A tribute to and a lament for Marshall McLuhan.  Five days a week, Tuesday through Saturday, I present one of McLuhan’s observations and talk about its relevance today.  300 ideas. 300 days.  300 posts.

Fear and loathing of doctors

Marshall McLuhan (November 25, 1967, age 56). I’m allergic to Doctors

I do not want this operation. The operation is to remove a tumor that they tell me may have been growing in my brain for a decade. The tumor, Dr. Mount says, is causing my headaches, the pain in my eye, the black-outs that have been getting worse. I blacked out in front of a class here at Fordham University. Corinne told me she was worried sick. Culkin was worried too. Everyone tells me I must have this operation. That if I don’t I will go blind. That I will die.

The clock is ticking. How can I sleep? Dr Mount wields the knife today at 11:30 a.m. Here’s what he told me he will do. First he will cut a small hole in my skull. Then insert the lifts. They’re metal. Look like spatulas. They will lift up my brain so Mount can get at the tumor. Apparently this part of the operation won’t hurt as the brain does not have nerves like the rest of the body does. Mount says the tumor is the size of my fist. He expects the operation will last 5 hours or so. But he will work as fast as possible to get the job done with the minimum of damage. That’s my worry. I know they will do away with the tumor. I just hope they do not do away with me.

Me (November 2009, age 57). What the Doctors did

Marshall McLuhan’s operation lasted 22 hours. Judith Fitzgerald, one of his biographers said it was the longest brain surgery in American medical history. A neurosurgeon I interviewed this summer, Dr. Rolando Del Maestro, says this is an exaggeration. But it was he says a very long operation, and given its length an operation filled with danger for Marshall McLuhan.

Many of you are wondering what happened to him. Whether he survived the operation. Whether he made a full recovery. What the experience did to him. These are things I will talk about in the weeks ahead. What I can tell you now is that he did survive the operation and he did recover, in part, but not in full, enough to return to work, but I don’t think to work at the same level.  To be blunt, Marshall McLuhan survived the operation but his genius did not. This was and is a tragedy. A tragedy is “a dramatic performance ending in a catastrophe.” (Short Dictionary of Classical Word Origins). What was catastrophic about his loss of genius was the impact it had on McLuhan, his reputation, and his legacy.

Consider the books he published after the operation, after 1967. All were completed with the help of co-authors. Not one measured up to the heights he achieved with The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media. One cannot help wondering whether they would have been written at all without the help of his co-authors. And one cannot help thinking whether it would have been better if they had never been published. For with the appearance of each new book his reputation for brilliance, and original thinking fell.

What is a genius? What does it mean to lose your genius? What is lost when genius is lost?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post
Judith Fitzgerald. Marshall McLuhan: Wise Guy, 2001, 128-135, and 191.
Philip Marchand. Marshall McLuhan: The medium and the messenger, 1989. P. 212-213.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, November 25th, 2009
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