Reborn from ruin

Perhaps the single most important thing to be understood about Marshall McLuhan is his self-described transformation from moralist to student:

For many years, until I wrote my first book, The Mechanical Bride, I adopted an extremely moralistic approach to all environmental technology. I loathed machinery, I abominated cities, I equated the Industrial Revolution with original sin and mass media with the Fall. In short, I rejected almost every element of modern life in favor of a Rousseauvian utopianism. But gradually I perceived how sterile and useless this attitude was, and I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound. Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of the processes of cognition and creation. I realized that artistic creation is the playback of ordinary experience — from trash to treasures. I ceased being a moralist and became a student.1 (Playboy Interview, 1969)

This transformation to “a totally different approach” has been characterized in many different ways in this blog — for example, as McLuhan’s ‘second conversion’ and as his confrontation with Pope’s “Universal Darkness”. It might also be described in terms of his later formulation of “breakdown as breakthrough”. Or, as he said in the Playboy passage above, “from trash to treasures.”

Future posts will deal with the analytic import of this insight — the idea, familiar in the physical sciences, that negative findings (breakdown, trash) are critical to scientific advance (breakthrough, treasures). McLuhan himself was greatly buoyed by the implicated hope that also in the artefactual realm such negative aspects of the modern world as perpetual war and pervasive propaganda might be investigated as “effects” and thereby reveal — at last! —  ways of mitigating them. 

But this second conversion also had significant biographical import since McLuhan could not have had the breakthrough of becoming a “student” without the breakdown of his being a “moralist”.

Now any such transformation has a definitive temporal signature which was specified already by Aristotle and Aquinas and cited on multiple occasions by McLuhan:

the basis of all paradox, Christian and secular, is to be found in the sixth book of the Physics of Aristotle, to which Aquinas refers in his Summa Theologica I.II.q 113.a.7, ad quintum. The question for Aquinas is whether justification by faith occurs instantly or gradually. Aquinas says it occurs instantly because — ­here he appeals to Aristotle’s Physics  — “the whole preceding time during which anything moves towards its form, it is under the opposite form”. (From Cliché to Archetype, 160)2

Being “under the opposite form” of the “sterile and useless (…) attitude” of the moralist must have been the extended occasion of much personal suffering for McLuhan. After all, he was almost 40 before he saw the liberating possibility of becoming a student and in the meantime he had converted to Catholicism, gotten married and sired 4 children. All this while he was frequently penniless and living in an environment which he “loathed” and “equated (…) with original sin”. The contrast between the responsibilities he had assumed and the resources he had to meet those responsibilities — especially his own psychological resources — could hardly have been greater. No wonder he was frequently ill and known even to close friends as “Mushall McGloom”.3  

McLuhan’s frequent avowal that he had no problems and more or less skated over life’s difficulties must be taken with a grain of salt. In typical Canadian fashion, he was pointing away from himself. But in fact his experience of a late second conversion, critical as this was for him personally, may also be taken as exemplary of a transformation that is desperately needed by the world at large.

Here are some characterizations of “breakdown as breakthrough” by McLuhan which, if considered at all, have not been taken as autobiographical statements (nor, of course, as indications of the potential transformation that lies within all the crises of the contemporary, 2024, world):

Every breakdown in any field is a breakthrough in disguise (Fordham lecture, ‘The Medium is the Message’, February 26, 1968)

Every world must be reborn from its own ruins. Every discovery rises from the trauma of breakdown and ignorance. (Take Today, 1972, 111)

“a hero must pass through an experience which opens his eyes to an error of his own. He must learn through suffering (…) The essence of a tragedy (…) is the spiritual awakening, or regeneration, of the hero.”4

The mystery of creativity is the paradox of how beauty is created from ruin. After a long career of stylistic invention and triumph, W.B. Yeats deliberately scrapped his entire enterprise in order to begin again: “Now [that] my ladder’s gone, I must lie down [where all the ladders start] in the [foul] rag and bone shop of the heart.” (The Circus Animals’ Desertion) It is the mystery of how life succeeds in that it seems to fail, the paradox of how beauty is born out of despair, art out of the garbage and sweepings of the street. (‘Declaration of Delos Ten’, 1972)5

Less familiar as “bridge” is the “tragic flaw” (hamartia), of which Aristotle speaks in the Poetics. Without this interval of ignorance or awareness in his character, the tragic hero cannot bridge one state to another. The flaw is an area of interface and mutation, without which he cannot get better, but can only be hung up. (Take Today, 9)

Breakdown as Breakthrough
The principle of this action is stated by Aristotle in his description of the tragic hero. The hero’s suffering or agon or struggle for new identity is made possible by a “tragic flaw” or defect. That is the classical case of breakdown as breakthrough. Without this flaw or gap, he could not make the discovery that changes both himself and his actions. As Charles Olson explains in his book Proprioception: “
The fault can be a very simple one — a mere unawareness, for example — but if he has no fault he cannot change for the better, but only for the worse (…) He must pass through an experience which opens his eyes to an error of his own.” (…) The “flaw” is the needed gap that permits “interface” and change. When the individual is entirely at one with his world or organization, he is headed for a hang-up of merging and unconsciousness, which is sterility in life or in business. (Take Today, 282)

The breakdown or hang-up is always in the [continuous] connection whereas the breakthrough or discovery is inside the problem itself, not outside but “in the [discontinuous] gap.” Breakdown is the old cause in action, the extension of the old figure to a6 new ground.  Breakthrough is the effect of understanding as a6 new cause [is revealed]. (The Argument: Causality in the Elec World 1973)

“Breakdown as breakthrough” characterizes research that is confident in the intelligibility of its domain. It welcomes negative findings as signposts to discovery. But in order to initiate research of this sort in a new domain of the artefactual, McLuhan had to undergo a “breakdown as breakthrough” of his own.


  1. That McLuhan “became a student” meant that he  ‘became a scientist’ — that is, he became a person who interrogates experience in order to learn its dynamics.
  2. Cited by McLuhan in Latin in his letter to Jacques Maritain (May 6, 1969, Letters 371) and in ‘The Medieval Environment’ (1974).
  3. “Mushall McGloom” is recalled by Hugh Kenner in Mazes, 230.
  4. Maxwell Anderson, ‘The Essence of Tragedy’, in Aristotle’s Poetics and English Literature; a collection of critical essays, ed Elder Olson, 1965, p 118. A copy of this page with these passages underlined, and McLuhan’s handwritten reference to Elder, is preserved in the ‘added material‘ found in McLuhan’s books donated to the Fisher Library at UT, # 04304-8. There is a comical aspect to McLuhan’s careful reference here — Olson’s book was published in a series for which McLuhan himself was the nominal editor. See Patterns of Literary Criticism.
  5. Ekistics v203, October 1972, 291. This was the ‘declaration’ McLuhan made in 1972 on Delos, the sacred island of Apollo and Artemis, during his second ‘ekistics’ tour of the Aegean with C.A. Doxiadis.
  6. McLuhan: ‘the’.
  7. McLuhan: ‘the’.