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 4 …

As you know if you’ve been following, this week’s blogs are very different from those of previous weeks.  The standard format of two short letters, one from Marshall McLuhan and one from me, is 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.

Previously, in part 1, I asserted that Marshall McLuhan lost his genius as a result of surgery to remove a brain tumor.  In part 2, I explained why it was necessary and how it was carried out.  In part 3, I explained why the operation was so damaging to McLuhan.  Did McLuhan lose his genius as a result of the operation?  I think so but you may want additional evidence.  Today, in part 4, I talk about two other pieces to this puzzle.

Cordially, Me

Genius has brain surgery and loses his mind:  The untold story of Marshall McLuhan

By Michael Hinton

Did McLuhan lose his genius as a result of the operation?  Was he greatly changed?  Beyond the facts of the surgery itself, consider these two other clues.  First the first clue.  “Corinne [McLuhan] was very sharp and lovely and graceful,” historian Nicholas Olsberg, wrote me from his home in Arizona.   “Always seemed odd that she made her match with such a clumsy guy [Marshall].”

In the winter of 1981, not long after Marshall’s death, Nicholas Olsberg spent his days valuing McLuhan’s papers ($1 million Canadian was the final figure) and his evenings chatting with Corinne, as a guest in Marshall’s house, at 3 Wychwood Place – sleeping in his study, surrounded by his books.  It was during these conversations, undoubtedly, that Olsberg heard about Marshall’s clumsiness.  The answer to Olsberg’s puzzlement about why a beauty, a 10, like Corinne would marry a clumsy, a 5, like McLuhan, of course, is that Corinne didn’t marry a clumsy guy.  She married a tall powerful guy who won his rowing oar at Cambridge and missed a Rhodes scholarship, not for physical clumsiness, because for intellectual arrogance.  The clumsy guy was created I submit by seizures, strokes, and most of all by a surgical operation to remove a brain tumor and the medication he needed to take in recovery to deal with the pain.  The Marshall McLuhan Corinne talked about to Nicholas Olsberg was not the pre-1967 genius, but the post-1967 diminished, clumsy-guy.

The second clue is in the jokes that are told about McLuhan, and, in particular, one specific joke.  Jokes, McLuhan liked to say, borrowing the observation from Steve Allen, are based on grievances.  Jokes about McLuhan are based on the grievance, the complaint, that no one can understand him.  That was the joke on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In.  That was the joke in the famous New Yorker cartoons on McLuhan of the 1960s.  That was the joke in the famous bit of doggerel by A.J.M. Smith, “McLuhan put his telescope to his ear; What a lovely smell, he said, we have here.”  And that was the joke about McLuhan in Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall.

Canadians who were twenty somethings in the 1970s, as I was, probably remember McLuhan best from his walk-on role in Annie Hall.  The joke in the film, made in 1977, ten years after the operation, has been misunderstood by his fans.  His biographers Judith Fitzgerald and Terry Gordon, for example, talk about his performance as an example of what a funny guy McLuhan was and how Woody didn’t get him.  (The camera’s rolling.)  A Communications Prof. from NYU is talking to his girl out front of a movie theatre.  He’s talking about McLuhan.  TV’s a hot medium, he says, blah, blah, blah.  Woody hears this and gets irritated, (McLuhan said TV is a cool medium) and gets McLuhan.  And McLuhan tells the guy off, ad-libbing:  ‘You know nothing of my ideas. You think my fallacy is all wrong?”  This breaks everyone up. Woody gets irritated again.  (This time for real.  McLuhan’s up-staged him.)  Woody demands the scene be done over, and over again, which tires McLuhan.  (Who does look tired and very thin.)   He insists McLuhan say his lines differently – say focus not fallacy, and don’t say it as a question.  In the end fallacy stays but the joke, one of McLuhan’s favourite lines which he likes to use with hecklers, is spoilt.

The truth of course is different.  Woody not McLuhan knows best about comedy.  They re-shoot because that’s how movies get made.  McLuhan’s ad lib is not a brilliant performance.  The guy he tells off isn’t a heckler, he’s a misinformed fan.  McLuhan’s line is a solution for the wrong problem.  The genius McLuhan would never have done this.  He might have said “With friends like you, who needs fallacies,” or “You have my fallacies all wrong.”   McLuhan is funny in the film because the joke does not hinge on words; the joke is McLuhan. The joke is his very presence.

[to be continued…]

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Michael Hinton Friday, February 19th, 2010
Permalink 1970s and 80s, Vol. 1 No Comments

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