Monthly Archives: April 2019

Communications Programme at UBC

McLuhan participated in a ‘Communications Programme’ at UBC in 1958 and in 1959. In May 1958 he delivered the keynote address at a conference sponsored by the programme on ‘Radio in the Future of Canada’. In the summer of 1959, he led an extended ‘Communications Seminar’ there.

Aside from McLuhan, the 1958 programme included Wilbur Schramm from Stanford, Paul Lazarsfeld from Columbia, and the participation of national and international advertising agencies, Cockfield-Brown (Toronto) and Foote Cone & Belding (New York). The NAEB supplied some materials and local and national broadcasters were involved both in funding the programme and participating in it. The following notice appeared in Variety (April 29, 1958, p47):

This was a critical time in McLuhan’s career when the foundations for “Understanding Media” were being laid. It was in 1958 that he began work with the NAEB and in 1959 he was already at work on the research project with the NAEB that would be published the next year as a ‘report on new media’. With this report, the parameters were set for McLuhan’s work over the remaining 20 years of his life.

In his President’s Report for 1959, Norman MacKenzie described this UBC programme as follows:

Communications Programme

ALTHOUGH IT SEEMS INEVITABLE that the major means of communication between scholars will remain human contacts,  books and journals, it may well be that communication between scholars and the general public will take other forms. Believing that popularization is important and that the newer media of radio and television are worth studying in themselves, the University was happy to begin in 1957 an experimental communications programme, financed by a grant from the B.C. Association of Broadcasters.

The grant was intended to enable the University to investigate its own role in the field of broadcasting and, more particularly, to explore means by which those in the broadcasting industry could improve their services to the public. Initially the programme had three objectives: (a) To provide a regular series of night classes, conferences, short courses and seminars for broadcasting personnel in British Columbia; (b) to develop the facilities of the University for working in all kinds of mass communications; (c) to begin work in such areas as audience research, media studies, and the communication of the fine arts.

The whole programme was designed with one principle in mind, that the handling of the technical means of broadcasting such as television cameras, broadcasting schedules, film production, etc., should not become separated from the more theoretical kinds of investigation. 

Under the programme, we have organized a considerable number of lecture series, seminars, etc. The following is a representative rather than a complete list, but it does give some idea of the scope of our activities and the degree to which we have been able to work with various university departments on the one hand and the broadcasting industry on the other.


Introduction to Television — Mr. James Patterson (CBC)
Film Production — Mr. Robin Pearce (UBC Extension)
Speech for Broadcasting — Dr. P. Read Campbell (UBC Faculty of Education)
Introduction to Radio — Mr. John Ansell (CKWX)
Research Methods and Measurement — Dr. D. T. Kenney (UBC Psychology)
Commercial Writing for Broadcasting — 
Mr. Sam Fogel (Cockfield-Brown [Advertising Agency])
News for Broadcasting — Mr. Dorwin Baird

Summer School, 1959

Communications Seminar — Dr. Marshal McLuhan, Department of English, St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto
Speech for Broadcasting — Dr. P. Read Campbell
Film Production — Mr. Ronald Kelly

Conferences and Short Courses

Radio in the Future of Canada — Financed by the grant previously mentioned and the Koerner Foundation, the Conference was attended by representatives of the CBC, BBC, American broadcasting agencies and Canadian private stations.
Short Course on Communications — Conducted by Dr. W. S. Schramm, Director of the Institute of Communications Research, Stanford University; Mr. Albert Shea, Canadian Research Agency, Toronto; and Mr. Gene Duckwall, Foote Cone Belding, Los Angeles.

In cooperation with the Extension Department and with other departments in the University, we have provided a series of lectures on the CBC and have helped private stations use material prepared by the National Association of Educational Broadcasters.


The University continues to take a serious interest in broadcasting, in view of the profound influence it has on our lives and society. We hope that U.B.C. can become a major centre for the study of communications. Already we have learned much about the history and operation of broadcasting in Canada and have developed with members of the industry relationships which we expect to be profitable both to them and to us.

