Monthly Archives: July 2017

Patterson on McLuhan’s acquaintance with Innis

Like nearly all researchers of the Toronto school, Graeme Patterson took McLuhan at his word that he

began to read the late work [of Innis] only after he was made curious by learning that The Mechanical Bride had been placed on the reading list of one of Innis’ courses in political economy. (History and Communications,1990, 29)

Patterson relies here on McLuhan’s mistaken recollection of events going back 30 years, which he made when he appeared with Eric Havelock in October 1978 at a memorial for Innis held at the University of Toronto in Innis College. The publication of Havelock’s address from that occasion, Harold A Innis: A Memoir (1982), has a short preface by McLuhan (‘The Fecund Interval’) in which he says:

My own acquaintance with Innis began when I heard that he had put my book, The Mechanical Bride, on his course reading list. It intrigued me to know what sort of academic would take an interest in this book, I read his Bias of Communication and became a follower of Harold innis from that time. (10)

None of this makes sense. McLuhan described his acquaintance with Innis as beginning with his reading The Bias of Communication (which would have been sometime in 1951 at the earliest, since the book was first issued that year).  But before this, Innis would hardly have had the time to read The Mechanical Bride (which itself was issued early in 1951) and to assign it for one of his courses. Moreover, as Patterson was well aware, McLuhan’s letter to Innis from early that year (if not from the end of 1950)1 already discusses Innis’ 1950 Empire and Communications — so McLuhan’s “acquaintance with Innis” certainly did not begin with his reading Innis’ Bias of Communication. 

Further, McLuhan had participated with Innis in a seminar in 1949 and Tom Easterbrook had brought the two of them together for a meal (and for further unattested discussions?) in 1948.2

 From McLuhan’s mistaken memory Patterson deduced that:

Long before encountering Innis [McLuhan] had written [in the Preface to The Mechanical Bride]: “Ever since Burckhardt saw that the meaning of Machiavelli’s method was to turn the state into a work of art by the rational manipulation of power, it has been an open possibility to apply the method of art analysis to the critical evaluation of society.” (History and Communications, 34) 

While some of The Mechanical Bride may indeed have been written before McLuhan came to know Innis in 1948 (or already in 1947 when his old friend Easterbrook returned to teach with Innis in the UT political economy department), its ‘Preface’ was almost certainly written after.

  1. The published letter from McLuhan to Innis from March 1951 was a “rewrite”.  Innis’ answer to the original letter was dated February 26, 1951, and apologizes for a delayed response.
  2. For discussion of the 1949 ‘values seminar’ see ‘The ‘Values Discussion Group’ of 1949′ (; for the 1948 meal, see McLuhan to Lewis Mumford, December 28, 1948, Letters 208.

Easterbrook to Innis on the “juxtaposition of unlikes”

Graeme Patterson‘s excellent History and Communications (1990) records a late exchange between McLuhan’s old Winnipeg buddy1 Tom Easterbrook, and Easterbrook’s mentor, colleague and close friend at UT, Harold Innis:

In the spring of 1952, when [Innis] was dying of cancer, the economist W.T. Easterbrook wrote to him about his own “current preoccupation with McLuhan’s ‘juxtaposition of unlikes’ (…) It is a method not at all uncommon in your own writings, but it is only recently that I have begun to see its possibilities.It is the only way I know out of the dilemma of narrative vs ‘scientific’ history.”
“I agree with you”, replied Innis, “about the importance of juxtaposition along the lines suggested by McLuhan. It seems to offer the only prospect of escape from the obsession with one’s own culture, but of course needs to be carefully considered since, while one’s own views of one’s culture change as a result of looking at other cultures, nevertheless the problem of objectivity always seems to emerge.” (28, with notes 8 and 9 to this passage on  p 229)

As described in ‘Innis and McLuhan in 1936’2 Innis had long been ambiguous about the prospects of scientific rigor in the social sciences.  He seems to have remained so until his death. But Easterbrook, at least, could see that the simultaneous double perspective or juxtaposition method that McLuhan was advocating (mainly from his reading of Eliot and Pound) did offer such a prospect — but exactly not by extricating itself (per impossibile) from finitude, either in the performance of the subject or in the knowledge of the object. Instead, finitude might be perceived and exercised as itself juxtaposed with truth — however ‘unlikely’ such an “inclusive image” might seem in some perspectives. But how else could we have all the sciences that we do? Or, indeed, how else could we have all the routine familiarity we have in going about our everyday lives?

Later in History and Communications, Patterson tied Innis’ reply to Easterbrook to his reading of the following passage from The Mechanical Bride:

The cultural patterns of several societies, quite unrelated to one another or to our own, are abruptly overlayered [in contemporary anthropology like that of Margaret Mead] in cubist or Picasso style to provide a greatly enriched image of human potentialities. By this method the greatest possible detachment from our own immediate problems is achieved. The voice of reason is audible only to the detached observer. (3)

Patterson commented:

It was this method of achieving “the greatest possible detachment”, it would appear, that Innis had in mind in making his strange reply to Easterbrook. (35)

“Detachment” was  certainly one of “the conditions of freedom of thought” sought by Innis.  But what Innis did not live long enough to understand in McLuhan (let alone to affirm with McLuhan) was the compatibility of “unlikes” even when their “juxtaposition” were taken to the extreme of “the greatest possible detachment”.  This extreme compatibility of “unlikes” was at the heart of McLuhan’s “ceaseless quest for the inclusive image” and of his Catholic persuasion.



  1. Like most scholars of the Toronto school, Patterson either did not know of McLuhan’s long-standing intimate friendship with Easterbrook — or he ignored it.  But this friendship was a central factor in the Innis-McLuhan relationship and, of course, in the whole Culture and Communication seminar project where Easterbrook was one of the five faculty leaders (three from Winnipeg!). An acknowledgement to The Mechanical Bride (1951) reads: “To Professor W. T. Easterbrook I owe many enlightening conversations on the problems of bureaucracy and enterprise.” By 1951, these had been on-going, irregularly, for almost 25 years. Easterbrook’s relationship with Innis was not as long-standing as with McLuhan, but it did go back 15 years and had developed into a very close friendship itself. Innis’ ‘Preface’ to Empire and Communications (1950) acknowledges Easterbrook’s help reading the manuscript.

McLuhan’s realism 10: Pound on the ideograph

The “New Learning” under the ideogram of the mortar1 can imply whatever men of my generation can offer our successors as means to (…) comprehension. (Guide to Kulchur)

ABC of Reading:

Fenollosa’s essay was perhaps too far ahead of his time to be easily comprehended. He did not proclaim his method as a method. He was trying to explain the Chinese ideograph as a means of transmission and registration of thought. He got to the root of the matter, to the root of the difference between what is valid in Chinese thinking and invalid or misleading in a great deal of European thinking and language. The simplest statement I can make of his meaning is as follows: In Europe, if you ask a man to define anything, his definition always moves away from the simple things that he knows perfectly well, it recedes into an unknown region, that is a region of remoter and progressively remoter abstraction. Thus if you ask him what red is, he says it is a ‘colour ‘. If you ask him what a colour is, he tells you it is a vibration or a refraction of light, or a division of the spectrum. And if you ask him what vibration is, he tells you it is a mode of energy, or something of that sort, until you arrive at a modality of being, or non-being, or at any rate you get in beyond your depth, and beyond his depth.
By contrast to the method of abstraction, or of defining things in more and still more general terms, Fenollosa emphasizes the method of science, ‘which is the method of poetry’, as distinct from that of ‘philosophic discussion ‘, and is the way the Chinese go about it in their ideograph or abbreviated picture writing.
In tables showing primitive Chinese characters in one column and the present ‘conventionalized’ signs in another, anyone can see how the ideogram for man or tree or sunrise developed, or ‘was simplified from’, or was reduced to the essentials of the first picture of man, tree or sunrise.

But when the Chinaman wanted to make a picture of something more complicated, or of a general idea, how did he go about it? He is to define red. How can he do it in a picture that
isn’t painted in red paint? He puts (or his ancestor put) together the abbreviated
pictures of

ROSE                    CHERRY

The Chinese ‘word’ or ideogram for red is based on something everyone KNOWS. (19-22)


Guide to Kulchur:

The week before last one of the brighter scholars still professed ignorance of the meaning of “ideogramic”. I must try once again to define that term (…) Ernest Fenollosa attacked, quite rightly, a great weakness in western ratiocination. He pointed out that the material sciences, biology, chemistry, examined collections of fact, phenomena, specimens, and gathered general equations of real knowledge from them, even though the observed data had no syllogistic connection one with another. (…) The first knowledge is direct, (…) it affects every perception…
Coming even closer to things (…)
And herein is clue to Confucius’ reiterated commendation of such of his students as studied the Odes. He demanded or commended a type of perception, a kind of transmission of knowledge obtainable only from such concrete manifestation. Not without reason. The whole tone, disposition, Anschauung of Confucius recommending the Odes, of Confucius speaking of music, differs fundamentally (…) from the way the unfortunate (…) occidental usually supposes… (27-29)

The ideogramic method consists of presenting one facet and then another until at some point one gets off the dead and desensitized surface of the reader’s mind, onto a part that will register.(…) To put it yet another way: it does not matter a two-penny damn whether you load up your memory with the chronological sequence of what has happened, or the names of protagonists, or authors of books, or generals and leading political spouters, so long as you understand the process now going on, or [rather] the [plural] processes biological, social, economic now going on, enveloping you as an individual, in a social order, and quite unlikely to be very “new” in themselves however fresh or stale to the participant. (50-51)

CIVILIZATION (…): to define it ideogramicly we may start with the “Listening to Incense”. This displays a high state of civilization. In the Imperial Court of Nippon the companions burnt incense, they burnt now one perfume, and now another, or a mixture of perfumes, and the accomplishment was both to recognize what had gone materially into the perfume and to cite apposite poems. The interest is in the blend of perception [hear/smell] and of association [physical/mental]. It is a pastime neither for clods nor for illiterates. (79)


For Pound (and the same would be true of McLuhan), human beings are directly in touch with the things in their environment. We KNOW things perfectly well.  But among the things we KNOW is the fact that the surface of things is not all there is to them. The same sort of direct communication we have with things also holds between their surface and their depth. This is why we can have something like science or why some have what is called ‘deep insight’ into social or historical events.

Understanding the world for Pound and McLuhan presupposed the exercise of both of these kinds of realism.

  1. The Chinese character for learning.

Writing and the Alphabet in Innis and McLuhan

McLuhan’s ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’ (1951) was reprinted in The Interior Landscape, indicating McLuhan’s evaluation of its importance along his pathway. Here is to be found:

With Joyce words syntactically ordered to statement yielded to words as pantomime, as ballet, and especially as static landscape. Mallarmé, in his Coup de Des, had preceded Joyce in establishing the printed page as a symbolist landscape able to evoke the most ephemeral incident and, simultaneously, the most remote cycles of time. For Mallarmé, as for Joyce, the minutest, as well as the most esoteric, features of the alphabet itself were charged with dramatic significance, so that he used the word and the printed page as do the Chinese, for whom landscape painting is a branch of writing.1

This was an understanding of print and of time and of their interrelation that would occupy him for the remaining three decades of his life. The printed page as “syntactically ordered (…) statement” could be taken not — or not only! — as the continuous ABCDE unfolding of a lineal message, but also as an ABCEDminded2 “static landscape”, or snapshot, in which time itself was figured in it from “the most ephemeral3 incident” to “the most remote cycles of time” and its ground, “simultaneously”. The emerging idea was that print, exactly in its multiple (and by no means only negative) limitations (arbitrarily isolated atomic units configured in serial order and all that this implied for history and consciousness) could be perceived as revealing at the same time an entirely different time-space order (“words as pantomime, as ballet (…) charged with dramatic significance”).

McLuhan had been thinking about the implications of particularity for decades4, but now he began to sense, in what amounted to a second conversion, that incarnation had no limit. There was nothing that could not also be beheld as expressing an entirely different order and this relationship between orders was precisely that “inclusive and integral image” to whose specification he had been elected.5 Reflecting back to this time around 1951 in his Playboy interview, he recalled:

For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually (…) I ceased being a moralist and became a student. As someone committed to literature and the traditions of literacy, I began to study the new environment that imperiled literary values, and I soon realized that [the new media and popular culture] could not be dismissed by moral outrage or pious indignation. Study showed that a totally new approach was required, both to save what deserved saving in our Western heritage and to help man adopt a new survival strategy. (Playboy Interview)

Remarkably, this “totally new approach” did not represent an exclusive break with the past, but a revolutionary accommodation with it that was inclusive. The “totally new” was a reversion or, as McLuhan often put it, a “retracing”, that accorded itself to the light coming through all things including “environmental technology”, “the Industrial Revolution”, “mass media” and  “modern life” in general. In a word, he adopted in regard to the universe of human experience the posture of a proto-chemist who determined to begin studying all materials across all their manifestations and interactions.

A footnote to the passage cited above from ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’ and concluding with “landscape painting is a branch of writing”, referred to:

A.C. Moorhouse, Writing and the Alphabet, London, 1946, p. 59.

Presumably McLuhan had found this reference the year before reading Innis’ Empire and Communications .  It appears in a footnote to p 10 of its ‘Introduction’:

See C. L. Becker, Progress and Power (Stanford University, 1936); see also A. C. Moorhouse, Writing and the Alphabet (London, 1946).6

Now the year 1951 was of great significance to McLuhan: he turned 40; The Mechanical Bride was finally published; his turn to Joyce was completed as defined that year in his ‘Joyce, Aquinas, and the Poetic Process’; his correspondence with Ezra Pound (backed by his study of the Cantos and of Pound’s critical writings) was flourishing; his relationship with Innis was taking off (only to be cut short by Innis’ early death in 1952); he was beginning to investigate the roles of media in culture as reflected in his letter to Innis from March that year and as detailed in his advanced summary of “the end of the Gutenberg era” in his letter to Pound7 in July 1952 (reflecting ideas he had come to, in the main, in 1951).

