Bright Ideas

The Medium and the Messenger
By Philip Marchand
Random House; 307 pp.

He had a habit of eating from other people’s plates and used to carry a piece of old cheese around in his briefcase. He loved puns and gags and word play, and once wrote to Alan Shepard, the astronaut, soliciting any good jokes making the rounds at NASA. He thought loud tartan was perfect for business meetings – in his view, it conveyed a sense of canniness – and he had a red-and-black tartan blazer specially tailored from a fabric incorporating the maple leaf. In 1969, at the height of counter-cultural agitation, he seriously suggested to Pierre Trudeau that the prime minister might profit from dressing likewise.

He was as colorful a character as this country has ever produced, and he was certainly among the best known: beyond our own borders, few Canadians other than Gretzky, Ben Johnson and Trudeau himself enjoy the fame (or the notoriety) that once attached to a gangly Toronto academic named Herbert Marshall McLuhan.

In a way, McLuhan outshone them all. Scandals and heroes in sport come and go. A politician, no matter what his or her stature, is still only a politician. But McLuhan sought to play in the major league of Big Ideas: to leave an enduring imprint on nothing less than Western thinking. His work, he hinted, promised not only a radically new understanding, but a radically new way of understanding. It wasn’t print that was as good as dead, but an obsolescent form of rationality.

At the time, the issue was fairly straightforward. Was McLuhan, as his acolytes and promoters insisted, a genuine savant – a modern-day Descartes in an age of Drive-O-Mats? Or was he a charlatan, a prankster, a confused and deluded flake, as his various detractors loudly protested?

But times change, and nine years after his death the question of whether the tweedy man who lunched with royalty and hobnobbed with industrialists was a genius or a fruitcake has become irrelevant. Instead, as Philip Marchand so ably recognizes, what still fascinates is how he ever managed to become so monumentally famous. Celebrity is the key to understanding the McLuhan phenomenon.

In 1965, Harper’s ran one of the first of the flattering portraits that would bring him to public attention, a piece by Richard Schickel titled “Marshall McLuhan: Canada’s Intellectual Comet.” Even in the beginning, the image was not of a new star in the intellectual heavens, but of a bright, streaking, temporary presence. Less than five years later, the New Yorker would feature a cartoon of a young couple leaving a cocktail party, the woman saying to the man: “Ashley, are you sure it’s not too soon to go around parties saying: ‘What ever happened to Marshall McLuhan?’ ”

Explaining how such a trajectory came about means coming to grips with the man, his work and his extraordinary times. Marchand does all three, and more besides: he has written a stylish, witty and hugely perceptive book that immediately vaults its author from accomplished magazine journalist to the front rank of biographers.

Into the bargain, he finally resolves the question of whether McLuhan was a pioneering intellect or the guru of gibberish. The answer is both. And neither. Context, Marchand makes clear, is everything.

The result is a book that is all at once a searching biography, a map of post-war literary theory, a chronicle of the cut-and-thrust politics at the University of Toronto, an intellectual history of the ’60s and the best sustained evaluation of McLuhan’s work yet published. It also doesn’t hurt that the life of Marshall McLuhan makes for one hell of a story.

To begin with, he was convinced he would leave his mark on the world. Certainly, he had the pedigree for it: like many “great men” his father was a gentle soul – a handsome, easy-going raconteur – while his mother was fierce-willed, religious and indomitable, a professional orator at a time when married women did not pursue careers. They fought constantly, and for Marshall, the eldest son, their Winnipeg household was a boot camp for debates to come. As an adult, he could be wounded by personal attacks in print, but his self-assurance and dexterity were such that he never lost an argument face-to-face.

He took that fiery confidence to Cambridge University, where he learned the techniques of the New Criticism from I.A. Richards and F.R. Leavis: no more was the study of literature to be a moribund celebration of artistic “genius,” but rather the examination of how literature creates meaning – that is, the effect of a work on the reader.

It was an insight McLuhan would later apply to mass communication. He was not so much interested in the content of the media as in their forms: how did the social and psychological effects of television, for example, differ from those of print? But even more important, he learned from his mentors at Cambridge that clarity of insight comes only from escaping entrenched and hidebound ways of seeing. It was his impish refusal to adhere to any received canon that so infuriated his critics – particularly when he extended such iconoclasm to traditional methods of scholarly analysis, the very bedrock of academic rationalism.

An incident at Columbia University in 1955 was typical. He had just delivered an invited lecture and was facing the usual mix of outrage and denuciation when he cut his critics short. “You don’t like those ideas?” he shrugged. “I got others.” McLuhan always refused to perpetuate the musty culture of the academy; his pronouncements were “probes” or “percepts,” not the Truth, and were to be valued only inasmuch as they rattled the cage of ordained understanding.

That type of hubris would likely have ruined rather than propelled his career (particularly since his books were largely unreadable collages of splintered insights and convoluted aphorisms – sloganeering masquerading as scholarship) if not for the tenor of the times. In the wild and woolly ’60s, McLuhan became the darling of the day precisely because of his unorthodox stance. In a sense, it didn’t matter if what he said was incomprehensible; what mattered was that he scandalized established thinking.

Ironically enough, it was the Establishment itself – in particular, American companies – that made him a wealthy man. There seemed to be no shortage of corporate vice-presidents eager to hear the new learning direct from the source, and throughout his career he was promoted by a series of admirers who saw him not only as a seer but as a walking cash register.

But it’s in the measured accumulation of small detail that the big picture emerges. Marchand has been painstaking in his research, poring through McLuhan’s writings, his letters, his diaries, conducting extensive interviews with family, friends and enemies. The portrait he offers is of a benign, infuriating and almost magical figure.

Take, for example, McLuhan’s brain surgery. In 1967, in an operation that lasted more than 17 hours (at the time, the longest neurosurgical operation in the history of American medicine), McLuhan had a tumor the size of a tennis ball removed from his skull. When he woke from the anesthetic – a moment that most patients spend hallucinating – a surgeon asked him how he was feeling. According to the story that rocketed through the hospital, McLuhan had the presence of mind to respond that it all depended on how one defined “feeling.”

Four years later, his physicians discovered that his internal carotid arteries, which supply blood to the brain, had contracted dangerously, and further surgery was called for – a prospect that filled McLuhan with horror. And yet, just before surgery was to be scheduled, a final angiography revealed that his external carotid artery had formed huge connecting channels to his brain and was pumping the necessary blood via a decidedly unconventional route. It was a condition common in cats but almost never seen in humans: McLuhan had the arteries of a tiger. One couldn’t hope for a more pristinely symbolic incident (although McLuhan, an early and earnest convert to Catholicism, preferred to see his reprieve from the surgeon’s knife as the work of divine intervention).

In sum, McLuhan merits such a skilled and compelling biography, not because his work was of historical significance (it wasn’t), but because his life was. On returning from Cambridge in 1936 he announced: “I am going to tear the hide right off Canada some day and rub salt into it” – an impulse shared by every young Canadian of any ambition dismayed at the suffocating mediocrity of the national culture. McLuhan deserves attention and applause if only because he actually managed to do

  • Montreal Gazette April 8, 1989