Lewis in McLuhan 3 (‘Nihilism Exposed’)

In 1955 McLuhan published ‘Nihilism Exposed‘, a review of Hugh Kenner’s 1954 book, Wyndham Lewis.1  It had been McLuhan who first introduced Kenner to Lewis’ work less than a decade before. But his appreciation of Lewis had radically changed in the meantime,2 such that his review amounted to a critical interrogation not only of Lewis, but also of himself. What it worked to set out was an ontology whose transformational implications were new to McLuhan at this time;3 but it was not at all new in history and had roots going back millennia to classical Greece4 and even millennia before that to old dynasty Egypt.5 Perhaps humans have always had some sense of it.6

In the review, McLuhan first traced modern nihilism to the late 1500’s when the effects of Gutenberg revolution were beginning to be felt and even to be theorized by a thinker like Bacon:

Lewis has this kind of representative importance. To an exceptional degree his work has raised to the level of intelligibility what Eliot described as the “dissociation of sensibility” that set in late in the sixteenth century

Such “dissociation” or unmediated duality implicates a monism, exactly because its opposing terms are held to be ultimately incompatible:

it is precisely the courage of Lewis in pushing the Cartesian and Plotinian angelism to the logical point of the extinction of humanism and personality that gives his work such importance in the new age of technology. For, on the plane of applied science we have fashioned a Plotinian world-culture which implements the non-human and superhuman doctrines of neo-Platonic angelism to the point where the human dimension is obliterated by [the exclusive privilege of] sensuality at one end of the spectrum, [or]7 by [the exclusive privilege of] sheer abstraction at the other.

now the gnostic and neo-Platonist and Buddhist can gloat: “I told you so! This gimcrack mechanism is all that there ever was in the illusion of human existence. Let us rejoin the One“. 

Structurally, these pointed monisms (despite seemingly as different as graphite and diamonds) are identical:

it is the merest whim whether these views are used to structure [the abstract monism of] a Berkeleyan idealism or [the sensuous monism of] a Darwinian mechanism.

A monistic world that is fundamentally lacking in critical differentiation and judgement has no impediment to manipulation and degradation:

It just happens that in the new age of technology when all human arrangements from the cradle to the grave have taken on the hasty extravaganza aspect of a Hollywood set, the nihilist philosophies of neo-Platonism and gnosticism have come into their own. Existence is an empty machine, a cheap art work, they have always said.(…) And now in the twentieth century (…) nature has been abolished by art and engineering, (…) government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government 

Unfortunately, however, Lewis’ “representative” attention to this great matter was itself dissociated resulting in “double talk”. This worked against the penetrating insight of his theoretical work since its force against dualism-cum-monism was expressed only in dualistic opposition to his own art work

This situation became so evident to Lewis in 1920 that he devoted the next two decades to warning us about and explaining the anti-human nihilism emanating from modern philosophy and physics, as well as our everyday activities in commerce and social engineering in this century. His political and social analysis pursued a humanist course but his art remained on the plane of the doctrinaire super-human level of abstract art and neo-Platonic “spirit”. His uncompromising exposés of nihilism, in the time-philosophers and positivists, went parallel with an artistic nihilism (…) The result was (…) double talk

In its allegiance to such a gnostic-cum-nihilist monism, Lewis’s art was radically anti-incarnational:8

Lewis (…) assumes the Pythagorean and neo-Platonic doctrine of spirit and imagination as a divine or superhuman power. This power is no part of the human soul or intellect but [is] merely imprisoned there. The tragedy and comedy of the human condition is a result of the juxtaposition of this divine spark with matter, sense, and intellect…

for Lewis, as for the great pagan tradition of neo-Platonism and gnosticism, existence as such is the ultimate sham. To exist is damnation

Differentiated (but not simply opposed) to this dualism-cum-monism is the Christian tradition of incarnation:

The Catholic doctrine of the body-soul composite confers a substantiality on the existent.