Moorhouse’s book with its chapter on the Chinese may have been an important marker in this context. Its page 59 referenced by  McLuhan has this extended passage (going over to page 60):

Calligraphy has always been held in the highest esteem in China : indeed, landscape-painting is really to be regarded as a branch of writing, and landscapes often include written texts from poems on account of the beauty of the script as much as for literary reasons. Our alphabet has in comparison a plain and matter-of-fact appearance. But there are more practical reasons [for comparing the two]. The Chinaman who has learnt to read is equally at home with a government notice of to-day and with the literature that reaches back for over three thousand years. The writing is materially the same, though the language is not. Now this is a most peculiar situation. Contrast what happens with a phonetic system of writing. In ancient Greek there is a period of only five or six centuries between Homer and Aristotle, [not the three thousand of the Chinese,] yet the language changed considerably in that time. The student who knew only the Greek of Aristotle would find himself at once in difficulties with that of Homer, in respect of the vocabulary, the sounds and the grammatical forms. His difficulties would all arise out of distinctions in the spoken form of the language: and since the writing is based on the spoken form, and simply reproduces all the distinctions, it can do nothing to remove them. Admittedly Greek is an extreme example, because of its great diversity. We can, however, see a similar result in English. It is impossible for us, without special training, to read and understand Beowulf, or even Chaucer: their language is different, and therefore so is the written form [reflective] of it. The Chinese language [as represented in its script], on the other hand, has not undergone such striking changes (…) [even though] the process of sound change has created a number of modern Chinese dialects, which are sufficiently unlike to prevent the speakers of one of them from readily understanding the others, or the ancient texts, when spoken aloud. This is where the value of Chinese writing makes itself felt, by transcending the speech barriers. Thus the writing allows the Chinaman (if he can read at all) to enjoy the knowledge of his ancient texts — a knowledge which has [practical] significance in Chinese life that is not easy for us to estimate.

Moorhouse brings together writing as “landscape-painting” (script and art), different time dimensions determined by the translucence (or not) of script and art, east and west and the importance of “transcending the speech barriers” to the appropriation of (or by!) culture. All of these (though of course not deriving only from Moorhouse) would be critical to McLuhan in the coming decade (and, in fact, for the rest of his life).

On the same page of Empire and Communications just above his note referencing Moorhouse, Innis formulated one of the most important passages in his book:

The significance of a basic medium to its civilization is difficult to appraise since the means of appraisal are influenced by the [different] media [employed by it, on the one hand, and by us, on the other], and indeed the fact of appraisal appears to be peculiar to certain types of media. A change in the type of medium implies a change in the type of appraisal and hence makes it difficult for one civilization to understand another. (…) The difficulties of appraisal will be evident, particularly in the consideration of time. With the dominance of arithmetic (…)  modern students have accepted the linear measure of time. The dangers of applying this procrustean device in the appraisal of civilizations in which it did not exist illustrate one of numerous problems. The difficulties will be illustrated in part in these six lectures in which time becomes a crucial factor in the organization of material and in which a lecture is [used self-consciously as] a standardized and relatively inefficient method of communication with an emphasis on dogmatic answers rather than eternal questions. I have attempted to meet these problems by using the concept of empire as an indication of the efficiency of communication. It will reflect to an important extent the efficiency of particular media of communication and its possibilities in creating conditions favourable to creative thought. (10)

Here, too, media are brought together with different time dimensions and “type[s] of appraisal”. These, in turn, are seen to give access to, or to block access to, “eternal questions” and “creative thought.” Innis then goes beyond Moorhouse in noting how these considerations reflect back on his own lectures and on the “appraisal” that is possible in them for himself and through them for his audience.

What Innis did not see in Moorhouse, however, was the importance of the introduction into this context of “landscape-painting”. It was precisely this point that McLuhan would emphasize in his programmatic letter to Innis early in 1951:

it was most of all the esthetic discoveries of the symbolists since Rimbaud and Mallarmé (developed in English by Joyce, Eliot, Pound, Lewis and Yeats) which have served to recreate in contemporary consciousness an awareness of the potencies of language [understood in Moorhouse’s broad sense as including script and, therefore, art], such as the Western world has not experienced in 1800 years. (…) The discontinuous juxtaposition of unrelated items (…) created, [Mallarmé] saw, a symbolic landscape of great power and importance. (…) The same symbolist perception applied to cinema showed that the montage of images was basically a return via technology to age-old picture language. Eisenstein’s Film Forum and Film Technique explores the relations between modern developments in the arts and Chinese ideogram, pointing to the common basis of ideogram in modern art, science and technology. (…) From the point of view of the artist however the business of art is no longer the communication of thoughts or feelings which are to be conceptually ordered [like Innis’ “dogmatic answers”], but a direct participation in an experience [of “creative thought” about “eternal questions”]. (…) The fallacy in the Deutsch-Wiener [cybernetics] approach [shared by Innis?] is its failure to understand the techniques and functions of the traditional arts as the essential type[s] of all human communication. (…) Arts here used as providing criteria, techniques of observation, and bodies of recorded, achieved, experience. Points of departure but also return. For example the actual techniques of [McLuhan’s proposed] common study today [between, eg, the physical sciences, social sciences, humanities and artists] seem to me to be of genuine relevance to anybody who wishes to grasp the best in current poetry and music. And vice versa.

Problems of communication, aka of “understanding media”, were implicated, this was to say, both in the best modern art works and in any attempt to restore harmony in the universe of human thought and action.


  1. Compare: “Whereas the ethical world of Ulysses is presented in terms of well-defined human types the more metaphysical world of the Wake speaks and moves before us with the gestures of being itself. It is a nightworld and, literally, as Joyce reiterates, is “abcedminded.” Letters (“every letter is a godsend”), the frozen, formalized gestures of remote ages of collective experience, move before us in solemn morrice (dance). They are the representatives of age-old adequation of mind and things, enacting the drama of the endless adjustment of the interior acts and dispositions of the mind to the outer world. The drama of cognition itself. (James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial, 1953)
  2. See note above. For discussion see ‘Abcedmindedness’
  3. Etymologically, ‘eph-emeral’ = ‘of a day’.
  4. See ‘McLuhan’s realism 4’: Meredith and “mystical materialism” (
  5. See McLuhan and the “ceaseless quest for the inclusive image”:
  6. Footnote 16 to p 10 of the 1950 edition of Empire and Communications. Carl Becker, 1873-1945, was professor of politics at Minnesota and Cornell. Alfred Charles Moorhouse, 1910-2000, was professor of Greek at University College, Swansea.
  7. McLuhan to Pound, July 16, 1952, Letters 231-232.

McLuhan’s times

Loose note found in McLuhan’s copy of the University of Toronto Quarterly, 19:2, January 1950:

We can only correct the bias of the present time by coming to know it is a time, not the time.1

‘Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry’, 1951:

the Symbolists [took] aesthetic experience as an arrested moment, a moment in and out of time2, of intellectual emotion for which in their poems they sought the art formula by retracing the stages of apprehension which led to this moment.

‘Space, Time, and Poetry,  Explorations 4, 1955:

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 begins:

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.

Here the “time of year” (…) is visualized swiftly in three different ways in the second line and then a fourth and fifth time in the third and fourth lines.3 

‘New Media in Arts Education’, 1956, on Rimbaud’s poem “Dimanche”:

The organization of experience here is orchestral or acoustic rather than visual. Yet the various units of experience are visualized. There is a landscape, but it includes more than one space in its space and more than one time in its time. It is a simultaneous order such as music readily offers. A merely visual landscape, however, can offer only one space at one time.

The Gutenberg Galaxy, 1962, p 14 (citing Georges Poulet):

“For the man of the Middle Ages, then, there was not one duration only. There were durations, ranked one above another, and not only in the universality of the exterior world but within himself, in his own nature, in his own human existence.”

Understanding Media, 1964, p 152:

plurality-of-times succeeds uniformity-of-time

The Medium is the Massage, 1967, p 63:

Ours is a brand-new world of allatonceness4. ‘Time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished. We now live in a global village…a simultaneous happening.

‘Education in the Electronic Age’, 1967:

Everything happens at once. In the new painting and the new art and the new literature, it is a happening. A happening is an all-at-once situation. There is no story line. We are all engaged in a happening; everything happening at once. That is what a happening is. It is not one thing at a time but everything at once

Through the Vanishing Point, 1968, p 55:

If the three-dimensional illusion of depth [in Western European art] has proved to be a cul-de-sac of one time and one space, the two-dimensional [in Eastern art] features many spaces in multileveled time.

Through the Vanishing Point, p 103:

The Shakespearean moment (“that time of year”)5 includes several times at once

Through the Vanishing Point, p 221:

In an electronic world where all-at-onceness is inevitable and normal, we have rediscovered an affinity for the discontinuity of Oriental art and expression6

Counterblast, 1969

the omnipresent ear and moving eye

‘Electric Consciousness and The Church’, 1970:

we live in post-history in the sense that all pasts that ever were are now present to our consciousness and that all the futures that will be are here now. In that sense we are post-history and timeless. Instant awareness of all the varieties of human expression constitutes the sort of mythic type of consciousness of ‘once-upon-a-timeness’ which means all time, out of time.

‘Theatre and the Visual Arts’, 1971:

Without static you have no continuity.

Spiral — Man as the Medium, 1976:

Chronological time yields to time as [simultanious] spaced-out moments of intensity.

Global Village, posthumous, p 10:

time considered as sequential (left hemisphere) is figure and time considered as simultaneous (right hemisphere) is ground.

Global Village, p 45:

Acoustic and visual space structures may be seen as incommensurable, like history and eternity, yet, at the same time, as complementary…a foot, as it were, in both…



  1. Transcribed by Andrew McLuhan in his inscriptorium blog. Emphasis added here. The tone and date of this note point in the direction of Harold Innis.  Already in 1942 Innis had written: “The concepts of time and space must be made relative and elastic and the attention given by the social scientists to problems of space should be paralleled by attention to problems of time” (Journal of Economic History, December 1942, reprinted in Political Economy in the Modern State, 1946, p 34). And in 1948: “ The Chinese concept of time (…) as plural (…) reflects their social organization with its interest in hierarchy and relative stability” (The Press: a neglected factor in the economic history of the twentieth century, 1948, reprinted in Changing Concepts of Time, 1952, p 94), emphasis added.
  2. “A moment in and out of time”: unmarked quotation from Eliot’s Four Quartets, iii: ‘The  Dry Salvages’.
  3. See Through the Vanishing Point, p 103 (in this post above).
  4. ‘All-at-onceness’ (McLuhan’s usual spelling) implicates plural times. This is seldom or never understood and yet is foundational to his intentions. See the passage above from Through the Vanishing Point, p 221.
  5. See the citation from ‘Space, Time, and Poetry’ above.
  6. “All-at-onceness” and “discontinuity” (of, eg, times) belong together because a plural “all” requires the differentiation of its components.

McLuhan and the “ceaseless quest for the inclusive image”

In ‘New Media and the New Education’ (1960) McLuhan submitted that “the Romantics (…) began a ceaseless quest for the inclusive and integral image”. He himself was heir to this same quest.  For there was no other way than in and through such an “inclusive and integral image” to understand the complications of a world where all spaces and all times were simultaneously present. And where, above all, there was no other way than through such an “inclusive and integral image” to reawaken and renew a consciousness of God.

Already in 1951 he had described “symbolic vision” or “inclusive consciousness” as “the juxtaposition without copula of diverse and even paradoxical situations or states of mind” (Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry, 1951). But what could be more “paradoxical” than a world consumed by nihilism that made sense, not through transformation into something else, but in the utter extreme of its dislocation exactly as it was?

Beyond (or before) the revolutionary bent of a simultaneous electric world, McLuhan recognized a “human craving for an inclusive auditory organization of many-layered and interpenetrating experiences”1 that was timeless — or, at least, that was subject to multiple times and therefore that was not only chronological: “a moment in and out of time” (as McLuhan cited Eliot). Without such a “craving”, like the stag for the running stream as Psalm 42 has it, how else could God ever have been known and worshipped in a world that was at no time without its small and large tragedies or lacking in recurrent overwhelming senselessnesses?

Thus it was that McLuhan took the symbolists as continuing the “ceaseless quest for the inclusive and integral image” of the romantics and his own task within this tradition as being the further unfolding of its insights and aims:

the central difference between romantic or picturesque poetry and modern symbolist poetry was that whereas the landscape poets from Thomson to Tennyson were engaged in manipulating an external environment as a means of evoking art emotion, after Poe, Baudelaire, and Rimbaud, the symbolists turned to the manipulation of an interior landscape, a paysage intérieur, as the means of controlling art emotion or of exploring the aesthetic moment. This amounted to a considerable revolution — from natural conditions for art emotion to art conditions for art emotion. (The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry, 1951)

the Symbolists [took] aesthetic experience as an arrested moment, a moment in and out of time2, of intellectual emotion for which in their poems they sought the art formula by retracing the stages of apprehension which led to this moment.” (Tennyson and Picturesque Poetry, 1951)

The Romantics (…) insisted upon the creative imagination as the birthright of all, and began a ceaseless quest for the inclusive and integral image. This arduous search was taken up with great intensity by the Symbolists who realized that it could not be a merely visual image, but must include all the senses in a kind of dance. En route to this discovery, Hopkins and Browning, Poe and Baudelaire, ended the print-fostered dichotomy between author and reader, producer and consumer and swept mostly unwilling audiences up into participation in the creative act. After Poe, and since Cezanne, poets and painters devised ever new modes of speaking not to their readers and viewers, but through them. (…) Such is the meaning of the abstract art and the do-it-yourself kits which artists have for a hundred years been carefully preparing for this affronted public. (New Media and the New Education, 1960)

Like the symbolists in their transformation of the romantic quest, McLuhan’s goal was to set out a kind of prolegomena to the apprehension of an “inclusive and integral image” through which that image might again be dis-covered and beheld – and applied. What he called “the art formula”. Audience participation was required, not only because this image was necessarily not that of any individual perspective (not that of the artist nor that of any of the artist’s consumers), but above all because the goal was to communicate the means through which perception of “the inclusive and integral image” might be enabled. And this required complex transformation in the audience just as it had first of all required complex transformation in the artist attempting its specification.