The medium is the message in 1958

McLuhan seems to have first begun using his trademark slogan, “the medium is the message”, at a conference in Vancouver on  Radio in the Future of Canada’.1 As announced in the Vancouver Province for Saturday, May 3, 1958 (page 10), this was to begin in the following week:

Here is McLuhan’s coinage in his talk for the conference:

Print, by permitting people to read at high speed and, above all, to read alone and silently, developed a totally new set of mental operations. What I mentioned earlier becomes very relevant here: the medium is the message. The medium of print is the message, more than any individual writer could say.2

Victoria Daily Times, May 6, 1958, p21

He continued to develop the point at the end of the same month at an educational TV meeting in Washington DC:

We should long ago have discovered that the medium is the message. The effect of reading is far more decisive than anything that gets said from moment to moment on the page. The page is not a conveyor belt for pots of message; it is not a consumer item so much as a producer of unique habits of mind and highly specialized attitudes to person and country, and to the nature of thought itself (…) Let us grant for the moment that the medium is the message. It follows that if we study any medium carefully we shall discover its total dynamics and its unreleased powers.3

McLuhan stressed this notion over and over again in his many public and private interactions with the NAEB (National Association of Educational Broadcasters) which began that same year of 1958, perhaps as a direct result of the Washington meeting.  For the meeting was co-sponsored by the NAEB and attended by Harry Skornia, the president of the NAEB who would become the moving force in the conception, funding and organization of McLuhan’s project with the NAEB on “Understanding New Media”.4 It may well be that McLuhan and Skornia first met at this May 1958 event. Furthermore, the funding for that project would come from the other sponsor of this meeting in Washington with the NAEB, the US Office of Education.

In that same year of 1958, Otis Pease, a professor of history at Stanford, published his Yale PhD thesis, The Responsibilities of American Advertising, Private Control and Public Influence, 1920-1940. The cover of the book edition shortened the title to American Advertising.  Although McLuhan had written extensively on this topic, especially in ‘American Advertising’ (1947), The Mechanical Bride (1951) and ‘The Age of Advertising’ (1953), his work was not mentioned by Pease. But McLuhan wrote an unpublished review of Pease’s book which is preserved in his papers in Ottawa. In it he continued to flesh out the notion that “the medium is the message”.

Professor Pease states a basic fact, namely that the techniques of advertising and politics have never been separate from each other. (…) It is one of the prime qualities of this book that it sees advertising as having scope and affect far beyond the mere conveying of information about available goods.

In his review McLuhan concentrated on these wider implications of advertising: its “scope and affect far beyond the mere conveying of information”. The question was, how does advertising function, not as an informational message, but as a medium.5

Now the affects and effects of a medium are variously located. In the first place, they express themselves in and on the external landscape. Just as cars require an extensive infrastructure of factories producing their components and assembly, roads, gasoline production and distribution, roadside amenities like restaurants and hotels, etc, etc, and just as it is this whole medium of implicated infrastructure that constitutes the real message of the automobile, so advertising exists in “scope and affect far beyond the mere conveying of information” by functioning within a broad nexus including politics, economics and culture.6 It is this nexus — or medium — which advertising at once enables and is enabled by.

Secondly, that external landscape could not be constituted and could not continue to function aside from a parallel manipulation of society’s “interior landscape”:

It has been the task of the ad men, as Professor Pease puts it, “to persuade the individual citizen to conceive of himself primarily as a consumer of goods.” This, he shows, was not an easy task in a semi-frontier world of self-reliance and contempt for sissie comforts. Moreover, there was the huge establishment of Puritan asceticism to be liquidatedIt is the feeling of Professor Pease that the attitudes of American Protestantism were deeply modified by the ad campaigns for consumer goods: “Advertising… is almost the only force at work against puritanism in consumption. (…) In the 1920s the business leaders of America were still steeped, it appeared, in the ethic of producers, who considered thrift and frugality to be virtues.

Advertising worked to convert the dominating impulses in the internal landscape as an essential factor in the transformation of the external one. As McLuhan further cited Pease: 

“National advertising in the period 1920-1940 became a continuous powerful technique for mass persuasion, employed to inculcate specific goals and values. It grew in response to the needs of an industrial society which had achieved efficient methods of mass production and distribution, but which had not yet developed standards of consumption sufficiently lavish to maintain that production.” 

