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).