[Romantic] poetry, too, [like science following Newton], succeeded in achieving a new visual order based on the correspondence between the inner faculties and the natural scene outside. But this new order was exclusive rather than inclusive in its very nature. It had to deal with one emotion at a time and one level of experience at a time. It could not include erudition and accumulated past experience in the single perspectives of visual space that were devised in order to isolate and to control single emotions. But, above all, it could not fulfill the human craving for an inclusive auditory organization of many-layered and interpenetrating experiences. (Review of The Romantic Assertion, 1960)

the electronic mode of shaping situations reveals its bias towards field structure. But even “field”, preferred by physicists, can mislead by suggesting a flat, single plane. But a multi-dimensional field is intended, an ”everyway roundabout with intrusions from above and below”. Thus, for example, point-of-view, if inevitable in print culture, is alien to electronic ‘field’ and the affiliates of such [a] ‘field’. (New Media and the New Education, 1960)3

Sense might be made of the world, once again, and in particular of the Christian tradition, but only through a revolution in our understanding of sense in the “every-way roundabout with intrusions from above and below” of its shape(s).4

  1. ‘Review of The Romantic Assertion‘,1960
  2. Without attribution, McLuhan cites Eliot here from The Four Quartets (The  Dry Salvages).
  3. New Media and the New Education, 1960, citing (without attribution) Frank Budgen, ‘Joyce’s Chapters on Going Forth by Day’, Horizon, September 1941. McLuhan cited this same passage more extensively a decade before in 1951 in ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’: “The worst (difficulty) of writing about Finnegans Wake (said Budgen) is that all our words are wrong. Story is wrong, of course, for a story is one thing happening after another along a one-way time street, coming from and going to some place, whereas Finnegans Wake is going nowhere in all directions on an every-way roundabout with intrusions from above and below. On every page Joyce insists upon this all-time dream-time by every device of suggestion and allusion and by a continual modification and cancellation of all-time words.” Where McLuhan consistently has ‘intrusions’, Budgen had ‘infiltrations’.
  4. The great problem implicated in “a revolution in our understanding of sense” was, of course, that “understanding” for McLuhan was already a certain configuration of sense. There could be no such revolution unless it had already occurred! This knot in time of a ‘future past’ was therefore both a central feature of the sought “inclusive and integral image” and its pre-liminary precondition — that which first had to be in place for it first to be.

McLuhan’s Google Doodle

On McLuhan’s birthday July 21 (2017) he got a Google Doodle:

The doodle images symbolize the acoustic age, the written age, mass production (Fordism), McLuhan television appearance, the Global Village and the electronic age.

Marshall McLuhan’s 106th Birthday

Long before we started looking to our screens for all the answers, Marshall McLuhan saw the internet coming — and predicted just how much impact it would have. A Canadian philosopher and professor who specialized in media theory, McLuhan came to prominence in the 1960s, just as TV was becoming part of everyday life. At the center of his thinking was the idea that society is shaped by technology and the way information is shared.

Today’s Doodle, which celebrates the visionary’s 106th birthday, illustrates this theory by showing how McLuhan viewed human history. He saw it through the lens of 4 distinct eras: the acoustic age, the literary age, the print age, and the electronic age. His first major book, The Gutenberg Galaxy (1962), popularized the term “global village” — the idea that technology brings people together and allows everyone the same access to information.

In Understanding Media (1964), McLuhan further examined the transformative effects of technology and coined his famous phrase “The medium is the message.” He believed that the way in which someone receives information is more influential than the information itself. Throughout the ’60s and ’70s, McLuhan made frequent TV appearances to share his theories with both followers and skeptics.

Decades later, we honor the man whose prophetic vision of the “computer as a research and communication instrument” has undeniably become a reality.




On Lewis and Technology 1944

our lives are so (…) involved with the evolution of our machines that we have grown to see and feel everything in [their] terms. (Lemuel in Lilliput, 1944)1

[Lewis’] concern for the order of Western civilization has led him to contemplate the contemporary situation minutely and in its entirety. (Ibid)

In the middle 1940s, McLuhan began to turn his attention to the relation of technology and culture.  This had much to do with his exposure to the work of two major European intellectuals both of whom he met personally in 1943: Sigfried Giedion, who came to St Louis to further his research on its riverfront, and Wyndham Lewis, who was discovered living in Windsor by McLuhan’s mother. McLuhan immediately read everything he could find from both.

Giedion emphasized the growing influence of technology on architecture and all the arts in Space, Time and Architecture (1941, originally lectures at Harvard in 1938) and had begun to publish the research which would eventuate in Mechanization Takes Command (1948).2

McLuhan had read Lewis’ Time and Western Man (1927) in Cambridge.  Now he scrambled to catch up with the rest of his remarkable output. His 1944 ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’ represented the first of his lifelong attempts3 to come to terms with Lewis and began by stipulating:

I propose to consider here only three or four of the thirty-odd volumes of Wyndham Lewis. This means neglecting the fact that he is the only serious painter England has had in the past fifty years, and that he is one of the half-dozen great painters of Europe in the same period. This, perhaps his most important side in the long run, must be put out of the present discussion. Similarly, as the author of Tarr, The Apes of God and The Childermass, he takes his place in the literature of prose satire as a classic. (…) Works of this scope and importance must be reserved for separate treatment, especially since they are little read in America. Instead, something will be said about another side of his work — the pamphleteering. This is the side from which both the novels and the painting of Lewis are most readily approached. 

In the pamphlets, especially The Art of Being Ruled (1926), what particularly attracted McLuhan’s attention was Lewis’ treatment of the affect of technology on culture — aka “the war on the intellect”:

  • we hear on every hand [McLuhan was writing in 1944]: “This isn’t a war, it’s a revolution.” “We live in an age of transition.” “Things will be different after this war.” “This won’t be the last war.” Whether spoken by the responsible or the moronic, these remarks, and countless others like them, have no meaning. They are spoken in a trance of inattention while the reason is in permanent abeyance. They are typical of men who no longer understand the world they have made and which, as robots, they operate day by day. Such is the situation into which Lewis shot his pamphlet breezily entitled ‘The Art of Being Ruled’.
  • To read the “pamphlets” of Lewis is to become aware not only of the scope of the forces arrayed against reason and art, but it is to have anatomized before one’s eyes every segment of the contemporary scene of glamorized commerce and advertising, and, above all, of the bogus science, philosophy, art, and literature which has been the main instrument in producing universal stupefaction.
  • The dehumanization of life [proceeds] by means of centralized methods of “communication”, and by the lethal abstractionizing of the machine (…) The life of free intelligence has never (…) encountered such anonymous and universal hostility.
  • The rulers of modern society are increasingly identified with these technicians who control “scientifically” [via] educational experiment and the Gallup poll: “In reality they are another genus of puppets, a genus of homicidal puppets” [citing ‘The Art of Being Ruled’].
  • Lewis presents a massive documentation and analysis of the art and science and philosophy which manufacture the Zeitgeistthe Zeitgeist being the force which manipulates the puppets who govern [ie, manipulate] us.4
  • the modern state is necessarily an educationalist state owing to the huge impassivity of the urban masses on the one hand and to the closely centralized control of all agencies of communication on the other.

“In a word”, said McLuhan, using a mannerism he had picked up from Bernie Muller-Thym, his close friend and colleague at SLU, “not only was modern society hostile to art, but to life and reason also.”

McLuhan had no ideas yet just how — through what means of transformation — technology and communication were able to affect culture. But he was clear that, in modern times at least, their result was to consolidate into a undifferentiated fog (as in the opening scene of Fellini’s ):

  • the fabric of modern life is woven without a seam.
  • as a thousand different activities mystically coalesce in response to the religion of merging, or mesmeric engulfing (…) the Dagwoods and the billionaire power-gluttons are equally rushing to the suicide of total immersion in the chaos5 of matter (…) the exploited and the exploiter coalesce.
  • Modern man, philosophically committed and conditioned to sensation and its twin, action, is automatically manifesting the fruits of that philosophy in a multitude of ways. Fanatically wedded to matter (…) all his acts will uniformly possess a character of accelerated imbecility.
  • Everything in our life today conspires to thrust most people into prescribed tracks, in what can be called a sort of trance of action. Hurrying, without any significant reason, from spot to spot at the maximum speed obtainable…
  • how is the typical individual of this epoch to do some detached thinking for himself? All his life is disposed with a view to banishing reflection.
  • the rulers of the modern world are not detached or critical. They do not reflect. They do not consider ends. They are wholly immersed in the matter which they utilize without understanding its character.
  • the pathological blindness of the modern world to anything but itself: “It is naturally, for itself, the best that has ever been — it is for it that the earth has laboured for so long (…) “The Heir of all the Ages.”

Ten years later, in ‘Nihilism Exposed’, a 1955 review6 of Wyndham Lewis by Hugh Kenner, McLuhan retained this assessment:

it is precisely the courage of Lewis in pushing the Cartesian and Plotinian angelism to the logical point of the extinction of humanism and personality that gives his work such importance in the new age of technology. For, on the plane of applied science we have fashioned a Plotinian world-culture which implements the non-human and superhuman doctrines of neo-Platonic angelism to the point where the human dimension is obliterated by sensuality at one end of the spectrum, and by sheer abstraction at the other. (…)  And now in the twentieth century when nature has been abolished by art and engineering, when government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government, now the gnostic and neo-Platonist and Buddhist can gloat: “I told you so! This gimcrack mechanism is all that there ever was in the illusion of human existence. Let us rejoin the One“. This pagan unworldliness carried to its ultimate mystical point is what makes the work of Lewis so intense and his evaluation so fearless.

What gave Lewis “such importance in the new age of technology” was his specification of the background structural dynamics through which analysis in the humanities and social sciences had to be made. This was the core of McLuhan’s lifetime work and he had glimpsed it already in this 1944 essay:

Where everything is in question, and where all traditional values are repudiated, the everyday problems have become, necessarily, identical with [problems of] the abstractions from which all [perceptions of] concrete things in the first place come. And the everyday life is too much affected by the speculative activities that are (…) trans-valuing our world for it to be able to survive in ignorance of those speculations…

It is (…) a matter of the utmost concern for us to know from what sources and by what means the rulers of the modern world determine what they will do next.  How do they determine the ends for which, as means, they employ the vast machines of government, education, and amusement? Lewis gives the answer that “art and science are the very material out of which the law is made. They are the suggestion; out of them are cut the beliefs by which men are governed” [citing ‘The Art of Being Ruled’].

Hence, because “art and science are the very material out of which the law is made”:

All question of the artistic value of Joyce and Picasso apart, the man whose sensibility and judgment cannot cope with them easily and naturally, has not the equipment to consider the world he lives in.

Defining “the equipment” of “sensibility and judgment” needed “to consider the world” was McLuhan’s aim. The object was not the world as the complex of physical things, but the world as the redoubled complex of experienced things, the world(s) we live in. Great questions remained, however. What was the means through which technology was able to affect culture? Prior to that, just what was technology, especially if language could be considered the first art and the first technology, one enabling culture (not disabling it as it does at present)? And if “speculative activities” might be thought to be the source “from which all concrete things in the first place come”, how was this different from Lodge’s “Platonist” comparative method where “philosophy is essentially speculative, an affair of alternative possibilities”? Key to this question, in turn, was the further question (as, indeed, Plato had been well aware) of the nature of ‘identity’ where “everyday problems have become, necessarily, identical with the abstractions from which all concrete things in the first place come”? And just what was implicated with this “first place”? What eventuated ‘there’? And when? And, finally, how was communication about all these questions to be initiated such that collective investigation could be made, at last, into them?

McLuhan would gradually begin to probe all these questions. For now he was clear that an important aspect of Lewis’ work lay in the fact that had faced the communication problem and attempted to answer it:

Lewis (…) sets out to create an audience for himself: “A book of this description is not written for an audience that is already there, prepared to receive it, and whose minds it will fit like a glove. There must be a good deal of stretching of the receptacle (…) It must of necessity make its own audience” [citing The Art of Being Ruled].

This “stretching of the receptacle” was conceived by Lewis as enabling, or forcing, the “toil of detachment” (The Art of Being Ruled):

  • As a preparation for intelligent action, Lewis advocates self-extrication from the ideologic machine by an arduous course of detachment…
  • Lewis pleases nobody because he is like an intruder at a feast who quietly explains that dinner must be temporarily abandoned since the food has been poisoned and the guests must be detached from their dinners by means of a stomach pump.
  • the modern man has long lost the use of his eyes. (…) The particular means by which Lewis has extricated himself from the ideologic machine of our epoch (…) is that of the painter’s eye…
  • the lethal abstractionizing of the machine (…) has left only a hole-and-corner existence for the serious artist. No great artist ever fought so furiously to maintain a tiny milieu for art as Lewis has done.

From now on, McLuhan’s work would move along two parallel tracks “in theory and in practice”. On the one hand he would attempt a kind of phenomenology of American life that would culminate in The Mechanical Bride.  In the 1944 Lewis essay he could already adroitly specify:

The destruction of family life, in theory and in practice, the flight from adulthood, the obliteration of masculine and feminine has all gone ahead — by means of a glorification of those things. Never was sex so much glorified, children and motherhood so idolized and advertised in theory as at this present hour when the arrangements for their internment have been completed.

On the other hand, he would attempt to demonstrate how “Catholicity of mind”, attained neither abstractly in transcendent “grace”, nor through “immersing ourselves” in the particularities of world, might offer itself as the only exit from the cul-de-sac of nihilism:

let us not suppose for one instant that Catholicity of mind is conferred by grace or that we are freed from “the world’s slow stain” [Shelley, ‘Adonais’, 1821] by immersing ourselves in the best sellers of yesteryear(…)7 Certainly there can be no Catholic action at the educated level until this equipment [of combined “sensibility and judgment”] is acquired and mastered — a fact which explains why the Catholic mind never has to be seriously considered by the non-Catholic mind in England and America today. This situation can be illustrated by an exception such as [Jacques] Maritain. Maritain is perfectly at home amidst modern art and letters. He has a contemporary sensibility. This in turn has energized and directed his philosophical activity, and given a precise, contemporary relevance to the philosophia perennis. He is therefore a force to be reckoned with by non-Catholic philosophers. He can mesh with the modern mind, such as it is. He can impinge. For the English speaking Catholic who would do likewise but who knows not how to begin (and his formal education will not be of any assistance in this matter), let him pore upon the works of Wyndham Lewis, let him read by day and meditate by night.


