Dilworth: McLuhan on The Waste Land

McLuhan on The Waste Land
Introduced and edited by Thomas Dilworth1

In 1968/9 I [Tom Dilworth] was a student in Marshal McLuhan’s fourth-year class in Modern Poetry — together with about 25 others in the Honours English Programme at St Michael’s College in the University of Toronto. At the time, he was at the height of his fame, and I for one was excited to have him as our prof. He co-taught the course with his former graduate student, Sheila Watson, the author of the novel The Double Hook, who was on sabbatical leave from the University of Alberta in Edmonton. She was deferential to him and warmly personal to students, whereas he was entirely interested in his ideas on media and the poetry. Sometimes grumpy, he was still recovering from a prolonged brain operation he had undergone the year before while at Fordham. (He gradually improved — I subsequently was in a graduate seminar he taught and audited his seminar on media.) His hearing was hypersensitive, and the sound of construction nearby in the city irritated him.
The class took place in the former dining room of what is now called Founders House, which had originally been a family home. During the first class he sat on the edge of a table, dangling his long legs as he spoke. He began with the aesthetic of Modernism, which is that of fragments and incompletion and which involves the reader (or viewer or listener), who co-creates the work. For that reason, he said, buildings were more interesting when in ruins or not yet complete.
Halfway into the class a student named Terry Edgar arrived clutching in one hand a can of Coke, and McLuhan announced, ‘Here is a representation of the current shallow art.’ (None of us then had any knowledge of Andy Warhol.)
He never prepared for class but, speaking spontaneously, was usually interesting, often brilliant. After hearing him differentiate between visual and acoustic or tactile space and how radio was so effective for Hitler, Roosevelt, and Churchill, I could think of nothing else for the next four days. (He did not mention Conrad, but what he said illuminated Heart of Darkness for me.) I remember him during the course praising Hopkins, whose ‘The Windhover’ is, he said, ‘the greatest modern sonnet’ and referring dismissively to Dylan Thomas’ ‘monism’. He played for us a record of Wallace Stevens reading his own poetry, despite Stevens being a dreary reader.
During the course, he taught T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922), which clearly meant a lot to him because of its affinity with reality perceived as different, i.e., ‘modern’, owing to the revolution in media and human experience brought about by electricity.
When McLuhan taught he monologued. Not in these notes is an analogy he at other times made between Eliot’s poem and the newspaper, which juxtaposed incongruous reports, stories, features, and advertisements, all unified solely by the dateline.
Slightly expanded and clarified, here are my notes for the class or classes on The Waste Land. They include nothing said by Sheila Watson, if she was present, nor anyone else other than McLuhan.


