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.

How Wyndham Lewis said no

Marshall McLuhan (December, 1944, age 33).  Wyndham Lewis’s sketch is insulting

Yesterday, recall, I said that great painter Wyndham Lewis presented me with a gift, a charcoal sketch that was really quite a shock.  It upset me.  Why he drew me this way I still do not know.  The fact that it is insulting is obvious.

Michael Hinton (October, 2009, age 57).  Why and how the sketch insults

The sketch, recall, shows Marshall McLuhan sitting, legs crossed, looking directly at you. McLuhan has one eye, a big left ear and the top half of his head, brain and all, is missing.  McLuhan’s biographers say the portrait upset McLuhan, but they do not say why.  It could be McLuhan was hurt because the portrait was unflattering, but that is unlikely.

Here is what I think McLuhan found insulting about the drawing.¬† Lewis did not idly draw McLuhan as one-eyed.¬† The one-eyed figure of Greek and Roman mythology is the Cyclops.¬† A race of giants who work in mines deep below the ground, with lamps hung from their foreheads to light their labours, making iron for the god Vulcan to forge thunder bolts for Jove.¬† In this poison-pen portrait McLuhan is the Cyclops, labouring away in the mines of academia teaching English literature and Lewis is Vulcan.¬† Vulcan, if you look up the legend, fell from grace by conspiring with Juno in a plot against Jupiter and was cast off Mount Olympus.¬† Vulcan landed on the island of Lemnos. (Lewis was cast out of London and landed with McLuhan in St. Louis.)¬† Because¬†Vulcan’s wife Venus had an affair with Mars, Vulcan is also known as the patron of cuckolds.

The portrait is a medium.¬† And Lewis’s poisonous message¬†is that Marshall McLuhan is¬†an intellectual slave.¬†[McLuhan was inspired¬†by Wyndham Lewis’s writings.¬† In particular, his¬†idea of the critical role¬†artists play in society and the way technologies wrap around and enclose people, separating them from one another and their sense of the world about them.]

Both McLuhan and Lewis were trained critics.  For them this way of thinking in terms of ancient legends and symbols was not a leap, but a natural and obvious step to take.

Take a look at the sketch. (You can find it in Fitzgerald’s book on page 56.)  What do you think?   Is it insulting?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Fitzgerald, Judith.  Marshall McLuhan: Wise Guy.  Montreal: XYZ Publishing, 2001, pp. 56-62.

Gordon, W. Terrence.  Marshall McLuhan: Escape into understanding. Toronto: Stoddart, 1997, pp. 117-121.

Marchand, Philip.  Marshall McLuhan: The medium and the messenger.  Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989; 1998.

‚ÄúCyclops,‚ÄĚ and ‚ÄúVulcan‚ÄĚ in The Brewer Dictionary of Phrase and Fable.

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Michael Hinton Wednesday, October 21st, 2009
Permalink 1930s and 40s, Communication, Culture, Vol. 1 2 Comments

2 Comments to How Wyndham Lewis said no

  • mcluhan prophecy says:

    No the single eye the large ear allude to the various sensory inputs heightened or diminished by our media extensions. Lewis was right on beam with that sketch!
    I don’t myself believe that MM was that upset with the pic. If anything he probably wished for a full scale portrait rather than the sketch!

  • Michael says:

    Interesting. The part about the large ear and one eye. Looking at the sketch again i can see many ways the theme of extensions or the senses are played out in it. Thanks for the observation.

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