That is, the Christian tradition, instead of privileging one pole of an oppositional dualism (body≠soul), valorized instead the dialogue or resonance between such poles: body and soul are fundamentally different (body≠soul), it held, but yet also and at the same time they are fundamentally reconciled (body=soul). Although such poles were fundamentally distinguished, it was the very principle of the universe that they should also and at once be coupled. They were held, and be-held, to interpenetrate and to form a complex “composite”.9 And such was the case with all such fundamental differences beginning with the Persons of the Trinity and extending throughout creation precisely through the willed interpenetration of it by the power of its necessarily distinguished God.10 

In an essay from the previous year, ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’ (1953), McLuhan made these points explicitly:

Dante, like Joyce and Eliot, employs grace to reconcile East and West. Reconciliation is not merging, however.11 

As a true analogist Joyce attempts no reduction of these realities, but orders their ineluctable modalities to the reconciliation of vision rather than of fusion.

Remarkably, however, McLuhan’s own work for the past twenty years had itself been guilty of just such Lewisian “double talk” — despite his first conversion and the traditional Christian lifestyle of him and his family:12

I may not be untypical of most Catholics in having been slow to apprehend this matter.

Beginning already in Winnipeg, McLuhan, like Lewis, had described how:

in the twentieth century (…) nature has been abolished by art and engineering, [while] government has become entertainment and entertainment has become the art of government.

He, too, had spent:

two decades (…) warning (…) about and explaining the anti-human nihilism emanating from modern philosophy and physics, as well as our everyday activities in commerce and social engineering..

But again just like Lewis (at least in McLuhan’s reading which was doubtless as much about himself as about Lewis), despite his prescient social and cultural observations, McLuhan’s metaphysics had “remained on the plane of the doctrinaire super-human level”. To cease such “double talk”, what he now had to do was to find a way to relate “his political and social analysis [that] pursued a humanist course” to a new metaphysics that was not a variety of a singular “super-human” dualism-cum-monism, but instead recognized non-evaluatively all possible varieties of human perception:

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)13

But in order to do that — ie, to initiate the understanding media project — he would have to investigate how it had first of all happened to him and to the world at large to fall into such “double talk” — and to communicate its cure:

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)14


  1. In Renascence, 8:2. 1955, 97-99. All citations in this post that are not otherwise identified are taken from this short review.
  2. McLuhan to Lewis, April 15, 1953: “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.” (Letters, 236)
  3. McLuhan had been fascinated by triple forms of reality ever since working with Rupert Lodge in the early 1930s at the University of Manitoba. A decade later, his PhD thesis on Nashe carried this fascination forward with its focus on the trivium. But it was not until the early 1950s that McLuhan realized that he had to apply the consideration of these forms first of all to himself. This was the bottom-line meaning of the need to ‘pass out of the Gutenberg era’.
  4. See McLuhan and Plato 8 – Gigantomachia.
  5. See Assmann on the battle between Horus and Seth.
  6. See The ancient bond of guest-host-enemy.
  7. McLuhan: ‘and’.
  8. Thereby illustrating the inevitable reduction of an unmediated dualism to an ultimate monism.
  9. Everything depends on the time of the “reconciliation” of this composite. Where it is held to be subsequent to ‘previous’ forms, some sort of ontological monism is eventually implicated through the reduction of any and all complexes to a prior simplicity. In deep contrast, where “reconciliation” is held to be primitive, everything that is — including monisms — becomes subject to dialogue.
  10. Distinguished God — both internally and externally, the immanent Trinity and the economic Trinity.
  11. ‘James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial’, 1953.
  12. For discussion, see Bacon in McLuhan 7.
  13. In that same year, 1954, McLuhan delivered his ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ lecture at St. Joseph College. (See Bacon in McLuhan 8 (Induction = Metaphor.) It represented his attempt to define, as he said in the very first sentence of the lecture, how it is possible “to understand all (…) men through (…) Catholic faith.” The goal was to define Catholicism not on the basis of “any particular culture or (…) any one mode of communication”, but instead through investigation of the complete range of cultural and communication possibilities in what would become the understanding media project. Compare Bacon in his 1592 Burghley letter: “And I do easily see, that place of any reasonable countenance doth bring commandment of more wits than of a man’s own; which is the thing I greatly affect.” (The Letters and the Life, 109)
  14. Letters, 241.