  1. ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’, Key thinkers and Modern Thought (St. Louis University studies in honor of St. Thomas Aquinas), Volume 2, 1944, 58-72; reprinted in The Medium and the Light 178-197. All citations below, including all of the the bullet-points, are taken from this essay (unless otherwise identified).
  2. ‘A Complicated Craft Is Mechanized (Development of the Pin-Tumbler Cylinder Lock by Linus Yale, Jr.)’, The Technology Review, 46(1), 1944, 2–9.
  3. Aside from brief treatments throughout his books and essays, McLuhan wrote the following essays specifically on Lewis: ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’, 1944; ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’, Shenandoah, 4(2/3), 1953; ‘My Friend, Wyndham Lewis’, The Atlantic MonthlyJune 1969;  ‘The Lewis Vortex: Art and Politics as Masks of Power’, Wyndham Lewis: Letteratura/Pittura, ed Giovanni Cianci, 1982 (written in 1970-1); ‘Lewis’ Prose Style’, Wyndham Lewis: A Revaluation, ed Jeffrey Meyers, 1980. He also did several interviews on Lewis such as ‘Lewis in St Louis’, a flexidisk recording included in arts/canada, #114, November 1967, and ‘The Global Lewis’ in the Lewisletter, 5:2, 1976. McLuhan reviews of Lewis books included his important ‘Nihilism Exposed’ (review of Wyndham Lewis by Hugh Kenner) in Renascence 8:2, 1955 and ‘A Critical Discipline’ (review of Wyndham Lewis: A Portrait of the Artist as the Enemy by Geoffrey Wagner) in Renascence 12:2, 1960.
  4. ‘Govern’ = ‘manipulate’: “the rulers of the modern world (…) employ the vast machines of government, education, and amusement”.
  5. In ‘Where Chesterton Comes In’ (1948), the word ‘chaos’ is used over and over again to describe the contemporary situation. See
  6. ‘Nihilism Exposed’, Renascence 8:2, 1955.
  7. The sentence omitted here is cited above: “All question of the artistic value of Joyce and Picasso apart, the man whose sensibility and judgment cannot cope with them easily and naturally, has not the equipment to consider the world he lives in.”

The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge

At the end of 1935, coming up to his last undergraduate months at Cambridge and in search of a teaching job, McLuhan wrote to E.K. Brown, the new chairman of the English Department back at the University of Manitoba. Describing his own experience there from 1929 to 1934, McLuhan wrote that although he majored in English, he had come to direct his major “energies to philosophy, and did [his] best work for Professor [Rupert Clendon] Lodge.” (Dec 12, 1935, Letters 79)1

Lodge took a “comparative” approach to philosophy in which the first task in addressing any problem or issue was to consider how it would appear in three fundamentally different types of experience, “three well-defined channels”.2

Lodge described this method in a programmatic essay published in Manitoba Essays3, a volume he edited in 1937 “in commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the University of Manitoba by members of the teaching staffs of the university and its affiliated colleges”. Lodge’s essay, concluding the volume, was called ‘The Comparative Method in Philosophy’:

How many philosophical alternatives are there? Theoretically it looks as though the number of -isms [realism, idealism, etc] might be infinite. (…) The history of such speculation, however, (…) indicates that philosophical theorizings (…) flow in one of three well-defined channels. (…) Realism interprets experience as a kind of being, idealism as a kind of knowing. It is easy to see that, as indicated, both realism and idealism are one-sided. Experience has been split up into two aspects, and then the whole has been interpreted exclusively in terms of one of its aspects. It is all nature, or all mind. The extreme forms of these views have always invited criticism. To interpret the whole in terms of one of its parts, whichever part we take as fundamental, can hardly be sound. Obviously the only sound method is to interpret the whole in terms of the whole. Consequently a third type of philosophy has tended to develop: a philosophy which tries to be true to experience, and to avoid all abstract and one-sided theorizings. This attempt at interpretation has taken many forms. One of the best known is called “pragmatism”.
Here, then, we have three typical directions in which philosophers move when they attempt to master experience: the realist, the idealist, and the pragmatist direction. In the nature of the case, these directions are divergent. To take one pathway, of itself precludes taking either of the others. If any one pathway is right, then the others are certainly wrong.4 So much is clear. But is any pathway right, and, if so, which? How are we to tell?
Where the differences express, in the end, not merely divergent temperaments but divergent lives, ways of living whose whole background and outlook are diverse, there is no cheap and easy method of deciding between such schools. Each declares with equal sincerity and regard for truth that its own view is and must be accepted as the best. Judged in the light of experience as a whole, each works well.
Is there any way in which this method [of following one’s “own view”] could be improved? I think there is one way and one way only: namely, by completely reversing the usual procedure. (…) In studying any problem as philosophers, I suggest that we should approach it (1) from the realist, (2) from the idealist, and (3) from the pragmatist standpoint, so as to view it from all three angles. Not that these views can, by some dialectical hocus-pocus, be combined into a single picture. They cannot. As theoretical alternatives each definitely excludes the other two.
We conclude that, for theoretical philosophers, a many-sided comparative study is of greater importance than adherence to a single view; and that (…) any single view may well be regarded with suspicion.
If philosophy is essentially speculative, an affair of alternative possibilities, I must study those alternative possibilities, and must not, in my enthusiasm for realism (or idealism or pragmatism) close my eyes to alternative possibilities. In so far as any one alternative (eg, realism) refuses to be regarded as one alternative amongst others, and claims to be in exclusive possession of the whole truth, I must be sceptical of its claims. In fact, in so far as it ceases to be sceptical about its own claims, and becomes convinced realism (or convinced idealism or convinced pragmatism), it loses its open-mindedness and is really ceasing to be truly speculative and philosophical. ln a word, it is precisely such one-sided philosophizing which is anti-philosophical, and not comparative philosophy, with its scepticism directed against one-sidedness. As the speculative construction of interpretations which essentially admit of alternatives, philosophy is necessarily sceptical of one-sided claims; and its proper method of study is necessarily comparative.

 McLuhan came to criticize this method severely when he was in Cambridge:

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)

It is all important to consider what McLuhan was criticizing in Lodge here — and also what he was not.5 What McLuhan considered “sterile” in “trying to interpret Christianity in terms of comparative religion” was the stipulation that “for theoretical philosophers, a many-sided comparative study is of greater importance than adherence to a single view” such that “any single view may well be regarded with suspicion” and “and it is quite possible that all (…) are (…) fallacious”. But to regard Christianity suspiciously as merely one cultural option among many, one that could well be “fallacious”, was, of course, exactly not to be Christian and to distance oneself, at a stroke, from a two-thousand year history6 and from (in McLuhan’s case) the faith and social forms of one’s own family for generations stretching back beyond memory.

Put in the terms of Harold Innis, such an option was situated at the extreme ‘space’ end of the time-space spectrum.  Only so could it be oblivious to the violence done to its own roots and to the dangers it might be generating for the future. To be oblivious in these ways was for Innis exactly not to think. Hence the association he proffered between particular time-space assumptions and the “conditions of freedom of thought”.7

Further the “suspicion” exercised by such “comparative study” was itself “a single view” and so fell before the critique made by Lodge himself of all such singularities: “experience has been split up into two aspects [here “the comparative method” and everything else], and then the whole has been interpreted exclusively in terms of one of its aspects.” But by what right did “the comparative method” assume this prerogative?  Lodge’s silence on this issue and on its associated assumption that abstract(ed) thought was higher and more valuable than the particulars considered by it lay behind McLuhan’s charge that he was “a decided Platonist”. Indeed, Lodge himself insisted that “philosophy is essentially speculative, an affair of alternative possibilities”.

Moreover, the “comparative method” was utterly abstract in a series of other ways as well.  It had no way of accounting for the relation between its analysis and the objects it claimed to understand.  Nor did it consider its context in a particular time and space. Nor did it have an explanation for the fact that it and its practitioners were utterly finite and yet seemed capable of true perception — how was this communication possible?

As a result of considerations like these (but also, of course, from many others, especially from his deepening knowledge of modern English authors from Hopkins to Eliot, Pound and Joyce), McLuhan took on the task of trying to formulate a discipline that would evade the problems of Lodge’s “comparative method” — but that would preserve certain features of that method, especially the recourse to “well-defined” types in the analysis of human history and society. This quest would find its first fruit in McLuhan’s PhD thesis almost a decade later (1943) in which the three arts of the trivium would be used both as a subject in the history of Europe for two thousand years (roughly 400 BC to 1600 AD) and as a background “dispute” in the works of Thomas Nashe. The next year McLuhan gave a lecture in St Louis bringing the terms of his thesis into the present: ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ (published in 1946 and later included in The Interior Landscape). And his whole career thereafter would be dedicated to such questions as: How to define the fundamental structures (plural) at work in individual and social history?  Just how do these structures work, in terms of their genesis, their interactions with one another and their “penetration” of mind and society?  And how might a collective study of these matters be initiated?

All of these questions went back to Lodge’s “comparative method”.



  1. According to Marchand (p 28), Lodge called McLuhan his “most outstanding” student in a recommendation included in his application to Cambridge. The McLuhan Papers in Ottawa retain correspondence between McLuhan and Lodge from 1944-1945, so the two remained in touch at least until  this time.
  2. This and all citations below, unless otherwise noted, come from Lodge’s ‘The Comparative Method in Philosophy’, in Manitoba Essays, ed Lodge, 1937, 405-432.
  4. Lodge in this same essay: “As (…) opposed interpretations, systems of thought based upon principles logically incompatible with one another (…) cannot possibly all be true; and it is quite possible that all such alternative -isms are, to an undetermined degree, fallacious.”
  5. The “comparative method” advocated by Lodge (and the somewhat similar procedure of his colleague, Henry Wright) gave McLuhan a series of topics for life-long consideration. Its central contention was that the medium is the message — any issue or problem can be construed (epistemologically? ontologically?) in at least three fundamentally different ways and the first business for thought was to consider the spectrum of those possible ways. Implicated with this contention was the idea that the gap is where the action is since the borders or gaps between such possibilities must be navigable if a “comparative method” in Lodge’s sense were to be possible at all.  So the “comparative method” could be said to be an exercise in making oneself at home in the ‘gaps between’ fundamental possibilities as the only way of considering them in their plurality. These gaps as the means or medium of this comparative consideration would ultimately be the medium that is the message.
  6. A tradition is not the possession of all answers to all problems.  It is a continuing commitment to consider new problems in relation to solutions that have been found to old ones in the past. This sort of commitment is an immediate casualty of the loss of what Innis called “time sense”.
  7. See Innis and “the conditions of freedom of thought”.

McNaspy remembers McLuhan

In his posthumously published memoir, Play On! (1996), Clement J. McNaspy, S.J. (1915-1995), a colleague of McLuhan at St Louis University and a frequent correspondent of his in the 1940s, records “the growth of my friendship with a young professor at St. Louis (…) H. Marshall McLuhan” (39).  The two became acquainted in SLU in 1937 (or 1938?1):

While I was never a member of the English department at St. Louis University, either as student or faculty member, my activity as director of the chorus of scholastics helped me get to know several teachers there. Principal among them at the time was Father [William] McCabe [S.J. the head of the English department]. One day, shortly after he had employed McLuhan, a Canadian recently graduated from Cambridge University in England, Father [McCabe] met me in the hall and mentioned that Marshall McLuhan was interested in getting to know someone interested in music. We met in Father’s office and quickly discovered interests in common. My ignorance of modern English poetry at the time was no less than monumental, since our English teachers at Grand Coteau (Jesuit Novitiate) treated the subject as though it had ended in the early nineteenth century. So, the idea of at last learning something about modern English poetry was thrilling, to say the least. In return, I was happy to introduce Marshall to some of the delights of music and to help deepen his knowledge of Virgil and Dante, both of whom were then and continue to be special enthusiasms of mine. Marshall was astonished to discover that I knew nothing whatsoever about Gerard Manley Hopkins, the great Jesuit poet of the late nineteenth century. We started with several of the “Terrible Sonnets,” which proved a revelation to me. (39)

A further memory of McNaspy recalls the time in the summer of 1938 when McLuhan met Corinne Lewis, whom he would marry a year later. McNaspy conflates their meeting and marriage into “some weeks” (but he was writing almost 60 years after the events):

Shortly before taking my final exams in philosophy and in classics, I recall a very pleasant drive over into Illinois with Marshall McLuhan. We visited several Native American mounds and discussed all manner of personal issues. “Do you plan to get married?” I asked. “I don’t think so,” replied Marshall.”I plan to be wedded to my work.” A few months later when I was at Spring Hill College, I recall receiving a letter from Marshall announcing, “I’ve just met a marvelous person named Corinne. She is large and has masses of hair and is from Dallas.” I saw the handwriting [on the wall], and my thoughts were confirmed some weeks later when another letter announced, “Just married Corinne. We’re very happy!” From then on I looked forward to meeting the marvelous Corinne. (42)


  1. McNaspy says that this meeting took place “shortly after (William McCabe, head of the English department) had employed McLuhan” and that McLuhan was “a Canadian recently graduated from Cambridge University in England”. Both of these point to 1937, McLuhan’s first year at SLU, rather than 1938. But in 1938 Bernard Muller-Thym returned to SLU from Toronto and began to write a column on ‘Music’ in the SLU magazine, Fleur de Lis. McLuhan and Muller-Thym rapidly became best friends. It may be that McLuhan’s sudden interest in music relates to this 1938 event rather than to 1937.

McLuhan’s realism 9: Where Chesterton Comes In

‘Where Chesterton Comes In’,1 McLuhan’s 1948 introduction to Hugh Kenner’s Paradox in Chesterton, presented him with an opportunity to update the evaluation he had made in his first published paper in 1936:  ‘G. K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’.

