“Food for the mind is like food for the body”

McLuhan and Muriel Bradbrook seem to have become friends during his first stint in Cambridge.1  During his second stint, immediately after his marriage with Corinne, Bradbrook advised him on his PhD thesis on Nashe before leaving Cambridge for war duty in London. 

Bradbrook’s 1936 book, The School of Night, which McLuhan probably read the year it was published, is referenced in a note in the thesis (212,n7), along with a book on a related subject which was published that same year by Francis Yates, A Study of Love’s Labour’s Lost.2 The School of Night has not aged well: it’s proposals about a school around Sir Walter Ralegh (Bradbrook’s spelling) have largely been discarded by contemporary scholarship. Nonetheless, the book had profound effect on McLuhan that was still strikingly evident 35 years later.

Here is Yates:

One must never forget to reckon with the subtlety of Shakespeare and with the fact that he was intensely creative. The imaginative artist uses but does not exactly reproduce his experience. (19)

Two decades later, Gombrich’s Art and Illusion (1960, but based on 1956 lectures) demonstrated this thesis in detail, helping to spur McLuhan to his 1960 breakthrough.3

Bradbrook sharpened Yates’ point:

It may be questioned if anything comes out of Shakespeare’s mind recognizably akin to what (…) was (…) going in. (153)4

And here is McLuhan in Take Today, 35 years later:

sensations and concepts [involve] (…) the continual transformation of sensory inputs into outputs of quite different kinds. Food for the mind is like food for the body; the inputs are never the same as the outputs! This pattern of non-lineality is evident in every human activity. (Take Today, 137)

 

  1. A note in McLuhan’s Letters, doubtless from Corinne McLuhan, says that McLuhan and Muriel Bradbrook met only in 1939 (462, n1). But the index to the same Letters volume identifies Bradbrook with references to a “Miss B” in McLuhan letters from 1935 (Letters 67 and 120). In fact, there is an unindexed mention of a “Miss B” even earlier than this, in a Dec 6, 1934 letter to McLuhan’s family (Letters 41). But this “Miss B” is called “Margery”, not “Muriel”. An interesting possibility is that “Margery” was a Freudian slip mixing McLuhan’s erstwhile girlfriend back in Winnipeg, Marjorie Norris (mentioned earlier in the same letter), with someone else, perhaps Muriel. The name “Margery” would then say ‘girlfriend (Marjorie) — changed (Margery)’. However any of this may have been, McLuhan and Bradbrook remained correspondents for the rest of his life.
  2. The Classical Trivium — The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time, 2006, 212,n7: “M. C. Bradbrook, The School of Night, Cambridge. 1936; F. A. Yates, A Study of Love’s Labour’s Lost, Cambridge, 1936. As Miss Bradbrook points out (page 16) the “school” chafed against those exegetists of Scripture who held that the literal interpretation was divinely inspired. Ramist rhetoric was, of course, a godsend to the rationalists; for, once all figures had  been planed away from the text, it could mean anything or nothing.”
  3. For discussion and citations, see Ernst Gombrich.
  4. Bradbrook: “It may be questioned if anything comes out of Shakespeare’s mind recognizably akin to what it was on going in.”