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.