which he treated issues as originating in one of three possible basic outlooks: materialism, idealism and a middling position he sometimes called ‘pragmatism’. In rejecting “comparative religion”, McLuhan was denying that this approach was applicable to religion. Instead, as he came to think at this time (and would continue to do for the rest of his life), it was necessary to hold to a foundational realism with Aristotle, but in such a way that other basic positions were admitted and even justified — exactly in their undeniable reality.1

  1. “Far from turning his back on it (all the “arrogant confusion” of modern thought) he (Joyce) invaded it and took it up into the analogical drama of his art.”  (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)

McLuhan’s realism 4: Meredith and “mystical materialism”

McLuhan appears to have come to his realism as a self-conscious position in the years 1933-1935 when he was still in his early twenties (age 22-24). Hardly incidentally, these were the years in which he moved decisively toward his 1937 conversion.  His realism tended in theological and ontological directions from the start, as well as in the inevitable epistemological one.1 But ‘theological and ontological’ never implied only ‘intellectual’ or only ‘spiritual’ for him. As he wrote to his Mother at this time:

My hunger for “truth” was sensuous in origin. I wanted a material satisfaction for the beauty that the mind can perceive. (MM to Elsie McLuhan Sept 5, 1935, Letters 73)

His bent towards “material satisfaction” valorized communication both because it (material satisfaction) entailed real engagement with the material world and because the means of communication were themselves material. Indeed, it was exactly because we finite, material, “fleshy” beings are in real communication with the real world that we can appreciate the “beauty” of our endowment:

Now the Catholic religion (…) is alone in blessing and employing all those merely human faculties which produce games and philosophy, and poetry and music and mirth and fellowship with a very fleshy basis. (…) The Catholic Church does not despise or wantonly mortify those members and faculties which Christ deigned to assume. They are henceforth holy and blessed. Catholic culture produced Chaucer and his merry story-telling pilgrims.(…) Catholic culture produced Don Quixote and St. Francis and Rabelais.  What I wish  to emphasize about them is their various and rich-hearted humanity.  (MM to Elsie McLuhan Sept 5, 1935, Letters 72)

Although his Cambridge years (1934-1936) certainly sharpened his understanding of the grounds and implications of such realism, it was already clearly present in nuce in his master’s thesis on George Meredith which was written in Winnipeg in 1933-1934:

Meredith is not a philosophic speculator (…) He has not the philosopher’s interest in disembodied thought or thought uninformed by any practical issues. He has rather the poet’s concern (…) with human passions and motives. He has an attitude (…) rather than an hypothesis which is amenable to logical demonstration (40)

It is not brain or thought alone… (41)

Now for Meredith the road to this excellence, and to joy in Earth is through action rather than through speculation. (…) Not at all “Shall man (…) learn the secret of the shrouded death / By lifting the lid of a white eye.” He has no sympathy with the spirit of perpetual enquiry… (44)

But in effect Meredith says: Man’s spirit and brain, no less than his body, are earth-born. We are not dropped down from heaven above. We are autochthonous. Earth of which we are a part is spirit as well as matter, flame as well as clod. What is spiritual comes out of Earth as well as what is fleshly. It is the unusual sympathy that Meredith shows (…) that caused G.K. Chesterton to write: “The presence of soul and substance together involves (…) things which most of the Victorians did not understand – the thing called sacrament. It is because he had a natural affinity for this mystical materialism2 that Meredith (…) is a poet…” (46-47)

These two, “blood” and “brain”, come first. But the “spirit” or “soul” (…) cannot exist without the other two. (48)

Life is to be lived, rather than examined (59)

Hegel develops a most convincing thesis that we can understand reality only by taking it in all its concreteness. Reason is not an external criterion but exists only as embodied in the phenomena of experience. We have only to observe the facts of experience as they unfold, and detect, if we can, the laws involved in them. (…) His principal effort was aimed to show that truth was embodied in the actual [and] that, between thought and reality, between the ideal and the real, there is no separation. (72-73)

[McLuhan citing a Meredith letter to Augustus Jessopp from Sept 20, 1862] “Between realism and idealism there is no natural conflict. This completes that. Realism is the basis of good composition: it implies study, observation, artistic power, and (in those who can do more) humility. (…) A great genius must necessarily employ ideal means, for a vast conception cannot be placed bodily before the eye, and remains to be suggested. Idealism is as an atmosphere whose effects of grandeur are wrought out through a series of illusions — [illusions] that are illusions (…) only when divorced from the ground work of the real. Need there be exclusion the one of the other? The artist is incomplete who does this. Men to whom I bow my head (Shakespeare, Goethe; and in their way, Moliere, Cervantes) are Realísts au fond. (…) For my part I love and cling to earth, as the one piece of God’s handiwork which we possess.”3 (73-74)

Furthermore, he had already begun to consider these issues (implicated in any attempt at “understanding media”) as they are developed by Coleridge :

The poet plants himself upon his instincts and permits his temperament sovereign sway. And he has quite as much right to do this as the philosopher has to trust his thought processes. In his table talk, Coleridge noted that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians. There are similarly, in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. The literary or artistic expression of such temperaments has properly the same validity as has the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist. (43)

The next year at Cambridge McLuhan would hear I.A. Richards lecture on his just published Coleridge on imagination, which considers the same passage from the table talk. Along with other discoveries at Cambridge, like Hopkins and Maritain, McLuhan’s existential interest would be engaged through Coleridge and Richards even more in the question of our “fleshly” access to the real and “the thing called sacrament”. 

