Bradbrook’s School of Night and the dynamics of experience

Beyond posing the important question “if anything comes out of Shakespeare’s mind recognizably akin to what it was on going in” (153),1 Bradbrook’s 1936 School of Night had a series of further points that McLuhan would find of great interest for his future investigations.

For example, his entire Nashe PhD thesis from 1943, together with the associated ‘Ancient Quarrel’ essay from 1946,2 amounted to a huge expansion of Bradbrook’s observation:

There appears to have been a kind of literary ‘war’ between [Ralegh’s] school [of night] and the faction of Essex, not unlike the dramatists’ ‘war’ of 1598-9, or the earlier one between Harvey and Nashe. (7)

As tutored by Rupert Lodge in philosophy in Winnipeg,3 and as he found also in Coleridge in his English studies there, McLuhan arrived in Cambridge in 1934 with the idea that confrontation with plural possibilities is a perennial or synchronic feature of the exercise of mind. As he stated earlier that same year in his Manitoba M.A. thesis on George Meredith:

In his table talk, Coleridge noted that all men (…) are born either Platonists or Aristotelians. There are similarly, in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. The literary or artistic expression of such temperaments has properly the same validity as has the philosophizing of the Idealist and the Realist.4

This insight was confirmed and deepened at Cambridge through his further study of Coleridge,5 combined with his new studies of Eliot and Richards there.6 As McLuhan reported in his first publication after leaving Cambridge, ‘The Cambridge English School’ (1938):

Donne, and the later Shakespeare, on the one hand, and the Romantics on the other, have been read at Cambridge as though they were contemporaries of Mr. Eliot — which of course they are. For the continuing life of the language itself is such as to constitute a medium in which they are all contemporary.

The “continuing life of the language itself” in this conception is a matter of dynamics. Like the vast diversity of the physical world which is based on a limited number of elementary structures (themselves the expression only of protons, neutrons and electrons), so here the diversity of language over space and time was imagined as eventuating out of some few basic possibilities.

In the allied 1936 studies of Francis Yates7 and Bradbrook8, McLuhan found these dynamics described as a “civil war of wits”.9 Then in Etienne Gilson, particularly in his Unity of Philosophical Experience from 1938, McLuhan found a comparable use of this same imagery with the superlative advantage for him at that time that it was integrated into Gilson’s unparalleled knowledge of Catholic theology:

In a metaphysical system wherein the whole of reality is included, such a doctrine does not limit itself to ideas, it applies to things. The conflict between philosophies then becomes a conflict between philosophers; the “battlefield of endless controversies” described by Kant under the name of metaphysics is, therefore, a battlefield of men, where each philosopher, as a  particular moment of the universal law, has to be the antithesis of another, until both are resolved into the synthesis of a third. That which is contradiction between ideas is war between men, and in such a world, war is by no means an accident. It is law.10

Bradbrook cited Nashe in this context of mind’s position before incompatible synchronic possibilities:

In all points our brains are like the firmament, and exhale in everie respect the like grose mistempered vapors and meteors. (175)11

McLuhan must have been flabbergasted to find in Bradbrook’s citation of Nashe here with its “the like grose mistempered vapors and meteors” what he had offered far less flamboyantly a few years before in his Manitoba M.A. thesis as “consistency of conformation”:

There are (…) in all times and places, definite types of temperament displaying consistency of conformation. 

Focusing on the contesting disciplines of the classical trivium, McLuhan’s Nashe thesis, together with his following ‘Ancient Quarrel’ article, would attempt to trace this “civil war of wits” over the two and a half millennia from Socrates in fifth century BC Athens to ‘modern America’.

Indeed, the last chapter of Bradbrook’s book, ‘Shakespeare, the School, and Nashe’ put forward the notion that the writings of Nashe might supply some particular illumination on the quarreling ‘schools’ of the 1590s. McLuhan would take up this idea, but reverse it. To understand Nashe, he suggested, it was first of all necessary to understand the wars of mind which are continually waged in all human experience:

No sound evaluation of a writer can be given in terms which exclude his basic assumptions as an artist. Nashe has never been considered on his own [basic] terms (The Classical Trivium — The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, 2006, 4).

The war between these literary camps is basically the opposition between dialectics and rhetoric to control the modes of literary composition; and the ramifications of this opposition stretch into the realms of ethics and politics, both in antiquity and in the Renaissance.  For example, the ethical, political, and stylistic opposition between Machiavelli and Castiglione, between Harvey and Nashe, are at bottom and on the surface, owing to a reconstitution of ancient rivalries between dialectics and rhetoric. While Harvey and Nashe are scarcely commensurate with the others, their relevance to this study is such as to make it important to bring them into the focus of [such] discussion… (Ibid, 42)

Nashe was thus a fulIy enlightened protagonist in an ancient quarrel (…) It was not a quarrel between Catholic and Protestant, but a dispute about methods of exegesis in theology and preaching, concerning which some [on each side of the divide between] Catholics and Protestants held patristic views and some held to scholastic positions. (Ibid, 226)

But to understand the “civil war of wits” between dialectics and rhetoric, it was necessary to start from the third position, or superposition, of the trivium in which the complete grammar of ‘trivial’ possibilities was arrayed:

In studying the history of dialectics and rhetoric, as indeed, of grammar, it is unavoidable that one adopts the point of view of one of these arts12 and the history of the trivium is largely a history of the rivalry among them for ascendancy. (…) The essential opposition between the arts of the trivium being such, then, as frequently to pit the one against the other, with results of the greatest importance, it is useful to recognize that the present exposition of the history of the trivium is being made from a  grammatical point of view. Exposition and interpretation of stated doctrines are grammatical problems… (Ibid, 41-42)

  1. For discussion and citations see “Food for the mind is like food for the body”.
  2. ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’, Classical Journal, 41:4, January 1946, 156-162. Reprinted in The Interior Landscape.
  3. See The Comparative Method of Rupert Lodge for discussion and citations.
  4. The last part of the last sentence was a nod to Lodge, the first part a nod to McLuhan’s continuing allegiance to literature.
  5. I.A. Richards published Coleridge on Imagination in 1934, the year McLuhan arrived in Cambridge and began hearing Richards’ lectures.
  6. McLuhan to E.K. Brown, December 12, 1935: “You probably know all about the very exciting and thriving time that the Cambridge English School is experiencing. Dr Richards has been a great stimulus, even to his opponents (!), and  the easy accessibility of Willey, Tillyard, Lucas and Leavis (editor of Scrutiny) makes for an intellectual variety that not even my wildest hopes had prefigured.” The exclamation point is original. (Letters, 79)
  7. F.A. Yates, A Study of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Cambridge, 1936.
  8. M.C. Bradbrook, The School of Night, Cambridge, 1936.
  9. Yates, 158.
  10. Gilson, The Unity of Philosophical Experience, 1938, reprint 1955, 250.
  11. Without attribution, Bradbrook cited here from Nashe’s 1594 tract on dreams, Terrors of the Night.
  12. “Unavoidable that one adopts the point of view of one of these arts” because they are treated by McLuhan, following Rupert Lodge, as both basic and incommensurate.