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.

The meaning of poetry or the truth is whatever upsets the apple cart

Marshall McLuhan (April, 1980, age 79). Listen to what I’m saying

Ah. Yes.  Err. April is the cruelest month.

Me (October 2009, age 57). Here is what I hear

On September 26, 1979 Marshall McLuhan had a stroke.  The stroke took away his power to speak, read, and write.  All he could say were forced short words like ah, yes, no, and oh boy.  Seven months later he’s in his house with his friend Patrick Watson and out comes this bit of poetry.  It’s from The Wasteland, by T. S. Eliot, “April is the cruelest month.”  (…breeding/ Lilacs out of the deadland, mixing/ Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.”)

What was he trying to say?  Simply that it was April, and wet, and oh boy here’s a bit of poetry for you, Patrick?  Perhaps but there is a deeper, darker message McLuhan might have been trying to send.  He must have been extremely sad and frustrated by his inability to speak.  Speaking was when he was most creative and when he was happiest.  And remember McLuhan must have taught this poem in his modern’s course many times in the 50-odd years he’d taught at universities.  He must have talked to his students many times about the dark epigraph to the Wasteland which ushers in the first line.  The epigraph to the poem, is in Latin and Greek, and is from Petronius, The Satyricon.  Fortunately my copy of the poem includes a translation of the passage.  Briefly:  The Sybil, a prophetess, is locked in an iron cage in the public square of the ancient Roman town of Cumae from where she delivers her prophecies.  Young boys are throwing stones at her and taunting her.  “Sybil, Sybil, what do you want?’   And she says “I want to die?”  Did McLuhan cry?  Was he emotional?  We don’t know.  When I interviewed Patrick Watson about this, he told me that he didn’t remember.

Do you know anyone who suffered a stroke like Marshall McLuhan did?  How did they communicate with other people?  What do you think McLuhan was trying to say?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

The Letters of Marshall McLuhan. Selected and edited by Matie Molinaro, Corinne McLuhan, and William Toye. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1987, p. 546-547.

T.S. Eliot. The Wasteland

Tags: ,

Michael Hinton Saturday, November 21st, 2009
Permalink 1970s and 80s, Communication, Vol. 1 No Comments

Leave a Reply