McLuhan Studies : Premiere Issue

Home Page

Next Article

Previous Article

Table of Contents

Author Index

Title Index




As a lecturer and professor of literature, I must daily put speech into movement. I get to know this bizarre tool for what it is: simultaneously poor and effective. I also have had, over the years, a chance to create a friend or should I say a mistress: the audience.

I did not speak to myself these four thousand hours. I produced words, made them ring out in the presence of several thousand men and women. I played on my instrument. I was sometimes allowed to hear myself, permitted to realize that I was playing. These men and women, whom I generally never met but who collectively make up the public--one of my most intimate relations--created this opportunity for me.

My mistress? Yes, one of my most difficult mistresses, and one whom I love. And since I like to speak about people who have taught me something, then surely I must speak of this collective person. It makes me angry, moreover, that most of those who court her show ingratitude towards her. They speak quite frankly about the public as though it were a thing, an object to be measured in sociological terms. The audience deserves to be treated a bit better, seeing that it is my equal.

Warming up to the Audience

When a man first meets a woman, whoever she may be, he reflexively and instinctively loves her. Simply because she is a woman and he is a man. Undoubtedly the judgements, the fears, the thoughts will appear, but always later. Love always begins this encounter, and the same overture awaits (and is expected of) the speaker when he first meets his audience. Only the ungrateful or foolish speaker begins without love.

The public never fails to love the speaker. That is its job! It likes him instinctively; limping, haggard, in tatters, elegant or authoritarian. The audience grants him speech in a great outburst of sensibility. It waits with an abandon that resembles hope. When I have sat as a member of an audience, I could never resist this movement of enthusiastic submission or impassioned curiosity. When the orator began to speak, I would open up and be ready to glorify him with an unquestioning heart, in a manner at once amorous and religious. By the end of the first sentence, boredom or anger might well take hold, but never completely. The person behind the table, at the lectern, or on the stage, even if he does not deserve it, always retains some of his ceremonial prestige. And do not say that I am "good public"; it is the audience who is good. Political assemblies confirm the rule by being the exception. They all too often resemble cock fights, not assemblies of speech.

Were a speaker to continue without love, he would be adding foolishness to his ingratitude. Arming his speech with love provides the only chance that his science or talent can be understood or recognized. Were he the most intelligent of men, the loveless speaker scares his public, puts it into flight. He may be listened to--out of politeness or even out of interest--but with that incurable distancing of spirit that is so pervasively seen on the faces of people watching television.

The love of which I speak addresses itself to no one in particular. It is peaceful. It embraces the audience in its totality--all favours, preferences and quarrels ceasing. Since I speak to it and do not know it, I am freed from the ordinary laws of social life; I can love it in peace, with one of the most perfect loves of which we are capable: impersonal, not quite disinterested but peaceful. I try to keep these thoughts distinctly in mind when I go on the stage.

Like a complete physical and mental organism, each audience emits its own specific heat. In shop talk among those who deliver speech by trade, we hear expressions like "take the temperature of the hall." The speaker, the actor, the professor must go beyond just knowing that it exists; he must perceive it, then follow it. And that creates a whole spectacle in itself.

Currents of attention or distraction, excitement or fatigue, dream or reverie, and moments of comprehension displace each other continuously. The true speaker follows them, like a doctor examining a patient. He prods, he gropes, he touches. He has the right to, since the audience demands it. And most of all, he should fear nothing. This operation, extremely quick, does not risk interfering with his thought, the precious idea he wishes to transmit. To the contrary, this operation directs the thought.

Let us not forget that the orator puts out a detached, impersonal love. It must remain so. I find "the art of persuasion" suspect, except in politics where it works on the most physical elements of speech. The speaker can only lend weight to the act of being present. And to be present, the speaker must accept, listen to, and pay attention to his audience.

Acceptance and love fill the same need. Many a performer, lecturer and orator owes his "empty halls" to this disrespect, this impertinence, this refusal, this lack of touch. He presents himself out of duty. He lowers his eyes, turns his head, takes shelter in his blackened pages. He is there for no one, not even for himself. Perhaps he dreams of being elsewhere. Perhaps timidity overtakes him. But who cannot see the direct road from timidity to pride, and from pride to the refusal of others?