  1. In a letter to his family from November 10, 1934, McLuhan recommended Maritain to his brother for his exposition of “theories of knowledge (how we know and know we can know)”. (Letters 39)
  2. Two years later, McLuhan would use this notion from Chesterton in the title of his first published paper on GKC himself: ‘G.K. Chesterton: a practical mystic’.
  3.  George Meredith Letters, collected and edited by W. M. Meredith, 1912, 156.

McLuhan’s realism 3: against perceptual engineering

In ‘Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press’ and ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ (both 1954) McLuhan blasted the pretense of the artist who would be “the signer of a forged check on our [own] hopes and sympathies”. Instead:

The artist has merely to reveal, not to forge the signatures of existence.  (…) All those pseudo-rationalisms, the forged links and fraudulent intelligibility which official literature has imposed on existence must be abandoned. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press) 

In this angelic view [“that school of thought for which the external world is an opaque prison”] the business of art has nothing to do with the analogy of cognition nor with our miraculous power to incarnate the external world. It is a means rather to lift us [angelically] out of our [imprisoned] human condition (…) Reality is not to be trusted or revered but to be remade by social engineers. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)

He recognized that the class of such “social engineers” included many of those whom he himself regarded as the greatest artists of the century:

Talk about blind spots in regions of maximal impact! Looking at The Diabolical Principle [Wyndham Lewis, 1931] just now, I read loud and clear that art must be totally environmental. It must be the content of nothing whatever. (…) Lewis wants nothing less for Art than the power to create total environments for Life and Death. (…) I find it a bit staggering to confront Lewis as a man who really wanted to be Pontifex Maximus of a magical priesthood. I suppose Yeats, Joyce and Pound had similar aspirations. Their priesthood was to create new worlds of perception. They were to be world engineers who shaped the totality of human awareness. (…) The environment as ultimate artefact. (McLuhan to Wilfred Watson October 4, 1964, National Archive Canada)

With the characterization that such art “must be the content of nothing whatever”, the implied charge was that it aspired to be the ground of everything, including itself: “nothing less (…) than the power to create total environments for Life and Death”.  But not only was genuine art called on the contrary “merely to reveal, not to forge the signatures of existence”, but all art needed to be assessed as figure. As a type of finite human making, its ability to express was in the first place a reflection of the prior environmental ground enabling it to do so and even to be at all. This was the conviction at the heart of McLuhan’s realism.


McLuhan’s realism 2: “the real things, exactly as they are”

McLuhan did not believe that communication and knowledge (knowledge being communication with certain objects of practical or theoretical interest) can be perfected; but neither did he believe that they can ever entirely fail.1 Instead his notion was that communication and knowledge are always to some degree successful, although always also subject to all the limitations and blindnesses and misunderstandings that inevitably beset our mortal coil.

The Catholic has never underestimated the value or the mystery of ordinary human perception and consciousness. Nor is he likely to overestimate them today. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954)

The creative imagination in the Christian tradition is an intellectual power, not a super-human emanation from “spirit” or from the uncreated divine spark in the human soul. (Nihilism Exposed, 1955)

The miracle of communication is that it happens at all.  If it always happens to some degree, however restricted it may be at times, it becomes somewhat understandable (although never without its mystery) that infants learn language (or that the species does so in the first place) and that humans develop all the arts and sciences that they do. For communication always to succeed, the enabling environment and the potency to function within it must be already present, always and everywhere.  What is called for, and enabled, is to try out different possible avenues arising from this culture medium, to give up the false trails we are always taking in it and to learn with others (itself through communication, of course) how these probing actions can be — and are! — carried out socially as well as individually.

McLuhan particularly considered this sort of fallible but at the same time successful realism in the first half of the 1950’s:

all existence cries out to be raised to the level of scientific or poetic intelligibility. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press 1954)

For Joyce and Eliot (…) every artist is dedicated to revealing, or epiphanizing the signatures of things, so that what the nous poietikos is to perception and abstraction [subjectively realizing what is given to it] the artist is to existence at large [objectively realizing what is given to it] . (Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process 1951)

Impressionism and symbolism alike insisted on attention to process in preference to personal self-expression. Self-effacement and patient watchfulness preceded the discovery of the creative process. Poets and artists literally turned their own psyches into laboratories where they practised the most austere experiments in total disregard of their personal happiness. Gradually it dawned on Mallarmé that pure poetry was impossible — a poetry which would have as its theme the poetic process itself [as if the cause and ground of itself]. Henceforth the subject and framework of a poem would be [in the investigation of what must already be the case for “the poetic process” to take place at all:] the retracing of a moment of [ordinary] perception. (…) And so we arrive at the paradox of [= reached by] this most esoteric of all art doctrines, namely that the most poetic thing in the world is the most ordinary human consciousness. (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)

For that school of thought for which the external world is an opaque prison [cf, The bubble of life in Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Havelock and Innis], art can never be regarded as a source of knowledge but only as a moral discipline and a study of endurance. The artist is not a reader of [the existing] radiant signatures on materia signata but the signer of a forged check2 on our [own] hopes and sympathies. (…) [In contrast] the job of the [genuine] artist is not to sign but to read signatures. Existence must speak for itself. It is already richly and radiantly signed. The artist has merely to reveal, not to forge the signatures of existence.  (…) All those pseudo-rationalisms, the forged links and fraudulent intelligibility which official literature has imposed on existence must be abandoned. (Joyce, Mallarmé and the Press 1954)

In this angelic view [“that school of thought for which the external world is an opaque prison”] the business of art has nothing to do with the analogy of cognition nor with our miraculous power to incarnate the external world. It is a means rather to lift us [angelically] out of our human condition (…) Reality is not to be trusted or revered but to be remade by social engineers [and other artistic constructionists]. Joyce is the single poet voice in our century raised not not merely against this view but in wild laughter at its arrogant confusion. Far from turning his back on it he invaded it and took it up into the analogical drama of his art.  (Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)

If communication and the possibility of knowledge are always present, it must be the case that these are to be detected even in “arrogant confusion”.  This is one more reason that McLuhan refused value judgements and their associated points of view.