The new Chesterton piece took up where the previous one concluded: “the meaning and effect of Mr. Chesterton”, he had said then, lay in his “tireless vigilance in examining current fashion and fatalism”. Similarly, more than a decade later, but with “fashion and fatalism” now advanced to “chaos” after the intervening WW2:

The specific contemporary relevance of Chesterton is this, that his metaphysical intuition of being was always in the service of the search for moral and political order in the current chaos.

He (…) directed his intellectual gaze not to the schoolmen [of the middle ages] but to the heart of the chaos of our time.

That is where Chesterton comes in. His unfailing sense of relevance and of the location of the heart of the contemporary chaos carried him at all times to attack the problem of morals and psychology (…) the most confused issues of our age.

But McLuhan’s interest extended now to the question of how this chaos in psychology and in the moral and political order had come about. His broached this answer:

By the early seventeenth century Descartes could rally enthusiastic support for the proposition that since no philosopher had ever been convinced by the dialectical or metaphysical proofs of other philosophers for the truth of anything, therefore the time had come to introduce a kind of proof which which all men could accept — namely, mathematical proof. What Descartes really did was to make explicit the fact which had been prepared by centuries of decadent scholastic rationalism: the fact that a complete divorce had been achieved between abstract intellectual and specifically psychological order.  Henceforth men would seek intellectually only for the kind of order they could readily achieve by rationalistic means: a mathematical and mechanistic order which precludes [application to or even the idea of] a human and psychological order.2

As a result of this “rationalistic” turn, McLuhan conceded, “a high degree of abstract mechanical order has been achieved” and “great discoveries (…) made”. At the same time, however:

human moral, psychological, and political chaos has steadily developed, with its concurrent crop of fear and anger and hate. The rational efforts of men have been wholly diverted from the ordering of appetite and emotion, so that any effort to introduce or to discover order in man’s psychological life has been left entirely to the artist.

In England, even most artists, including “the Toby-jug Chesterton of a particular literary epoch”, had participated in this drift away from the desperate need to establish “order in man’s psychological  life”. There had been “an evasion of that world of adult horror into which [European artists like] Baudelaire gazed with intense suffering and humility”.

It was the distinction of Wyndham Lewis (as McLuhan had already begun to specify in his 1944 essay ‘Lemuel in Lilliput’) that he had seen this horror early on and had been probing its forms and causes for four decades already — mostly in an uncomprehending obscurity.3 

But again: how had this state of society and of the individual soul come about with such catastrophic consequence? How had an entire civilization become so enamoured with a certain kind of fateful certainty that it was willing, even eager, to destroy itself for it? What could account for the mass transformation of human beings into suicidal lemmings and murderous monsters?

McLuhan did not have an answer to this question which might be stated in so many words — an ambition that would in any case be self-contradictory since reflecting the very “abstract mechanical order” that demanded investigation and not merely, as would be represented by such a facile answer, the further replication of itself.  But what he did have was the recommendation made at the end of his ‘Ancient Quarrel’ essay from 1946 (originally a talk from 1944) and even initiated to some extent in his 1943 Nashe thesis (written in 1941 and 1942): “knowledge of the history of the present dispute would serve to diminish the fog and the passions aroused at present, and would substitute some light for much heat”. If, this was to say, “the kind of order [we humans] could readily achieve by rationalistic means” but “which precludes a human and psychological order”, if this kind of “mechanistic” order is not the only option for our thought and action, what other options for rival orders are open to us such that they might be said to be in a “dispute” or “quarrel” with it?

At this point in 1948 there were many aspects of this question McLuhan had yet to consider: when does this “dispute” take place if it is always ongoing between these perennial options for order?  if this “present ” time is not the same time as that of “the [chronological] history of the (…) dispute”, what is the relation of these times?  how do media relate to these times, both as deriving from them (like everything human) and as fostering this or that (necessarily temporary) advantage of one option over the others? and how do perception and art relate to this “dispute” of options and of times, both as a matter of the genesis of perception and art, and of their potential contributions to investigations in this new field (or fields)?

All these questions lay in the future.  But what McLuhan could already see clearly, and was able to specify here in his second Chesterton essay, was that a potential solution to “the chaos of our time” lay in a realist position that yet recognized “every kind of reasonableness” in its inevitable multiplicity.  A peculiar kind of idealistic realism was envisioned:

Catholics have failed to understand or utilize Vico. Vico’s great discovery of a psychological method for interpreting historical periods and cultural patterns is rooted in his perception that the condition of man is never the same but his nature is unchanging. (…) Vico was not a Thomist, and so he has been abandoned to the sceptics; but he invented an instrument of historical and cultural analysis of the utmost use for the discovery of psychological and moral unity in the practical order.

McLuhan’s realism was focused on moral and political order as against a merely intellectual order. He rejected out of hand the sort of response to “the present chaos” that he had found in Catholic universities like SLU and Assumption and now again at St Michael’s at UT:

The Catholic teaching of philosophy and the arts tends to be catechetical. It seeks precisely that Cartesian pseudo-certitude which it officially deplores, and divorces itself from the complex life of philosophy and the arts. This is only to say that the Catholic colleges are just like non-Catholic colleges.

But he yet saw the foundation of moral and political order as lying in a “psychological method” that was able to investigate the varying conditions of humans (which are “never the same”) within a unified theory. Central to this idea was that our “connatural” realistic access to the world is not restricted to things in the exterior landscape, but includes as well the full panorama of “the interior landscape”. This sort of ‘interior realism’ was the key to McLuhan’s whole contribution because no one then or now would deny the potential value of the scientific study of human options — if only such study were possible! But the whole world has staked literally everything on the certainty of its impossibility!

In McLuhan’s analysis, we continue to “seek intellectually only for the kind of order [we] could readily achieve by rationalistic means: a mathematical and mechanistic order which precludes [application to or even the idea of] a human and psychological order”. A certain kind of certainty dominates us and the only way out of the cul de sac is to recognize the existing “dispute” or “quarrel” concerning such certainty in “the interior landscape” — and then to investigate it as we do all things in the exterior one. Only this could provide, once more, “a human and psychological order”.

The basis of McLuhan’s idea was that this sort of research is not only not impossible, but that it is so possible (so to speak) that it is actually always taking place already — or always has taken place already — in our every perception.  Even perception, “the first stage of apprehension”4 takes place only insofar as the interior “dispute” has been witnessed and decided in favor of one of its possibilities. The great need is therefore for us to remember or to “retrace” (as McLuhan usually has it) what we are already witnessing and deciding in this way at every moment, but somehow leave in utter obscurity.  And how is this? The reason seems to be that it takes place in the interior landscape, not the external one, and our natural realistic access to things is not believed to extend to the former as it does to the latter. We are only exterior realists.

McLuhan saw comparable potential to Vico’s “psychological method for interpreting historical periods and cultural patterns” in

Chesterton’s powerful intrusion into every kind of confused moral and psychological issue of our time. For he seems never to have reached any position by dialectic or doctrine, but to have enjoyed a kind of connaturality with every kind of reasonableness.

Here was McLuhan’s ‘interior realism’ in a nutshell.  He was fundamentally against “reach[ing] any position by dialectic or doctrine”. A “catechetical” understanding of life was of no interest to him whatsoever. For this would implicate an “evasion” of the communication we always already have with the world around us and within us “connaturally”. A kind of “rationalistic” detour would be taken in an attempt to get where we already are.5 Decisively, however, that world to which we have such natural access included for McLuhan different kinds of understanding (aka, different kinds of “reasonableness”) in different people (especially considered over widely separated times and spaces) as well as the different options for understanding that are always in “dispute” in each one of us in every moment. (It is the resources of the latter interior panoply, of course, that gives potential understanding of the former exterior one.)

It was in this context that McLuhan staked his claim to be a true Thomist:

whereas St. Thomas was a great abstract synthesizer facing a unified psychological world, the modern Thomist has an abstract synthesis of human knowledge with which to face a psychological chaos. Who then is the true Thomist? The man who contemplates an already achieved intellectual synthesis, or the man who, sustained by that synthesis, plunges into the heart of the chaos?


  1. All citations below, unless otherwise noted, come from ‘Where Chesterton Comes In’, McLuhan’s introduction to Hugh Kenner, Paradox in Chesterton, 1948. Kenner’s book was developed out of his M.A. thesis at UT, on which his adviser was Gerald Phelan.
  2. McLuhan probably took this reading of Descartes from Etienne Gilson.  In his essay, ‘The Future of Augustinian Metaphysics’, in A Monument to Augustine (1930), Gilson writes: “Descartes is essentially a man who attempted and carried through an experiment on the following notion: What happens to metaphysics, if we apply to it the mathematical method? In our opinion, what happens to it is that you destroy it. Descartes did not hold that view; on the contrary, he believed himself to be the first to save it (…) But as soon as he universalizes his method and decides to apply it to the totality of reality, Descartes entangles himself in singular difficulties. To start with, he wagers, without a shadow of possible justification, that there is nothing (…) that escapes mathematical method; then, bound to model reality on his ideas, instead of modeling his ideas on reality, he is driven to recover things only through concepts and to have no other starting point but thought.” The translation here of ‘things’, doubtless for ‘les choses’, is too literal.  What Gilson had in mind “that escapes mathematical method” was exactly not bare ‘things’ but, as McLuhan put it, things of the “human and psychological order”.
  3. The obscurity in which Lewis had long worked despite the outpouring of his energy in multiple media was perfectly symbolized by his exile in Toronto during WW2.
  4. McLuhan to Pound, July 24, 1951, Letters 228.
  5. “For first principles are not sought, since they are present and to hand; and if what is present is sought for, it becomes hidden and lost.” (al Ghazali, Deliverance from Error, ca 1108, §ii)

McLuhan’s realism 8: Chesterton as practical mystic

The first lines of McLuhan’s first published academic article, ‘G. K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’ (1936), are extraordinary.  For they name in Chesterton, and anticipate in McLuhan’s own career over the next 45 years, their common response to the fact that “there are two principal sides to everything”:

When it is seen that there are two principal sides to everything, a practical and a mystical, (…) the meaning and effect of Mr. Chesterton can become clear (…) That tireless vigilance in examining current fashion and fatalism, which has characterized him for more than thirty years, clearly depends upon his loyalty to a great vision: “His creed of wonder was Christian by this absolute test, that he felt it continually slipping from himself as much as from others.”1

What is at stake in these sentences is the fact that we humans are directly and to some extent infallibly related to the real world around us — but the detailed understanding and significance of our experience can and, in fact usually, eludes us. We know truly, but always partially. Therefore the demand that we continually revision and reconsider — that is, learn — based on our real perception of the real, but going on from what we understand of it to probe it more deeply and more comprehensively (and sometimes revolutionarily).

Almost 40 years later, in conversation with an old University of Manitoba classmate from the early 1930s, Kaye Rowe, McLuhan would observe: “You must remember that I began as an engineer [and then] switched to philosophy and English. Structural operations were always at the core of my pursuit whether in philosophy, modern poetry or in [the analysis of] management…” (Intimate look at Marshall McLuhan). “Structural operations were always at the core of [his] pursuit” exactly because “there are two principal sides to everything” and this challenges Christians, indeed those with “loyalty to a great vision” of whatever sort, or, in fact, those who would actually think at all, continually to reassess how the sides of the oppositions they encounter relate to one another. (Precisely therefore, as the beginning of Take Today has it, “the meaning of meaning is relationship.”)

There can be no respite from such oppositional encounters (inside us, outside us and between our inside and outside) exactly because “sides” are engendered in principle.  And the response to this perpetual dynamic must be “tireless” exactly because the desire to rest content with some ‘one-sided’ determination, ignoring or suppressing the omnipresent (in principle!) other side, constitutes the secret heart of nihilism. In his 1955 ‘Nihilism Exposed’ McLuhan gave voice to this temptation as “Let us rejoin the One“. This is Prufrock’s need for an “overwhelming question” that would reduce the plural oppositions we everywhere experience to some forced singularity.

McLuhan cites a part of Chesterton’s description of Hilaire Belloc as applying to Chesterton himself. He could well have cited the full passage:

It was no small part of the irony in the man that different things strove against each other in him; and these not merely in the common human sense of good against evil, but one good thing against another. The unique attitude (…) was summed up in him supremely in this; that he did and does humanly and heartily love the contemporary world, not as a duty but as a pleasure and almost an indulgence; but that he hated as heartily what the contemporary world seemed trying to become. Out of this appeared in his poetry a sort of fierce doubt or double-mindedness which cannot exist in vague and homogeneous observers; something that occasionally amounted to a mixture of loving and loathing.2

As cited above from the start of his essay, McLuhan emphasized Chesterton’s “tireless vigilance in examining current fashion and fatalism”. And he, too, would perplex and irritate his commentators by continually reverting to the all too obvious facts of everyday life — facts that, in their view, either required no explanation or had long ago received all they required of it. In fact, this sort of reversion to “the face of reality” is exactly what McLuhan’s Chesterton essay celebrates and prescribes!

Mr. Chesterton himself is full of that child-like surprise and enjoyment which a sophisticated age supposes to be able to exist only in children. And it is to this more than ordinary awareness and freshness of perception that we may attribute his extraordinarily strong sense of fact. (…) This profound humility in the face of reality is the very condition of honest art and all philosophy (…) most of all does his strong sense of fact account for the recurrence of seeming paradoxes in his writings (…) The most ordinary things become eerily and portentously real. Bodily gestures are stiff with spiritual significance, as in the old pageantry. And the deeps of the subconscious are entered, and monstrous facts from the borderland of the brain impress themselves upon us. As the modern jargon puts it, Mr. Chesterton has achieved an objective correlative for his thought and feeling.

Throughout the emphasis is on the “child-like surprise” and “wonder” of “honest” encounter with the ever-changing “face of reality”.  Humans have their acknowledged or unacknowledged home in this “borderland” between the old and the new.

The only way to maintain “loyalty to a great vision” in this situation is “tireless vigilance in examining current fashion”.  Respect for such a vision demands that nothing be held away from it no matter what “paradoxes” may seem to ensue. It is because modern humans have given up such “vigilance” that they have no “great vision”. But we excuse our infidelities with the opposite idiocy that we lack any “great vision” and therefore have no call to practice “vigilance” of it.

