Sic transit Marshall McLuhan

Frank Kermode

The fame of Marshall McLuhan in the late Sixties, a period more favourable to guruism than the present, was beyond the dreams of even the most ambitious don. His slogans were quoted everywhere, he travelled the world – now, on his view, electronically reduced to a global village – addressing his fans, advising admen, businessmen, politicians and theologians, telling us all what reality would look like if we broke our habit of contemplating it only through the rear-view mirror, firing off his ‘probes’, his heavy puns and his strangely old-fashioned jokes. (He was very keen on these jokes, and freely offered them to anybody who might need them for after-dinner speeches – Prime Minister Trudeau, for instance.) He was a pioneer in the movement, now seemingly irresistible, which has carried English literature professors out of literature into larger and, one must suppose, more exciting studies – philosophy, law, psychoanalysis, history, ‘culture’, ‘theory’ and prophecy.

These emigrants don’t, however, pay homage to the trailblazer. As a prophet of epochs, a connoisseur of epistemes, McLuhan was early superseded by Foucault. The supersession of gurus is by no means invariably the result of a discovery that they were wrong about everything, and it remains possible that there was a good deal more to McLuhan than it has this long while been fashionable to say. He was certainly wrong about quite a number of things, as various people pointed out at the time. But just as it is not clear that these critics were responsible for his occultation, so is it not certain that in some form his celebrity couldn’t, given some appropriate resuscitation therapy, be re-established.

McLuhan was born in Alberta in 1911. This hefty selection from what, in the second half of his life, must have been an enormous correspondence, begins in 1931. The early letters, mostly to his mother, are neither prodigious nor duller than most letters on comparable occasions. Writing home from the University of Manitoba, he professes admiration for Shakespeare and declares Goethe to be a barbarian. More important to him than either of them was Chesterton, to whom he adhered faithfully, with demonstrable consequences, throughout his life.

When he was 23, he went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge to take another first degree. ‘Everybody writes books here,’ he told his mother, ‘not many of them worth reading either.’ From this general and doubtless just censure he exempted Quiller-Couch; and GK’s Weekly, together with Father D’Arcy’s ‘succinct and admirable little volume, Catholicism’, made up for the deficiencies of his instructors. Non-Cambridge dons fared no better: Dover Wilson came to lecture, and managed to do so despite ‘a pigeon chest which only criminal indifference to his body could have left so undeveloped’ (McLuhan was a rowing man).

However, as time went by the ‘exceptional advantages’ of Cambridge grew more evident: ‘The easy accessibility of Willey, Tillyard, Lucas and Leavis, makes for an intellectual variety that not even my wildest hopes had prefigured.’ He was able to discover T.S. Eliot, who, though a genius and a poet, had arrived at the same position as McLuhan ‘concerning the nature of religion and Christianity, the interpretation of history, and the value of industrialism’. I.A. Richards, on the other hand, was a humanist engaged in a quest for objective standards of criticism, which, rejecting religion, he could never find: hence his ‘ghastly atheistic nonsense’. However, a few years later, applying for a job, McLuhan claimed to be ‘the only man in the USA who had a thorough grounding in the techniques of Richards, Empson and Leavis at Cambridge’. Nobody tells all in job applications.

Though admittedly deficient in other languages, he regarded English literature as foreign; nor did he think his talent was really literary. He obviously read widely, though with his own emphasis – for instance, he came upon books by Maritain in the English Faculty Library, and was thus enabled to see why Aristotle was ‘the soundest basis for Christian doctrine’. At this time, about 1935, he was moving sedately towards the Church, and also rehearsing his Canadian version of agrarianism. And although he regarded his mind as nothing out of the ordinary, he began to sense a vocation, and to feel ‘a strong sense of superiority that is utterly incommensurate with my abilities’.

In 1936 he went as a teaching assistant to Wisconsin, which then had a remarkably powerful English department. While he was there, he studied, among other things, Pound, Joyce and Yeats, but more important to him than any of these was Wyndham Lewis. At this time he was received into the Roman Catholic Church, and soon afterwards moved to the Jesuit University of St Louis. With an interval during which he went back to Cambridge as a graduate student he stayed at St Louis until 1944, when he returned to Canada. One of his pupils was Fr Walter J. Ong, who was to apply great learning to an explicitly Catholic development of McLuhanite ideas.

From this period there are some curious letters to his fiancée: a lengthy exposition of Catholic theology, with some vitriolic material on Reform, and some over-confident assertions (‘Today England is returning to the Faith’). He is equally confident that there will be no war in Europe. ‘The real villains of the piece,’ he writes, ‘are not Hitler etc but the Comintern, the free masons and the international operators who have their headquarters in Prague. Hitler is being backed by Chamberlain and Roosevelt.’ The trick of expressing minority opinions with unwavering assurance was to stand him in good stead later on.

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