Bacon in McLuhan 7 (Lewis 2)

[Wyndham] Lewis wants nothing less for Art than the power to create total environments for Life and Death. (…) I find it a bit staggering to confront Lewis as a man who really wanted to be pontifex maximus of a magical priesthood. I suppose Yeats, Joyce and Pound had similar aspirations. Their priesthood was to create new worlds of perception. They were to be world engineers who shaped the totality of human awareness. (…) The [total] environment as ultimate artefact. (McLuhan to Wilfred Watson, Oct 4, 1964)1

In Bacon in McLuhan 3 it was suggested that the renewed attention to Bacon in The Gutenberg Galaxy (20 years after McLuhan’s first treatment of him in his PhD thesis and the related unpublished Bacon essays from the early 1940s) reflected McLuhan’s growing appreciation during the 1950s of what Bacon had nicely formulated as: 

no empire, no sect, no star seems to have exerted greater power and influence in human affairs than these mechanical inventions. (Bacon, Novum Organum, aphorism 129, Works VIII, 162).

Whether Bacon contributed to McLuhan’s new sense of the centrality of technological media in human experience (language being the first and archetype of these), or this new sense led him to see in Bacon what he had previously missed, may be left an open question. But however that may have been, Bacon’s insight into the significance of mechanical inventions was only one factor in the extensive treatment of him in The Gutenberg Galaxy;2 another was Bacon’s recognition of the defining function of essential perception (“the ancient doctrine […] of the Cratylus of Plato”) for human being.3 But a further insight in Bacon amounting to a needed revision of McLuhan’s previous understanding of such essential perception4 was more important, both for McLuhan himself and generally.

In the early 1950s, and as was completely clear to him at the latest by 19555McLuhan came to see that his previous understanding had rested on an individual elitist position that was ultimately gnostic, unchristian and even (examined seriously enough) senseless. It had been, he said, in what amounted to a veiled self-criticism, insight that was Gutenbergian or literary when it ought to have been post-Gutenbergian or electric:6  

Now I see that I was trying to prop up the standards of book culture when we have passed out of the Gutenberg era. (McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, December 9, 1953)7

When I wrote The Mechanical Bride some years ago I did not realize that I was attempting a defense of book-culture against the new media. I can now see that I was trying to bring some of the critical awareness fostered by literary training to bear on the new media of sight and sound. My strategy was wrong, because my obsession with literary values blinded me to much that was actually happening for good and ill. What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication. (‘Sight, Sound and the Fury’, 1954)

For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was (…) I ceased being a moralist and became a student. (Playboy Interview, 1969)

This was especially manifested in his understanding of essential perception8 which he explicated in Gutenbergian mode as late as 1953 (probably based largely on old notes) in one of his many publications that year, ‘Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication’.9 Here he reported, without obvious criticism, that Lewis was “seeking to arrest the flux of existence in order that the mind may be united with that which is permanent…”10 (84). 

The dualism between “the flux of existence” and “that which is permanent” was repeated throughout the 1953 Lewis essay as between above and below, the individual and the collective, the artist and society, and mind and body:

The artist, gifted with mania from above, is always confronted with the great collective mania from below (88)

this war of the collective puppetry against the individual (88)

the sense of disproportion between our mental and our physical dimensions… (89)

moving toward the pole of intelligibility instead of that of feeling. (91)

All of this “disproportion” had been implied in the title of McLuhan’s essay on Lewis from a decade before in 1944: ‘Wyndham Lewis: Lemuel in Lilliput’.11

Since the subject of the 1953 essay was the work of Lewis as writer and artist, this pronounced dualism was particularly evidenced in the essay’s discussion of the work of art: 

“It [art] therefore pauses at [some] particular thing: the course of time stops: the relations vanish for it: only the essential, the idea, is its object. (…) A sort of immortality descends upon these objects.” (89, citing Lewis in Wyndham Lewis the Artist, 1939, in turn citing Schopenhauer’s World as Will and Idea, 1819)

Lewis (…) adopts the Schopenhauer intellectualism in seeing the movements of vision as an arrest and detachment [from]12 the great mechanism of the world… (91)

The moment of art is not a moment of time’s covenant. And art emotion is specifically that experience of arrest in which we pause before a particular thing or experience. (89)

art for Lewis appears as a natural vortex of patterned energy, presenting us with creative cores or vortices of causality. In the heart of these cores or vortices there is an absolute calm, but at the periphery there is violence and the unmistakable character of great energy. These “untumultuous vortices of power”13 are at the center of every vital work of art as they are in any vital civilization. And it is presumably the view of Lewis that the role of the artist in society is to energize it by establishing such intellectually purified images of the entelechy of nature. (94)

It may be that McLuhan was able to express these essential dualisms so starkly only when he was beginning to perceive their difficulties and to come away from them himself. As he wrote to Lewis about his essay on him:

For Shenandoah magazine Lewis number I’ve attempted to present your ‘Theory of Art and Communication’. Mainly in your own words. Only in the past year have I become fully aware of the reality of the secret societies in the arts, philosophy and politics. Your own work has consequently taken on a much different significance for me. (McLuhan to Wyndham Lewis, April 15, 1953)14

