Series in Progress:
Part 1: Updated July 3, 2017
Part 2 July 9, 2017
Additional Topics for Further Research
- McLuhan’s books, including The Lost Tetrads of Marshall McLuhan. Also books by Eric McLuhan.
- Films that include McLuhan, such as Annie Hall: IMDB page: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0572956/?ref_=fn_al_nm_1
- July 5, 2017 audio interview with son, Eric McLuhan, and grandson Andrew: https://entitledopinions.stanford.edu/eric-mcluhan-marshall-mcluhan.
Interview includes references to other resources.
- Many resources, including audio interviews at this site: https://mcluhangalaxy.wordpress.com/
McLuhan’s English Tutor at Cambridge was Lionel Elvin. As per the editor’s footnote (21, Oct. 6, 1934), Elvin later became Principal of Ruskin College, Oxford and Director of the Education Department of UNESCO, later holding different positions at London University.
Letters are often addressed to his father, mother and brother. His brother Maurice was a United Church of Canada minister from 1943 to 1962 and worked for his brother’s Center for Culture and Technology from 1969 to 1972 as a researcher and speaker (25, editor’s comments re. Oct. 19/20, 1934).
McLuhan, in a letter to his family (28, Oct. 19/20, 1934) recommended Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man (1925) (encyclopedic in scope) as a self-educational tool. This book was Chesterton’s non-materialist response to The Outline of History by H. G. Wells (28, footnote). Other letters contained advice to his brother on literature, study and reading.
There are many comments and recommendations McLuhan makes about literature in his letters and I’m just selecting a few here and there that seem significant to me.
To his brother (39, Nov. 10, 1934), he recommended Chesterton’s book on St. Thomas (St. Thomas Aquinas: the Dumb Ox (1933)) because it has to do with Plato’s and Aristotle’s impact on Christianity, including a clear explanation of their theories of knowledge (“how we know and know we can know“). He emphasizes how much difficulty he had with this topic and realized how important it was (after reading Kant).
Artistotle [sic] heartily accepts the senses just as Browning did, and says
. . .
Let us cry ‘All good things
Are ours, nor soul helps flesh more, now, than flesh helps
soul.’ [from Robert Browning’s “Rabbi Ben Ezra”]
And that is why great Aquinas accepted Aristotle into Christian theology (39).
For an exhaustive handling of this subject, he recommends Caird’s History of Ancient Philosophy, but the editor can’t identify this book. After searching the Internet and online bookstores, it’s not clear to me about whether he is referring to Edward Caird or his brother John (Google Books search finds British Idealism: A History by W. J. Mander, which mentions an early essay on Plato’s philosophy (75). One of Edward Caird’s books is listed here (http://www.iep.utm.edu/caird/#H5): The Collected Works of Edward Caird, 12 Volumes, Ed. and Introd. Colin Tyler, Bristol, UK: Thoemmes Press, 1999.
In the same letter, McLuhan advises his brother that Herbert Spencer is a “fusty old rationalist. . . . less than nothing” as a thinker (39).
To his mother (December 6, 1934), he praises the poet T. S. Eliot (42).
In a letter to his brother (December 1934), he recommends Advice to Young Men (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/15510/15510-h/15510-h.htm) and Rural Rides (http://www.gutenberg.org/files/34238/34238-h/34238-h.htm) by William Cobbett.
I. A. Richards: Even though the bio (http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/discover/biography-people/mcluhan/Pages/mcluhan.aspx) referred to in Part 1 states that McLuhan was influenced by I. A. Richards, McLuhan (Jan 18, 1935 letter to his mother) refers to the humanist theory behind Richards’ experiments in prose criticism as “ghastly atheistic nonsense” (50).
Richards was the co-founder of Basic English and McLuhan took a course from him on the Philosophy of Rhetoric (50, editor’s footnote). Based on his experiments, Richards produced a book, Practical Criticism: A Study of Literary Judgement (1929). Also the editor mentions how Richards is associated with the “New Criticism,” which focused on an analysis of the text itself separate from its background.
Note that I. A. Richards was a participant in the later Macy conferences on cybernetics (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macy_conferences).
Jacques Maritain: In a letter to his brother and family (53, February 1935), McLuhan recommends Jacques Maritain’s Introduction to Philosophy (1932). McLuhan describes Maritain as one of the key interpreters of Thomas Aquinas.
McLuhan, in the same letter, mentions that he came to the conclusion that Aristotle is the “soundest basis” for Christian doctrine (53).
On the other hand, he connects Plato’s views as leading to Calvinism (55, letter to family, February 5, 1935). He says that Plato is Puritan in his views on art. The editor’s footnote claims that this is because Plato refers in some places to all images as being deceptive, but I also think that McLuhan may have been thinking of Plato’s Republic, which asserts the need to control plays and poetry because of their effect on the public’s beliefs. The editor (55) explains that “anamnesis” was Plato’s doctrine that the truth carries over from a past life and is inherent in us. This is elaborated (via Neo-Platonism) by Augustine (if truth is God, then God is in us). God being in the elect is basic to Calvin (as the editor claims). McLuhan says that Augustinian monks developed Plato’s philosophy and Luther was one of them (55).
McLuhan (62, letter to family, Feb 27, 1935) mentions a speech given at Cambridge by architect Ernst Freud. He describes him as a “functionalist” and materialist, and refers to him as the son of the “notorious” psychologist (62). The talk mentioned efforts to connect the house to outdoors through a new kind of doors and windows. Central heating meant that the home was no longer centered on the hearth, so there was more interest in windows (63).
