Bacon in McLuhan 5 (‘Francis Bacon, Ancient or Modern?’)

McLuhan’s last substantial piece on Bacon was his 1974 essay, ‘Francis Bacon, Ancient or Modern?’1

In The Orphic Voice; Poetry and Natural History (1960) Elizabeth Sewell studies the Orphic or metamorphic and “magical” tradition in poetry and science from Ovid to Mallarmé. Francis Bacon has a very special place in her study, precisely because of his concern with the language of the Book of Nature: “A Collection of all varieties of Natural Bodies … where an Inquirer … might peruse, and turn over, and spell, and read the Book of Nature, and observe the Orthography, Etymologia, Syntaxis, and Prosodia of Nature’s Grammar, and by which as with a Dictionary, he might readily turn to and find the true Figures, Composition, Derivation, and Use of the Characters, Words, Phrases and Sentences of Nature written with indelible, and most exact, and most expressive Letters, without which Books it will be very difficult to be thoroughly a Literatus in the Language and Sense of Nature.”2 (97-98)

This “new” approach was, however, something that had a continuous history throughout the patristic and medieval periods before Bacon. The bond which Elizabeth Sewell finds between poetry and science in the Orphic tradition is the one which [more than a thousand years before] Martianus Capella had tied between the trivium and the quadrivium in his marriage of Mercury and Philology: “The description of the liberal arts which remained authoritative throughout the Middle Ages had been produced by Martianus Capella, who wrote between 410 and 439. Notker Labeo (d. 1022) translated it into Old High German; the young Hugo Grotius won his spurs with a new edition (1599); and Leibniz, even in his day, planned another.”3 (…) Martianus Capella had succeeded in bringing the language arts to bear on the sciences and mathematics, creating that unified encyclopedism which characterizes the inclusive and acoustic approach to knowledge, which is represented by ancient and medieval and Baconian grammatica alike. (98)

In this (…) philosophical sense, grammar had been a main mode of physics, cosmogony and theology for centuries [before Bacon]. (96)

Gilson’s study of The Philosophy of St. Bonaventure indicates Bonaventure’s [1221-1274] complete accord with traditional grammatica: “Since the universe was offered to his eyes as a book to read and he saw in nature a sensible revelation analogous to that of the Scriptures, the traditional methods of interpretation which had always been applied to the sacred books could equally be applied to the book of creation. Just as there is an immediate and literal sense of the sacred4 text, but also an allegorical sense by which we discover the truths of faith that the letter signifies, a tropological sense by which we discover a moral precept behind the passage in the form of an historical narrative, and an anogogical sense by which our souls are raised to the love and desire of God, so we must not attend to the literal and immediate sense of the book of creation but look for its inner meaning in the theological, moral and mystical lessons that it contains. The passage from one of these two [sacred and profane] spheres to the other is the more easily effected in that they are in reality inseparable.” (95)

Now that we have the work of Henri de Lubac (Exégèse médiévale, les quatre sens de l’Écriture, 4 vols., Paris, 1959-1964), it is easier to explain how the multi-levelled exegesis of Scripture blended with the scientific work of the interpreters of “The Book of Nature” in an unbroken tradition from the Fathers to the Novum Organum of Francis Bacon. (94)

Bacon’s humanist and grammatical approach to (…) the book of creatures makes for “a conception of organism as fundamental for nature” (Whitehead).5 Bacon’s organic approach, I suggest, is derived from the multi-levelled exegesis of the book[s] of Nature and Scripture alike. (94)

What is to be seen in contemporary arts and science, particularly physics, McLuhan suggests, is a return to the organic, synchronic, multi-levelled exegesis of pre-Gutenbergian perception:

The simultaneity of all levels in ancient grammatica coincides with twentieth century quantum mechanics which is concerned with the physical and chemical bond of nature as the “resonant interval.” The acoustic simultaneity of the new physics co-exists with “synchrony” and structuralism in language and literature and anthropology as understood in Saussure and Levi-Strauss. (94-95)

In fact, the entire development of symbolism and structural synchrony from Baudelaire onward has tended to restore the understanding of the rationale of ancient exegesis. (97)

Today the submicroscopic world of electronics has once more attuned our senses to the acoustic properties of natural phenomena and the arts, rendering contemporary both the “science” [of nature] of Bacon and the science of theological exegesis, long familiar to the commentators on both the Natural and the Sacred Page. (98)

This 1974 essay from McLuhan pictured Bacon as representative of both pre- and post-Gutenbergian approaches, somewhat as did McLuhan’s early work on Bacon from the 1940s.6 In the intervening Gutenberg Galaxy from 1962, however, and in the associated ‘Printing and Social Change’ essay from 1959, Bacon was presented as promoting the Gutenbergian approach itself.7 Taken together, these different portraits of Bacon show him as a kind of universal man, the understanding of whom requires (and thereby elicits) insight into the full spectrum of human possibilities.

Perhaps Bacon performed the role for McLuhan that Virgil did for Dante — guiding him among those underlying synchronic shades (or possibilities) from amongst which ‘we’ must ‘choose’, in an ever-repeated process, momentarily to incarnate. There is a need for scare-quotes around ‘we’ and ‘choose’ here, however, since we are the effect of this strange “organic” action and not its cause. In order to ‘undergo’ it, we must be exposed to a “resonant interval” that is by definition between identities and between the senses of reality that are correlate with those identities.

But this is a fearsome prospect of freedom, responsibility and mortality which is nearly always consigned to oblivion:  

they marched on in a scorching heat to the plain of Forgetfulness, which was a barren waste destitute of trees and verdure; and then towards evening they encamped by the river of Unmindfulness, whose water no vessel can hold; of this they were all obliged to drink (…) and each one as he drank forgot all things. Now after they had gone to rest, about the middle of the night there was a thunderstorm and earthquake, and then in an instant they were driven upwards in all manner of ways to their birth, like stars shooting.
(Republic 621a-b)

  1. In Renaissance and Reformation, X:2, 93-98. Several passages in this essay were taken directly from McLuhan’s unpublished Bacon studies from 30 years before. But this is only one of the signs in the piece (along with, eg, extended third-party citations) that it was composed hastily for a local University of Toronto journal. Perhaps McLuhan was unwell at the time as he often was throughout the 1970s: the decade opened with him suffering a heart attack and closed with his fatal stroke.
  2. This citation by Sewell is from Robert Hooke in 1705, a century after Bacon. It is unclear from McLuhan’s essay if he mistakenly attributed it to Bacon or if he merely thought it typical of Baconian grammatica.
  3.  Ernst Robert Curtius (1886–1956), European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 1948, English translation 1953, p 38.
  4. McLuhan has ‘profane’ here, not ‘sacred’. He may have have been thinking of the development he treats at length elsewhere, the derivation through Philo of multilevel patristic exegesis of scripture from the earlier Alexandrian exegesis of literary texts.
  5.  Science and the Modern World, 1938, p. 130.
  6. See Bacon in McLuhan 1 and 2.
  7. See Bacon in McLuhan 3 and 4.