One of the most important contributions of Thealls book is the light it throws on that shadowy time of McLuhan in the 50s and early 60s before he was caught in the "head lights" of that mythology of fame.
Not that McLuhan had no interest in power and fame. Theall recalls a lunch in the early fifties at his small apartment with McLuhan. McLuhan began speaking about personal power and his desire to achieve it. "At the time he had began writing a series of columns for the Canadian media entrepreneur Jack Kent Cook and I believe he intuited that this was part of the road to becoming a media guru on which he had embarked with the writing of The Mechanical Bride."
However, for the most part, the myth of power and fame was largely created and exploited by others in the 60s. Theall and Carpenter recall this hectic period when their old friend was transformed into a celebrity and a "brand." The branding of McLuhan was largely undertaken by San Francisco public relations gurus Howard Gossage and Gerald Feigen, pioneers in creating news for their clients.
As Edmund Carpenter recalls in "That Not-So-Silent Sea" the plan of Gossage and Feigen was "to convert McLuhan into an internationally recognized media guru, then peddle him as a business consultant, fees to be established." Their initial success in this endeavor is now history. Immediately following the 1965 conference between the PR men and McLuhan, Carpenter notes a "hurricane of McLuhan interviews, reviews, articles, books, cartoons, TV and radio shows
swept through the media. Promotional methods previously reserved for products and stars, especially rock stars, were now used on behalf of an academic, all stops out."
But apart from these top admen, the legendary journalist Tom Wolfe played an important part in creating the McLuhan myth. As Theall notes, "Wolfe shaped McLuhan like a pop Pygmalion sculpting his statue, creating an image he and his sophisticated, hip, well-heeled, and well-educated audience of the mid-1960s could love." The importance of McLuhans meeting with Gossage and Feigen was explored in a tremendously popular essay of Wolfes titled "What If Hes Right?"
The experience with Wolfe held forth the pattern for future reversionings of the McLuhan myth by future pundits. Theall says it well. "Wolfe is indicative of what McLuhanism was to become, since he creates a virtual McLuhan, who will be re-created again and again, a situation McLuhan invites because, a pop poet, he is also crafting Marshall McLuhan as the pop poem. While others who follow may produce differing McLuhans, in a way they will all be different, as most of the varying exegeses of a modernist poem differ."
Perhaps the "eye" of the McLuhan hurricane of the 60s was in August of 1965 when McLuhan was in San Francisco to meet with Gossage and be honored at the Marshall McLuhan Festival. With epic Shakespearean foreshadowing, a dramatic lightning storm preceded McLuhans arrival in San Francisco. During the week of his stay, the Watts riots broke out and the Beatles opened their new movie Help!
This crazy period of the McLuhan mania was captured by Herb Caen, the legendary columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle. In his August 12, 1965 column Caen writes:
"FLASH: In town is Prof. Marshall McLuhan, fabled, fabulous, revered, and even sainted by the New Intelligentsia, Director of the Center for Culture and Technology at University of Toronto, author of The Mechanical Bride, The Gutenburg Galaxy and Understanding Media, darling of the critics (Compared to McLuhan, Spengler is cautious and Toynbee is positively pedantic - New York Herald Tribune), the man who stands at the frontier of post-Einsteinian mythologies. "
Caen wants to interview McLuhan and wonders where McLuhan might be. "Hot on the trail of this titan, I thought to myself, Where is the last place in town youd expect to see Marshall McLuhan? and thats where we I found him - at Off-Broadway in North Beach, lunching amid the topless waitresses with Writer Tom Wolfe, Adman Howard Gossage and Dr. Gerald Feigen."
The newspaperman joins the group at the topless club and they order lunch. Their waitress is Marilyn and Caen reports that she was "wearing blue sequin pasties and not much else."
"A good-looking girl," Caen remarks to the group after Marilyn walks away.
"Interesting choice of words," muses McLuhan. "Good-LOOKING girl. The remark of a man who is visually-oriented, not tactually. And I further noticed that you could not bring yourself to look at her breasts as she took your order. You examined her only after she walked away - another example of the visual: the further she walked away, the more attractive she became."
"Actually," Caen apologized, blushing, "Im rather inhibited."
Caen reports that "The Professor" nodded. "Another interesting word. Inhibited is the opposite of exhibited," he pointed out. "And what is exhibited causes you to be inhibited."