McLuhan found a particularly revealing expression of his understanding of “a direct approach to everyday reality”3 in a 1952 interview of Cesare Zavattini. He quoted it at length in ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’:

The most important characteristic, and the most important innovation, of what is called neorealism [in film], it seems to me, is to have realised that the necessity of the “story” was only an unconscious way of disguising a human defeat, and that the kind of imagination it involved was simply a technique of superimposing dead formulas over living social facts. Now it has been perceived that reality is hugely rich, that to be able to look directly at it is enough; and that the artist’s task is not to make people moved or indignant at metaphorical situations, but to make them reflect (and, if you like, to be moved and indignant too) on what they and others are doing, on the real things, exactly as they are. (…) to have evaded reality had been to betray it. (…) We have passed from an unconsciously rooted mistrust of reality, an illusory and equivocal evasion, to an unlimited trust in things, facts and people. Such a position requires us, in effect, to excavate reality, to [reveal in] it a power, a communication, a series of reflexes, which until recently we had never thought it had. It requires, too, a true and real interest in what is happening, a search for the most deeply hidden human values — an act of concrete homage towards other people, towards what is happening and existing in the world — Substantially, then, the question today is, instead of turning imaginary situations into “reality” and trying to make them look “true,” to take things as they are, almost by themselves, creat[ing] their own special significance. Life is not what is invented in “stories”; life is another matter. To understand it involves a minute, unrelenting, and patient search. (…) The world goes on getting worse because we are not truly aware of reality. The most authentic position anyone can take up today is to engage himself in tracing the roots of this problem. The keenest necessity of our time is “social attention”. 4 

Here was the project to which McLuhan would dedicate the rest of his life: engaging himself in “social attention”.


  1. Many different sorts of investigations in the twentieth century explored areas that had previously been assumed to be uncommunicative and therefore lacking in knowledge interest: dreams and other unconscious phenomena (Freud), relativity (Einstein), psychoses (Jung), mythology (Frazier), suicide (Durkheim), etc. etc.
  2. It was because a “forged check” must ultimately be seen to be worthless that Nietzsche maintained: “With the true world we also have abolished the apparent one!!”
  3. Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters
  4.  Zavattini cited from ‘Some Ideas on the Cinema’, Sight and Sound, 23:2, Oct-Dec 1953, pp 64-69 — an interview translated from La Revista del Cinema Italiano, December 1952.

McLuhan’s realism 1: St Louis 1940

If you can put your five fingers through it it is a gate, if not a door. Shut your eyes and see. Ulysses, 3: 8-9

“We have passed from an unconsciously rooted mistrust of reality, an illusory and equivocal evasion, to an unlimited trust in things, facts and people.” (McLuhan, Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954, citing Cesare Zavattini, 1952)1

Our point of departure must remain that which constitutes the work of fine art as we know it when we know it most thoroughly (…) The distinctive kind of act whereby we apprehend this (…) play or picture or piece of music Gilby has called “poetic experience”, which he describes as “knowledge that seems in immediate contact with the real.” (Walter Ong, 1940, citing Thomas Gilby, 1934)2 

the drama of ordinary perception seen as the poetic process is the prime analogate, the magic casement opening on the secrets of created being.  (McLuhan, Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters)

When in 1940 Walter Ong published his first substantial scholarly article, ‘Imitation and the Object of Art’, his M.A. adviser at St Louis University was Marshall McLuhan.  At the same time, Ong was taking graduate English courses with McLuhan.  There is no doubt that Ong’s paper reflected common concerns with his same-aged teacher (the two were born 16 months apart in 1911-1912). Indeed, almost two decades later, Ong would dedicate his Ramus and Talon Inventory, one of his two ground-breaking Ramus books published in 1958, to McLuhan “who started all this”.3

Ong’s 1940 article ends with a reference to:

Bernard J. Muller-Thym, ‘Music’, Fleur de Lis (St. Louis University), XXXVIII (Nov 1938), 50-52. 

Muller-Thym’s 1938 article, in turn, cited Gilby, and was doubtless the source of Ong’s reference:

And we have often wondered whether (…) we should not have to invoke John of St. Thomas’s theory of the way love can act on the mind as formal cause (…) (we referred the reader to Gilby, Poetic Experience, p. 43, since we do not know another work in English which mentions that theory).

Thirty years later, in his 1970 review of The Interior Landscape, Ong recalled this time around 1940:

Muller-Thym in particular was concerned with philosophical and psychological interpretation of sensory activity. The Fleur de Lis, the University literary magazine, in which he regularly did sophisticated music reviews, in November, 1938, published an article of his undertaking to show that in listening to music the object of specifically intellectual aesthetic contemplation was the movement in one’s own senses, which he likened to discourse.4

Now Muller-Thym (born 1909 and so very close in age to McLuhan and Ong) was the best man at McLuhan’s wedding in 1939 and would be the Godfather to his first child in 1942.5 Ong was taking graduate philosophy courses from Muller-Thym at the same time as he was taking English courses with McLuhan. And Ong’s other 1958 Ramus book, Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue, was dedicated “For Bernhard (sic?)6 and Mary Muller-Thym”.

