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

Tuesday, February 23, 2010 will be my 100th post.  To those of you who have been following this blog, especially, I should say something, now, by way of explanation and introduction, because this week’s blogs will be very different from the previous ones.  Previously, each blog has consisted of two short letters.  The first is from Marshall McLuhan, and introduces a particular idea or event in his life.  (Perhaps I should make it clear – on the off-chance you have any doubts about it – these letters were not actually written by Marshall McLuhan, but by me as I have imagined him writing them.  I have, however, based them on things he actually did say or write in letters, interviews, essays, speeches, or books, and have tried as far as I can to imitate his style without parodying it.)   The second is from me talking about what Marshall says in his letter.  (These letters I assure you are all actually written by me.)  Hence the name of the blog: “From Marshall and Me.”

Today, I am posting the first part of a five-part essay on what I believe is the single most important thing you need to know to understand Marshall McLuhan.  Here is part one.  I hope you find it interesting and useful in making sense of one of Canada’s most extraordinary and perplexing minds.  If you have any comments I would like to hear them.

Cordially Me

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

By Michael Hinton

Thirty years ago, on September 26, 1979, Marshall McLuhan collapsed in his office, a book-strewn, file-piled, upstairs room in the Coach House at St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.  A short walk away from where he lay was the basement cafeteria of the old ROM, his former office on St Joseph Street, his first two homes in Toronto, at 81 St Mary’s Street and 29 Wells Hill Road, and all of the other places he had made his breakthroughs in communications and media studies.  The cause of his collapse was a stroke that robbed him of the power to speak, read, and write for the last fifteen months of his life.

There’s a joke – an anecdote in McLuhan-speak about this: it probably didn’t make him any harder to understand.   McLuhan’s wife Corinne once said, I’m paraphrasing here, that Marshall had three passions in life God, work, and her.  But she ran a very distant third.  After the stroke he still had God and Corinne, but the work was gone.  Walking, but only just, barely able to move his hands, the man who rocketed to international stardom in 1966 with his dumbfounding eloquence – observing most famously that “the medium is the message” and that media had made the world “a global village” – was unable to communicate in any other way than by shrugging, grunting, grimacing, and forcing out an occasional “oh boy, um, ah, [and] yes.”  Once looking out the window on a rainy day, Patrick Watson says, a bit of a poem came out, ‘April is the cruelest month.”  A story that always moves me because he spent 40 years of his life teaching English literature, and what he must have been trying to say to his friend by quoting this first line from “The Wasteland.”

The wonder is not that poetry came out of his mouth.  Aphasics frequently may sing more easily than they can speak and speak poetry when they cannot speak prose.   And McLuhan loved poetry.  At one time he had committed most of the Oxford book of English verse to memory.  The wonder what he meant by this quotation.  It could have been idle word play.  This is April, it’s raining, here’s some poetry that loosely fits.  But that I think is unlikely.  What is more likely is that McLuhan was well aware of the dark meaning of that line of poetry, and of the darker meaning of the epigram that introduces the poem.  April, Eliot is saying, is cruel because it wakens the world from its painless sleep to the misery of life in the wasteland.  To McLuhan his current life of sharply constrained communication must have felt like a wasteland.  The epigram of the poem is a passage from The Satyricon by Petronius.  A scene is played out in the town square of ancient Cumae where the Sibyl – a prophetess  – is imprisoned in a cage and is being taunted by a gang of children.  “What do you want, Sibyl, they cry.”  And she says,“I want to die.”

I wrote to Patrick Watson about the story of “April is the cruelest month.”  He didn’t want to speak to me about this over the phone.  Instead he asked me to send him questions by e-mail.  I asked him a two-part question: Was the story true, that McLuhan had actually said this particular line of poetry, and what did he (Patrick Watson) say after McLuhan said it.  He wrote me back the next day, to confirm that the story was true and add a question of his own, but unfortunately he left the second part of my question unanswered. (His e-mail reads: “Yes, I think that’s true. Do you know the source of the line?”)  Too bad.  I’d hoped to be able to discern from his answer something about McLuhan’s state of mind and his at the time.   Wonder?  Joy?  Amazement?  Foreboding?  Sorrow?  Indifference?  Or what?  Perhaps he couldn’t remember, or didn’t want to.  But it doesn’t matter all that much now because McLuhan’s stroke and what happened afterward is not my concern.  It was tragic, but it did not cause McLuhan to lose his genius.

That happened I believe a dozen years earlier in New York City, in November 1967 in the course of a long and harrowing operation McLuhan underwent to remove a brain tumor.  Saying this I know will anger and upset many people, not only his surviving family and friends, but thousands of his followers around the world bound together by the internet.  (The truth McLuhan liked to say, quoting Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot “is whatever upsets the apple cart.”)  My intention however is not to upset people, especially the people who loved him, but to tell a story that needs to be told.  A story that provides the best answer to a question that appeared in a New Yorker cartoon in 1970 when McLuhan’s celebrity was clearly ebbing:  Says she to he on leaving a party “Are you sure it isn’t too early to ask, ‘Whatever happened to Marshall McLuhan?’ ”  The story explains much about his life and work that otherwise would remain a mystery.  In particular the decline in the quality of his work and the decay of his reputation after 1967.  McLuhan you will discover did not die a genius tragically trapped inside a body that didn’t work.  He died more tragically as a man who used to be a genius trapped inside a mind he found increasingly hard to recognize and to be reconciled with.

Part 2 tomorrow

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Michael Hinton Tuesday, February 16th, 2010
Permalink 1970s and 80s, Vol. 1 1 Comment

1 Comment to Now for something completely different

  • michael edmunds says:

    Some argue that McLuhan’s originality peaked in the 50’s. Everything that followed was a rehash of the 40’s and 50’s work, is the gist. McLuhan’s own view of the rehab from 67 is that he had to “relearn” stuff. I think he did. McLuhan in my view didn’t take the next steps in his project from that point for a lot of reasons- personal and professional. what would they have been? Probably a blend of Wyndham Lewis and James Joyce. The great leap from the Ivory Tower to the Control Tower was/is the inevitable conclusion of his project. Who was going to let that happen? In other words media ecology isn’t a benign activity (in the wrong or right hands.) Trudeau, the Pope offered kudos publicly, but back stage they ignored him; he wasn’t given his media ecology captain’s license.

    Don’t forget April ref by Eliot is referred back to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Marchand points out McLuhan’s reading the Tales to his kids on road trips (p144.) so his aside to PW is likely multi-dimensional.

    Finally there’s a view that 1967 haunted him and Fordham in more ways than decay. That’s for another day

    Look forward to part 2. and an explanation as to why you’re doing it!

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