Nietzsche:  Irrtum der Verwechslung von Ursache und Folge. – Es gibt keinen gefährlicheren Irrtum, als die Folge mit der Ursache zu verwechseln: ich heiße ihn die eigentliche Verderbnis der Vernunft. (Götzen-Dämmerung, ‘Die vier großen Irrtümer’)3

  1. These are the first two sentences of ‘G. K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’ citing Chesterton’s 1912 Manalive. All citations below unless otherwise noted are from McLuhan’s Chesterton essay which first appeared in The Dalhousie Review for January 1936.
  2. “The contemporary world” has been substituted twice in this passage for “England” and “observers” once for “Englishmen”.  McLuhan cites only the portion of it that runs, “a sort of fierce doubt or double-mindedness which cannot exist in vague and homogeneous Englishmen”. The description is from Chesterton’s introduction to Hilaire Belloc: the man and his work, by Creighton Mandell & Edward Shanks, 1916.
  3. Twilight of the Idols, ‘The four great Errors’, 1888. Kaufmann translates: “The error of confusing cause and effect. There is no more insidious error than mistaking the effect for the cause: I call it the real corruption of reason.”

Encountering Poe

In the summer of 1932 (when McLuhan turned 21) he and Tom Easterbrook worked their way across the Atlantic on a cattle boat.1 In a letter written on the boat McLuhan described his first encounter with Poe:

The little blue books [Oxford World Classics] have been doing the rounds of the cabin [of the boat]. I have read only one of them — Poe’s Tales. I find them amusing, interesting curiosities, anything but exciting or absorbing. It must be remembered [however] that he practically created the short story and the detective story at one stroke. (McLuhan to Elsie, Herbert & Maurice McLuhan, June 17-18, 1932, Letters 13-14)

  1. “We get up at 4.30 A.M. water all the cattle by pail then haul up 20 or so bales of hay from the hold, then 20 or 30 sacks of feed. After which we feed the hay then go up and wait for breakfast which comes along at 7. We are divided up into groups of 3 and each have 1/4 of the cattle to feed. After breakfast (8 AM) we clean up all the alley ways and troughs then bed the cattle, then give them each a pail of oats. This takes till 9.30 Then we are finished until 2 PM. At 2 we water and feed and then are free for the day.” (McLuhan to Elsie, Herbert & Maurice McLuhan, June 17-18, 1932, Letters 12)

Remembering Edmonton very vividly

In a letter from April 30, 1970, to Maisie Hewlett (1887-1974), McLuhan recalled his family’s time in Alberta:

I am really grateful to Elizabeth (Trott) Cera for suggesting that you send your quite memorable memoir1 to me. The scenes and the events coincide with the life of my parents in the West before [World] War I. After homesteading [in Mannville, Alberta, 100 miles east of Edmonton,] they went to Edmonton [early in 1911]. My father was in a real estate firm until he joined the army in 1914. I left Edmonton [for Winnipeg] when I was four [in 1915], but remember much of it very vividly. (Letters 405)

There is a picture of McLuhan with his parents in 1911, age six months, taking in the Edmonton scene that he will long recollect:

  1. A Too Short Yesterday (1970). One of Kaye Rowe’s ‘People Watching’ columns in the Brandon Sun (May 28, 1970, p 12shows that her friend Elizabeth (Trott) Cera must have suggested to Hewlett that a copy go to Rowe as well as to McLuhan: “Cannington Manor, a magnet for legends on the Prairies, has housed since its beginning in the 1880s, assorted people with a touch of epic. The current official recorder is a bright-eyed lady who remains in proper Victorian fashion behind a trio of initials — A.E.M. Hewlett — author of a spritely sequence of 14 years of farming on the acres originally turned by the Cannington Manor squires and 14 years of farm-wife life under its leaking Mansard roof. The title of A Too Short Yesterday (published by The Western Producer Press at Saskatoon) is abstracted from a slender poem in which the lines occur: “Lord, I am too little for a grand eternity. I would hear children’s voices, a spoon beating upon a table; mine I would the way I travelled, loved and lost in a too short yesterday.” One day a few years ago when widowed and her sons grown tall, and with families of their own, she went back the few miles from Carlyle Sask., where she chooses to live in summer, to the Manor and up to the attic. Despite the fact that the house had been used for grain-storage for years, the attic and its contents had remained undisturbed. She found the old wooden trunk, metal-bound, painted and initialled, that she had purchased for 10 shillings in Charing Cross Road in 1911. It had carried her clothing and books when, under the aegis of the British Women’s Emigration Society, she decided to teach in Canada. “You will regret it!” the headmaster of the Yorkshire school where she had taught for three years had warned. Nonsense! The English girl met the incredible challenges of semi-pioneering life, eventually wrote a column for 20 years for The Saskatchewan Farmer under the title, ‘Down On The Farm’. She became, in effect, the (Manitoba journalist) Amy Roe of her province. The only child of a chemist’s widow, leaving mother was the major wrench. But each week she wrote faithfully; the letters were lovingly saved, bundled as to dates and years. Decades later when her mother died the letters were returned with other effects she requested. Every page of the letters is a mirror of the ups and downs of one family in a life difficult to be imagined by her grandchildren. For them — 12 in all plus one great-grandchild — she recaptures the everyday living on a prairie farm, admittedly, no ordinary farm. Earlier assignments by the University of Saskatchewan to Mrs. Hewlett involved (recording) tales based on information collected from over 50 of the early participants of Cannington Manor’s exotic settlement. It began in 1882 with Capt. Edward Mitchell Pierce and associates, a group of upper middle-class English who resolved to re-establish in Saskatchewan’s broad acres the same kind of life they had lived in England. They bred horses, rode to hounds, dressed for dinner on festive occasions and imported younger sons of friends and associates as “apprentices to agriculture” to learn farming from the ground up. Their experiment dwindled and died under the impact of the First World War when the members scattered and Mrs. Hewlett and her husband (designated as “Richard Land”), a ship-board acquaintance but one of the 1890 Cannington inhabitants, took up residence in the manor house. The letters give the record a lively sense of immediacy whether the excitement of the day is the arrival of her wedding gown or a listing of the callers and impromptu dinner guests (anyone passing by, from “Mountie” to horse- trader). Mrs. Hewlett writes with verve and color, the same qualities she manages to impart to her water colors. As a practising artist at 83 she continues to merit one-man shows in the province of her adoption. Her water colors have also hung in the art gallery at Laguna Beach, the artists’ colony resort where she spends several months every winter. Last year when friend Mrs. Duncan Campbell called on the author-painter at the Seas Motel, she discovered the lady clothes-pegging her morning’s sketches on the line to dry. The book bursts with the vitality of elements familiar to our region, with horses and crops and financial worries, with children growing and neighborliness and the hum of cream separator, sewing machine or reaper. She splashes on the colors of skies and spring burgeoning and mauve shadowings on sculptured snow. It makes fascinating reading, a too-short 161 pages in recall of A Too Short Yesterday.”

Kaye Rowe’s “Intimate look at Marshall McLuhan”

Kaye Moreland (1910-1995) was an English department classmate of Marshall McLuhan at the University of Manitoba.  She relocated to Brandon with her husband G R Rowe and began a career in Journalism as Kaye Rowe with the Winnipeg Free Press and (especially) the Brandon Sun. Her 1974 portrait of Marshall McLuhan is online and supplies interesting details of his life in Winnipeg, Cambridge, St Louis and Toronto. The fact that he took part in an unofficial Monday night seminar in Winnipeg in the early 1930s, long before his famous Monday night seminar in Toronto (also unofficial), is a further indication of his enduring attachment to his early two decades in the Manitoba capital.

Rowe’s style is wonderfully western Canadian, both depreciating and sharp: “The Grand Guru of our culture, at once its couch and its analyst…”

An intimate look at Marshall McLuhan by Kaye Rowe1

Brandon Sun – February 02, 1974 – Page 3

Most controversial intellect of the century stamped Made-in-Canada

The Grand Guru of our culture, at once its couch and its analyst

TORONTO: The name — McLuhan — threw its own meteor into the English language; a “McLuhanism” for the book-and-thought diggers carries a reference as specific as does the word, “Kafkaesque.” An aeon or two ago we shared a small honors English seminar with Marshall McLuhan. The course spanned a survey of the Giants of World Literature beginning with the Greek tragedies and moving through the Norse legends, the two Fausts, Don Quixote and other mighty tomes. Five of us decided to trample more wine from the rich grapes with preparation prior to each lecture. We met every Monday evening at Stewart Robb’s2 father’s apartment. The quartet consisted of Eileen Hemphill, who married Dr. Joe Downey of Brandon; Judith Evelyn, who became a Broadway star; Stewart Robb, an academic and the world’s leading authority on Nostradamus; your Brandon Sun writer; and the man who keeps throwing grit into the gears of commercialism — Marshall McLuhan.

Unofficially the Thinker-in-Residence of the University of Toronto, his bailiwick is the Centre for Culture and Technology on campus. Located some 50 yards back of a Queen’s Park Crescent mansion, the stone building is a converted coach-house. The main room holds in semi-circular arrangements a class of 18 evening students, mainly young people on post-graduate courses. Eager and quick, they hang on his utterances, laugh at his witticisms on the last word of a line, knowing the shape of an idea a second before the last word is thrust into place. Spare-framed, six-foot-one, the face is creased in the ruts of a million thought-routes a year. He talks easily, relaxed in his play with ideas and concepts, with words and allusions that rove across the globe, push through the thickets of the centuries. Ten minutes of McLuhan sets the synapses crackling. Everyone sits alertly, no slump, no yawns! He rises and pulls a drawstring on a curtained area. The action reveals a wall painting six feet by five feet. In cool neutrals the busy teaser reveals masses of snarled pipes, gesticulating humanoids and a rectangular central frame. (The painting is by René Cera, originally of Provence, France, a dead-ringer for Picasso at 65; almond-eyed, skin like tight parchment over a well-shaped head, almost Yul Brynner dome-shine. The artist is the husband of our friend Elizabeth Hay3originally of Virden.) “René Cera calls it, Pied Pipers All4,” Dr. McLuhan says. “It’s the boob-tube as the trap for our children. Exposure to its allure for 10 years saps the mental pith. Children are easily influenced. I’m reminded of the Children’s Crusade . . . the first activists’ group! Thousands of them decided they wanted to do their part in winning back the Holy Land from the Infidel. They marched across Europe, became an instant legend. They were pounced upon by the Moslems, sold into slavery, never heard of again.”

Before the class breaks at 10:10 p.m. he takes care to introduce his guests. We lift the dropped jaw back into place as he announces, “She’s a journalist and a speed skater … I remember chasing her around the rink at United College . . .she was wearing a green tam and a green scarf. . . .” All these years Marshall McLuhan has a memory picture with the wrong name attached. We never skated on the United rink; never owned a green tam. It was Katie Taplitsky he was chasing and never caught. But that’s an old story with many memories! We remain silent. He will never know the mixed identities.

An invitation is extended to come upstairs to his office for something warm. The office is triple locked. Souvenir hunters, he discovered, had begun to denude the premises. It is his son Eric who unlocks the door, attends to the tea kettle, clears chairs of books. At 31 Eric, former college lecturer, competent actor, is father’s right-hand man. He serves as chauffeur, looks after the audiovisual materials for lectures and discussion groups, splices, cleans and supervises screenings. Clear-eyed, efficient, his dedication to his father’s work and purposes is a rare and impressive servitude. We wrap chilled hands around the warm cup. Despite the carpeted floors, the old coach-house is full of mean drafts on an early January night. Eric announces a new taping that father might like to hear, an opera with words and music by Ezra Pound done in Gregorian chant technique, the words in French. Reverential listening for 10 minutes until Marshall McLuhan notices that the moon is full. “Do you realize that all human activity doubles at full moon time! More crime, more hospital emergencies, more creativity! I’ve always been pleased that I’m a moon child, [born] on the cusp of July 21, between Leo and Cancer. . . .”

He takes a pill vial from his coat pocket, uncaps and proffers it. “Snuff!” he says. “They tell me it tends to ward off colds. . . .” He uses the 18th century technique for a pinch of snuff, begins to talk about the influences on McLuhan. “My first influence was Jacques Maritain, contemporary French philosopher. At Cambridge I discovered the mysticism and the structuralism of the Jacobeans. John Donne, ‘No man is an island.’ I did my doctorate on Thomas Nashe who traced the dialectic method — this is structure, too — back to 5th century Athens, then on to the rhetorical-historical aspects of the Renaissance. All of which led me to James Joyce, prime example of a structuralist. . . . When I came to Toronto, my great influence was Harold Innis. The economists revered his research into the staples of the Canadian economy: his history of the fur trade, cod fishing, the CPR, pulp and paper. But I was the first to pursue Innis’ communication studies through pulp and paper which led directly to the newspaper as communication. . . . Innis’ focus on forms of communication and their effects on people began with clay tablets and papyrus, the effect of the medium in delivering the message. I used his approach: the effects of media on people. . . .”

St. Louis, Mo., his second university experience after graduation (the first was Madison and the U. of Wisconsin, Dr. Lloyd Wheeler’s alma mater)5 that brought him into contact with several intellectuals whose impact had lasting effect on McLuhan’s thinking. He named Sigfried Giedion and Bernard Muller-Thym. The latter was a lecturer in philosophy and latterly in management. A violinist and a symphony conductor, Muller-Thym turned McLuhan’s mind to the structural aspects of management. The Missouri years also brought close association with two creative people: T.S. Eliot, who drew him into the structuralism of modern poetry, and Percy Wyndham Lewis, artist and war-time Toronto refugee. At McLuhan’s invitation, the Wyndham [and Froanna] Lewis couple found more congenial reception [in St Louis] than parochial Toronto and its disinterest in an original artist who happened to be a stranger. “You must remember that I began as an engineer, switched to philosophy and English. Structural operations were always at the core of my pursuit whether in philosophy, modern poetry or in management. . . .”

A shining brass plaque sits topside of a filing cabinet, safe in its massiveness from the light-fingered souvenir-hunter. Freshly-etched as of November, 1973, is the legend of preservation: “The United States and Canadian Education Association’s award to Marshall McLuhan for his exceptional contribution to communication.”

