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.