Just what McLuhan meant by “secret societies in the arts, philosophy and politics” has been a matter of some conjecture and controversy, even within the McLuhan family.15 Suffice it to note here only that it seems at a minimum to have meant “secret” at least to McLuhan himself until 1952 (“the past year”). The “secret societies” meme was “consequently” a marker of his own second thoughts and evolving second conversion.16

By 1955, if not before a year or two before, McLuhan was clear that the universal nihilism resulting from “the Gutenberg era” was structured by an unmediated dualism which, in turn, forced a monistic ontology.17 Dualism could not obtain at the level of ontology since the co-presence of two fundamentally opposed factors at that level necessarily implicated some third factor through which, alone, such gigantic opposition could be maintained ‘there’. It followed that every differentiated perception ultimately (or ontologically) implied either a monism (McLuhan’s ‘gnosticism’ or ‘visual perception’) that renounced such dualism, or it implied a complex ontology of three or more factors (McLuhan’s ‘resonance’, ‘dialogue’, ‘tactility’, etc), that could account for such dualisms. Moreover, a second conversion was demanded by this ‘essential perception’ of the field of human experience since it could not be realized without applying first of all to its proponent, in this case McLuhan himself. As he wrote at the time (as cited above): “What we have to defend today is not the values developed in any particular culture or by any one mode of communication.” “I ceased being a [dualistic cum monistic] moralist and became a student [in complex dialogue with the entire range of human perception].

In fact, correctives to such dualistic formulations in Lewis — and, if less systematically, in McLuhan himself18 — were to be found in Bacon and it may well be that this is exactly why Bacon came to have such a central place in The Gutenberg Galaxy:

Bacon’s allusion to scientific discovery as a children’s game brings us close to another of his basic notions, that as man lost his Eden through pride he must regain it by humility:
“So much concerning the several classes of Idols, and their equipage: all of which must be renounced and put away with a fixed and solemn determination, and the understanding thoroughly freed and cleansed; the entrance into the kingdom of man, founded on the sciences, being not much other than the entrance into the kingdom of heaven, where into none may enter except as a little child.” [Gutenberg Galaxy, 190, citing Novum Organum, aphorism 48, Works VIII, 99.]

Bacon insisted in the same way that “the course I propose for the discovery of sciences is such as leaves but little to the acuteness and strength of wits, but places all wits and understandings nearly on a level.” [Gutenberg Galaxy, 190, citing Novum Organum, aphorism 41, Works VIII, 89.]

Bacon’s “natural knowledge of creatures”19 (dual genitive, but first of all a subjective genitive) in which “all wits and understandings [are] nearly on a level” and where the scientific stance before nature was one of “humility”, could hardly contrast more sharply with Lewis’ acceptance that “the artist, gifted with mania from above, is always confronted with the great collective mania from below” (88) and that it is “the role of the artist in society (…) to energize it by establishing such intellectually purified images of the entelechy of nature” (94).

Indeed, McLuhan had already cited Bacon to such corrective effect in his early (but only posthumously published) essay on ‘Francis Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’20:

“For God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world; rather may He graciously grant to us to write an apocalypse or true vision of the footsteps of the Creator imprinted on His creations.” (Works VIII, 53)21

Before his second conversion in the middle 1950s, McLuhan’s mind was muddled between observations of the world and of literature which were true enough, but which were based, as he supposed, on a superior insight akin to that of Wyndham Lewis. This resulted in the sort of “double talk” that he specified and critiqued in Lewis in 1955.22 Now he came to see that true perception was a natural, even childish, characteristic of human being operating on the basis of finitude and not at all on some supposed, indeed ultimately ludicrous, overcoming of our inevitable limitations.

The understanding media project was born out of McLuhan’s new-found sense that it is exactly the finitude of every moment of human experience that enables essential insight. Just as the infant perpetually shuffles its processing of the input it receives from the world around it, until it arrives at some rough notion of its information environment enabling it to begin to speak, so with human beings always and everywhere — such that they come to find all sorts of further rough correlations culminating in what we call scientific laws (although these, too, are always  paradigmatic acceptances inherently subject to revision and and even revolution).

As set out largely through citations in The Gutenberg Galaxy, McLuhan found in Bacon the correctives and corresponding prescriptions he and the world at large needed in order to aim at new — potentially saving — sciences of the interior landscapes of human nature. But since it is ultimately from these interior landscapes that the theories of the so-called hard sciences emerge in their attempts to understand the exterior landscapes of physical nature, it may be, as Bacon conjectured, that it will be findings and demonstrations in the latter that at last bring us to the former.

Four hundred years ago, a path was taken, definitively signaled by Descartes, but prepared for him by developments in Bacon’s lifetime and before, that have led into a cul-de-sac. McLuhan saw that the crossroads had to be regained from which that mistaken path took its start and another path going out from it taken in its stead. Bacon may have been — and may yet be seen even by us to have been — a way marker on that alternate route.