Speech: a shared experience

For the true presenter, speech borders on the solemn, on the sacred. Consider the scarcity of occasions where we find ourselves completely face to face with others. Usually we hide behind our account books, our marital habits, our family, our glasses of drink, or even our politeness. But the barriers fall only when the speaker presents himself nude, as he is, to the people grouped to hear him. And the encounter--the famous human encounter that so many intellectuals talk about--takes place only then. In ignoring this, the speaker commits a form of rape, a sacrilege.

No, I don't hold words as sacred. The poor things are always paltry, simultaneously false and true, and in a proportion that defies all measure. But speech, this act of pronouncing and stringing words together in the presence of someone else, for someone else, is sacred.

The orator climbs into the pulpit, he enters the stage, or he approaches the lectern. He practises a purely social gesture, conventional. Society grants him dominance for a few moments. And here we divide the true orator from the false.

The false speaker--and I maintain that even the best ones know moments of falsity--thinks of himself, of his merits, of his learning or his charm. He will show all these people in front of him what an intelligent or seductive or caring man he is. Maybe stage fright overtakes him; he will conquer it and impose himself entirely on them. For a whole hour, he will tell his story, his little story. Surely no one will notice his stage fright because the official subject that day is physical chemistry or behavioral psychology. But he will only have spoken of himself, of what he knows, of the particular way in which he sees the world, of his interests, or of his preferences. And in the public's visceral pit, an uneasiness will grow, a physical sensation that something lacks, something is not given.

Active speech is all that really lacks here. The true presenter knows that he and his words do not count for much, and that his person--exemplary as he may be--does not count for much more. For him, the whole work consists of launching words from inside himself.

Here, with all urgency, I must state the facts in their simplest terms. Words do not belong to us. I do not create them when I speak. They exist around me as if living people. It matters very little if we call this people "collective unconscious" or "primitive verb." In fact, words exist independently of me in a non-physical yet immediately tangible space. I focus, then, not on words but on their conduct, their direction. I must blaze a trail for them and lead them right up to the audience. To all these people I will show that all these words, that I pronounce and that they hear, do not belong to me or them, but that they themselves live. In this way alone does my speech become a participation in life.

Some people will object. They will say that words are there for communicating a clear idea, transmitting a fact. Alas yes! They are all too often taken this way. So for the objectors I repeat: the speaker, the actor, the orator does not make words "clear." Only by consciously establishing in himself an atmosphere of clarity, does he accomplish what really matters in speech. Clear ideas only pass through the cleared space that he tries to maintain.

The True Sense of Speech

When will conference givers, preachers and professors realize that speaking and writing are two respectable yet entirely different acts? Many mount the stage clutching their written pages, conscientiously resolved not to stray from even a comma, and determined to pour out the text till its stock runs dry. They remain blind and deaf to the being they confront, the public--without whom, for the moment at least, they have no reason for being. Sometimes the pages are well written. But then, they should hand them out to be read as they are meant to be: in solitary peace and quiet!

Very well! replies the critic, but what about the science of it, the rigor of facts? Exposing yourself to the perils of improvisation can result in disorder and mere chatter. Don't you make of public presentation a sort of game or circus?

I grant that a real danger exists, a great danger, even a temptation. But, after all, I never said that vocal intercourse was an easy act.

I only said, and I repeat, speech can never be a solitary act. We always create it with another, in the interchange between the one who speaks and the one who listens--even if the latter hears badly. I do not express here a personal point of view or opinion, or define a genre--serious improvisation: I am exposing a law. And I recall with sadness and despair the many dead hours where professors, scientists and specialists told me nothing because they did not know that I was there, because they had everything in their heads except their students.

Yet when our true teachers spoke to us, when they liked us, their ideas, as brief as they may be, inscribed themselves in us forever. These people taught me very much.

They improvised, yet they were not chattering. They possessed their art, science or skill before meeting us. In front of us they did not have to control it. They looked at us, they heard our responses, the most silent responses as well as the others. They spoke in the true sense of the word, and that gave them a beauty that very few of us could resist.

The Bad Actor

The bad actor--and it is in part why he is bad--always believes himself understood or at least listened to. The true speaker sees through this illusion.

