Table of Contents
EDWIN J. BARTON
ON THE EZRA POUND/ MARSHALL MCLUHAN CORRESPONDENCE
The manifold appeals in The Laws of Media to literature and the structures of language, particularly the attention given to "language as a tool of investigation" in the chapter entitled "Media Poetics" (LOM 215-239), should remind us that Marshall McLuhan came to his studies of technology and media through the agency of literary and linguistic analysis.
This background explains not only the accustomed recourses in his prose to certain fertile texts but also his insistence on viewing all media and/or technology as words having four-part or metaphorical structures. The question of how McLuhan arrived at this means of applying linguistic and literary analysis to the study of media is answered, in part, in his correspondence with Ezra Pound.
The years during which Pound and McLuhan corresponded, 1948-57, were all but identical with the term of Pound's incarceration at St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the Criminally Insane. It is clear from his initial letter that McLuhan was primarily interested in matters of aesthetic theory and literary techniques:My friend Mr. Kenner and I are much looking forward to a visit and some talk with you about contemporary letters, and your work, in which we have long taken serious interest (31 May 1948).By 1948, however, Pound had become less amenable to discussing such subjects. Indeed, Pound's reply to a second letter, which was obviously calculated to engage him on subjects (as it no doubt seemed to McLuhan) of great literary import, must have proved quite a shock. For in return for a battery of questions and observations about Pound's poetry and prose, McLuhan received a note of less than thirty words, the substantive body of which reads,Yu go right on writin' me letters-but dont xpect me to answer questions-even if answers are known-(printed)" (18 [June] 1948).
A more thorough explanation of this reticence arrived some few days later in the form of a letter from Dorothy Pound, although this proved only slightly more encouraging.E.P. is more interested in agenda, than in analysis of the past. To get a few of you scholars to combine and break the deadlock of all live scholarship; improve the curriculum by definitely insisting on a better set of 50 (or even 100) books... He says some, indeed, most of your questions are answered in the 80 cantos...(21 [June] 1948)
These letters, both in content and tone, are fairly typical of the first half of their correspondence. McLuhan went right on writing letters filled with literary questions and insights, and Pound (or his wife, acting as amanuensis) kept insisting that the grounds for discussion ought to be a serious agenda: "ideas going into action." And yet, even if it would be fair to say that McLuhan and Pound were sometimes content to use each other as a sounding board, it would be wrong to conclude from this sampling that either side was simply disregarding the other. For his part, McLuhan was genuinely interested in learning from one of the great masters of modernist poetry and prose. On the other side, as McLuhan would come to see, Pound was genuinely trying to answer his questions in a way that would make learning, or paideuma as he called it, possible.
As regards McLuhan Studies, these early letters prove enlightening in that they help us to gauge McLuhan's interest in and progress toward developing a mode of analysis suited to investigating the structural relations between technology and culture. Indeed, it may well have been Pound's insistence that "most of your questions are answered in the 80 cantos," along with his invitation to "go right on writin' me," that led McLuhan to discover his second calling. As he was fond of telling students at the University of Toronto and elsewhere, it was his studies in "Joyce-Pound-Eliot" that enabled him to move from the analysis of literature per se to an examination of technology and culture in toto. Each of these writers taught McLuhan how to appreciate "technique as content," the vorticist dynamic that would enable him to arrive at the concept embodied in the now famous aphorism "the medium is the message." In particular, McLuhan's presentation of his investigations into formal relations between language, technology, and culture was strongly influenced by the ideogrammic structure of Pound's poetry and prose.
After their visit to St. Elizabeth's in early June of 1948, McLuhan and Hugh Kenner began in earnest to study the Cantos. As a means to doing so with greater comprehension and efficiency, they took to reading Pound's prose works side by side with the poetry. This technique seems to have proved very profitable for McLuhan. Almost immediately he began to pick up Pound's habit of expressing himself, as McLuhan would later phrase it, "according to the Aristotelean principle of metaphor": that is, by means of analogical ratios tersely juxtaposed. That McLuhan rapidly adopted and developed for his own purpose this way of thinking and writing becomes strikingly clear in a letter of June 1948:The Pisan Cantos are truly wonderful, showing a range of experience that it would be mere impertinence for me to praise. Are not your affinities (so far as English poetry goes) with Ben Jonson? The same plastic and sculptured world?