What can be seen in this mesh of biographical and intellectual relations around 1940 between Muller-Thym, McLuhan and Ong is a common concern with the possibility of articulating the Catholic tradition in terms of a realist account of perception and experience. This was an account which would look inward to the artistic deployment of the senses and of the common sense in perception, on the one hand, and, on the other, outward to art works in language and other media as exemplifications of that inward process. It would do so on the basis of assured communication with reality in perception and language.

The great question for such “immediate contact with the real” was, of course, how it was possible to be mistaken about something or to differ with others about it or to ‘change one’s mind’ in regard to it. “Immediate contact with the real” would seem to complicate, at the every least, such everyday occurrences. This was a question that had been debated at least since Plato’s Theaetetus and would now, through McLuhan and Ong (and Innis and Havelock) take on a new formulation. Namely, how can “im-mediate contact with the real” be compatible with internal and external exposure to transformative multiple media?

It remained to probe whether “understanding media” could somehow resolve this world-historical riddle.

  1. In this 1954 lecture McLuhan quotes Cesare Zavattini at length from ‘Some Ideas on the Cinema’, Sight and Sound, 23:2, Oct-Dec 1953, pp 64-69 — an interview translated from the Italian, originally in La Revista del Cinema Italiano, December 1952.
  2. Imitation and the Object of Art’, The Modern Schoolman, xvii:4, May 1940, 66-69, citing Thomas Gilby, Poetic Experience: an introduction to Thomist aesthetic, 1934.
  3.  Ramus and Talon Inventory: A Short-Title Inventory of the Published Works of Peter Ramus (1515–1572) and Omer Talon (1510–1562), 1958.
  4.  Review of McLuhan’s The Interior Landscape in Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts, v12 , Summer 1970, 244-251; reprinted in An Ong Reader, 69-77.
  5. When McLuhan’s next children were born as twin girls in 1944, Muller-Thym became the Godfather of one of them, Mary, as well.
  6. ‘Bernhard’ here instead of ‘Bernard’ could certainly be a typo. Ong elsewhere always uses the latter designation. But ‘Bernhard’ was never changed in the multiple reissues of the book. It therefore could be a further sign (with the dedication itself) of a special friendship within which Ong knew of a genealogical or other connection between the two spellings. It could even be a joke of some sort. Mary Muller-Thym was Bernie Muller-Thym’s wife and a good friend of the McLuhans, especially Corinne. See McLuhan’s letter to the Muller-Thyms from June 11, 1974 (Letters 498).

Havelock and the question of ‘water’

And the dry stone no sound of water.1

When Eric Havelock moved from the University of Toronto to Harvard in 1947, he went through a difficult period.  He was leaving behind many intimate friends, longtime colleagues and a country where he had been intensely engaged, culturally and politically, for decades. He had even had run for parliament only a few years before.  At the same time, in common with thinking people everywhere, he was in shock from the revelations of German concentration camps during WW2 and the American use of atomic bombs in 1945.

His dark mood was reflected in his writing at the time. Here is he is from the abstract for his 1949 lecture, ‘The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land

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

And here are two passages from the beginning of his 19502 monograph, The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man (Chapter 1: ‘The Bitter Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge’):

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.

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?

The trope of The Waste Land or “trackless waste” appears throughout. As does the note of “an internal disturbance (…) which almost cancels (…) basic faith in heaven, history, and man”. Almost?

By 1950 such “basic faith” seemed to be threatened by more than a “disturbance”: “If we could put God there”…”intelligence, so long mastered by [the] illusion [of] a permanent and stable providence”… “who dare say that intelligence has any health in it, (…) any revelation above the energy of the blind groping of a worm?” This from a man who had been an active Christian socialist and a firm believer in cosmic and earthly justice during all his years in Canada!

Only a few years before these 1949-1950 texts, in ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’ (1946-1947), Havelock had concluded with these lyrical lines:

And so, as primitive geography merged into the likeness of primaeval cosmology, there began to be heard from far the distant roar of Virgil’s rivers of the world, rising in their subterranean caverns, ranging over the earth from equatorial mountains to the ice-fields of the north. The navigators long ago had sighted landfall and found mighty rivers and explored cataracts at peril of their life. (…) And the geometer and the scientist had listened and told them where they had been. (…) And the philosophers had meditated and learnedly said of water that it surely is a powerful thing and permeates all and controls all and moves beneath us. Surely the earth itself must lie on water. And the poet listened to them all, and his enchanted ear caught the rumble of subterranean seas beneath his feet. Before his mind’s eye magic fountains issued from the depths and sprang into the air. Torrents cascaded between cliffs that had stood since the world began. He felt the icy breath of northern ranges, and was borne as in a dream on the bosom of irresistible currents. The road to Xanadu was open. (3: 18)

The difference in tone between the Xanadu essay and the slightly later passages is remarkable. What had been a delightful dream of “subterranean seas” and “magic fountains” that were “borne (…) on the bosom of irresistible currents” was now — a “nightmare”. Moreover, Havelock was hardly alone in this turn.  With different timing and with different degrees of insight and intensity, the whole world made it. Indeed, Nietzsche had seen it coming 60 and more years before:

Die Wüste wächst: weh dem, der Wüsten birgt!3

The wasteland waxes: vex [comes] to those begetting wastelands!4

Eliot, too, had sensed it 30 or 40 years before (with many others, like Ezra Pound) — leading to The Waste Land in 1922.

The great need was to understand what had happened here and especially to learn if it were definitive or in some way reversible. Or, at least, if not exactly reversible, at least subject to amelioration in some way.

