Table of Contents
WRITING ON MCLUHAN'S LIFE AND WORKS
The first rule for a biographer is to pick a subject who is dead and who will therefore not contradict anything. Moreover, if the subject is dead, he does not have to be interviewed, which is, by and large, an advantage. The biographer is not subjected to the temptation of always accepting the subject's version of any particular episode in his life as the most authoritative one-a temptation particularly acute when the biog-rapher knows that the subject is a truthful man, as in the case of McLuhan. Not only that, the silence of the dead man leaves gaps in information which are an interesting challenge to fill in, using whatever clues are at hand. The biographer is a kind of detective; it would spoil the fun if the decedent, as they say in Perry Mason, revived and solved every aspect of the mystery.
The other side of the coin, however, is that a biographer of a deceased person will never know, this side of the grave, what the subject actually thinks of his work. The biographer always hopes-assuming he admires the subject, which is my own case-that the subject would not have been entirely disapproving of that work.
While working on Marshall McLuhan: The Medium And The Messenger I kept thinking he would have been appalled at what I was doing. I know, for example, that he would not have been amused by my reading the diary he wrote as a 19 year old in Winnipeg, in which he passed bitter judgement on his mother. At one point, he ended a discussion of family problems in the diary with the sentence, "I shall not bother to give any definite opinion on the matter, as some interested party might one day find rich material here for his own ends." It was an eerie experience to read that sentence-myself being, at the time, certainly an "interested party," and more than happy to use this "rich material" for my dark ends.
Still, McLuhan was not opposed to biographies on principle. I do not think he read a great many of them, but he did record in the journal he kept throughout the 70s, for example, his experience of reading Antonia Fraser's biography of Oliver Cromwell, which he enjoyed. Anecdotes, he noted in that journal a propos Fraser's book, made history readable. He had mixed feelings about the profiles of him that appeared during his own lifetime. He was genuinely amused and pleased by Tom Wolfe's famous 1965 profile in New York magazine: he wrote the author and remarked, flatteringly, that the experience of reading about his personal idiosyncracies in the article gave him a foretaste of the embarassment one would face in the presence of the Recording Angel. On the other hand, he was disgusted at the superficiality of Barbara Rowes' 1976 profile in People magazine.
My qualifications to be a biographer of McLuhan were not impressive. It is true that I was basically sympathetic to McLuhan, and not repelled, for example, by his religion or politics, which many people would consider reactionary. I myself am a papist, of the sort who is not enthusiastic about the Sandinistas. As a biographer, therefore, I could spare the reader any tut-tutting over McLuhan's opinions on such matters.
My views were not always thus, by the way. The year I took McLuhan's undergraduate course-1968/69-I was besotted with the world view of the flower child. I produced an essay for that course in which I linked Keats's advice to glut thy sorrow on a morning rose with the pleasures of pot. The attitude expressed in the essay, if I remember correctly, was a combination of late Victorian aestheticism and hippie hedonism-both of which, as I know now but did not know then, McLuhan despised. No wonder the essay got a poor mark. One of the minor jolts I received, in fact, while working on the McLuhan collection in the National Archives was finding the marks for McLuhan's students in that year and discovering that I had the lowest.
This leads to the question of the minimum qualification for a McLuhan biographer, which is the intelligence to understand what he was saying. I need not, here, get into the topic of McLuhan's famous "incomprehensibility." That incomprehensibility, first of all, mainly affected readers of his books who never had the opportunity to see and hear McLuhan in action. Like many another reader in the 60s, I started Understanding Media and never finished it. (One of the pleasures of researching his biography was discovering the proper method of reading McLuhan, the method he himself recommended-i.e. "dipping into" his books and meditating on a few sentences at a time, without trying to read the books cover to cover.) His students did not find him incomprehensible-at least, I think, most did not. His speech, as he himself often noted, was more accessible than his prose-that was mandarin-style, like the approved prose style of academia, which he could effortlessly produce.
To be sure, students were aware of daunting intellectual standards in McLuhan's class. I remember him expressing dismay, for example, that not every student in the class had read William Empson's Seven Types of Ambiguity. It was a miminum requirement for anyone attempting to understand literature at our academic level, he said. Subsequently I tried to read the book, and could not get past the first five paragraphs. When I began work on the biography, I gave the book a second chance and managed, at least, to read it through. I have not mastered that book yet, however, and I know that a third reading is necessary if I want to be a truly qualified fourth year honours student in Eng. Lit. (I also managed finally to get through Understanding Media).
