In a letter to Harry Skornia from the last week of February, 1959, McLuhan described
Break-through in class today. Talking about Baudelaire’s famous line1
Hypocrite lecteur, — mon semblable, — mon frère! —
his address to his readers — point is that it is voice through reader to poet not voice of poet to reader. This reversal borne out in all subsequent poetry — same as TV image reversal of light through, not on. Takes whole stress off private, personal role of reader and poet alike. Both now come to share a common creative action.
Can explain all this in detail. But you can see my point here about the ease with which the student of the most popular forms can be given either casual or intense introduction to highest art forms of his time. e.g. all poets since Rimbaud have used telegraph-press form of juxtaposed items — no linkages, just mosaic of proportions. Again a form of light through, not private editorial perspective of light on items.
McLuhan would repeat the point for the rest of his career, endlessly. It was part of the armamentum he employed teaching modern art: allow communication to come to you, don’t force you on it; look for figure and ground — and allow these to flip into the reverse configuration; imagine the images as shots in a movie and ask why they have the place they do; consider the composition as a newspaper page; see what happens when a text is read backwards or a picture seen upside down; ask what the artist is trying to elicit from the audience in general and you in particular; pull out the connections! These were techniques he had picked up in learning to read himself and Mallarmé and the French moderns had been critical in this process.
Skornia answered with a short note on March 2, 1959:
Dear Marshall: From your letter, discovery: You’re a Baudelaire fan too! As a literature and language professor spent nearly a year on him and other French moderns. Also, at other times, Dante, Cervantes, Browning, etc.
Skornia was a rare bird, an academic with a practical understanding of organizations from the very large like the federal government to the very small like university radio stations. And who at one time had taught Dante, Cervantes and Baudelaire. This unusual background and eclectic range of interests enabled Skornia to value McLuhan’s potential for the NAEB when many in the organization could not. Further, Skornia was in a position — one he was willing to risk — to give McLuhan practical assistance with recognition, encouragement and funding at a, or the, decisive point in his life.
- ‘Au Lectuer’, Les Fleurs du mal, 1857. ↩