The prime diffficulty of your poetry-The Cantos-so far as contemporary readers are concerned is the intensely masculine mode. This is an age of psychologism and womb-worship. Your clear resonance and etched contours are intolerable for twilight readers who repose only in implications. (16 June 1948)
I do not mean to say that McLuhan was beholden only to Pound for this technique of arranging his insights tersely and analogically; he was, to be sure, indebted to Harold Innis and many others as well. What I do mean to suggest is that the analogical ratios expressed above, for instance, run not only between Pound and Jonson as lapidary poets but also between these two and the poets of "sensibility," past and present. That is to say, McLuhan manages to place Pound in relation to contemporary poetry as well as among the traditions of English. In this way, past and present find a common and simultaneous ground. Moreover, McLuhan demonstrates an awareness of how artists have tended to respond, sympathetically or otherwise, to what "the age demanded" as Pound puts it in his Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. The contemporary "age of psychologism and wombworship," that is to say, is placed in ratio to the sensibility of certain writers of Jonson's age. This is a technique that McLuhan would later remark in an essay on "Pound's Critical Prose":. . . when [Pound] says that Sweeney Agonistes contains more essential criticism of Seneca than Mr. Eliot's essays on English Senecanism we have a typical observation whose form is that of exact juxtapostion. It is not a casual [causal?] statement but an ideogram, a presentation of an analogical proportion depending on a precise analysis of Seneca, on the one hand, and of Sweeney Agonistes, on the other. (IL 79)
It was precisely this technique-namely, the use of inclusive and holophrastic allusion in combination with the ratio of analogy-that enabled McLuhan to develop his studies on the relations between technology and culture. McLuhan himself was to articulate this method more fully in a letter of June 1951:Also I'm interested in such analogies with modern poetry as that provided by the vacuum tube. The latter can tap a huge reservoir of electrical energy, picking it up as a very weak impulse. Then it can shape it and amplify it to major intensity. Technique of allusion as you use it (situational analogies) seems comparable to this type of circuit. Allusion not as ornament but as precise means of making available total energy of any previous situation or culture. Shaping and amplifying it for current use. (12 June 1951)
Through his reading of Pound's poetry and prose McLuhan had discovered a technique for flooding all the past into the present: that is, to a way of presenting historical pattern, change, or development concisely, by means of metaphorical analogy, and precisely, by way of allusion "not as ornament" but as "means of making available total energy of any previous situation or culture." Indeed, this combination serves as the "theoretical" basis for The Gutenberg Galaxy: namely, that the 20th century is undergoing the effects of a technical revolution in a way that is analogous to the technical revolution begun by Gutenberg in the Renaissance. The only problem with this mode of thinking and presentation, as McLuhan was to discover, lay in the resistance with which it was met, and continues to be met, by Western intellectuals. For, as McLuhan put it in a letter written in 1948, this way of writing and thinking is inaccessible to those whose mentality is "incorruptibly dialectical."The American mind is not even close to being amenable to the ideogram principle as yet. The reason is simply this. America is 100% 18th century. The 18th century chucked out the principle of metaphor and analogy-the basic fact that as A is to B so C is to D. AB : CD. It can see AB relations. But all relations in four terms are still verboten. This amounts to a deep occultation of all human thought for the U.S.A. (21 December 1948)
It was precisely this structure and action of the metaphorical analogy, of course, that enabled McLuhan and his son Eric, many years later, to arrive at tetradic model of laws with which to study media "scientifically."
The other early insight into the method of the Cantos was cued by Pound himself in that historic conversation of 1948 with McLuhan and Kenner at St Elizabeths:I've been pondering your remark that Cantos 1-40 are a detective story. Should be glad of further clues from you. But one thing about crime fiction that I have noted may or may not be apropos here. Poe in 1840 or so invented the cinema via Dupin. Dupin deals with a corpse as still life. That is, by cinematic montage he reconstructs the crime, as all sleuths have since done. Are Cantos 1-40 such a reconstruction of a crime? Crime against man and civilization. Are the entire Cantos such a reconstruction at once of a continuing crime and of the collateral life that might have been and might still be? (16 June 1948)
Although in 1948 McLuhan was interested in reconstruction largely as a means to understanding the history of literary technique, he soon began to see alternative possibilities. The history of art and the techniques employed to produce it were inextricably bound up with cultural changes that were, in turn, linked structurally to the extensions of man reached through technological innovation. Indeed, evidence of this very history was to be found in Pound's poetry and prose, particularly the Cantos and Guide to Kulchur. In order to discover a means to study these relations, McLuhan himself had to become a kind of detective.
The question of how to reconstruct the past is one that McLuhan addresses in the same letter of June 1948:Your Cantos, I now judge to be the first and only serious use of the great technical possibilities of the cinematograph. Am I right in thinking of them as a montage of personae and sculptured images? Flash-backs providing perceptions of simultaneities? (16 June 1948)
These "simultaneities," as McLuhan calls them, are precisely the situational analogies and/or historical rhymes that can be presented only through the agency of metaphorical and/or tetradic logic. To conceive of these simultaneities requires, in the first place, enormous erudition. To present them requires some skill in technical matters-the sculpturing of images, for instance, and the use of flashbacks. In each case, the transference of techniques from other media to print must be effected with both knowledge and craft. Pound's poetry and prose, in other words, served as a model for bringing over into speech and writing the unspoken and unwritten relations between seemingly time-bound cultures and diverse technologies.
