Yeats’ rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem

McLuhan ended his 1969 Playboy interview with a vision of the world at a crossroads — “its [decisive] hour come round at last” — where there is potential to usher in the millennium, but also of realizing the Anti-Christ: the two possibilities together as captured in “Yeats’ rough beast (…) slouching toward Bethlehem to be born”:

There are grounds for both optimism and pessimism. The extensions of man’s consciousness induced by the electric media could conceivably usher in the millennium, but it also holds the potential for realizing the Anti-Christ — Yeats’ rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching toward Bethlehem to be born. Cataclysmic environmental changes such as these are, in and of themselves, morally neutral; it is how we perceive them and react to them that will determine their ultimate psychic and social consequences. If we refuse to see them at all, we will become their servants.1 It’s inevitable that the world-pool of electronic information movement will toss us all about like corks on a stormy sea, but if we keep our cool during the descent into the maelstrom, studying the process as it happens to us and what we can do about it, we can come through.
Personally, I have a great faith in the resiliency and adaptability of humans2, and I tend to look to our tomorrows with a surge of excitement and hope. I feel that we’re standing on the threshold of a liberating and exhilarating world in which the human tribe can become truly one family and man’s consciousness can be freed from the shackles of mechanical culture and enabled to roam the cosmos. I have a deep and abiding belief in the potential of human beings3
to grow and learn, to plumb the depths of their4 his own being and to learn the secret songs that orchestrate the universe. We live in a transitional era of profound pain and tragic identity quest, but the agony of our age is the labor pain of rebirth.
I expect to see the coming decades transform the planet into an art form; the new humans,5 linked in a cosmic harmony that transcends time and space, will sensuously caress and mold and pattern every facet of the terrestrial artifact as if it were a work of art, and human themselves6 will become an organic art form. There is a long road ahead, and the stars are only way stations, but we have begun the journey. To be born in this age is a precious gift, and I regret the prospect of my own death only because I will leave so many pages of man’s destiny — if you will excuse the Gutenbergian image — tantalizingly unread. But perhaps, as I’ve tried to demonstrate in my examination of the postliterate culture, the story begins only when the book closes.

Fifteen years before, in his 1954 St Joseph College lecture on ‘Christian Humanism and Modern Letters’:

Today with the revelation of the poetic process which is involved in ordinary cognition we stand on a very different threshold from that wherein Machiavelli stood. His was a door into negation and human weakness. Ours is the door to the positive powers of the human spirit in its natural creativity. This [2-fold] door opens on to psychic powers comparable to the physical powers made available via nuclear fission and fusion.7 Through this door men have seen a possible path to the totalitarian remaking of human nature. Machiavelli showed us the way to a new circle of the Inferno. Knowledge of the creative process in [the artefactual domain of] art, science, and cognition shows us the way either to the earthly paradise or to complete madness. It is to be either the top of Mount Purgatory or the abyss.


  1. Earlier in the Playboy interview: “our survival, and at the very least our comfort and happiness, is predicated on understanding the nature of our new environment, because unlike previous environmental changes, the electric media constitute a total and near-instantaneous transformation of culture, values and attitudes. This upheaval generates great pain and identity loss, which can be ameliorated only through a conscious awareness of its dynamics. If we understand the revolutionary transformations caused by new media, we can anticipate and control them; but if we continue in our self-induced subliminal trance, we will be their slavesBecause of today’s terrific speed-up of information moving, we have a chance to apprehend, predict and influence the environmental forces shaping us — and thus win back control of our own destinies.”
  2. McLuhan has ‘man’ here, not ‘humans’. It has been edited to accommodate the wokesters who will see division in his vision, ignoring his appeal to the “human tribe” as “one family”.
  3. McLuhan: ‘man’s potential’.
  4. McLuhan: ‘his’.
  5. McLuhan: ‘the new man’.
  6. McLuhan: ‘man himself’.
  7. According to McLuhan, the modern world — the last 500 years, say — has been shaped by the extraordinary application of elementary forces in both the factual and artefactual realms. Consciousness of the physical elements reached its take-off stage with Lavoisier around 1790. It then took almost a century before Mendeleev was able to formulate his table. But the physical elements had been active, of course, always and everywhere, throughout the cosmos, since the beginning of time; and in the centuries immediately before 1790 their laws and properties had increasingly been applied with great success in many different sorts of manufacturing. But before Lavoisier those applications remained unconscious of the elementary processes they themselves were manipulating. In the parallel field of the artefactual (the domain not of physical facts aside from human perception, but the artifacts of human perception), a comparable application of elementary forces has enabled the great ‘successes’ of our information environment: news, entertainment, advertising, global commerce and politics — all tending increasingly to crass propaganda. The elementary forces manipulated so successfully in these ways remain unconscious to this day, however, just as were the chemical elements before Lavoisier. It is just this ‘successful’ use grounded in unconscious elementary forces that defines the great dangers of our time: nuclear war, environmental degradation, political tyranny, social disintegration, psychical madness. Therefore McLuhan’s “survival strategy” as formulated in the Playboy interview: “man (see note 1 above) must, as a simple survival strategy, become aware of what is happening to him (see note 1 above) (…) But despite our self-protective escape mechanisms, the total-field awareness engendered by electronic media is enabling us — indeed, compelling us — to grope toward a consciousness of the unconscious (…) We live in the first age when change occurs sufficiently rapidly to make such pattern recognition possible for society at large.” Just as the world was revolutionized following the discovery of the physical elements, so might it be revolutionized again by discovery of the artefactual elements. It was in such a revolution based on collective research that McLuhan saw a potential “survival strategy” and, therefore, grounds for “a surge of excitement and hope”. Now this “strategy” would remain abstract and only a “hope”, of course, unless these “artefactual  elements” were dis-covered and increasingly specified. But it was just such dis-covery that McLuhan attempted to communicate following on the prior truly great (but ultimately unsuccessful) attempts by Plato, Aristotle, and many others — especially, in McLuhan’s case, Vico and Joyce. See A whole new genus of sciences.