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.

Now for something completely different, part 2…

Yesterday, I explained that this week’s blogs will be very different from the previous ones.  This week, in the lead up to my 100th post, which will take place on Tuesday, February 23, the standard format of two short letters, one from Marshall McLuhan and one from me, is temporarily abandoned.  Instead I am posting, in 5 parts, an essay which explains the single most important thing you need to know to understand Marshall McLuhan.

In part 1, I asserted that Marshall McLuhan lost his genius as a result of surgery to remove a brain tumor.  In today’s post I tell you more about this operation.

Cordially Me

Genius has brain surgery and loses his mind:  The untold story of Marshall McLuhan [cont’d]

By Michael Hinton

It is time to tell you about the operation, the scene of the crime.  On the basic facts leading up to it and what happened during and after it his biographers (Marchand, Fitzgerald, and Gordon) are in substantial agreement:  In 1967, McLuhan had reached the pinnacle of his career.  The Gutenberg Galaxy had won him a Governor General’s award in 1962.  Understanding Media had sold 100,000 copies in the spring of 1964.  An east and west coast marketing campaign orchestrated by two San Francisco PR men and ‘genius scouts,’ Howard Gossage and Gerald Feigen,  rocketed him to international stardom in 6 months in 1965.  Lionized by Fortune 500 corporations his key note speeches earned him $5,000 to $25,000 gigs in 1966.  Awarded a $100,000 teaching and research chair at Fordham University, in Brooklyn, he moved Corinne and 4 of their 6 children to New York City in August, 1967, where he arranged for jobs for two of his colleagues, Ted Carpenter and Harley Parker, and his eldest son Eric, and schooling for the other children, and a house for them all to live in close to the university.

With a new salary, new job, new office, new secretary, new city, and new home his stress levels must have reached record heights.  Stress was the last thing he needed.  Over the past 7 years he’d suffered from headaches and black-outs.  (In 1960 exhausted by a punishing work schedule, he’d suffered a stroke that he tried to pretend had never happened.)  Believing sickness was the result of weak will, and therefore a sign of weakness, McLuhan felt he could indulge his dislike of Doctors and hospitals by avoiding them.  In September and October 1967 the blackouts got worse.  In October he blacked out in class at Fordham.  Deeply concerned, Carpenter, John Culkin – who had persuaded McLuhan to come to Fordham – and Corinne persuaded McLuhan to see a neurologist in Manhattan.  Dr. Lester A. Mount examined McLuhan and arranged for tests which showed that McLuhan had brain tumor, a benign but growing meningioma the size of his fist, buried in the lower part of his brain at the base of his skull.

McLuhan’s choice was fairly simple:  have the operation which would not be easy and if all went well live, or suffer ever increasing pain, blackouts, blindness, insanity, and ultimately death.  The operation took place at the Columbia-Presbyterian Hospital in New York City.  Dr. Mount performed the operation which began at 8 in the morning of Saturday, November 25 and was not completed until 5 in the morning of Sunday, November 26, having lasted 22 hours, making it “the longest neurosurgical operation in American medical history.”  Dr. Mount’s greatest concern, says Fitzgerald, was that the length of the operation which he estimated would take only 5 hours and might result if the utmost care was not taken in the exposure of “some of the cells of the brain’s surface to the potentially devastating effects of oxygenation” because he had to “lift McLuhan’s brain to get at the tumour.”  “His esteemed patient’s faculties will,” she writes, “almost inevitably, [would] sustain some degree of damage.”

McLuhan did suffer from the operation.  The pain was excruciating, for which he took heavy-duty pain killers, and his life was “forever altered.”  Five years of reading and people, places and associations were scrubbed from his memory.  He was “variously fragile, tense, irritable,” she says,” and, on occasion, uncharacteristically demanding and irrational.”  No one, however, suggests the operation took away his genius.  Gordon remarks, instead, how remarkably productive McLuhan was in the years after the operation: 7 books and 21 articles.  And yet it is clear there was something wrong.  The articles were squibs.  Some quite obviously recycled from the years before his surgery.  With each year that passed and with the appearance of each new book his reputation fell.  Projects he thought important were left unfinished.  Six of the seven books were co-authored and the one that wasn’t, Culture is Our Business was viewed by McLuhan, as a failure.  Asked by his son Eric late in his life why he never dedicated his books to any one McLuhan told him it was because he wasn’t very proud of them.

To be continued

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, February 17th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, 1970s and 80s, Vol. 1 1 Comment

1 Comment to Now for something completely different, part 2…

  • Don Lindstrom says:

    Excellent series/article. It definitely proves the part of the story that was missing for me.

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