Let me be frank: the audience does not listen, it waits. It waits for him to do something with it, and especially for it. And if it listens, it lists to itself. It likes its own intimate music above all other musics. So it finds some indiscretion in the man on its stage who takes up all the speech and clouds its own inner song: how many times, while speaking, have I heard or felt this reproach? But it does not offend me.

It cannot offend me because all these hours when another person's voice has come to disturb my own sleep stay too lively and pressing in my memory. Another speaks, but I do not let him by. I have my two cents to add--always the same. I repeat to myself what I already know by heart: my own particular view of things which is so important to me and which I deem to be so much more precise than the speaker's. I preformulate my replies, my objections, my intimate images, and my habits. The speaker will not get by. I never, or almost never pronounce this challenge, of course. It takes place in the back of my mind. Nevertheless, it occurs.

Most sermons, conferences and courses take place in this soft resistance, in this egocentric buzzing. We are all, most certainly, well defended against the verbal intercourse of others!

We easily recognize the audience's sleep (and we just as readily do not see the speaker's). Of this sleep we say nothing, or almost nothing. And the omission is serious.

This realization may tarnish our inflated opinion of human intelligence, that a speaker can go on for a whole hour, on the most lofty and difficult of subjects, wisely and conscientiously, and during the whole time be asleep.

The speaker sleeps, the professor sleeps, the executive sleeps. He does not know where he is. He thinks and acts as though he were alone. He finds himself, after all, in the ridiculous situation of the lover who would dream of taking his beloved into his arms, dream of holding her, with his eyes in the clouds, all while his loved one sat there, a few feet away, waiting and smiling.

An extraordinary stubbornness reveals itself in the fact that many presenters address themselves to themselves. They act as if it were impossible for them to lose the habit, as if the Other were not enough. This brings on stage fright.

Some people think of stage fright as a professional sickness when actually it is a moral fault, a lack of good sense: excuse me for stating it so bluntly. I myself have had stage fright, and I know that I alone was responsible for it.

Quite simply, I refused to leave my burrow. The audience, only a few feet away, beckoned me. I refused to come out. I refused to see it. I went back to my ideas, my thoughts, the whole baggage of knowledge or the intentions that I had brought with me to the courtship. I reviewed the parts of my speech. I mentally verified the details. I replayed ahead of the fact the various merits--so big a while ago and suddenly so small--of what I was going to say. In brief, I looked at myself, myself alone. I saw myself as the centre of the world.

Stage fright masks itself as a domineering style, or as coyness, egoism, or pride. This unconscious refusal to take the audience into account means that I momentarily forget the very thing I am there to do. Only if I were to faint would the effect be as complete. I also forget that my function is not to be seen or to show off but to speak, and that speech does not belong to me alone.

Here, a simple act of confidence bridges the gap, or, better still, an act of abandon. Not to the public--it has nothing to do with this passive act--but to speech. Now is the time to let it come and to flow through me.

I do not create speech by speaking. It already exists and it readily renders its words and rhythms. It requires only that I don't oppose them. I must be ready to receive them. I must know my subject well, for example: I must have thought of it precisely and often, and before coming. With all urgency, I must now attend to the audience for it is now waiting.

The prescription is simple and marvellous: I have to think of nothing. And since a complete annulment of thought is just about impossible, I can think of the audience. I must go towards it. Physically, if need be. To look at someone is already to touch them. Touch them peacefully. Slowing the gesture increases its effectiveness. I must bring them inside of myself. The encounter can only occur there.

This does not mean that I should absorb the public or confound it with myself. Nor should I attempt an absurd form of hypnotism. It simply means that, for as long as I speak, I should never stop seeing it and knowing that it is there. Nothing should happen to it that does not happen to me equally. Only then am I able to stop considering my thoughts my own, and therefore meritorious. Only then do I see them as they are: the common goods shared by speaker and audience. Only then do we create love and sharing.


Speech is made from silence. Speech provides humanity with its most privileged means of making silence heard. The public never listens to someone who never interrupts himself. It does not hear him any more. So, to speak well the presenter must first attend a rude school where he learns to shut up. The speaker is tempted to keep on talking once he has started, reassuring himself as he goes along, stringing words to words. If right in the middle of a conference he suddenly stops or is stopped, his personage instantly dies. The unfortunate speaker then hears himself no longer speaking: he sees himself, for the first time, exactly as he is--always a cruel experience.