By November of 1948, McLuhan had come to appreciate more fully the sense in which Pound's Cantos are a kind of detective story; for to discover luminous moments, characters, and situations of human history and arrange them in analogical ratios, one had to be a very erudite and skillful detective indeed.You know, going through [Ford Madox] Ford, and trying to read all that he says I must, has given me quite a feeling of inadequacy and irrelevence. That will pass by the time I have finished reading the next 200 volumes. But the sense of only now reading the things I should have read all along has sapped me. And to write to yourself, who have for forty-five years taken for granted all this learning, perception and all, well it seemed sheer impertience. (7 Nov. 1948)
By 1951, having achieved a more throrough understanding of Pound's technique and historical approach, McLuhan began to emulate his method more efficiently:Cinema was immediate consequence of discovery of discontinuity as principle of picturesque landscape. MOVING PICTURES were made and shown in Naples and London in 1770. Painted scenes on rollers projected by lantern. This led at once to discovery of principle of reconstruction of situation by intellectual retracing. Retracing conditions leading to apprehension and arrest was Poe's discovery. Led to detective story and symbolist poem. Detective story as reconstruction of crime by cinematic projection within the mind. Crime not explained but revealed... If I'd got hold of your work 15 years ago I'd be somewhere further along now. Can at least get you into some young minds here and now. (2 August 1951)
As with his analogy to the vacuum tube, McLuhan shows here his developing understanding of literary technique as both structurally and conceptually analogous to other technologies, not merely to other 'artistic' media. We find here as well the concept of the "discovery of the technique of discovery" to which McLuhan would return time and again.
It was no accident that a year later McLuhan would offer in a letter to Pound the rough outlines of his book on "the end of the Gutenberg Era" (16 July 1952); for by then he was fully ready to adapt Pound's ideogrammic method to his study of technology and culture. The primary metaphorical analogy to be appreciated and reconstructed in this connection was the relation between the effects issuing in the Renaissance from Gutenberg's invention of the printing press and those effects created in our own age by electronic technology-in short, AB : CD. His case was to be presented in The Gutenbery Galaxy by means of allusions to luminous moments, characters, and situations leading up to, during, and after the Renaissance. He would proceed in the manner of a detective, reconstructing the process of technological change as reflected in cultural habits and representative works of art. This course could be taken only with the aid of erudition acquired in the way of a detective. Reconstructing the metamorphoses of culture set in action by new technology required a highly developed and informed selectivity, not only for the sake of brevity but also as a way of insuring that the historical allusions would be capable of "making available total energy of any previous situation or culture." Moreover, it was necessary to emulate Pound's technique as a means of "[s]haping and amplifying [the allusions] for current use." For McLuhan was concerned with giving the past a contemporary relevance that would open the windows of the past to the present rather than slap contemporary conceptions and morals onto previous cultures.
As a way of gauging McLuhan's debt to Pound, we would do well to compare his description of Pound's critical writing with our experience of reading McLuhan's own prose:... Mr. Pound seldom translates himself into ordinary prose. And anecdotes and reported conversations which enrich his essays are, in the same way, never casually [causally?] illustrative but ideogrammatic. In the language of the schoolmen, for whose precision of dissociation Mr. Pound has so frequently expressed his admiration, the ideogram represents the "copula of agglutination." That is to say, the copula of existential reality and not the copula which connections, ennunciations, and conceptions in rationalistic discourse. And it is the consequent solidity and sharpness of particularized actuality... that baffles the reader who looks for continuous argumentation in Mr. Pound's prose and verse alike. (IL 79-80)
This writing, which reflects a metaphorical and/or ideogrammic way of thinking, works in much the same way for McLuhan as it does for Pound. That is to say, it has many of the same virtues of Pound's style while it presents some of the same difficulties. Through laconic juxtapostion, McLuhan's prose encapsulates historical processes and presents them as "simultaneities" in luminous nodes and whirling vortices. But his work also assumes in the reader a vast erudition and willingness to think metaphorically rather than linearly-a willingness Pound demanded from McLuhan from the very beginning of their correspondence.
McLuhan, Marshall. Letters to Ezra Pound. The Lilly Library, University of Indiana, Bloomington.
________. "Pound's Critical Prose." In The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969.
________ and Eric McLuhan. Laws of the Media. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1988.
Pound, Ezra. Letters to Marshall McLuhan. Canada's National Public Archives, Ottawa.