Chaos and confusion in 1948

McLuhan wrote a short ‘Introduction’ — ‘Where Chesterton Comes In’ — to Hugh Kenner’s 1948 Paradox in Chesterton. It is an interesting document in many respects,1 not least in the context of McLuhan’s conversion from “moralist” to “student” over the course of his first 5 years at the University of Toronto (1946-1951).2 That McLuhan’s mind was in painful flux at the time3 can be seen in his fixation in the piece on “chaos” and “confusion”:

  • The specific contemporary relevance of Chesterton is this, that his metaphysical intuition of being was always in the service of the search for moral and political order in the current chaos. He was a Thomist by connaturality with being, not by study of St. Thomas. And unlike the neo-Thomists his unfailing sense of the relevance of the analogy of being directed his intellectual gaze not to the schoolmen but to the heart of the chaos of our time.
  • That is where Chesterton comes in. His unfailing sense of relevance and of the location of the heart of the contemporary chaos carried him at all times to attack the problem of morals and psychology. He was always in the practical order.4 It is important, therefore, that (…) the reader (…) feel Chesterton’s powerful intrusion into every kind of confused moral and psychological issue of our time.
  • It is time to abandon the literary and journalistic Chesterton (…) to see him as a master of analogical perception and argument who never failed to focus a high degree of moral wisdom on the most confused issues of our age.

It might seem that McLuhan was reacting to the immediate post-WW2 world which had seen the first use of atomic weapons and the accelerating “mechanization” of all aspects of life. He writes of “the current chaos”, “the chaos of our time” and the “confused issues of our age”. But he goes on to write of “the universal confusion” and, indeed, as his Introduction proceeds it emerges that all the times he considers were chaotic and confused as well:

  • St. Thomas was sustained by a great psychological and social order in an age of dialectical confusion.
  • Shakespeare wrote when this great symbolic and psychological synthesis [of the middle ages] was really destroyed.
  • What Descartes really did was to make explicit the fact which had been prepared by centuries of decadent scholastic rationalism: the fact that a complete divorce had been achieved between abstract intellectual and specifically psychological order.  Henceforth men would seek intellectually only for the kind of order they could readily achieve by rationalistic means: a mathematical and mechanistic order which precludes a human and psychological order. Ethics and politics were abandoned as much as metaphysics. But both society and philosophy were in a state of great confusion by the time this desperate strategy was adopted. Since the time of Descartes (…) moral, psychological, and political chaos has steadily developed, with its concurrent crop of fear and anger and hate.
  • that world of adult horror into which Baudelaire gazed with intense suffering and humility.

‘Universal confusion’ results from the constant exposure of the world to a foundational ‘untuning’ — a kind of underlying continental drift that always threatens individual and social order. As he was often to continue to do in his later work,5 McLuhan brings Shakespeare forward to witness his point:

The heavens themselves, the planets and this centre
Observe degree, priority and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office and custom, in all line of order.6

Shakespeare’s rich passage is cited unbroken (though with some omissions) in McLuhan’s piece. But it will be separated into segments here to highlight the movement between its parts.

O, when degree is shak’d,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
The enterprise is sick!


How could communities,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?

And then:

Take but degree away, untune that string
Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself. (Troilus and Cressida, 1:3)

Against this background of chaos and universal confusion, McLuhan’s Introduction has two short sentences which look ahead to the course he will come to take for the rest of his life:

The artist offers us not a [conceptual] system but a world. An inner world is explored and developed and then projected as an object

‘World’ is used here in 2 different senses. There is a new world of experience which “the artist offers us” in an artwork. And there is the “inner world” — the ‘interior landscape’ as McLuhan will later say — through which that artwork is “developed and then projected”.

He was on his way to seeing, as a “student”, that no “moralist” position can hold out by dint of force against other positions held on the same basis.9 Indeed, the “chaos” of only forcibly held positions is the “universal confusion”. It followed, as he did not yet see clearly, that the only way to confront “moral, psychological, and political chaos” was through the collective scientific investigation of all experience without exception. And this, as he would shortly come to understand, by 1951 at the latest, was possible only through examination of just how that “inner world is explored and developed and then projected as an object” — not only in artistic production but in all cognition whatsoever

Here he is to 1951, on the other side of his ‘second conversion’ in ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’:

Helped by Rimbaud and Mallarmé, Joyce arrived quickly at the formula of the aesthetic moment and its attendant landscape as consisting in a retracing of the stages of ordinary apprehension. The poetic process he discovered and states in Stephen Hero is the experience of ordinary cognition, but it is that labyrinth reversed, retraced, and hence epiphanized. 