Harold Innis understood the turn as a catastrophic collapse of the time sector in the spectrum of space-time possibilities. This had been caused, remarkably enough, by the hypertrophy of time — too much time had led to the foreshortening of time and even to the loss of time altogether:

The general argument [of my book] 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.  (Harold Innis, The Strategy of Culture, ‘Preface’, 1952)

Havelock had said as much himself. In the face of “the trackless waste of geological aeons”, he observed (as cited above), “our comprehension of time breaks down”.

Innis’ general theory was that cultures are “bound” by some space-time correlation from a spectrum of possibilities ranging from the purely “time-bound” at one end of the range to the purely “space-bound” at the other.  In the middle of the spectrum the two exist in relative balance and it was here alone that social stability was to be found: “a stable society is dependent on an appreciation of a proper balance between the concepts of space and time” (‘A Plea for Time’, 1947).

Associated with time-boundedness for Innis were oral cultures (vs literate ones), the ear (vs the eye), relatively permanent and immobile media like stone (vs disposable and easily transportable media like paper).  Space-boundedness had the reverse associations.

McLuhan took over all these determinations5, especially the derivative one of “acoustic space” (vs “visual space”) and, apparently less noticeably (given the remarkable lack of research attention), arrested time (vs chronological time). But whereas Innis tended to look at the relative weights of the poles of the configurations comprising the spectrum of their possibilities, McLuhan also looked at the implicated spectrum of the relations between such poles (which was, of course, isomorphic with the range of the ratios or relative weights of the poles):

The low visual definition of the environment favored a high degree of tactile and acoustic stress. At this end of the sensory spectrum individuality is created by the interval of tactile involvement. At the other end of the sensory spectrum we encounter the familiar mode of individuality based on visual stress and fragmentary separateness. The visual sense  lends itself to fragmentation and separateness for reasons quite antithetic to the monolithic and integral quality created by the tactile interval. (Through the Vanishing Point, 222)

Corresponding to two sorts of “interval” or “gap”, McLuhan contrasts two sorts of relationship here, one of “involvement” and one of ” separateness”.  At the base of experience is a “sensory spectrum” consisting of a range of relationships between “acoustic stress” and “visual stress”. The meaning of any experience depends first of all on which of these has been activated:

The meaning of meaning is relationship. (Take Today, 3)

But what was it that enabled something like relationship in the first place?

Here again, an indication could be found in Havelock with water standing in for relation:

the philosophers had meditated and learnedly said of water that it surely is a powerful thing and permeates all and controls all and moves beneath us. Surely the earth itself must lie on water. And the poet [Virgil] listened to them all, and his enchanted ear caught the rumble of subterranean seas beneath his feet. Before his mind’s eye magic fountains issued from the depths and sprang into the air. Torrents cascaded between cliffs that had stood since the world began. He felt the icy breath of northern ranges, and was borne as in a dream on the bosom of irresistible currents. The road to Xanadu was open. (3: 18)

The road to Xanadu in Havelock’s understanding was an “irresistible current”, or relationship, between above and below, north and south, consciousness and the unconscious, surface and depth, old and new, etc, and it was exactly such relationship as water that he found articulated in the concluding section of Virgil’s Georgics:

These [tales in the poem’s last section] are focused, if that is the best word, in certain master images, of fountains and rivers, of gorges and caverns, and of rivers in caverns. The first [musical] movement [the tale of Aristaeus] introduces the boy “weeping at the sacred river’s source”. The mother who responds is “in her chamber beneath the river’s depth”; her mermaids reside “in their glass-green abodes”. The boy descends “to the pools set deep in caverns and plangent glades”. This key-note once struck is sustained [in the second movement] in the resonant sea-cave of Proteus, [in the third in] the river bank on which Eurydice dies, [and then in further movements in] the solitary shore (…) on which Orpheus laments, the vasty halls of death through which glides the “awful stream”, the icy caverns of the north, and the gorge where Orpheus’ last cry still echoes down the tide. These [master] images [of water] are the real stuff of the poetry. They interpenetrate the panels of the composition and dissolve their [independent] integrity. (1: 5-6)

Havelock also cited further ancients making a similar depiction, like Plato:

For everywhere over the earth’s surface you have many hollow places, very various in shape and size, to which the water and mist and vapour drain (…) These places all have connections with each other underground, some narrower, some broader, with passages and openings. In this way much water flows from one to the other as though decanted from bowl to bowl. (…) 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. (3:17, translating Plato, Phaedo 111e-112d)

And like the pre-Socratics generally and the Roman, Seneca, more than half a millennium after them:

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. (2: 6)

Havelock understood even the form of Plato’s work in this same light:

The dialogue format in which Plato cast his reflections indirectly allowed him to memorialise his master and friend [Socrates]. But there were other reasons for such a literary choice, which lay rooted in the character of his philosophy. Imaginary conversations, with their mimicry of the spoken as against the written word, could alone supply that fluid medium in which the sense of overlapping concepts and interpenetration of ideas might be continuously suggested.6

In sum, water supplies the, or at least a, “master image” of what “interpenetrates” and is therefore what first enables something like language (the interpenetration of sound with sound, sound with meaning, and speaker with auditor), society (the interpenetration of people with one another), history (the interpenetration of times), truth (the interpenetration of mind with reality), and religion (the interpenetration of humans with the divine).

McLuhan’s take on the turn reflected in Havelock’s 1950 Crucifixion book was recorded in a lecture he gave in 1954 before the Catholic Renascence Society:

Today many thoughtful people are torn between the claims of time and space, and speak even of The Crucifixion of Intellectual Man as he is mentally torn in these opposite directions.

