On The Mechanical Bride

McLuhan to Elsie McLuhan, undated from 1951 or 1952:

[The Mechanical Bride] is really a new form of science fiction, with ads and comics cast as characters. Since my object is to show the community in action rather than prove anything, it can indeed be regarded as a new kind of novel. (Letters, 217)

McLuhan to Ezra Pound, January 1951

Current illusion is that science has abolished all natural laws. Nature now pays 5 million %. Applied science now the master usurer. To hell with our top soil. We can grow potatoes on the moon tomorrow. How you goan to expose that while there is still human “life” on the planet?
2nd War produced great discovery of war as new way of life. Financial pages simply chortling these days over prosperity rooted in 3rd War. Ordinary guy eats this up. Total war = total security he figures. THAT is the scale of imbecility now current. (…) I have tried, in forthcoming (March ) Mechanical Bride to devise a technique for elucidating this scene. It can’t be satirized. (Letters, 219)

McLuhan to Allen and Caroline Tate, October 2, 1951

The Folklore book is a youthful indiscretion held over till my middle age.  I hope it pays off better than most indiscretions. But Vanguard has made it nauseous to me.  The book would have appeared 6 years ago in more lively and timely guise had it not been for their bungling and boggling.  The suspected my Irish bulls to be Papal ones.1

McLuhan to Elsie McLuhan, January 22, 1952

Apropos of getting Gilson to write a plug for The Bride. He said to Fr Shook, you write it, I’ll sign it. So I wrote [for Shook for Gilson]: “An important and entertaining analysis of the effects of technology on daily life.” (Letters, 230)

McLuhan to Walter Ong, January 23, 1953:

Your review2 of the Bride literally the only review that made any sense. You were generous, but you saw what was up. The absence of serious study of these matters is total, ie, universal emotional and intellectual illiteracy. And so unnecessary. (Letters, 234)

McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, December 9, 1953:

As for my book. It owes much to you of course. But it was so long in the publishing (6 years) that I had lost interest in its approach before it appeared. Now I see that I was trying to prop up the standards of book culture when we have passed out of the Gutenberg era.3 (Letters, 241)

McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, February 7, 1954

our group [in the culture and technology seminar] is split over time and space. We have both the vertical and horizontal doctrinaires to contend with. Only a year ago did I find out the religious basis of these, to me, almost meaningless quarrels. The Mechanical Bride was written in all innocence of such knowledge. The world of the arts and of science has taken on a much more intelligible character for me since this self-initiation. For the present, at any rate, it has simplified but not ennobled the scene. (Letters 242)

Unpublished Review of Pease’s American Advertising, 19584

it is doubtful whether it will ever be possible to write a book about the ads of radio and television. (…) The literate world today is quite unable to cope with the electronic forms of information pattern. Professor Pease has written a book about a departed era in terms acceptable to the victims of culture-lag.5

Myth and Mass Media, 1959

My book, The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man, is a case in point. Turning literary guns on the new iconology of the Madison Avenue world is easy. It is easy to reveal mechanism in a post-mechanical era. But I failed at that time to see that we had already passed out of the mechanistic age into the electronic, and that it was this fact that made mechanism both obtrusive and repugnant.

Stearn Interview, 1967

When you talk back to ads as I did in The Mechanical Bride, they become your servants. Since you cannot survive the effects of media if you huddle or hide, you must rush out and kick them in the guts — give them what for — right in the midriff. And they respond very well to this treatment. Media, after all, are only extensions of ourselves. The road to understanding media effects begins with arrogant superiority. If one lacked this sense of superiority — this detachment — it would be quite impossible to write about them. It would be like an octopus attacking the great pyramids.6

Playboy Interview, 1969

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 perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was, and I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience — from trash to treasures. 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 they 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. I adapted some of this new approach in The Mechanical Bride by attempting to immerse myself in the advertising media in order to apprehend its impact on man, but even there some of my old literate “point of view” bias crept in. The book, in any case, appeared just as television was making all its major points irrelevant.

  1. For McLuhan and Irish bull see The Irish Bull.
  2.  In Social Order, II:2, February 1952, 79-85. Reprinted with revisions in McLuhan: Hot and Cool, 1967, 82-92.
  3. The critique made here by McLuhan of himself was fleshed out by him a few years later in an unpublished review of Northrop Frye‘s 1957 Anatomy of Criticism: “The world of ancient and medieval rhetoric was vibrant with archetypes referred to as ‘the figures of rhetoric’. These figures are, it is true, postures only of the individual mind which had become accessible to observation and control after phonetic writing. The written word arrested the mental and verbal flux of the fast-talking Mediterraneans and gave them the means of classifying hundreds of mental postures such as chiasmus, catachresis, and scatalogie. These figures or postures of the mind were like so many whales left immobilized amidst the shallows and sands of the written word. And in due time their odor began to be abroad in the land. Writing, however, as a means of capturing, or perhaps of fashioning, the postures of the individual mind has proved to be fatally committed to the fostering of individual expression and eloquence. It is flawed by preference for the humanistic and might well prove to be but a feeble prop for a scientific enterprise such as that of Professor Frye. As it is, even without the aid of such a pipe-line of natural gas from the farther shores of rhetoric, Frye has secured a vehicle which by-passes all rhetorical expression of this personal type, and makes possible the deploying of the total resources of pre-literate culture (…) to (those of) Madison Avenue (…). This in turn will greatly hasten the mopping up of remnants of private awareness and expression such as now give a confused and unsettled character to the literary and educational scene. So that what has here begun as a momentary flush-profile of literary postures will develop into a genuine chain reaction, and the remnants of a decadent form of personal expression can be dispatched down the drain.”
  4. Otis A Pease, The Responsibilities of American Advertising, Private Control and Public Influence, 1920-1940 (1958). McLuhan’s review is in his papers in Ottawa.
  5. McLuhan’s review does not mention The Mechanical Bride, but it is clear that his remarks apply to it and highly probable that he had it at least as much in mind as Pease’s book.
  6.  Gerald Stearn, ed., McLuhan Hot and Cool , 1967, 285.