McLuhan concluded:

Of course this meant that the manufacturer sought control of the politics and social ends of the whole society as the natural reward of his technological ascendancy.

Advertising was an essential means — or medium — toward that end.

  1. Andrew McLuhan has found a note by his grandfather in which Marshall vaguely remembers this event. In the same place Andrew has a description of the event by McLuhan in a 1975 lecture where he wrongly dates the UBC event to 1957.
  2. Radio in the Future of Canada, UBC, May 5-9, 1958. With “what I mentioned earlier”, McLuhan was referring several remarks he had made in this same talk:The media are the messages. They are not conveyor belts of messages. In the long run it is radio that is the message and not what a radio program (item of) content happens to be at any given day or year. In the long run, it is photography that is the meaning and the message, not the picture of somebody or something.” Similarly again: “It is not the little pot of message travelling along a conveyor belt that is the meaning of a medium or of communication: the medium is the meaning. The road as a form of communication is the message and the meaning — more than anything which happens along the road or on it.” For information on UBC’s communications programme in the late 1950s, see  Communications Programme at UBC.
  3. McLuhan’s talk at the Conference on Educational Television, sponsored by the US Office of Education and the NAEB (National Association of Educational Broadcasters), Washington, D.C., 26 May 1958, was titled ‘The Role of Mass Communication in Meeting Today’s Problems‘. It was issued in mimeograph by the Office of Education and then printed as ‘Our New Electronic Culture’ in the NAEB Journal, 18:1, October 1958.
  4. McLuhan wanted the project to be called “Understanding Media” and, indeed, some copies of the research report were issued with this title. (For an image of this cover see McLuhan on ‘effect’ in 1946.) His argument was that the identification of a medium depended on identification of the class of media. As he said in his talk on radio in Vancouver, “No media has its meaning alone: Media interact continuously with each other.” (See note 2 above.) To study any one medium it was necessary to study more than one. But Skornia at the NAEB argued that the Office of Education was specifically interested in new media and that the application to it for a research grant should be aimed at that interest. Without changing his mind on the methodological point, or points, McLuhan agreed to Skornia’s strategy.
  5. As McLuhan came increasingly to stress, concentration on the message of advertising, or of any medium, served to hide awareness of its effects as a medium: “Professor Pease provides a well-documented account of the complicated story of public criticism of the ad industry. (…) It is here that we learn the pathetic story of the muckrakers and their exposure of dishonesty in ads and adulteration of products. (This is a ‘pathetic story’, not because such dishonesty and adulteration do not occur, but) because the concentration on this Simple Simon approach to the ad world has rendered literate people quite helpless in the face of the icon power of the ad world.  For that power is non-verbal and subliminal.”
  6. McLuhan as regards advertising and culture: “It has perhaps escaped the attention of Professor Pease that not only does no ad have its meaning alone, but that the advertising industry would have been a puny thing these past forty years were it not for the movies. The drama of consumption staged by the magic of the movie camera in the name of entertainment has been far more effective in boosting consumption (than advertising in the strict sense).”

McLuhan and Voegelin 1953

…the beginning will reveal itself only if the paradox is taken seriously… (Voegelin, In Search of Order)1

In the spring of 1953 McLuhan read Eric Voegelin’s New Science of Politics (1952) and, as was not uncommon for him, immediately wrote to Voegelin. He had done the same thing  with Harold Innis in 1951 after he had read Empire and Communications, and with Norbert Wiener in 1952 after reading Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings. In the summer of 1953, McLuhan and Voegelin exchanged four letters, two on each side, and then the correspondence ceased, a month or so after it had begun.2 Unlike the case with Wiener, however, McLuhan and Voegelin knew each other (they had met when McLuhan visited Cleanth Brooks at LSU in 1945) and had many essential convictions in common, especially the determination that religion was not only not opposed to modernity and to science, but remained, in fact, fundamental to them.

This precipitated the question for both Voegelin and McLuhan of just how this insight were to be communicated to a civilization (if this remained the applicable term) in which it had generally been lost. Built into all their incessant work (both wrote hundreds of thousands of pages over their careers, much of it unpublished during their lifetimes) was therefore always a double task: how to communicate about anything, in such a way as to re-establish communication at the same time?