This analysis went back to Innis and to Innis’ view of the fundamentality of the variable ratio between space and time. It agreed with Innis that social and intellectual instability results from a lack of balance between the two. What happens in such an unbalanced or “torn” situation is that the fundamental relation or interpenetration of space and time becomes attenuated and even lost altogether. But in the ancient view as presented by Havelock, this was to lose an appreciation for water. Hence McLuhan’s attempt to point out for us fish the water which (known or unknown) binds together and underlies our existing environment — without which we could not communicate or, indeed, be at all:

We don’t know who discovered water but we are pretty sure it wasn’t a fish! We are all in this position, being surrounded by some environment or element that blinds us totally; the message of the fish theme is a very important one, and just how to get through to people that way is quite a problem. (Contribution to Technology and World Trade, 1966)

  1. Eliot, The Waste Land, I. The Burial of the Dead.
  2. Havelock’s Crucifixion of Intellectual Man was released in the UK in 1950, in the US in 1951.
  3.  Nietzsche wrote the Dionysos-Dithyramben in 1888, but had long sensed the coming of nihilism and the devastation it would bring.
  4. My translation: Nietzsche’s singular here (dem, der … birgt) has been rendered in the plural (those).  A different translation, and of all the Dionysos-Dithyramben, is available at the Nietzsche channel.
  5. Cf, ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’, 1953: “The press exists primarily as a means of spatial communication and control. Its time-binding powers are quite puny.”
  6. Havelock, ‘Introduction’ to Socrates and the Soul of Man, a translation of the Phaedo by Desmond Stewart, 1951.

“The formula of Virgil’s poetic chemistry”

the operation of a sort of tidal wave which swings to and fro through the bowels of the earth. (Virgil’s Road to Xanadu, 3: 17)1

Eric Havelock’s essay, ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’, was published in three parts in the first three issues of the new (in 1946) University of Toronto journal, Phoenix.2 He characterized his essay as a “search for the formula of Virgil’s poetic chemistry” ( 2: 7).3

The essay treats the last 251 lines of Virgil’s Georgics which weave together two mythological narratives: the tale of Aristaeus, god of agricultural cultivation — shepherding, cheesemaking, beekeeping — whose colony of bees dies off and who must find a way to engender it again; and the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice.

In Virgil’s telling, Aristaeus becomes desolate when his bees die and he appeals to his goddess mother, Cyrene, for help:

His mother was a princess who lived at the bottom of the sea with her mermaid attendants. She heard his cry, and at her command the waters parted asunder to allow her son to descend to the caverns where they dwelt. There he beheld the confluences whence issue with a mighty noise all the rivers of the world. (1: 4)

Parallels with Poe’s Descent into the Maelstrom and with Plato’s Phaedo are evident. Like Poe’s mariner, Aristaeus must descend into the sea to obtain insight that is essential to him; and his finding there “the confluences whence issue with a mighty noise all the rivers of the world” matches Socrates’ description of the aquatic structure underlying the earth in Phaedo (112a):

all the rivers [meet] in confluence [there], and out of it they issue again, each afterwards taking on the individual character of the territories through which they happen to flow. (Cited by Havelock at 3: 17)

By way of anticipation (and as discussed further in Poe’s Maelstrom and Plato’s Phaedo), “all the rivers” with the “territories through which they happen to flow” may be taken to constitute the spectrum of the forms of experience — an elementary table of media.  A spectrum is, indeed, just what Poe’s mariner perceives at the bottom of the Maelstrom: “the rays of the moon seemed to search the very bottom of the profound gulf (…) over which there hung a magnificent rainbow”. A katabasis into this matrix of experience is necessarily chaotic and dangerous precisely because it exacts, willingly or unwillingly, the excision of all particular identity. Such a transformation is recorded by Poe in Descent into the Maelstrom:

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.4

Poe terms such a katabasis a journey into “the spirit-land” or realm of the dead — as, indeed, both Plato and Virgil explicitly describe.5 For McLuhan it was to go “through the vanishing point”. 

From his matrix mother, Aristaeus learns that, like Homer’s Odysseus, he must wrestle with the shape-shifter, Proteus, to force him to divulge the knowledge he requires.  But Proteus, too, lives with his seals in a cavern beneath the sea. The journey to the bottom of the sea is in this way explicitly identified with the need to wrestle with multiple forms of being and experience and with the question of how to select the appropriate singular one out of this plural many. This question becomes overwhelmingly intensified once it is realized that it must be answered before the plurality is encountered — if that plurality itself is to be encountered appropriately. But how to select the proper form out of a spectrum of forms before that spectrum is encountered? And further, since identity results from this peculiar sort of ‘selection’, it is eminently questionable just who is to achieve this improbable action.6

It is exactly this sort of unsolvable riddle, akin to that posed to an infant learning to speak, that, McLuhan maintained, can be answered only by “magic“.  And it is just such “magic”, he then added, that is implicated in all human perception and in the birth of all the arts and sciences.

