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The Medium of the...

The Medium Of The Messenger


Biographies and accounts of the famous possess a certain fascination. Sometimes even flashes of illumination. But most are based on second-hand knowledge of authors attracted to the famous after attainment of fame. This is often too late because fame has a way of creating a type of trickster mythology obscuring its subject.

A rare few biographies are written by those who had close friendships with the famous before the hazy mythology of fame enveloped their subject. Here are the famous before they were "hijacked" and packaged by icon-making PR handlers, before their entrance onto world stages or tabloid pages. Reading these accounts is somewhat like watching scratchy old home movies that peek into the shadowy early years before later lives were illuminated by the bright flashes of the paparazzi cameras. These stories are often the most interesting, the most enlightening, the most instructive, and too, the most paradoxical and ambiguous.

One considers V.S. Naipaul’s first novel The Mystic Masseur. It is a story about the meteoric rise and metamorphosis of a Trinidad man from failed primary school teacher and struggling masseur to author, revered mystic and leading politician. The story is told by a young man who knew the politician before he became famous.

"Later he was to become famous and honored throughout the South Caribbean; he was to be a hero of the people and, after that, a British representative at Lake Success. But when I first met him he was still a struggling masseur, at a time when masseurs were ten a penny in Trinidad."

These thoughts come to mind in reading the brilliant and fascinating new book The Virtual Marshall McLuhan (McGill-Queens University Press, 2001) by Donald Theall professor emeritus, former president of Trent University and author of The Medium Is the Rear View Mirror. In many ways, Theall is like the young man in Naipaul’s Mystic Masseur who comes to a friendship before the friend becomes famous. In the thick mythological haze which particularly surrounds the McLuhan legend, it is indeed a rare and insightful friendship.

Yet Theall’s book is a funny hybrid genre not easy to place in traditional categories. Andrew Potter, a reporter for the Canadian National Post says it well in his March 24, 2001 review of the book "Rescuing McLuhan." Potter writes Theall’s book "is not a biography of McLuhan, nor is it an application or elaboration of his views. It is perhaps best understood as an exercise in retrieval, an attempt to rescue McLuhan from McLuhanism and McLuhanites, from those who would portray him as the patron saint of the new corporate technotopia as well as from those…who would read him as an early voice in the wilderness, warning of civilization’s demise.

In the summer of 1950, Donald Theall arrived at the University of Toronto as a graduate student. The director of Graduate Studies of the English Department attempted to warn Theall against doing a doctoral degree with an avant-garde, unorthodox professor at the University named Marshall McLuhan.

But Theall was not persuaded and decided to stay in Toronto to study under the iconoclastic professor rather than return to Yale. Theall writes "I felt that between the historically oriented University of Toronto Department of English and the avant-garde McLuhan I was obtaining a badly needed awareness of the study of literature in its historical context as well as within a new, broadly interdisciplinary context."

McLuhan embedded his teaching in literary history but also in the history of grammar, logic, rhetoric, and early theories of education. It was a history of inter-relationships between literature, the arts, and the everyday culture. Certainly a rare combination at the time and one that threatened the rather insular perspective of the English Department at the University of Toronto. When he arrived, McLuhan was the only lay member of the English Department, which primarily consisted of a handful of priests and three nuns.

The Marshall McLuhan that Donald Theall and his new bride Joan met in 1950 was a "charming, good looking, witty, fun-loving, highly intelligent devotee to the world of letters and traditional arts." More significant for what has come to be, notes Theall, McLuhan was a technophobe who often despised technology. In 1950 he did not own an automobile or a vacuum cleaner. And he did not type but used pen and ink and stored his notes in small boxes that had originally contained Laura Secord chocolates.

Toronto in the 50s personified McLuhan’s technophobia. It was a boring, forgotten city of three-quarters of a million people. Theall calls it an "overgrown village" adding it was a "somewhat idyllic…still semi-colonial, marginally contemporary city…a sedate, stuffy city where on Sundays the major department store drew curtains across its windows, stores did not sell cigarettes, and people could not have wine or other alcoholic beverages with a restaurant meal…There was no television; the only radio network, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC)…was government owned."

Another close friend and collaborator of McLuhan in Toronto of the 50s was Edmund "Ted" Carpenter. In his short enlightening McLuhan memoir "That Not-So-Silent Sea" in the Appendix of Theall’s book, Edmund Carpenter remembers Toronto as a "depressing" place, "not a joyous place at all." It had a meanness which was visible everywhere - in its architecture, its food. McLuhan once described it to Carpenter as the "cringing, flunkey spirit of Canadian culture" and "its servant quarter snobbishness." Leopold Infeld, one of Carpenter’s friends, suggested it was "perhaps the finest city in which to die, especially on Sunday afternoon when the transition between life and death would be continuous, painless and scarcely noticeable."

Yet in many ways it was the perfect quiet frontier outpost to observe the noisy grand envelopment of America in its new post war "medium" of popular culture and mass media.

McLuhan once said "We don’t know who it was that discovered water, but we’re pretty sure it wasn’t a fish."

He might have been thinking about Toronto’s relationship to America. In America, the noisy persuasive "messages" of a growing consumer culture detracted from understanding the cultural "ether" which enveloped them, the so-called "medium" of the messages. Toronto was close enough to hear these American messages and see the "fish" swimming unaware in the emerging new electronic medium. At the same time, it was separated enough to be a type of island outside the ubiquitous new medium. From an observation point on the backward cultural island of Toronto a new and different perspective was possible.

In this way, it makes sense that McLuhan’s vision was born in Toronto. It was in Toronto that Donald Theall became Marshall McLuhan’s first doctoral student. Maybe also, his first disciple.


In September of 1999, almost a half century since those years in Toronto, Don Theall described his forthcoming book The Virtual Marshall McLuhan to a McLuhan discussion group on the Internet.

"There will be chapters on the poetics of the tetrad and its roots in the trivium (the subject of his Ph.D. thesis) and modernism; Marshall as a correspondent; the professor among the publicists as a media hero and pop guru; his fix on cultural production and power; the role of the occult, the Gnostic and cults in his writing; his role as a North American precursor of French theory with reference to Baudrillard, Barthes, Derrida, Deleuze, etc.; McLuhan as artist and shaman; his use of Joyce as a guide on the road to digiculture; McLuhan, the modernist avant-garde and the ‘chaosmos’; and on the role of satire in McLuhan and its relation to Wyndham Lewis and the tradition of Lucianic and Varronian satire (the Menippean satire which has assumed a particular importance after Bakhtin and post-structuralism)."

The post most likely caused a few laughs for those who read Theall’s amazing hodge-podge of topics. Surely, readers must have thought, Theall was simply putting them on. But with the publication of The Virtual Marshall McLuhan one can say that the last laugh is on Theall. In effect, the 1999 posting offers an excellent summary of the book’s topics.

Given the amazing ambition and sweeping scope of Theall’s topics, the natural inclination is to search for a theme or a pattern or at least the vague suggestion of some shape. Some digestible sound bite or blurb. After all, it was McLuhan himself who once said that the future of the book is a blurb.

All of this sounds like a reasonable and a fairly achievable goal. But it is made difficult by what Theall sees as the "trickster" nature of McLuhan. If one recalls, a "trickster" is that mythological figure who hovers on the borders of conscious and unconscious where light and shadows play tricks. In these twilight border zones there are no themes, no patterns, no shapes. Pursuit of the McLuhan trickster is even more difficult because he was a master of playing tricks with words. In fact, it was McLuhan himself who once said "I don't necessarily agree with everything I say."

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