Voegelin made this point plainly enough in The New Science:

A restoration of political science to its principles implies that the restorative work is necessary because the consciousness of principles is lost. The movement toward re-theoretization must be understood, indeed, as a recovery… (3-4)

For his part McLuhan was, if anything, even more possessed by this problem than was Voegelin. He had been writing about the eclipse of principles for more than a decade and now in the early 1950’s was intensely focused on the double problem of communication about the loss of communication — communication especially concerning the loss of consciousness that “the consciousness of principles is lost”. As he wrote in letters to Ezra Pound in 1951 (describing a situation that remains in potentially fatal effect today, 70 years later!):

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 goan3 to expose that while there is still human “life” on the planet? 2nd [World] 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. (McLuhan to Pound, January 1951, Letters 219, emphatic ‘THAT’ in original)

The word has been used to effect a universal hypnosis. How are words to be used to unweave the spell of print?4 Of radio commercials and ‘news’-casts?5 I’m working on THAT problem. The word is now the cheapest and the most universal drug. Consider the effect of modern machinery in imposing rhythm on human thought and feeling. Archaic man got inside the thing that terrified him — tiger, bear, wolf — and made it his totem god. To-day we get inside the machine. It is inside us. We in it. Fusion. Oblivion. Safety. Now the human machines are geared to smash one another. You can’t shout warnings or encouragement to these machines.6 (McLuhan to Pound, June 22, 1951, Letters 227, emphatic ‘THAT’ in original)

Voegelin ended his New Science lectures with the admonition that our “fate is in the balance”. McLuhan certainly agreed.  But, as he wrote to Voegelin, everything depended on finding a way out of a global environment in which communication had been lost — via communication:

all is clear now. Except what to do!7

there are strategies which need to be adopted in these affairs. And I’m floundering at present.

Voegelin took McLuhan to be making a personal complaint. As he wrote to Robert Heilman on the same day that he replied to McLuhan’s second letter to him:

In recent weeks I had two letters from McLuhan. Rather touching—because apparently he too has found out about the all-pervasive Gnosis in literature, and runs into the difficulty that the vast majority of his colleagues does not care in the least about his discovery. He seems to be rather isolated; and has not yet adjusted himself to the consequences of being more intelligent than other people. He wails about the twenty years of his life that he has wasted in the pursuit of wrong ideas. I must write him a comforting letter that he is not the only one to whom it happens; and that a life is not wasted if one sees the light in the end.8

But McLuhan was far too busy to wail about his personal fate. He and his wife had just had their sixth child (hardly a sign of needing “comforting”, at least in the sense contemplated by Voegelin). Beside his normal teaching load he was leading a weekly interdisciplinary seminar on culture and technology sponsored by the Ford Foundation and co-editing its Explorations journal. And, finally, he was publishing an extraordinary amount of work. In 1953, aside from many book reviews and shorter contributions to journals and magazines, McLuhan published major essays on ‘The Later Innis’ (Queen’s Quarterly), ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (Thought), ‘Culture Without Literacy’ (Explorations), ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’ (Shenandoah), ‘Maritain on Art’ (Renascence) and ‘The Age of Advertising’ (Commonweal). Through all this, he was casting about for a way to re-establish communication which he saw as nothing less than a matter of survival. It was in regard to this general world-historical issue, not personally, that he was “floundering” and could not see “what to do”.  It was in regard to it that he hoped Voegelin might have some helpful pointers. 