The question of the biographer's intelligence is, let me say, a delicate one. I will make only one comment on the subject. It is well that a biographer be intelligent enough to appreciate the subject, if the subject is a deep thinker, but not so intelligent-or so vainglorious-that he fancies he can tell the world exactly why and how the thinker got on the wrong track. This I did not do in my biography. Nor did I fall into the trap of other McLuhan critics by trying to be more hip than McLuhan-in particular, by employing a smart, flippant prose style.
By trade I am a journalist, and have always cultivated a prose that is "flowing" and accessible. Mandarin, if you will. It is the kind of prose McLuhan often dismissed as a sleeping pill for the mind. But I do not think it would have been wise to attempt a biography in the kind of prose McLuhan admired-the "multi-level" prose he told Gerald Stearn he himself cultivated. Biographies may be many things, but they must be at least moderately easy to read. And I think I have some warrant from McLuhan himself for presenting him in uni-level, easy-to-read format, as it were. He himself, as his popularity waned in the 70s, considered recasting his work in a more attention-getting mode. As he wrote Tom Wolfe in 1971, "Have been tempted of late to produce a sample chapter or two of Understanding Media written with a private point of view and moral vehemence."
One special difficulty in the writing of my biography should be mentioned. Because of the hostility of the McLuhan estate to the enterprise, I could not expect to be granted permission to quote anything of McLuhan's that was under the protection of copyright. In some ways, this was not much of a problem. One of my strengths as a biographer, I thought, was an ability precisely to translate McLuhan's "multi-level" prose into more accessible, more readable language. In general, McLuhan's mature prose is so dense, one perception crowding another sometimes even in the same sentence, that quoting more than one or two consecutive sentences would not have been particularly advantageous. Readers generally do not want to "meditate" over individual sentences in a biography. They want one sentence to lead quickly to the next, as in telling an anecdote, or in explaining something to a mildly impatient listener. Chunks of McLuhan prose, in any sizeable quantity, would have been indigestible in the main body of the text.
Still, this effective prohibition on quotation did hurt the biography, at least a little, when it came to pithy McLuhan quotes in letters, diaries, journals, and so on-when McLuhan was delivering some off the cuff remark on a person or a thing. I would have loved to have presented these quotations as they were, in their exact wording. In talking about the late psychologist R. D. Laing, for example, in a letter to a friend, at the height of the Laing vogue in 1970, McLuhan wrote,He, of course, has devised a program of brain-washing people who have any private identity so that by group therapy they can climb aboard the tribal canoe. It is now a great big thing, full of fairies, all paddling in different directions-mostly paddling each other! It is a shame that he has no fun in him at all.
That last sentence, in particular, is beautifully characteristic of McLuhan, who hated solemnity, self-importance, and misdirected moral fervour of any kind. I had to reduce this comment to a single sentence in a footnote in the book: "He (McLuhan) also dismissed the work of psychologist R. D. Laing, which enjoyed a vogue in the sixties, as a remorseless indoctrination in the joys of tribalism." It wasn't the same.
Around the time I was writing the biography, the problem was particularly acute because of U.S. court decisions that severely limited any biographer's right not just to quote, but even to paraphrase copywritten material. The major decision was the finding of a U.S. federal court against Ian Hamilton, on behalf of the author J. D. Salinger, whose biography Hamilton was trying to write against Salinger's wishes. In order to get around copyright restrictions on use of unpublished Salinger letters, Hamilton frequently tried to paraphrase their content. For example, when Salinger wrote in a letter during World War II something about Americans standing on tops of their jeeps and taking a leak, Hamilton paraphrased it as something like, the conquerers choosing to urinate from the roofs of their vehicles. The judge said no. I certainly did not try to paraphrase in this Hamiltonian sense, rendering McLuhan's often brilliant one-liners in more ponderous and involved language.
In a way, it is paradoxical that such problems should have occurred in the writing of a McLuhan biography. As Professor Alvin Kernan observes in his book The Death Of Literature,The concept of copyright appears only in a print society, since in oral and even manuscript cultures, texts never stabilize sufficiently to become an objective property. The wheel will have come full circle when in some predictable future copyright will disappear as the electronic database destabilizes the individual text once again.
The law, however, is a conservative institution, and McLuhan's printed texts have to be treated, from the legal point of view, as are all printed texts in our culture, as the final and definitive representation of a person's utterances, and as his private possession, even after death.