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 5 …

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, posted Tuesday, I asserted that Marshall McLuhan lost his genius as a result of surgery to remove a brain tumor.  In part 2, posted Wednesday I explained why it was necessary and how it was carried out.  In part 3, posted Thursday, 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.  Yesterday, in part 4, I talked about two other pieces to this puzzle.  Today, in part 5, the final chapter of this story, I talk about the meaning of it all.

Cordially, Me

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

By Michael Hinton

In the final chapter of classic detective fiction, the crime is solved when the great detective – Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, for example – gathers all the suspects gathered together in the same room, lays out the evidence, and identifies the guilty party. Before I make my attempt to play the great detective, I want to say something briefly about what genius is and what it matters whether or not McLuhan’s genius was lost.

Genius the Romans thought was the essence of our character or personality.  There is no doubt that in this sense, McLuhan’s brain surgery killed his genius.  All his biographers I think would agree on this.  He was a different man after the operation.  But this is not what I mean by genius.  I mean that “inborn exalted intellectual power” that “extraordinary imaginative, creative or inventive” spark that allows some minds to work faster than anyone else, for a longer time, and come to different conclusions.   How many geniuses are there?  Dr. Del Maestro told me that he believes the answer is something like one in six billion and that he had no doubt that McLuhan was a genius.  How many lose their genius?  Some; certainly Churchill did and so did Dr. Johnson, as a result of illness and possibly dementia.  How many have lost their genius as a result of brain surgery?   Possibly, only McLuhan, the numbers of true geniuses being small.

Understanding Media which was published 45 years ago is clearly the work of a genius, but not one who is easy to understand.  To understand McLuhan you need to know that: (1) his greatest ideas can be found most vigorously expressed in his speaking and writing before his brain surgery in 1967; (2) the spoken word is the vehicle of his genius; and (3) his earlier work is generally speaking easier to understand than his later work because in his earlier work he was less concerned with presenting his ideas in mosaic form.

You can listen to McLuhan speak in his letters, his interviews, and his speeches.  His writing before Understanding Media and the Gutenberg Galaxy can be found in his essays from the 1950s and 1960s in McLuhan Unbound, and his Report on Understanding New Media, 1960.   Even so he is never easy to understand for several other reasons.  His thought is densely packed with new ideas, in chapter 14 of Understanding Media, for example he identifies 100s of ways money can be thought of as an extension of our mind, bodies, or spirit.  He delights in decorating his ideas with references to writers from all disciplines.  In chapter 1 of the same book in the space of 6 pages (pages 9 to 14) he calls for support from the writings of Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, Othello, King Lear, Troilus and Cressida), Hans Selye, General David Sarnoff, W.W. Rostow, John Kenneth Galbraith, David Hume, E.H. Gombrich, Cardinal Newman, de Tocqueville, Gibbon, E.M. Forster, and Walt Whitman.

He uses a special vocabulary that does not mean what you might think it does; hot and cool, for example.  His terms are often value-loaded; fragmented and visual bias, for example.  His primary goal is often to jolt his readers and listeners out of their complacencies rather than to lead them to particular conclusions; his speech [this blog] at the Museum of the City of New York, in October 1967, he outraged his audience with the notion that the invention of the fire engine caused the proliferation of slums in 19th century western cities. Before this, of course, as the history of Paris and London shows, but McLuhan does not bother to explain, fires were responsible for the regular clearing away of slums and the re-building of newer and better-designed cities, although at great cost in terms of loss of life and misery for the urban poor. And, he loved to joke around; the medium is the massage, for example, making it difficult to tell when he is joking and when he is not.

Now, to deal with the difficult question of causality, a question McLuhan wrestled with a great deal.  Who killed McLuhan’s genius?

Was it Dr. Mount? (Aristotle would have called Mount the efficient cause.)  Was it the art and practice of brain surgery? (Aristotle’s formal cause.)  Was it the length of the operation, the copper or nickel lifts, and the bruising of brain tissue?  (Aristotle’s material cause.)  Or was it McLuhan’s desire to live rather than die from the growth of the tumor?  (Aristotle’s final cause.)

I prefer a final cause solution.  That McLuhan killed his own genius.  But this is not the most important question.  The case of Marshall McLuhan is not, after all,  a “who done it.”  It’s a “what got done.”  What happened to McLuhan?  Did he lose his genius at the same time he lost his tumor?  If so a great deal about McLuhan which was mysterious now becomes clear.  Why his books after 1967 were never again as good as the ones before.  Why he can be read and understood more easily in his writing before 1967 than after 1967.  Why he was lionized in the 1960s and looked on as bit of a joke in the 1970s.  Why he is so poorly understood today.

McLuhan’s real tragedy was not the stroke that took away his power to speak in 1979.  His tragedy was that in choosing life in 1967 he had to let his genius go.  If there is a happy ending here it is that the real McLuhan, the genius, lives on in all that he did before November 1967.  And that is a legacy that will never die, and one we can return to whenever we wish for inspiration and enlightenment.

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Michael Hinton Saturday, February 20th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Vol. 1 3 Comments

3 Comments to Now for something completely different, part 5 …

  • michael edmunds says:

    What what do you then make of the notion that MM himself said that if given the choice again he would opt out of having the surgery? I understood it as referring to the physical pain and disorientation (relearning), but your gloss gives more meaning to his lament. I guess he knew.

  • Michael Hinton says:

    That’s fascinating. Do you know where, to whom, in what circumstances McLuhan said this?

  • michael; edmunds says:

    I have to find that source , but I believe it is correct.

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