McLuhan’s turn toward “understanding media” was just beginning and it would be another six or seven years before he would perceive how this might work to restore communication.  But it was a turn he could not have made — as Voegelin noted 30 years later in the passage cited from In Search of Order at the top of this post — without utterly “floundering” away from his previous work.9

  1. Order and History 5, CW18, 31.
  2. With the permission of the Voegelin and McLuhan estates, the four letters between the two — only one of which is currently available in Voegelin’s Selected Correspondence 1950-1984 — will be published in VoegelinView.
  3. In his letters to Pound, and occasionally to others who also knew Pound, McLuhan affected Pound’s epistolary style.
  4. McLuhan was already thinking of print as a medium here, a medium evoking its own characteristic “spell”.  But he was thinking at the same time that print is a technology for the multiplication of words.  So his question was: how unweave the spell of words by words?
  5. Radio was another medium with a “spell” of it own.  But it, too, represented a technology to disseminate words and therefore raised the same question as did print: how unweave the spell of words by words?.
  6. “You can’t shout warnings or encouragement to these machines” because (a) they are machines, not human beings, (b) words have lost their meanings, (c) words of “warnings or encouragement” cannot be heard in the din of warnings and encouragements.
  7. This and the following snippet are from McLuhan’s two letters to Voegelin in June and July, 1953.
  8. Voegelin to Heilman, July 17, 1953 in Selected Correspondence 1950-1984, CW30, 2007, 172 and in Robert B. Heilman and Eric Voegelin: A Friendship in Letters, 1944-1984, 2004, 120.
  9. McLuhan was well aware of this critical methodological point: “Managing The ‘Ascent’ from the Maelström today demands awareness that can be achieved only by going ‘Through the Vanishing Point’.” (Take Today, 13) ‘The Ascent from the Maelström’ was, of course, McLuhan’s ano-kato play on Poe’s ‘A Descent into the Maelström’.

Irish Bull

McLuhan was Scotch-Irish and the son of two great raconteurs.  He came to the topic of the Irish bull frequently in Take Today:

Our fathers sometimes encountered paradox in the jocular form of the “Irish Bull”: “When you see three cows standing in a pasture, the one that is sitting is the Irish Bull.” (106)

One of the chapter headings shortly before this reads:

If you Take the Bull by the Horns You’ll Get a Lot of Bull (93)

Later, giving what is surely the formal cause of these bull stories, he refers to the “ebullient Bucky Fuller”. (117)

In the same year that Take Today was published, 1972,  McLuhan presented more Irish bull in ‘End of the Work Ethic’:

We live in a world of paradoxes because at electric speed all facets of situations are presented to us simultaneously. It used to be the specialty of “the Irish bull” to do this. For example, a recent example mentions an exchange between two chiropodists. One says: “I have taken the corns off half the crown heads of Europe.” 

As detailed in Lodge on ‘Science and Literature’, McLuhan’s mentor in the early 1930s at the University of Manitoba, Rupert Lodge, told the story about the Irishman who asked whether a fight were private or if he might join in. This was repeated 40 years later by McLuhan in Take Today (212):

Is this a private fight, or may anyone join in?
– An Irishman

McLuhan had remembered Lodge in his Speaking of Winnipeg interview with Tom Easterbrook in 1970 and it may be that these Irish bull stories written shortly thereafter came to mind in this way.  But McLuhan had cited Harold Innis on Irish bull long before this in The Gutenberg Galaxy:

Improvements in communication, like the Irish bull of the bridge which separated the two countries, make for increased difficulties of understanding. (216, citing ‘Minerva’s Owl’ from The Bias of Communication, 28)

And much earlier still, in a letter to Allen and Caroline Tate in 1951, he had complained of Vanguard Press, the publisher of The Mechanical Bride, as having “suspected my Irish bulls to be Papal ones.”1

  1.  McLuhan to Allen and Caroline Tate, October 2, 1951. For the full passage, see On The Mechanical Bride.

Ransom to Tate and Guerry on McLuhan

The Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom1 has an April 1946 letter from Ransom to Allen Tate concerning McLuhan:

Marshall McLuhan now at Assumption College, Windsor Canada2 ought to make a good editor for the Sewanee Review. Brooks, who was here for three days not long ago, knows him personally and thinks he has a lot and “is one of us” — though he’s Catholic. I believe he wants to get back into this country, but I am sure his status financially is a modest one, as he must be young. You saw his Hopkins piece with us, I suppose. (…)
PS Would Heilman of LSU be up to the mark?3

Tate had been the editor of the Sewanee Review for a couple years but was leaving the post. The “Hopkins piece” was ‘Analogical Mirrors’  which appeared in the Kenyon Review, edited by Ransom, in the summer of 1944. Heilman at LSU was Robert Heilman, a close friend of Eric Voegelin and a member of the English department there then, along with Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren.4 McLuhan met Heilman and Voegelin when he visited Brooks at LSU5 in 1945 and became a sometime correspondent with both. 

