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.

Want to write like Milton?

Marshall McLuhan (April 20, 1964, age 52). Hendiadys is the key.

At breakfast I remarked to Corinne and the children that Ernest Sirlock’s remarkable article on Milton’s prose got me thinking about Milton’s use of the grammatical figure of Hendiadys.  Blank looks all around.  No matter – this is important.  Hendiadys is the mark of the 17th century mind.  A mind conditioned to look at the world ambivalently.  Not simply as “A” or “B” but “A” and “B”.  I looked again at Paradise Lost.  Do you know that Milton uses this device 19 times in the first 100 lines? “Death and Woe,” “Restore and regain,” “Raise and support” et cetera and ad infinitum!  Someone should study this.

Me (February 2010, age 57).  Let’s study it

But let’s study it not in Milton’s prose but Marshall McLuhan’s.  “Hendiadys” is a figure of speech, a “striking or unusual configuration of words or phrases.”  It is a Greek word meaning, “one by means of two.”  Richard Lanham (A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms) defines it as the”expression of an idea by two nouns connected by “and” instead of a noun and its qualifier.”  He gives as an example, “Not  you, coy Madame, your lowers and your looks,’ for “your lowering looks.”  If we apply this model to McLuhan’s examples from Milton we get the following translations: “deathly woe,” “restorative regain,” and “raising support.”

McLuhan is struck by the number of times he finds hendiadys appearing in the first 100 lines of Paradise Lost – 19.  How many times do you think we could find hendiadys appearing in the first 100 lines of his best seller Understanding Media published in 1964?  2 or 3?  I counted 20.  Here are the first three: “fragmentary and mechanical,” “space and time,” “collectively and corporately.”

Did Marshall McLuhan have a 17th century mind?   Did he intentionally edit his prose to increase its “complexity and ambivalence” (excuse my hendiadys)?  Would this feature, rather than the number of new ideas, say, be the real reason Understanding Media is difficult to understand?  Can you use hendiadys to effect in your writing to increase its power and profundity?

Cordially, Marshall and Me

Reading for this post

Letters of Marshall McLuhan, 1987, p.298.

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Michael Hinton Friday, March 5th, 2010
Permalink 1950s and 60s, Communication, Vol. 1 No Comments

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