Too bad! It must be done. The speaker must stop. The best is to do it in a quiet mood, that is to say, attentively. The speaker must stop because the meeting with the listener takes place in this interval. Speech is born in this short silent space.

In this pause--however small as it may be--the speaker says everything that he has to say. In the following minute he will have to explain himself, develop. But these two verbs translate the event exactly. He develops, he explains; he manipulates a matter that was entirely given before he uttered the first word. The public knows this very well. Yet it needs the silences.

Unfortunately, the word silence carries a negative element that does not reflect the reality lived by the orator and his public. On the contrary. In this interval, in this silent void, a sound, a vibration takes place, whose richness cannot be compared to the poverty of the words that follow it.

I suddenly stop and I give to my listener not the melody--it is not time yet--but the fundamental sound. I place in front of the audience my unformulated thought, and especially the state of soul or mind in which this thought places me. Or better still, for a second or two, I quit having an intention, a project, or a subject. I stand there with nothing. The effect is immediate. If I was tired, I am suddenly rejuvenated. If the next part of my speech was clouded, I find it in full light. If my audience was bored, it is suddenly alert.

These things transform themselves quite naturally, because, whether I was conscious of it or not, I made the source spring up. Such silent signifying of things before they are pronounced is the common good shared by speaker and audience. Only in this interval can they come together.


I have used a lot of words to explain--or try to--this absolutely simple act that we go to so much trouble to complicate! At the very least, this act is possible, and I attest to that fact with great joy!

[Translated by Wayne Constantineau]

Biographical note

Jacques Lusseyran was blinded in 1932 at the age of eight. He was wearing shatterproof glasses when an impatient classmate shoved him into the corner of the teacher's desk: the lenses didn't break, but the frame scooped out his eyes. He was thus totally blind for life. But his parents did not ship him off to a special school. Besides learning to use Braille books and typewriter, he had a richly normal childhood within a cultured, sympathetic, religious family.

The Germans occupied France during Lusseyran's adolescence. At seventeen he formed the "Volontaires de la Liberté," an underground group of six hundred teenagers engaged in such tasks as falsifying documents, and repatriating downed aviators. They also produced, and distributed in a remarkable number of copies, the bulletin Tigre, in which Lusseyran, despite his youth and blindness, played a leading editorial role. This paper was transformed into the great popular broadsheet France Soir after the war.

At age nineteen, Lusseyran (with twenty-four others) was betrayed to the Gestapo by one of their comrades. Lusseyran outwitted his interrogators, saving himself and several others from summary execution. Nevertheless he was sent to Buchenwald, the Nazi extermination camp, where he was committed to Block 56, along with the aged, the insane, cripples, pederasts, and criminals. There, after a remarkable recovery from an illness in which he had lain comatose and unattended for three weeks, he resumed business as usual. He set up an information network that was able to spread news of the Normandy landing throughout the camp within four hours of its occurence. The camp was liberated by the Americans. Three hundred and eighty thousand had perished in it during the fifteen months of his stay.

After the war, Lusseyran completed a masters and doctorate at the Sorbonne, becoming a full professor at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris at the age of twenty-six (as ever, over objections to his blindness). In 1958, he emigrated to the United States, teaching at Hollis College in Virginia, Western Reserve in Cleveland, and at the University of Hawaii. During a vacation in France with his third wife in 1971, Lusseyran and she were killed in an automobile accident. This happened in the village of Juverdail, his mother's birthplace and the site of his happiest childhood memories.

Lusseyran wrote several books, now out of print or difficult to obtain. An autobiography, Et la Lumière Fût, first appeared in 1953. Revised and translated, it was published by Little Brown in 1963 with the title And There Was Light, and reprinted in 1987 by Parabola Books (656 Broadway, New York 10012; a new French version is available from Éditions les Trois Arches, Chatou 78400, France). He wrote a novel, Silence des Hommes (1954); two inspirational works on perception, Ce qu'on Voit Sans les Yeux (1957), and Le Monde Commence Aujourd'hui (1958); and a book of monographs on American culture, Douce, Trop Douce Amérique (1967). The passage that forms this article was drawn from Le Monde Commence Aujourd'hui, pages 95 to 111.

Return to top of page