A few months later, Ransom wrote a similar letter to Alexander Guerry, vice-chancellor of the University of the South (where The Sewanee Review was published):

I am flattered by your invitation to advise as to the right editor of the Sewanee Review in Allen Tate’s place; I only wish I could reply with some certainty. There’s a good man who has written for this Review [Kenyon] and yours [Sewanee] too, if I’m not mistaken, and is excellent — Marshall McLuhan, now visiting professor at Assumption College, Windsor, Canada. He is an American6, either a Catholic or ex-Catholic, but a thinker of his own; studied at Cambridge, England, among other places; and Cleanth Brooks knows him personally and thinks very highly of him.  He is as good in the general prose field and the field of ideas as he is in the criticism of poetry. I would suggest that you write Brooks at Louisiana State for full information about him if you are interested. I have an idea McLuhan wants to get back into this country, and I predict he will have a distinguished career.7 

In his biography of McLuhan, W.T. Gordon includes some snippets from letters of Ransom to McLuhan from this same time period:

We haven’t had anything of yours for a long time and I hope it won’t be much longer before we can see something. I talked with Cleanth Brooks a short while ago; he is an admirer of yours and told me of some smart things you had talked with him [about].8 

I wish you didn’t rely on ambiguous terms like dialectic, rhetoric and grammar.9

  1. The Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom, ed T.D. Young and G. Core, 1985.
  2. Ransom’s letter has ‘Conn’ here, perhaps as a typo for ‘Can’ or for ‘Ca-On'(tario).
  3. Letter from April 22, 1946, Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom, 324-325.
  4. All would soon leave: Brooks and Warren to Yale, Heilman to the University of Washington in Seattle.
  5. On the same trip, McLuhan visited Tate in Sewanee, TN.
  6. Sic. Since Ransom would not have commented on McLuhan being an American, he plainly meant to write ‘Canadian’ here. Conversely, or additionally, he could have been thinking that, since McLuhan’s wife was American, he would be able to work in the U.S. with no problem.
  7. Letter from June 28, 1946, Selected Letters of John Crowe Ransom, 328.
  8. Ransom to McLuhan, January 12, 1946, in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 386n49.
  9. Ransom to McLuhan, August 31, 1947, in Gordon, Escape into Understanding, 386n49. It must have been deeply thought-provoking to McLuhan that even such an accomplished and sympathetic reader as Ransom did not understand his central ideas.

Planet as art-form before the satellite

McLuhan frequently attributed to satellites the translation of the physical environment of the earth into an art-form:

The McLuhan DEW-LINE, 1:5, November 1968
From the first moment of the satellite [in 1957], the earth ceased to be the human “environment”. Satellites automatically enclose the old Darwinian “Nature” environment by putting the planet inside a man-made environment. They are just as much an extension of the planet as is clothing an extension of the skin.

But he himself had seen this transformation before the satellite:

Culture Without Literacy, 19531
But the fact that with with modern technology the entire material of the globe as well as the thoughts and feelings of its human inhabitants have become the matter of art and of man’s factive intelligence means that there is no more nature. At least there is no more external nature. Everything from politics to bottle-feeding (…) is subject to the manipulation of conscious artistic control.

Notes on the Media as Art Forms, 19542
technology has abolished ‘nature’ in the old sense and brought the globe within the scope of art…

Nihilism Exposed, 19553
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.”

  1. In Explorations 1.
  2. In Explorations 2.
  3. In Renascence, 8, Winter 1955.

Past the vanishing point

Muriel Bradbrook was a friend of McLuhan during his first stint in Cambridge (1934-1936) and was an adviser on his PhD thesis when he returned for a year in 1939-1940. A review of her School of Night (1936) in the NYT (June 6, 1937) may have caught McLuhan’s attention for a series of reasons. Beside his friendship with Bradbrook and his deep interest in her book, the review in the paper of record repeatedly refers to her as ‘Mr Bradbrook’ and uses ‘he’ and ‘his’ throughout. This would have prompted considerable merriment among her friends.