  1. Cited in Andrew Chrystall, The New American Vortex: Explorations of McLuhan, Massey University PhD thesis, p 79.
  2. For citations and discussion see Bacon in McLuhan 3 (Gutenberg Galaxy).
  3. For citations and discussion see Bacon in McLuhan 2 (‘Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’).
  4. See Bacon in McLuhan 2 for citations and discussion: “Just as language offers an extensive and complex apprehension of the structure of beings, so that faculty which produced this state of language is perpetually operative — an intuitive perception of essentials. There is no room for error in our intuitive grasp of nature…” (The Classical Trivium, 51). In fact there is a great deal of “room for error in our intuitive grasp of nature” and it exactly in this room that further insight is to be gained, sometimes leading to the need for revolution in our prior grasp.
  5.  This evolution must have occurred gradually, beginning in the late 1940s, and seems to have been associated with physical symptoms as well as mental agitation. As the latter began to ebb, McLuhan reported to Ong (mistakenly said by Gordon to be to Pound in Escape p158): “After 5 years of miserable health I am suddenly recovered and full of energy again. It was a gall bladder condition. Not serious. Just debilitating.” (January 23, 1953, Letters, 234)
  6. Two fundamental mistakes are near universally made in the reading of McLuhan at just this point. First, it is imagined that the relation of Gutenbergian to post-Gutenbergian insight is one of so-called ‘historical development’. But time’s singular arrow is a characteristic acceptance of Gutenbergian experience as seen in lines of print, railroads, assembly lines — and so on. Such a reading of McLuhan therefore reinstalls Gutenbergian determinations exactly where they are to be exposed to question! Second, since electric experience for McLuhan is synchronic, not diachronic, such that it implicates all experience, not some particular privileged mode of it, post-Gutenbergian perception decisively includes the Gutenbergian and does at all not replace or otherwise exclude it.
  7. Letters 241. As treated in the previous note, this diachronic movement in McLuhan’s thought was to a synchronic understanding of different mentalities (such as the literary and the electric) as possibilities. This enabled him to perceive new ways to investigate the past as well as to navigate the present — exactly through recognition of the essentially plural ways of human being.
  8. See Bacon in McLuhan 2.
  9. Shenandoah, 4:2/3, 1953, 77-88. Page numbers here, unless otherwise identified, are to the reprinting of this essay in The Interior Landscape (83-94).
  10. Since just such “arrest” had been appreciatively examined in a number of earlier literary essays like ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’ (1951), McLuhan’s developing critique of Gutenberg era perception was plainly self-criticism.
  11. See Lewis in McLuhan 1 (‘Lemuel in Lilliput’).
  12. McLuhan has ‘of’ here instead of ‘from’. The phrase ‘detachment of’ is usually used as a subjective genitive, but McLuhan uses it here objectively.
  13. Francis Thompson, ‘Contemplation‘.
  14.  Letters 236.
  15. McLuhan’s biographer, W.T. Gordon, mentions a letter Eric McLuhan wrote to his parents on September 22, 1976, criticizing his father’s ideas on the subject (Escape, 394n193).
  16. The personal application of McLuhan’s “secret societies” ruminations may clearly be seen in letters to Ezra Pound at the end of 1952 and beginning of 1953: “I was a Fool. Now that I have found out all about the umpteen liturgies as revealed in all the “schools” of art, I’m just a wee bit disgusted with many things. I can’t take the arts very seriously for the time being.” (December 3, 1952, Letters 233) — Last year has been spent in going through rituals of secret societies with fine comb. As I said before I’m in a bloody rage at the discovery that the arts and sciences are in the pockets of these societies.” (February 28, 1953, Letters 235) — Was McLuhan not “disgusted” that he himself had been “in the pockets of these societies” when it came to the structure of his essential perceptions?
  17.  See Bacon in McLuhan 3 (‘Nihilism Exposed’). At the time McLuhan termed this dualism ‘gnosticism’ and saw that it necessarily manifested itself in two different basic forms, depending on which monism (above or below, mind or body, individual or society, etc) it privileged. He called these ‘east’ and ‘west’ gnosticism. These ideas amounted to a fundamental self-criticism since McLuhan himself had worked tirelessly “attempting a defense of book-culture” (which he now saw as powered by a “secret” dualism-cum-monism). He himself had been an unwitting nihilist. The great question he now took up was how to communicate the insight that allowed, or forced, or that accompanied, or followed from, the sort of transformation he had come to experience personally. After 5 more years, in 1960, it was this question that would eventuate into the project of understanding media.
  18. As a practising Catholic and father of 6 children, McLuhan could hardly understand himself only within the context of a “war of the collective puppetry against the individual”. In fact his ideas remained fundamentally jumbled until his “breakthrough” in 1960 when McLuhan was almost 50.  See McLuhan’s #1 breakthrough for citations and discussion.
  19. Advancement of Learning, Bk 1,Works VI, 137-138.
  20. McLuhan Studies I, 1991, 7-26. See Bacon in McLuhan 2 (‘Bacon’s Patristic Inheritance’).
  21. Bacon has ‘creatures’ here, not ‘creations’. McLuhan references in this context also Works VIII 46-47358-361 and 369.
  22. See Bacon in McLuhan 3 (‘Nihilism Exposed’).