On Empire: McLuhan (63, letter to mother, Mar 7/35) agrees with his mother that he is not the “John Bull type.” Chib, his Hindu friend at Cambridge, explained to him about about how the British ensure the loyalty of their Indian Princes—by taking them away from their parents at 7 and keeping them in special schools for 10 to 12 years. There they are taught only a “crooked version” of English history and encouraged to pursue “golf cricket and women” (63).
In the same letter, he mentions a talk by socialist H. N. Brailsford on Voltaire and dismisses it as “rotten,” concluding that Brailsford hasn’t read beyond his “Marxist interests” (65).
On Fabian agenda: In a letter to his family (65, March 31, 1935), he refers to T. S. Eliot as “the great English-speaking poet” and “clearest-headed critic of literature,” being inspired by T. S. Eliot’s statement in Thoughts After Lambeth (1931):
. . . The World is trying the experiment of attempting to form a civilized but non-Christian mentality. The experiment will fail, but we must be very patient in awaiting its collapse; . . . so that the faith may be preserved . . . through the dark ages before us; to renew and rebuild civilization, and save the world from suicide [65, March 31, 1935]
McLuhan comments that Eliot is an Anglo-Catholic. Referring to Fabian advocate of scientific dictatorship, H. G. Wells, McLuhan praises Eliot’s description of the “dark ages before us” in contrast to those who “gibber cravenly in Wellsian fashion of vulgar Utopias” (65). However, I think Eliot’s advice to Christians seems to be very passive. In other words, “let the social engineers do their thing. It will fail. We just have to wait and keep the faith alive.” I think it’s similar to the advice given by modern evangelicals who promote the idea of an end-time apocalypse and a “rapture”. In so many words, Just let the world fall into the hands of evil, and God will fix things up afterwards. Just keep the faith. I don’t believe that’s a valid strategy.
In the same letter to his family, (65-66, March 31, 1935), McLuhan discusses The Turn of the Screw by Henry James and describes it as story of “indescribable horror and loathsomeness,” about how two small children become “obsessed by 2 foul spirits.” Any famous book has potential significance in terms of its possible use in social engineering and might be examined in retrospect for the attention it was given in the media. It’s interesting what Wikipedia says about it (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Turn_of_the_Screw):
Due to its original content, The Turn of the Screw became a favourite text of academics who subscribe to New Criticism. The novella has had differing interpretations, often mutually exclusive.
Also, in the same letter, McLuhan praised very highly Juan in America by Eric Linklater. Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Linklater, accessed June 11, 2017) refers to someone taking issue with Linklater’s “conservative social and historical assumptions.”
Among other topics (letter to family, May 17, 1935), McLuhan mentions seeing Fritz Lang’s film M (1931), which was based on real-life child-killings in Germany. Also he described the song of a a nightingale on the radio as “unbelievably rich and full” (67, May 16/17, 1935).
He also mentions having tea with literary critics, lecturer F. R. Leavis and his wife Q. D. Leavis (both former students of I. A. Richards). Leavis appears to be an interesting character who McLuhan describes as “an uncompromising idealist . . . ” who “clashed with old “Q” [Quiller-Couch]” at this event, and worked hard for his students. The editor’s footnote (67) explains more about Leavis introducing “rigorous standards and a new seriousness into English criticism.” Leavis was the chief editor of the periodical Scrutiny (67). Leavis was friends with A . G. Russell, the Chesterton enthusiast. McLuhan attended one of Leavis’ (“not a Communist”) open houses for students and McLuhan argued with a “nest of Communists” (67).
McLuhan attended a lecture on monetary reform by Arthur Kitson (67). As per footnote, Kitson was an inventor and also president of the Banking and Currency Reform League.
In a letter to his mother (69-71, June 8, 1935), McLuhan expresses his ideals related to Chesterton’s distributist philosophy. He dreamed about owning an orchard in the Maritimes and trading for other articles as much as possible rather than buying and selling, which is “the deadly curse of our civilization” (71). “If property . . . has any value . . . it is to provide the bases and bulwarks of liberty.” To make this point, he mentions a couple of people who suffered for their ideals. William Cobbett (journalist imprisoned for opposition to flogging in the army) (71, footnote) could eat the food from his own farm. In contrast, King Gordon (lost his position at a theological college in Montreal for his socialist beliefs) had to depend on charity.
The editor’s footnote elaborates on King Gordon, whose beliefs don’t seem to have anything to do with McLuhan’s (whose concern I assume is academic freedom) other than their shared religious faiths. He was the Chair of Christian Ethics at United Theological College in Montreal (United Church of Canada). Gordon was involved in forming the League for Social Reconstruction (1932) (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/League_for_Social_Reconstruction), and also with a church group that became known as the “Fellowship for a Christian Social Order” (references here: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/social-gospel/ – http://historicalpapers.journals.yorku.ca/index.php/historicalpapers/article/viewFile/39437/35762 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Church_of_Canada – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirby_Page). It’s very interesting how King Gordon’s beliefs seem to be backed up by society and he “went on to a successful career as an editor, a United Nations staff member, and a teacher” (71, footnote). We’re not living in a “Christian Social Order” now, right? Possibly they had some good points in criticizing capitalism, but it doesn’t seem like there has been any victory for property rights, freedoms and traditional values at all.
To me, a workable alternative society would have property rights. Also there would plenty of room for the traditional concept of resources held in common (“the commons”). It would not require religion in the sense of specific doctrines about particular supernatural occurrences. Such a society would uphold respect for the sacredness of human life (caring for the sick, elderly, disabled, etc.), and it would uphold respect for the inviolate nature of the individual’s freedom of conscience and choice–that is, even if the person is punished for a crime, the body, mind and soul is not treated like clay to be molded by “society”. These ideals are what protect us from being completely turned into machine-like slaves that can be molded any which way with drugs and other abuse.
Continued: Part 3