  1. Rowe’s spelling of many of the names in her report has been silently corrected.
  2. Robb became an IODE scholar in England like McLuhan, but at Oxford, not Cambridge. In his McLuhan bio, Escape into Understanding, Gordon notes that “McLuhan remained in Cambridge until the end of June 1935, meeting then with his Winnipeg friend Stewart Robb, a student at Oxford, and sailing (with him) from Harwich for Belgium” (58). For details see Stewart Robb.
  3. In her column for the Brandon Sun, ‘People Watching’, for April 3, 1976 (p 12), Rowe wrote of Elizabeth Hay (Betty Trott / Liz Cera):
    New name Liz Cera blinked as in neon lights from the masthead of Maclean’s magazine when the year was a babe. Editor of Crafts, Elizabeth Hay Cera was born and grew to her university age at Virden, Man. where father was town clerk. Her sister, the late Lillian Hay, despite the semi-invalidism occasioned by a drug-prescription error, was the most brilliant of book reviewers in the history of the Winnipeg Free Press. During Liz Trott’s (first marriage name) Toronto years, she taught English and art in assorted high schools and raced the pavements doing stories for a financial magazine. Married to art display director, René Cera, of Eaton’s Toronto for the past decade, they had retired to his Lenox, Mass. home in the heart of the Tanglewood-Birkshires country. Every Toronto social occasion of recent years when Liz Cera appeared, she carried a tote containing knitting, crocheting, macrame-knotting. Her page in Maclean’s, by curious coincidence, contains directions for fancy knitting, crocheting and macrame-knots. From around the world, Liz Cera has sent her spontaneous combustion poems written in the contemporary idiom with apologies to Japanese Haiku. One that grows wistful over her Prairie beginnings is:
    FLAT VERSE curious how i had forgotten this need for the full bowl of the sky
  4. Strangely, it emerges from a letter McLuhan wrote his mother on January 22, 1952 (Letters 230) that Kaye Rowe’s friend, Elizabeth Hay (Betty Trott) was the person who introduced him to René Cera long before she and Cera were married in 1966: “Cera just left. (…) Betty Trott, his friend who introduced us, came to supper. She has just left too. The children love her. So does Corinne.”
  5. Rowe and McLuhan knew Wheeler from the UM English department.  In 1936 it was Wheeler who helped McLuhan get his first job at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. See his memory of Wheeler in Speaking of Winnipeg.

McLuhan’s realism 7: “training in moral sensibility”

As discussed in McLuhan’s realism 6: dialectics and erudition not enough, at Christmas 1945 McLuhan wrote to his Jesuit friend from their SLU days, Clement McNaspy, as follows:

Hutchins and Adler have part of the solution. But they are emotional illiterates. Dialectics and erudition are needed, but, without the sharp focusing of training in moral sensibility, futile. (Letters 180)

By “moral sensibility” McLuhan had in mind the myriad practical matters undertaken aside from academic “erudition”. He had long been clear that learning takes place, and is expressed, mostly beyond the “schoolroom”. As he already specified as a 22 year-old back in Winnipeg:

It is, of course, mistaken to suppose that education in any important sense is connected with the schoolroom. Education is the sum total of all those ideas and objects pressing in on the mind every hour of the waking day. (‘Public School Education’, The Manitoban, Oct 17,1933)

But just because he was talking with McNaspy about life beyond “dialectics and erudition” did not mean that he was not also making a series of points in principle.  These were:

  • dialectic has no right to consider itself as the sole first principle of things — just as little as does the ‘rhetorical’ or prudential consideration of momentary practicality
  • dialectic alone, indeed also rhetoric alone, is therefore “futile”: both together are implicated in all aspects of life
  • a third principle must thus be observed, namely that of the plurality and communal integrity of first principles
  • such a third principle of both together would contradict itself, however, if it strove to be singular and alone
  • it is essential to this third principle, therefore, to be at peace with rival principles that, in their striving to be singular and alone, desire only its destruction
  • this fundamental in-equality is what Jackson Knight termed “the main question” and McLuhan called by a great number of names like ‘grammar’, ‘complementarity’, ‘allatonceness’, ‘uttering/outering’, and so on
  • its most important name, however, was ‘communication’ since it is the unaccountable harmony of what is unequal that characterizes language (and all other media) as the made relation of sound (or other material) and meaning
  • such fundamental communication of the unequal is what enables the relation of human beings to God and the development of all the arts and sciences that humans invent on its basis
  • and it is this medium (of communication of the unequal) that above all else is the message

These points went back to McLuhan’s Nashe thesis which traced the history of the three disciplines of the trivium from pre-socratic Greece to 1600 (a good title of the thesis might have been ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Elizabethan England’).  The thesis, in turn, went back to McLuhan’s work at the University of Manitoba with Henry Wright and Rupert Lodge, both of whom in neo-Hegelian manner saw the working of three alternate first principles at work behind or below all human thought, action and experience. Two millennia before that, Plato had envisioned such a knotted ontology of three principles in the gigantomachia of the Sophist. And two millennia even before that, the Egyptians had contemplated such a complex interaction of first principles in the contendings and reconciliations of Horus and Seth.1

The fundamental factor at stake is God’s lack of jealousy.  Hegel (for whom McLuhan’s Meredith M.A. thesis shows an exceptional feel)2 put the crux of the matter as follows:

Plato and Aristotle teach that God is not jealous and does not withhold from human beings knowledge of God’s self and of the truth. What would it be but jealousy for God to deny to consciousness the knowledge of God? In so doing God would have denied to consciousness all truth, for God alone is the truth. Whatever else would be true and might seem somehow to exist in no connection to the divine, is only true to the extent that it is grounded in God and known from God; in other respects it is a disappearing [zeitliche] appearance. The cognition of God and of truth is the only thing that raises human beings above animals, that distinguishes them and makes them happy, or far rather, according to Plato and Aristotle as much as Christian doctrine, blessed. (‘Foreword’ to F.W. Hinrich, Religion in its Inner Relation to Science, 1822])3

McLuhan saw very early, in his early twenties, that the third principle of the harmony of rival first principles had gradually gone into eclipse over the last half millennium or so until it came to be generally believed either that truth existed only in singular isolation from the hubbub of the world or that it existed (if it existed at all) only in, or indeed only as, that hubbub itself. The great need was, therefore, to attempt to show, once again, how truth and hubbub, dialectic and rhetoric, idealism and realism, theory and action, word and thing, God and human beings — could belong together in their radical difference and insuperable inequality.

  1. The Egyptian elaboration of ontology as ontologies, situated at the very dawn of recorded history, points back into prehistory as if the matter had been contemplated forever. For discussion of the gigantomachia of ontologies in early Egyptian mythology see Mis-taking McLuhan (Kroker 2) and Assmann on the battle between Horus and Seth.
  2. “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.” (Meredith thesis, p72-73) “No separation” — but also no equality!
  3. “Platon und Aristoteles lehren, daß Gott nicht neidisch ist und die Erkenntnis seiner und der Wahrheit den Menschen nicht vorenthält. Was wäre es denn anders als Neid, wenn Gott das Wissen von Gott dem Bewußtsein versagte; er hätte demselben somit alle Wahrheit versagt, denn Gott ist allein das Wahre; was sonst wahr ist und etwa kein göttlicher Inhalt zu sein scheint, ist nur wahr, insofern es in ihm gegründet ist und aus ihm erkannt wird; das übrige daran ist zeitliche Erscheinung. Die Erkenntnis Gottes, der Wahrheit, ist allein das den Menschen über das Tier Erhebende, ihn Auszeichnende und ihn Beglückende oder vielmehr Beseligende, nach Platon und Aristoteles wie nach der christlichen Lehre.” (Hegel, ‘Vorrede zu Hinrichs Religionsphilosophie‘ = Friedrich Wilhelm Hinrich, Die Religion in inneren Verhältnisse zur Wissenschaft, 1822)

McLuhan: ‘The Global Lewis’

McLuhan’s short contribution to the Lewisletter (original series #5, October 1976) is available online at the excellent Wyndham Lewis Society website.

The Global Lewis

Marshall McLuhan has written very kindly of the Lewisletter and suggested as a theme for an issue “Windy at Rugby” — or Lewis’s schoolboy adventures. “He was exceedingly proսd of having been the rare recipient of the sixth licking, i.e. in one day he received six separate lickings. He said that having received the fifth, he suddenly realized he was near immortality, and hastened round to the prefect’s door to smash his tennis ball against it until he qualified for the sixth licking.”

McLuhan has a number of interesting anecdotes of Lewis in America: “Once, when I was recording his voice in St. Louis on a little home recorder, he was amazed to hear his voice: ‘I sound like a bloody Englishman, and thought that I had a good American accent!’ It must have been the first time he had ever heard a recording of his own Voice.”

“My first meeting with Lewis occurred as a result of a letter I received from my mother who had heard him on the Christian Culture Series. His theme was [Georges] Roualt, ‘Painter of Original Sin’.1 Lewis delivered this lecture at the Book Cadillac Hotel in Detroit ー it must have been in 1944.2 Having checked that he was the Wyndham Lewis, the ogre of Bloomsbury, I got on the train with my friend Felix Giovanelli, of the Modern Language Department at St. Louis University. We found Lewis in a basement apartment in the heart of Windsor, and he told is how lucky he had been to find it. He had simply stood on the street, asking passers-by if they knew of any available space for rent. Lewis accepted us at once, with no kind of formality, and we gradually formed the project to bring him to St. Louis where we hoped to find him some painting commissions and some lectures. We were sufficiently successful in this to justify his coming to St. Louis with [his wife] Froanna. One bit of luck occurred when I discovered through a neighbour in St. Louis (Mrs [Martha] Gellhorn, mother-in-law of Ernest Hemingway) that [Joseph] Erlanger, the [1944] Nobel Prize winner in Physics at Washington University in St. Louis, was to have his portrait done. When speaking to Mrs. Gelhorn, I proposed Lewis as a worthy painter to do the Erlanger portrait and she at once phoned Hemingway in Cuba and asked him directly about whether she should commission Lewis for the job. Hemingway promptly said “yes” and gave Lewis an enthusiastic build-up , With the result that Lewis did the painting for $1,500.00. This act of Hemingway’s is not insignificant in view of the rage that he had felt when ‘The Dumb Օx’ essay appeared in Men Without Art.”

  1. In ‘Wyndham Lewis at Windsor‘, Stanley Murphy, the longtime head of the Christian Culture Series, gives the title of the lecture as ‘Religion and the Artist’ (Canadian Literature #35, Winter 1968, p 11).
  2. Murphy gives the date as January 1943. In fact, since McLuhan and Giovanelli first visited Lewis in the summer of 1943, McLuhan’s 1944 date cannot be correct.

Lewis in 1943: “The Frontiers of Art or the Cultural Melting Pot”

An announcement in the Detroit Free Press on November 28, 1943, page 50, read:

Wyndham Lewis to Lecture
Novelist, poet, critic, philosopher and painter, Wyndham Lewis will lecture on ‘The Frontiers of Art” Tuesday evening in the Detroit Institute of Arts, developing his belief that in the world of the future national or nationalist cultures must disappear.  He sees in the United States a preview of a forthcoming international “cultural melting pot.”
Lewis will remain at Assumption College, Windsor, throughout December to complete a series of lectures, later to be published in book form, on the duality at the root of American political life.

McLuhan was open about his intellectual debt, or debts, to Wyndham Lewis.  One of these is clear in a passage from the beginning of this lecture:

The day of closed systems, of watertight group-consciousness, are at an end. With television tomorrow causing us to be physically present (in our living room, with one of its walls a screen for long distance projections) at contemporaneous happenings all over the earth: with the vast development in the immediate future  of airtravel, which will abolish distance, and strangeness: with the cultural standardisation which has already resulted, and must in the future increasingly result, from this — with all these and many other technological devices expanding our horizons and making a nonsense of the old-fashioned partitions and locked doors of our earthly habitat (…) national or nationalist (…) cultures must disappear.1

In fact in a 1929 essay, “A World Art and Tradition”, he had already observed that “the Earth has become one place, instead of a romantic tribal patchwork of places.”

Further strong influences on McLuhan from Lewis included his blasting style, his use and abuse of masks, his lineations of human types, his concern with varieties of space and time, his insights into nihilism2 and his fascination with the “magnetic city”, especially its warp of “the human dimension”3. Many of these McLuhan would develop in reverse, probing how to counteract or how to preserve when Lewis saw an unstoppable transformative force at work. Across such differences, however, above all in regard to religion, Lewis gave McLuhan a model for the use and development of his childish eye which, like Lewis’, could see very well that the emperor had no clothes.

  1. This passage from Lewis’s lecture has appeared, with slight variations, in Some Sort of Genius: A Life of Wyndham Lewis, Paul O’Keeffe, 2000, p 472; and in Counterblasting Canada: Marshall McLuhan, Wyndham Lewis, Wilfred Watson, and Sheila Watson, ed Gregory Betts, Paul Hjartarson, Kristine Smitka, 2016, p 71. The original lecture is available in the Lewis collections in both Victoria and Cornell.
  2. And it is precisely the courage of Lewis in pushing the Cartesian and Plotinian angelism to the logical point of the extinction of humanism and personality that gives his work such importance in the new age of technology. For, on the plane of applied science we have fashioned a Plotinian world-culture which implements the non-human and superhuman doctrines of neo-Platonic angelism to the point where the human dimension is obliterated by sensuality at one end of the spectrum, and by sheer abstraction at the other. This situation became so evident to Lewis in 1920 that he devoted the next two decades to warning us about and explaining the anti-human nihilism emanating from modern philosophy and physics, as well as our everyday activities in commerce and social engineering”. (Nihilism Exposed, 1955)
  3. See note 2 above.

McLuhan’s realism 6: dialectics and erudition not enough

Hutchins and Adler have part of the solution. But they are emotional illiterates. Dialectics and erudition are needed, but, without the sharp focusing of training in moral sensibility, futile. (McLuhan to Clement McNaspy, Christmas 1945, Letters 180)1

Throughout the 1940s McLuhan (then in his 30s) was concerned to define a principle that would avoid both of two extremes in contemporary educational theory (and in its implicated epistemology, sociology and ontology): on the one hand, the Dewey-progressive wing; on the other, the Hutchins-Adler wing.