Every “object” in the artifactual order, whether of artistic production or “ordinary apprehension”, was to be treated as an “effect” — an “effect” of some “creative (…) reconstruction” carried out through exploration in the “inner world” or “interior landscape”. Again in ‘The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry’:

This secret [generative action both of art and of “ordinary apprehension”] consists in nothing less than fusion of the learning and the creative processes

All experience is momentary, it is generated moment by moment through a “learning” process (where the range of possibilities ‘before’ it are cognized) followed by a ‘creative’ process (where some one possibility is selected and “developed” out of that range). Compare in language use where moment by moment some particular word with some particular grammar is selected and uttered (outered) out of all the possible words and grammatical markers that might have been “developed”. In both cases, these processes are, of course, largely unconscious. And the time of these “processes” is not horizontal and chronological, it is vertical and synchronic.10 But in the potential consciousness of these unconscious processes is to be dis-covered, according to McLuhan, the possibility of a new science and, with it, the resulting possibility of exoteric orientation — one no longer esoteric via willful insistence.11

In the unpublished Typhon in America,12 dating from this same 1947-1948 period, having quoted Pope how “Universal Darkness buries All”,13 McLuhan concludes his manuscript with this admonition:

In this darkness we must learn to see.

Similarly in The Gutenberg Galaxy, 15 years later, having cited the same passage from Pope, he then immediately concludes:

This is the Night from which Joyce invites the Finnegans to wake.

Another decade later still, at the end of Take Today (297):

For the best part of a century, we have been programming human consciousness with retrievals and replays of the tribal unconscious. The complementary of this process would seem to be the natural program for the period ahead: programming the unconscious with the recently achieved forms of consciousness. This procedure would evoke a new form of consciousness.

In his Playboy Interview McLuhan spoke in the same way of the need “to grope toward a consciousness of the unconscious”. This “new form of consciousness” would serve, as he said in the same interview, for a “survival strategy”.


  1. Other contexts implicated in the document include McLuhan’s relations with Kenner and Fr Gerald Phelan and McLuhan’s Thomism. Of course all these different aspects are closely related with one another.
  2. “For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride (published in 1951, but largely written by 1948), I adopted an extremely moralistic approach (…) But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was (…) I ceased being a moralist and became a student.” (Playboy interview, 1969)
  3. McLuhan to Walter Ong, Jan 23, 1953, Letters, 234: “After 5 years of miserable health I am suddenly recovered and full of energy again.”
  4. Indicating a continuity in McLuhan’s concerns, his first published paper from 1936, more than a decade before his Introduction to Kenner’s book, emphasized Chesterton’s commitment to “the practical order” in its title: ‘G.K. Chesterton: A Practical Mystic’.
  5. See Through the vanishing point 2 – Shakespeare.
  6. Omitted by McLuhan here:
    And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
    In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
    Amidst the other; whose medicinable eye
    Corrects the ill aspects of planets evil,
    And posts like the commandment of a king,
    Sans check to good and bad: but when the planets
    In evil mixture to disorder wander,
    What plagues and what portents, what mutiny,
    What raging of the sea, shaking of earth,
    Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,
    Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
    The unity and married calm of states
    Quite from their fixture!
  7. McLuhan includes the following lines here:
    Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
    Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
    The primogenitive and due of birth,
    Prerogative of age, crowns, sceptres, laurels.
  8. Here McLuhan strangely omits the great lines from Shakespeare:
    And hark what discord follows! Each thing melts
    In mere oppugnancy.
    When he cited the same passage again in The Gutenberg Galaxy, these lines were retained and, indeed, emphasized.
  9. See note 11 below.
  10. See McLuhan’s times.
  11. Here is Joyce in his 6 March, 1901, letter to Ibsen: “how your battles inspired me — not the obvious material battles but those that were fought and won behind your forehead, how your wilful resolution to wrest the secret from life gave me heart” (Dublin’s Joyce, 74). Such “wilful resolution” is where both Joyce and McLuhan came from. (Kenner has ‘wilful’ in his citation of the letter, but other transcriptions have ‘willful’.)
  12. See Typhon/Minotaur/Dionysus parallels.
  13. McLuhan cites the same passage from Pope’s 1725 Dunciad in Typhon in America and in The Gutenberg Galaxy:
    She comes! she comes! the sable Throne behold
    Of Night Primaeval, and of Chaos old!
    Before her, Fancy’s gilded clouds decay,
    And all its varying Rain-bows die away.
    Wit shoots in vain its momentary fires,
    The meteor drops, and in a flash expires.
    As one by one, at dread Medea’s strain,
    The sick’ning stars fade off th’ethereal plain;
    As Argus’ eyes by Hermes’ wand opprest,
    Clos’d one by one to everlasting rest;
    Thus at her felt approach, and secret might,
    Art after Art goes out, and all is Night.
    See skulking Truth to her old Cavern fled,
    While the Great Mother bids Britannia sleep,
    And pours her Spirit o’er the Land and Deep.
    She comes! she comes! The Gloom rolls on,
    Mountains of Casuistry heap’d o’er her head!
    Philosophy, that lean’d on Heav’n before,
    Shrinks to her second cause, and is no more.
    Physic of Metaphysic begs defence,
    And Metaphysic calls for aid on Sense!
    See Mystery to Mathematics fly!
    In vain! they gaze, turn giddy, rave, and die.
    Religion blushing veils her sacred fires,
    And unawares Morality expires.
    Nor public Flame, nor private, dares to shine;
    Nor human Spark is left, nor Glimpse divine!
    Lo! thy dread Empire, CHAOS! is restor’d;
    Light dies before thy uncreating word:
    Thy hand, great Anarch! lets the curtain fall;
    And Universal Darkness buries All.