there is only one means, only one remedy: authentic intellectualism — submission to the real — which measures thought upon being.
In McLuhan’s later career the very fate of the earth would come to be seen in these terms. For modern media have so transported us that we no longer have contact even with our own bodies, let alone the bodies of others or the body of the earth itself. We have become free floating satellites1 — no-bodies — in a way we cannot consider or even register because we have no experience of what it would be like to have contact — to know ground.
It was around 1950 that McLuhan began to stress the critical importance of real contact with the real.
Mr. Eliot’s Historical Decorum, 1949
- To read not in the book of the self but in the book of the existent and subsistent world, the world of the incarnate logos, where the least letter is resplendent with intellectual radiance, that was the esthetic task of Mallarmé, but of Joyce especially.
- Existence is opaque to the rationalist. He seeks essences, definitions, formulas. He lives in the concept and the conceptualizable. Ideally, in a world of essences, actually, in a state of complete inanition. Cut off from the nutriment of existence, his very postulates discourage him from that loving and disciplined contemplation of existence, of particulars.
Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters, 1954
- The dreaming eye of the movie god casting his images on the dark screen corresponds to that image of [degraded] human life offered to us by Plato in the Republic: [such] existence is a kind of cave or cellar on the back wall of which we watch [only] the shadows of real things from the outside world of reality.
- the mechanical medium has tended to provide merely a dream world which is a substitute for reality…
- “neorealism [in Italian film] (…) realised that the necessity of the ‘story’ was only an unconscious way of disguising a human defeat, and that the kind of imagination it involved was simply a technique of superimposing dead formulas over living social facts. Now it has been perceived that reality is hugely rich, that to be able to look directly at it is enough; and that the artist’s task is not to make people moved or indignant at metaphorical situations, but to make them reflect (and, if you like, to be moved and indignant too) on what they and others are doing, on the real things, exactly as they are.” (McLuhan citing Cesare Zavattini)2
- “I saw at last what lay in front of me, and I understood that to have evaded reality had been to betray it.” (Zavattini)
- “We have passed [with neo-realism] from an unconsciously rooted mistrust of reality, an illusory and equivocal evasion, to an unlimited trust in things, facts and people. Such a position requires us, in effect, to excavate reality, to [show in]3 it a power, a communication, a series of reflexes, which until recently we had never thought it had.” (Zavattini)
- “The [neo-realistic] cinema’s overwhelming desire to see, to analyse, its hunger for reality, is an act of concrete homage towards other people, towards what is happening and existing in the world.” (Zavattini)
- “Substantially, then, the question today is, instead of turning imaginary situations into ‘reality’ and trying to make them look ‘true’, to [take]4 things as they are,5 almost by themselves, [to free them to] create their own special significance. Life is not what is invented in ‘stories’; life is another matter. To understand it involves a minute, unrelenting, and patient search.” (Zavattini)
- “the world goes on getting worse because we are not truly aware of reality. The most authentic position anyone can take up today is to engage oneself in tracing the roots of this problem. The keenest necessity of our time is ‘social attention’.” (Zavattini)
- “The cinema only affirms its moral responsibility when it approaches reality in this way. The moral, like the artistic, problem lies in being able to observe reality, not to extract fictions from it.” (Zavattini)6
McLuhan’s presentation of self until around 1958 was a put-on of neo-Thomism and neo-realism. He participated in a broad current of thought — a medium — in which Maritain and Zavattini were brilliantly active. But McLuhan, like Zavattini in this respect, was interested in two problems which the neo-Thomists, in the main, either didn’t see at all, or saw but didn’t address effectively. Namely, what were the ramifications in the world that contact with the real was being lost — and what could be done about this? It was in 1958 with the insight that “the medium is the message” that McLuhan finally saw a way of actually doing something about our ‘inflated’ or groundless situation. As he put it in summary of his 1958-1962 investigations:
When raising these themes, one is beset by queries of the “Was it a good thing?” variety. Such questions seem to mean: “How should we feel about these matters?” They never suggest that anything could be done about them. Surely, understanding the formal dynamic or configuration of such events is the prime concern. That is really doing something. (Gutenberg Galaxy, 212-213)7
- Satellites of what? ↩
- Cesare Zavattini, ‘Interview’ in Sight and Sound, Oct-Dec 1953, pp 64-65. Translated from the Italian, originally in La Revista del Cinema Italiano, December 1952. See Eisenstein 2 (Zavattini). ↩
- Translation: ‘give’. ↩
- Translation: ‘make’. ↩
- Phenomenology shared this imperative with neo-realism: zur Sache selbst! ↩
- The passages given here are only a small fraction of the multiple pages of Zavattini McLuhan read in his lecture, without pause, before his captive audience. This was to anticipate by a quarter century Andy Kaufman’s routine of reading long passages from The Great Gatsby. Indeed, almost twenty years after his ‘Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters’ lecture, in his Arts Festival presentation at USC in Los Angeles, McLuhan self-identified as a comedian. This was 1972 — the year of Kaufman’s first TV appearance. ↩
- See the home page of McLuhan’s New Sciences. ↩