McLuhan almost certainly had already read her book when it was first issued in the spring of 1936. He was still in Cambridge then and may have attended an event, or events, celebrating its appearance. Indeed, he seems to have taken Nashe as the subject for his PhD thesis in good measure from it.1 For Bradbrook writes in her introduction: 

there has been a growing interest in the literary activities of Ralegh, and in particular in the society founded by him, and known now by Shakespeare’s nickname “The School of Night”. There appears to have been a kind of literary “war” between this school and the faction of Essex, not unlike the dramatists’ “war” of 1598-9, or the earlier one between Harvey and Nashe.2 

McLuhan’s PhD thesis, The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of his Time was completed 7 years later with Bradbrook as his unofficial adviser. Nominally focused on Nashe, it would actually be an extended examination of the history of just such “wars”, characterized as occurring between the arts of the trivium, over the two millennia from 400 BC to 1600. 

McLuhan would consider wars of this sort for the rest of his life.3 One of the puzzles about them was the nature of the borders or gaps between the contesting parties.  For if such a “quarrel” were fundamental, as deep as it gets, what kind of ground could such gaps have if they were neither a contesting party themselves (these were what they separated) nor based upon anything deeper (since there was nothing deeper)? 

As McLuhan would later insist in 1972:

Managing The Ascent from the Maelstrom4 today demands awareness that can be achieved only by going Through the Vanishing Point. (Take Today, 13)

Going Through the Vanishing Point was the condition of considering the contest of fundamentals in its plurality.5

The first sentence of the School of Night review in the NYT, 30 years before Through the Vanishing Point and 35 years before Take Today, was:

There are some historical characters who dwindle in perspective as time goes by until they have passed the vanishing point.


  1. The last chapter of Bradbrook’s book is titled ‘Shakespeare, the School (of Night), and Nashe‘. But Nashe was generally in the air at this time in Cambridge. McLuhan read Lewis’ Time and Western Man during his first period in Cambridge and ‘Nash’ has more than passing mention in it.
  2. The School of Night, 1936, 7.
  3. See “Ancient quarrel” and its synonyms (1940’s) and “Ancient quarrel” and its synonyms (1950’s). It will take some time to complete the documentation for these decades and then to add it for the ’60s and ’70s as well. Suffice it to note here only that appreciation and study of the plurality of foundations is a red thread running through McLuhan’s work from start to finish.
  4. The Ascent from the Maelstrom is, of course, McLuhan’s ano kato play on Poe’s The Descent into the Maelstrom.
  5. The contest of fundamentals in its plurality => the fundamental contest of fundamentals in its fundamental plurality.

“Ancient quarrel” in Lewis

Lewis in The Lion and the Fox (1927):

tragedy is not the purest art. The contests of pure art would be like the battles of the norse heroes in heaven. They would ride back after the battle to Valhalla or some more congenial Elysium, the wounds and deaths abolished by magic at the termination of each day. Only heroes would participate; and no reality would mar their vigorous joys.1

Lewis was favorably disposed to Catholicism, but never converted. The reason may have been given in this passage with “no reality would mar their vigorous joys”.

Lewis’ “battles (…) in heaven”, like McLuhan’s “ancient quarrel”, was a reflex of Plato’s gigantomachia in the Sophist. There, too, an unending battle of superhuman forces is always taking place.  But the third ancient power in Plato’s telling is the philosophical child “begging for both” who would join the other two endlessly warring parties in a basic harmony.  Similarly with McLuhan:

Paul Claudel, of course, is not bound by these dichotomies of space and time, the vertical and horizontal. (…) Claudel’s thought and poetry obviously move freely in both (…) He values equally [ie, grammatically] the resources of dialectic and continuous discourse [ie, rhetoric]. He can therefore be both (…) for [him] Time and Space are not sectarian problems.2

Lewis apparently thought that the unending force and beauty of the fundamental powers could be preserved only through their isolation and complete separation from “reality”. In fundamental contrast, the “both” of Plato, and of Claudel in McLuhan’s telling, was not restricted to one power of the three in the “ancient quarrel”, but instead also characterized the essential outpouring of that quarrel and of all its protagonists into crass “reality”. It was exactly this fundamental urge to manifestation linking possibility with actuality that Aristotle expressed in his dynamics and that was carried over into Christianity as “incarnation”.