He had long seen education as taking place primarily outside of school:

It is, of course, mistaken to suppose that education in any important sense is connected with the schoolroom. Education is the sum total of all those ideas and objects pressing in on the mind every hour of the waking day. (‘Public School Education’, The ManitobanOct 17,1933!)

The ‘education’ principle to be defined was therefore a kind of principle of principles that would embrace — better illuminate — all the foundationally interconnected areas of life.2 As he wrote in the same Christmas 1945 letter to McNaspy:

This job must be conducted on every front — every phase of the press, book-rackets, music, cinema, education, economics. (Letters 180)

To this end, a critique of both the Hutchins-Adler wing and the Dewey-progressive wing of education theory was needed. Whereas most of McLuhan’s contemporary 1946 essay ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ (Classical Journal, 41:4, 156-62) came down clearly in favor of the Hutchins-Adler wing against the Dewey-progressive wing3, perhaps because McLuhan was considering with Cleanth Brooks how the University of Chicago might be enlisted in their revolutionary education program (reflected in McLuhan’s 1947 proposal to Hutchins), the essay concludes by subordinating both wings to a third principle of their mutual implication:

Between the speculative dialectician and scientist [here the Dewey-progressive wing] who says that “the glory of man is to know the truth by my methods,” and the eloquent moralist who says that “the bliss of man is good government carried on by copiously eloquent and wise citizens” [here the Hutchins-Adler wing]4there need be no conflict. Conflict, however, will inevitably arise between these parties when either attempts to capture the entire education of an age or a country.5

When, that is, the sides ignore the principle of the original unity bonding them in their difference.


  1. In the unpublished ‘Failure at Chicago’, envisioned as a part of The American Vortex project, McLuhan sharply differentiated between the dialectics of Adler and the rhetorical position of Hutchins. Lumping them together as rhetoricians, as McLuhan does in ‘An Ancient Quarrel’, or in the opposite way as dialecticians as he does in the letter to McNaspy, was therefore of rhetorical significance only. In both cases, McLuhan himself contravened his own admonition at the end of ‘Ancient Quarrel’ not to “raise convenient inconsequence to the level of an intellectual virtue”.
  2. Or, better yet, a kind of principle of principles that would reflect the existing illumination providing the original interconnection of all the various areas of life.
  3. Eg: “Hutchins, Adler, and Van Doran have made commando raids deep into enemy territory, and the rage of the immobilized battalions of standard and progressive education is uttering itself in howls against them as “reactionary,” “obscurantist,” “metaphysical,” “unscientific.” (…) The end of education as described by Hutchins is the making of the citizen. The citizen is rational man equipped for social and political life by means of encyclopedic (non-specialized) training in the arts and sciences (the great books program). Special skill in the arts of reading and writing are paramount. The citizen must be fluent, even eloquent, on all subjects. The citizen must know all things which concern the welfare of the group. The opponents of Hutchins, whether scientists, progressive educationalists, positivists, or experimentalists, are all agreed in a specialist notion of human activity. Scientific knowledge and method are the ultimate bases of social and political authority for men like Professor Dewey (…) working with Rousseau’s basic assumption that (only) the state is a moral person. (…) “Teacher and pupil are not isolated individuals. They are both agents of the state.” (…) Whereas Hutchins’ program would make every citizen a potential ruler, the “liberals” conceive rather of the individual as a technologically functional unit in the state. (Alexander) Meiklejohn employs the analogy of the individual as a note in the musical score of society, whereas Hutchins thinks of each person as a complete musical work. Again, Hutchins adopts the classical view of man as a rational animal and hence a political animal. The state from this point of view is an association of autonomous persons. Opposed to this, a conventional representative of nineteenth-century social thought, such as Dewey or Meiklejohn, regards the collectivity as the basic thing. The individual has no nature which is not conferred on him by the collectivity. Man is not a rational animal.”
  4. As seen in his Christmas 1945 letter to McNaspy cited above, McLuhan usually assigned Adler and the Great Books program to dialectic. Here they are assigned to the opposing category of rhetoric which McLuhan associated with the south. (One of the sub-titles to ‘Ancient Quarrel’ is “South vs. North” and its concluding section is “The south vs New England”.) McLuhan was presumably attempting to warm “an eminent Kentuckian such as Robert Hutchins” (‘Ancient Quarrel’) to his ideas. Since the essence of McLuhan’s ‘third’ principle was to conjoin the other two primordially, such sliding between categories was not impossible and was even likely in differing circumstances. Indeed, also the assignment of the Dewey-progressive wing to dialectic in ‘Ancient Quarrel’ is the reverse of the usual procedure — one necessitated simply by the requirement that it be on the opposite side from the other wing. As already noted above, in both of these cases (conjoining Adler and Hutchins and in the varying classification of the ‘wings’), McLuhan himself sinned against his own admonition at the end of ‘Ancient Quarrel’ not to “raise convenient inconsequence to the level of an intellectual virtue”.
  5.  After this highly important observation of principle, McLuhan quickly ended ‘Ancient Quarrel’ with a recommendation for the further study of it such as his Nashe thesis had begun — “knowledge of the history of the present dispute would serve to diminish the fog and the passions aroused at present, and would substitute some light for much heat” — together with the resigned proviso that such study would, alas, “deprive us of that major distraction from boredom which is invariably sought in hasty accusation and warm rejoinder where both parties raise convenient inconsequence to the level of an intellectual virtue”.

Nef on McLuhan’s proposal

If 30-60 men can be found, gradually, and encouraged to talk to one another instead of to the robots they must pretend to talk to for a living, then something may come of it. (McLuhan to Hugh Kenner, January, 1951)

Robert Hutchins gave McLuhan’s December 1947 proposal for an “editorial community”1 to his close University of Chicago colleague, John Nef2, for his comments.  It took Nef only a few days to report back that he found its central object “little short of idiotic”:

Mr. McLuhan’s idea of having eight editors strikes me as little short of idiotic. The responsibility for any journal, if it is to be valuable, has got to be in one place.3

In fact, the tremendous need for such for an “editorial community” is so simple and so obvious that it could not be seen at the time — nor in the 70 years since.

The basic idea came to McLuhan from two publications of Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture (originally lectures at Harvard in 1938), together with his ‘‘A Faculty of Interrelations’ (1942 and variously reprinted thereafter). McLuhan and Giedion met in St Louis in 1943 (the same year McLuhan met Wyndham Lewis in Windsor) and McLuhan quickly read everything from Giedion he could find.

The first lines of the foreword to the first edition of Space, Time and Architecture states that the book:

is intended for those who are alarmed by the present state of our culture and anxious to find a way out of the apparent chaos of its contradictory tendencies. I have attempted to establish, both by argument and by objective evidence, that in spite of the seeming confusion there is nevertheless a true, if hidden, unity, a secret synthesis, in our present civilization.

The great question was how this “true (…) unity” and “secret synthesis” was to be defined and certified. Addressing himself to academics across the spectrum of disciplines, Giedion stipulated:

Our task and our moral obligation is to make order in our own field, to establish the relations between the sciences, art, and the humanities. This Is what is lacking today. [We must] build up the interrelations between the different branches of human knowledge (…) A faculty must be created In the universities which functions as a sort of coordinator between the sciences and the humanities. Scholars will not only have to teach on such a faculty; each of them will have to learn as well. There must be built up a knowledge of methods, the beginning of a common vocabulary. Scholars must have systematic contact with one another.4 (Giedion, ‘A Faculty of Interrelations‘)

This was exactly what McLuhan hoped Hutchins would help to establish, potentially, but not necessarily, in Chicago. In order to fulfill its chief functions — definition of “true (…) unity”, and authoritative certification of it — such a faculty would need to include widely recognized scholars. In his cover letter to Hutchins, McLuhan suggested Eric Voegelin and Étienne Gilson as the sort of academics who would be required.5 Hence the need for an ample budget in order to have any hope of attracting and retaining such luminaries.

Interestingly, and perhaps not coincidentally, 6 months after McLuhan sent his proposal to Hutchins, in June 1948, Harold Innis made some of the same points to a conference of Commonwealth university administrators in Oxford

Knowledge has been divided in the modern world to the extent that it is apparently hopeless to expect a common point of view. (…) I propose to ask why Western civilisation has reached the point that a conference largely composed of University administrators should unconsciously assume division in points of view in the field of learning and why this conference, representing the Universities of the British Commonwealth, should have been so far concerned [only] with political representation as to forget the problem of unity in Western civilisation, or, to put it in a general way, why all of us here together seem [ourselves] to be what is wrong with Western civilisation.6

Innis concluded:

The Universities should subject their views about their role in civilisation to systematic overhauling and revise the machinery by which they can take a leading part in the problems of Western culture [especially “the problem of unity”].

The “problem of unity in Western civilisation” and this way of attempting to address it in the university environment was just what McLuhan had proposed to Hutchins. Compare Innis’ conclusion just given with McLuhan’s earlier proposal:

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 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.

As indicated by the repeated word ‘overhaul’ in these passages, Innis could have been nudged in this direction by Giedion’s ideas via McLuhan (doubtless mediated by McLuhan’s old friend from Winnipeg, Tom Easterbrook, who was now a close associate of Innis at UT).7 

What requires decision is the question whether “a common point of view” (Innis) is possible for all humans and their cultures and religions — or not.  If it is possible, presumably this is a conclusion which only the wisest of human beings might work out first of all among some of themselves. This knowledge might then spread out from them, through the power both of their definition of it and of their reputations in their respective fields. Indeed, if such commonality were not defined and publicized in this way, how could it ever (given the conditions of modernity) be established among us?8

Innis’ good friend, John Nef9perfectly illustrated the problem at stake in his reaction to McLuhan’s proposal.  Faced with multiplicity, Nef could perceive only a plurality without even the potential for unity; or, conversely, any actual unity would have to be imposed on plurality by reducing it to singularity:

Mr. McLuhan’s idea of having eight editors strikes me as little short of idiotic. The responsibility for any journal, if it is to be valuable, has got to be in one place.

A third possibility, a real multiplicity which was also at the same time a unity, Giedion’s “systematic contact” among scholars, seemed to him “idiotic”.  

We remain in the same “idiotic” — and incredibly dangerous — situation today.


  1. “Editorial community” was McLuhan’s description in his cover letter to Hutchins.
  2. Nef was a long-time friend and correspondent of Harold Innis.  He was also a good friend of Sigfried Giedion. Strangely, it was to Nef that Giedion first wrote in his attempt to help McLuhan find a more felicitous position in the academy. For discussion see Giedion to Nef re a “promising young scholar”.
  3. Memo from John Nef to Robert Hutchins, Dec 18, 1947.
  4. Emphasis added. The physical sciences have “systematic contact” with each other and it was Giedion’s great insight that this was both an intellectual demand for the the humanities, but also the one answer to national and international peace.
  5. McLuhan to Hutchins, December 6, 1947: “Nothing is said (in the proposal) of the actual personnel of the editorial community, but I have men in mind. (…) Eric Vogelein is a “must” for Political Science, I think. (…) Etienne Gileon, with whom I have discussed the project (…) would not, I think, hesitate to join the venture.”
  6. A Critical Review’, in The Bias of Communication, 1951, remarks originally delivered at the sixth Congress of the Universities of the Commonwealth at Oxford, on July 22nd. 1948.
  7. If Innis’ remarks in Oxford were sparked by McLuhan’s proposal to Hutchins, the bond between the two would not have been, in the first place, the study of media.  It would have been their mutual diagnosis of the fate of western civilization and ideas for its rehabilitation and rescue. Remarkably, the same sort of revision may be in order for an understanding of the relationship of Havelock and McLuhan.  Instead of concentration on media, the bond in this case may have been, on the one hand, a shared analysis of literature focused on synchronic structures (for discussion, see The Journey of Aeneas through the Waste Land) and, on the other, a mutual interest in the history of education (for discussion, see Havelock, McLuhan & the history of education).
  8. For McLuhan’s ultimate position on this question, where new science would instantiate such a common view, see McLuhan’s new sciences: “only the authority of knowledge”.
  9. Innis in the ‘Preface’ to Empire and Communications: “I have been greatly encouraged also by Professor and Mrs. John U. Nef and the Committee on Social Thought (…) of the University of Chicago.” Nef was also good friends with Giedion who, strangely enough in the present conttext, wrote a letter to Nef recommending McLuhan.

The brother’s tale

Poe’s ‘Ms. Found In A Bottle’ fits closely together1 with ‘A Descent in to the Maelstrom’ as the tale of the mariner’s brother — the brother who goes down with the Maelstrom into the abyss. The Ms. ends with these lines:

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!

These are the last lines of the Ms. the doomed sailor has time to entrust to a bottle which would later be found floating in the sea — like the mariner who was saved in ‘Descent’. Both the Ms. and the mariner survive the whirlpool: but only by being “cast (…) within the sea”:

At the last moment I will enclose the Ms. in a bottle, and cast it within the sea.

The Ms. and the mariner in ‘Descent’ are bearers of a message from the depths of the abyss. Both record the inception of an unprecedented change in perception:

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. (…) 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.

And both describe the strange “curiosity” that arises in this changed state:

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.

This secret is struck like a spark from an encounter with “the blackness of eternal night” at “the walls of the universe”:

All in the immediate vicinity of the ship is the blackness of eternal night, and a chaos of foaming 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.2


  1. In both tales a sudden hurricane engulfs a ship leaving it with only two of its crew.  In both there is a lesser whirlpool (“the whirlpool of mountainous and foaming ocean within which we were ingulfed”) before which the ship can run; and a greater whirlpool which takes the ship down. In both the mariner telling the tale goes through a profound change which leads him to study his unprecedented situation despite its “horror”.
  2. Poe has the strange “foamless water” in this passage, not “foaming water”. This is probably some kind of typo.  If it is not, Poe may have wanted to draw a contrast with the “foaming ocean” of the lesser whirlpool at the start of the tale — and to emphasize, perhaps, “the blackness of eternal night” in which no foam could be seen.