Aristaeus finds Proteus, successfully wrestles with his shapes and finally learns from him, as Havelock describes, that he, Aristaeus, with the loss of his bees and his grief over them,

pays the penalty for Orpheus’ grief. For Orpheus had loved Eurydice, but once upon a time the shepherd god [Aristaeus] had given chase to her upon the river bank, and in her fright she had run upon a snake which had killed her beside the stream. All the hills and valleys wept for her, and Orpheus made of his uncontrollable grief a song, and played it on his harp. Nay, he even went down after her into the vasty halls of the dead, playing all the time, so that he cast a spell over Tartarus, and the spirits were enchanted, and their grim guardians struck dumb. So he was able to draw her back after him towards the daylight of life once more. But at the last moment he looked back, and lo, the spell was broken, and with an anguished cry she vanished once more into the shadows, and all he could do was clutch at the darkness where now nothing was.
His grief and remorse were now beyond remedy. He made of them a song again, and in a cavern of the northern hills he played it continually, casting upon animals and trees the spell of his music. Thence he roamed over the ice-fields, wrapt in his music and his grief, indifferent to all womankind, till the Bacchant celebrants of the orgies of Dionysus turned upon him and tore him to pieces, and cast his limbs in the river. Even then the severed head continued to mourn with its last breath, and the river-bank caught the echo “Eurydice, Eurydice” as it floated down the tide. (1: 4)

Like the mariner in the Maelstrom, Orpheus learns that there is a primordial harmony — in this case, a melody — that encompasses even death.7 If he entrusts himself to this harmony he can penetrate even Hades and retrieve Eurydice. But what he cannot do in the realm of multiple forms is look back (cf, McLuhan’s rear-view-mirror), for this betrays a particularity that is too “desirous of the body” (as Socrates has it in the Phaedo).  It is just such a rear-view assessment that causes the mariner’s brother in Poe’s tale to cling to his familiar ship — the ship that takes him to his doom.

The required excision of particular identity and experience in the matrix of all media can hardly be more forcefully expressed than through the image of Orpheus’ severed head, still looking back for Eurydice and crying out for her, being carried away by the tide. As Plato comments: “the soul that is desirous of the body (…) after much resistance and many sufferings is led away with violence” (Phaedo 108b).

In the realm of multiple forms, humans can and must entrust themselves to the in-between as Poe’s mariner does.  McLuhan: “Managing The Ascent from the Maelstrom [an ano-kato play on Poe’s The Descent into the Maelstrom] today demands awareness that can be achieved only by going Through the Vanishing Point” (Take Today, 13). But as soon as particularity is invoked the in-between is lost. Havelock translates Virgil on Orpheus’ terrible moment of forgetfulness as follows:

Alas, he forgot; his heart’s longing overcame him and he looked round and at once
All his labour was thrown away and the bond granted by the pitiless monarch [Tartarus]
Was abrogated
. (1: 7)

In this terrible moment, the awful might of the in-between shows itself. It appears to be nothing, since it is outside8 all particular being and experience: “she vanished once more into the shadows, and all he could do was clutch at the darkness where now nothing was”. But it is actually the power of “the bond”: the power that separates and differentiates the particular forms of being and experience in their spectrum while yet uniting them in it. And that therefore gives access to that spectrum from any particular form of it. (Poe’s mariner takes this way between vehicles to save himself in the Maelstrom.)

On the mythological level, all that remains is for Aristaeus to atone for his sin of initiating the destruction of Eurydice and Orpheus and to recover his bees in the process of the required expiatory sacrifices. But for Havelock great questions had still to be considered. Especially, what is the relationship between these tales and Virgil’s poetry? Or even, between these tales and poetics in general? Or, as both these questions together may be put, since a science must consider the particular as expressing general law, what is “the formula of Virgil’s poetic chemistry”?

Addressing himself to the magic worked by Virgil in his poetry. Havelock asks:

What is the mechanism of this spell? The answer apparently lies in that level of the mind below the surface of conscious attention to fact, to situation, or to idea. The consciousness moves through a series of image-situations… (1: 5)

These “surface (…) image-situations” in which consciousness moves are sometimes called “panels” by Havelock:

These ingenuities of arrangement lie on the surface, and are the stock-in-trade of the Alexandrians. They exploit the device of juxtaposing items, which are functionally distinct, to form a symmetrical series of panels. Aesthetic pleasure derives from the antithesis between them, an antithesis cancelled by the [the Alexandrians through] purely formal connection. Such is the geometric genius of the Hellenistic epyllion. [But] to stop there is to miss the significant quality [and quality of significance] of Virgil’s specimen. It uses this kind of geometry and yet utterly transcends it (…) The poetry of the whole symphony develops a sustained power of quite another order. (1: 5)

The great question, then, concerns this “other order” lying “below the surface of conscious attention” to “panels” and (musical) “movements”:

These [“panels” and “movements”] are focused, if that is the best word, in certain master images, of fountains and rivers, of gorges and caverns, and of rivers in caverns. The first movement [the tale of Aristaeus] introduces the boy “weeping at the sacred river’s source”. The mother who responds is “in her chamber beneath the river’s depth”; her mermaids reside “in their glass-green abodes”. The boy descends “to the pools set deep in caverns and plangent glades”. This key-note once struck is sustained [in the second movement] in the resonant sea-cave of Proteus, [in the third in] the river bank on which Eurydice dies, [and then in further movements in] the solitary shore (…) on which Orpheus laments, the vasty halls of death through which glides the “awful stream”, the icy caverns of the north, and the gorge where Orpheus’ last cry still echoes down the tide. These [master] images are the real stuff of the poetry. They interpenetrate the panels of the composition and dissolve their [independent] integrity. (1: 5-6)

This dissolution of independent “integrity” through “master images” does not, however, cancel difference:

This kind of poetic composition is not dismayed by the incongruous. Rather, it exalts incongruity into a principle. (2: 4)

What is at stake, then, is a source that does not lose itself in the generation and maintenance of difference, but neither does it cancel difference in maintaining itself in its original-originating primacy. For the Greeks and Romans, this source was often conceived as ‘water’:

Finally, lurking behind the roar of these romantic waters [comprising the series of “master images”] 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 (…) to which [source] they all return. (2: 6)