  1.  The Lion and the Fox , 1951 ed, 198.
  2. ‘Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry’, 1954. For the full passage see “Ancient quarrel” and its synonyms (1950’s).

“Ancient quarrel” and its synonyms (1950’s)

From Eliot to Seneca (Review of The Senecan Amble: A Study in Prose from Bacon to Collier) (1953)

Professor Williamson has written a technical discussion of the battle of the prose styles from Bacon to Collier.

the natural and age-old antipathy of Senecan and Ciceronian is rooted in diversity of aim and method in communication.

Quarrels between Senecans and Ciceronians are inevitably the result of the triumph of specialized temperament over general intelligence.1 

Eliot and The Manichean Myth As Poetry (1954)

The crime of Professor Cleanth Penn Ransom is to attempt to invent a machine for reducing the time-world of the arts to the space-world of the sciences.  Time and space thus appear as two gods, one light, the other dark. Time is heavenly, space is infernal.  Since this is not and never has been a Catholic quarrel, the shifting terms in which the quarrel has been conducted through the centuries seem both familiar and unreal to Catholic ears.  Socrates abandoned the outer world of Ionian science and sophistic rhetoric for the inner world of the dialectical quest.  The division between inner and outer, between astrology and alchemy, between philosophy and magic is a familiar one.(…) Naturally the roots of these divisions are Light and Dark, Spirit and Matter.

If we grant that human existence is the state of damnation, two possibilities follow.  Either we can learn to retrace the stages of our fall into matter [in order to extricate our individual personality from it], and so escape, or we can devise some means of extinction of [individual] personality.  The pagan art and culture of the world, past and present, is divided in the pursuit of these alternatives. On one hand art is followed as a continuous labyrinth in which by blind, dogged persistence we may struggle upward by means of will power and ethical struggle. On the other hand there is the intellectual course presented by Mr. Eliot, in which we move from one intensity to another, towards a final flash of awareness and extinction [of mere individuality]. In the one art — that linked with Plato’s cave man — time, continuity, dialectic, are of the essence. In the other, time is lost in simultaneities and juxtapositions. (…)  The one proceeds by linked statement in time, the other by discontinuous arrangement in space.  In the broader cultural terms, the one view tends to locate human value in the [individual] will, the other in the [common] intellect. (…)  Generally speaking, both of these positions are Manichean so far as they postulate not just a Fallen Man, but a Fallen World.

Basic, however, for the understanding of vertical and horizontal, time and space, as these terms structure and agitate philosophy, aesthetics, anthropology and sociology, is the peculiar Manichean theory of communication. (…)  Vertical symbolism is of the dualistic variety, setting the sign or the work of art as a link between two worlds, between Heaven and Hell. It is concerned with the world as Time process, as becoming, and with the means of escape from Time into eternity by means of art and beauty. Vertical symbolism asserts the individual will against the hoi polloi. (…) Horizontal symbolism, on the other hand, sets the work of art and the symbol a collective task of communication (…) the horizontal, or space school, appeals to intuition, emotion and collective participation in states of mind as a basis for communication and of transformation of the self. The vertical school seeks to elevate the [existing] self above mere existence. The  horizontal symbolists seek to transform the self…

A Catholic poet like Paul Claudel, of course, is not bound by these dichotomies of space and time, the vertical and horizontal. (…) Claudel’s thought and poetry obviously move freely in both time and space. As a symbolist he avails himself to the utmost degree of the spatial techniques of inner and outer landscape for fixing particular states of mind. This procedure makes available to him all the magical resources invoked by the Romantics for using particular emotions as immediate windows onto Being, as techniques of connatural union with reality. But he values equally the resources of dialectic and continuous discourse [ie, rhetoric]. He can therefore be both Senecan or symbolist — and temporal. That would seem to be an inevitable program for any Catholic for whom Time and Space are not sectarian problems. 

(To be continued through all of McLuhan’s work.)