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.”