Letters of Marshall McLuhan

by Corinne McLuhan, Matie Molinaro, William Toye,
576 pages,
ISBN: 0195405943

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Village Scribe
by Brian Fawcett

TH THE PUBLICATION of this overdue collection of letters, it should be clear to anyone still not convinced that Marshall McLuhan is among the small company of intellectual geniuses Canada has thus far produced. Arguably, he has been our most exciting and original thinker, and the partial eclipse of his reputation in the past decade is an indictment of our national short sightedness and mediocrity. We seem content to lavish our "high" cultural attentions on one eyed English walruses like Robertson Davies, while our truly public attentions go to shallow media stars like David Suzuki, Rick Hansen, and Wayne Gretzky.

Having grown up thinking that Marshall McLuhan was halfway between an idiot savant and the Devil incarnate, I found his letters a revelation. Despite some uneven and occasionally selfserving editing, the editors of the volume have produced a book that is of international interest, one that provides major clarifications of McLuhan's extremely elliptical theoretical opus, and is a testimony to just how far ahead of his time Marshall McLuhan's thinking reached. For students of McLuhan, the book is of course compulsory. Personally, I'd venture to say that no one concerned with the structure of contemporary reality can afford not to read it.

You can skip the first 172 pages of the book, which are really little more than juvenilia. It consists chiefly of his letters to his mother, his wife to be, Corinne, and other family members. Towards the end, there is a rather silly correspondence with Wyndham Lewis, the English writer and portraitist, that chiefly documents McLuhan's partly successful attempts to help Lewis make money by painting portraits of the leading citizens of St. Louis, where McLuhan was teaching in a Jesuit college. It demonstrates McLuhan's generosity, but little else except that Lewis was a bit of a jerk: nothing new there.

The letters and McLuhan's genius really took off after 1946, reached their apex in the 1950s and continued with barely declining intensity until a stroke disabled McLuhan permanently in September 1979. Of topical interest are the extended correspondences with Ezra Pound, 1948 to 1953, and the correspondence in the 1970s with Pierre Elliott Trudeau. The meat of the volume however, is elsewhere in the letters to people like Harold Innis, David Riesman, Walter Ong, Wilfred Watson, Peter Drucker, and then president of the University of Toronto, Claude Bissell. In these letters, McLuhan develops, reshapes, and restates his often obscure theoretical concerns in ways that allow us to evaluate them more fully than ever before.

The letters reveal McLuhan's genius as an uneven one, created (rather than marred) by profound imbalances and idiosyncrasies. His Jesuit Christian background (and his life long adherence to Christian intellectual habits and spiritual goals), his democratic optimism, and his almost fetishistic attachment to the Newtonian paradigm all play powerful roles in his thinking and, oddly, contribute to its originality. He was both what the editors of the volume have gone to considerable lengths to make him appear a deeply conservative family man, a Christian and respectable University of Toronto faculty member and the intellectual hooligan he considered himself to be. In short, though he was not a typical Canadian, he was certainly an exemplary one. He could have come from no other location and culture than ours.

Although he argued, at times vociferously, that the extrapolations he made about the consequences of mass telecommunications and other aspects of information growth were morally and politically neutral, his letters reveal him as a captive of his intellectual training and his Christian values. He didn't really see the extent to which corporate technopreneurs and political authoritarians would sequester his discoveries for their own narrow purposes. Nor did he foresee that the rapid development of miniand microcomputers would create a whole new and privatized technological elite class. The global village that has resulted is a much more complex, undemocratic and potentially dangerous interdependency than he imagined, governed more by short sighted barbarism than by visions of the universal liberation of the human mind and body. In particular, his democratic optimism blinded him as it has George Steiner and others to the poverty of social resources that would result from the return to tribalism in a mass and electronically manipulated form.

We do not have the luxury of assuming that the global village Marshall McLuhan imagined will be the best of all possible worlds. We're in it, and it is demonstrably not as sweet and generous as he thought it would be. We should, however, credit him for being among the first to glimpse its key components and its structure, and for having seen more of it than any single mind on the planet.

For that, he should be accorded every honour. Most of all, he should be read and thought about, so we can employ his massive insights and correct his errors.


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