As Socrates explains in the Phaedo, water outflowing from the source takes on “the individual character of the territories through which they happen to flow”. However, since it is equally the power of their inflowing, it remains their “confluence”. Virgil’s poetry is seen by Havelock as operating through this power:

And so, as primitive geography merged into the likeness of primaeval cosmology, there began to be heard from far the distant roar of Virgil’s rivers of the world, rising in their subterranean caverns, ranging over the earth from equatorial mountains to the ice-fields of the north. The navigators long ago had sighted landfall and found mighty rivers and explored cataracts at peril of their life. (…) And the geometer and the scientist had listened and told them where they had been (…) And the philosophers had meditated and learnedly said of water that it surely is a powerful thing and permeates all and controls all and moves beneath us. Surely the earth itself must lie on water. And the poet listened to them all, and his enchanted ear caught the rumble of subterranean seas beneath his feet. Before his mind’s eye magic fountains issued from the depths and sprang into the air. Torrents cascaded between cliffs that had stood since the world began. He felt the icy breath of northern ranges, and was borne as in a dream on the bosom of irresistible currents. The road to Xanadu was open. (3: 18)

Havelock’s take on the road to Xanadu is that it is a foundational ano-kato dynamic or pathway which Virgil was able to express in, and through, his poetry. The idea may be imagined as a series of panels arranged, however, not horizontally in the Alexandrian manner, but vertically.

The top panel presents tales like those of Aristaeus and Orpheus, both of which involve a katabasis into the sea or into the underworld and a subsequent anabasis from them.

The next panel below consists of what Havelock called Virgil’s “master images” of descending waterfalls and ascending fountains with their own katabasis-anabasis movement that both illustrates and underlies the tales in the top panel.

The third panel shows what Havelock called “a change in levels of poetic description”. Here Virgil’s poetry is seen as itself taking on the synchronic ano-kato movement depicted in the scenes in the panels above it:

The smooth and dignified surface of the theme is continually violated by the upthrust of something emotionally uncontrolled and violent, an internal disturbance (…) which almost cancels the poem’s basic faith in heaven, history, and man.9

A calm surface previously prepared is suddenly and deliberately disrupted (…). The shift, that is to say, from bright light to the colors of gloom, is also a shift from the description of events occurring in the external world, the world of action (…). A change in levels of poetic description has occurred. The poet’s verse has taken a plunge downward below the surface…10

In this third panel, the focus is not on individual images, scenes or tales. Instead, its subject is Virgil’s artistry in juxtaposing different images or scenes belonging at once to “a calm surface” and to a “nightmare” below. Here plural scenes are at stake in simultaneous or synchronic ano-kato relation.  And this sort of incongruous juxtaposition is said to be what constitutes and reveals Virgil’s poetics: “The Aeneid is a work of divided genius”; “Not action, but reflection, and not sinuous sweep, but interruption and arrest, constitute the genius of the lines”.

In the fourth and final panel, Virgil’s artistry as portrayed in the third panel may itself be seen as a product of his own “plunge downward below the surface of the conscious life” where it has been energized and complicated in the “internal world”. Havelock calls this “the psychological dimension”: “the upthrust of something emotionally uncontrolled and violent” producing or reflecting “an internal disturbance”.

The narrative epic of action is (…) devised to put on parade a series of states of the inner consciousness. The poem is to some degree a dream, or more correctly a nightmare.11

Virgil, according to Havelock, was able to take the energy and complication available to him through this katabasisanabasis dynamic of the fourth panel to craft the poetry displayed in the panels above it.

his enchanted ear caught the rumble of subterranean seas beneath his feet. Before his mind’s eye magic fountains issued from the depths and sprang into the air. (…) He (…) was borne as in a dream on the bosom of irresistible currents. The road to Xanadu was open.12

  1.  References to ‘Virgil’s Road to Xanadu’ are given to the three sections in which it was published in Phoenix in 1946-1947 — issues 1:1, 1:2 and 1:supplement of the journal — followed by the page number in the corresponding issue. Some background to the essay is given in The Road to Xanadu and in The Maelstrom, Xanadu and Plato.
  2. Havelock was the founding president of the Ontario (later: Canadian) Classical Association and a co-founder of Phoenix, the association’s journal.
  3. Compare Havelock on Plato in his 1951 ‘Introduction’ to Socrates and the Soul of Man, a translation of the Phaedo by Desmond Stewart: “Platonism would seem to be not so much a system — for its quality still eludes the textbook writers — as a chemical solution which impregnates the syntax of the sentences and paragraphs in which thought is deployed.”
  4.  Plato describes this moment of transformation of the soul with some frequency: “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).
  5. For Plato, see McLuhan and Plato 1 – Phaedrus and Er and McLuhan and Plato 9 – on the plain of oblivion ; for Virgil, see The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land.
  6. See note 7 here.
  7. Further discussion in “Great change” in Descent into the Maelstrom.
  8. Not to say that it is not also inside!
  9. 1949 abstract for Havelock’s lecture, ‘The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land’.
  10.  ‘The Aeneid and Its Translators‘, The Hudson Review, 27:3 (Autumn, 1974), pp. 338-370; as discussed in The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land, this 1974 essay was developed out of Havelock’s 1949 lecture.
  11. 1949 abstract.
  12. What Havelock here describes lyrically as Virgil’s “enchanted ear” and “eye magic” being “borne as in a dream on the bosom of irresistible currents”, he styled a couple years later as “more correctly a nightmare”. The great question is how this remarkable change in tone, which was by no means restricted to Havelock, took place.  For discussion see the forthcoming post on Havelock and the question of ‘water’.