McLuhan on The Waste Land
The Waste Land is a non-visual poem, fragmented, yet the people of the poem live in a visual continuum — a 9 to 5 world. That world is unlike the tactile reality of the poem. Touch is the experience of the blind, which is full of shock, surprise, and demands maximum alertness.
Living in visual space, the lives of these people are rootless, without tradition, with no sense of the past (no seeing the past in the present), no depth. But the reader experiences the poem differently, in symbols, non-visually, in tactile or acoustic space.
Dead, the people in the poem are all together without a deeper memory. They flow over London Bridge — ‘I had not thought death had undone so many.’
‘April is the cruelest month’ refers to the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales: ‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote’2 The Waste Land is the opposite of Chaucer’s world of joy. By the 18th Century the city was seen as an enclosure, a prison — by Fielding, and later Dickens — the human community had changed since the world of Chaucer. Now there is a need for spiritual roots. This is implied by the allusions to scripture.
‘You gave me Hyacinths” — the Roman death flower. The descent into the underworld —‘The Burial of the Dead’.
Madame Sosostris ‘had a bad cold’, slang for v.d. She is a poor attempt at salvation since her ‘wisdom’ cannot avoid v.d.
The ’Unreal City’ — a change — organized along visual lines, people walking with eyes before feet in strait lines.
‘The Dog’ — now man’s enemy because of hypercritical friendliness, the dog beneath the skin. ‘Hypocrite’ — Greek for mask. The mask is the language, the poem, a way to present self to the world, but also a way of seeing — you look through a mask — a style — a composite, a way to power, ‘the cool one’ — we pick and choose whom we will resemble.
‘The Game of Chess’ — the treachery women exact on each other for power.
The people are dead now, all systematically deprived of a spiritual life or meaning of life.
The dressing of the dead. The artificial perfumes — not natural — drugs, LSD, the inner trip — preview of formaldehyde. Metal imagery — cold, inhospitable — line 138: ‘lidless eyes’. ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes’. Jazz, ‘O that Shakespeherian Rag’, change for the sake of change. Cold — money, teeth — artificial.
‘The Fire Sermon’. Meeting of East and West, Augustine and Buddha.
The ironic hunter-fisher — rat, slimy canal, gashouse, not very rustic or natural.
‘Horns and motors’ — 1922, the world of Gatsby. People like children in the fiery furnace.
‘She puts another record on’. The discotheque, mechanical sounds. Prostitution, cold, the go-go girl. The go-go girl in a cage — a widely participated in ritual — a pre-act act. The mechanical canary, sterile, unproductive. Sex — no touch because of cage — Playboy. Elizabeth and Leicester — lovers — ‘Beating oars’ — the vulgarity and triviality of the Queen in the same situation as the girl in a canoe. The same even then.
Augustine and Buddha, the collision of worlds, the moving together. LSD is a huge step eastward. Japan a huge step west. China — Marxism — another step west.
‘Death by Water’ — drowning of the possibility of baptism.
 Phlebas: Ulysses steers, man knocked by tiller overboard3 — free boat, loose, ‘the barges drift’ (line 268), turning east.
‘What the Thunder Said’. 1st line, allusion to the Passion. The Third beside you — Xt on road to Emmaus. The rock, the Church.
Swarming over endless plains — the Russian Revolution.
Then oriental responses to the human position — compassion. The Spanish Tragedy, Heironimo — everyone dies at the hand of his neighbour.
Uniform standardized repetitive life. Eliot reads the poem in an Anglican-pulpit equitone, the potent mask of the Establishment. Wendell Berry writes on the voice and how it effects the way they wrote — the effect of Dylan Thomas’s voice on his poetry.
In The Waste Land all the boundaries of all the cells merge into a whole. Like Siddhartha.
An LSD dispensation. The human Teiresias-man-woman merges at the end.
Unconsciousness, which LSD is for some people. For Eliot the soul is not an oversoul, a mass whole.
The poem is inclusive — unconsciousness includes tradition. Exclusive conscious — visual — excludes tradition.
Poets—masters in depth of their present, seers, 60 years ahead. The future, as the past, is included in the present. Seers see the present. The latest is always old hat to a knower. We are all unified in a drastic inability to see the present. Only a whole man can look at the present without blinking.


Afterword (Tom Dilworth)
On a gray November day during the year that I was in his Modern Poetry class, after leaving St Mike’s library, I joined McLuhan in crossing St Joseph Street. He recognized me as a student in his class, and by the time we reached the far curb, he had begun a conversation with me that finished on that curb a half-hour later. He told me that the conventional Western linear conception of time is mistaken, that a circular sense of time was better, and that Aquinas was right in conceiving God as the ground of being. His taking the time to talk to one of his students like that exemplified 1) his compelling interest in what he was thinking, and 2) his generosity as a teacher.

  1. Tom Dilworth is University Professor in the Department of English and Creative Writing at the University of Windsor. His excellent essay, ‘McLuhan as Medium‘, is included in At The Speed Of Light There Is Only Illumination (ed, Linda Morra and John Errington Moss, 2004).
  2. Chaucer’s ‘Prologue’ to Canterbury Tales begins ‘Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / The droughte of March hath perced to the roote’. ‘Soote’ is ‘sweet‘, akin to Danish sød and Middle Dutch soete.
  3. A kind of holy drowning, life by water, baptism is the antithesis of physical drowning (‘death by water’), which is the culmination of a secular orientation, the steersman knocked “by tiller overboard”.