After lunch, Caen reports that a topless fashion show ensued. "Now here, gentlemen," the woman commentator said, "is the ideal opera gown for your wife." A gorgeously-endowed blonde appeared in a full-length gown open to the waist. The audience, "composed mainly of Tuesday Downtown Operator-like types," gaped silently. "Youre all dead out there," chided the commentator. "Wheres the applause?"
"Now the word applause," interjected Dr. McLuhan, "comes from the Latin applaudere, which means to explode. In early times, audiences applauded to show their disfavor. They clapped their hands literally to explode the performer off the stage. Hence you might say that the silence here is a form of approbation, at least in the classical sense."
McLuhan may have been a major precursor of cyberculture. But the promotion of him was also a major precursor of contemporary celebrity manufacturing. Perhaps one of the original textbook cases. Gossages mixture of marketing and news, design and promotion, PR and planted "newsworthy" journalism almost Joycean in effect with its barrage of various media in many ways previewed postmodern marketing and public relations.
In effect, the McLuhan PR campaign and media blitz was reminiscent of a comment McLuhan once made to a group of advertising executives in the late 60s. They no longer needed products, he told them. Images were enough. Eight years of Ronald Reagan, adds Carpenter, "made that observation cliché. But it wasnt cliché in 1967."
But the media "hurricane" ultimately claimed McLuhan as its victim. Carpenter writes "Though he himself was a master at dissecting hype, he now became its victim
In the end, the same journalists who hyped him, chopped him." The reversal was powerful. "Once credited with every 20th century insight, he was now denied any." Carptenter finds a pattern behind this shift. "Power and profit and minions appropriated those ideas that served them, ridiculed the rest, then cut off the dialog."
In all of this, the most interesting aspect to Carpenter was the role of journalists. Many attempted appropriation of the McLuhan name and ideas to create their own celebrity. "Many became instant authorities. PR releases, slightly modified, carried different by-lines. Journalists drew from other journalists. Errors (repeated, expanded, preserved) entered public memory."
During this period, McLuhans old group of friends - like Theall and Carpenter - was pushed into the background. As Carpenter notes in his Appendix piece, "The ball was now in another court
previous players were banned to the bleachers."
By 1970, the witty and exuberant friend that Theall and Carpenter knew in the 50s had undergone a dramatic change. Carpenter writes in "That Not-So-Silent Sea" McLuhan was now a "wary, irritable jukebox reciting old phrases in random order" and hiding behind a biting sarcasm which "provided protection." His "insults kept critics at bay." In Toronto Carpenter writes that McLuhan "surrounded himself with dysfunctionals: sycophants, intellectual basket cases, celebrity parasites, cult followers, the worst." They reminded Carpenter of "Mahatma Gandhis entourage."
The money that seemed so obtainable at the height of his fame in the 60s never materialized. One of his last doctoral students Nelson Thall writes in a 3/19/01 email to me "Marshall made almost no money
Marshall didnt care about money and left very little. He could have made a lot of money but wasnt interested in it. After all it was just another medium." In a 3/20/01 email Thall adds, "It is not that Marshall couldnt make money but it was not in the areas he preferred."
Thall relates an interesting episode to illustrate his point. "I remember Marshall having the insight that the effect of color TV would be to make our taste buds change and that we would need flavor enhancers to make the food taste as great as the TV made the food see and feel. Marshall told the Advertisers and they went out and created Accent and made a lot of money. But Marshall did not benefit from it in any big way. Great ideas, but no connections to the money."
The McLuhan of the 70s offered a stark contrast to the McLuhan that Theall and Carpenter had met in the early 50s. Carpenter recalls his first meeting with McLuhan and his wife Corrine in his great old house which was once St. Mikes infirmary. "He stood before the fireplace, Corrine beside him, the fire bright, the two of them tall, extremely handsome, she regal, he witty, punning, quoting jazz lyrics, classics, Yeats, headlines, slang, ads, a Joycean display."
In 1980, McLuhan spent his last summer at Carpenters farm by the sea on Long Island. "He walked, waded, rode horseback. But he could not speak. Only during Mass did words and songs and gestures return, however feebly."
Carpenter was called early one morning to be told that McLuhan had died in his sleep. It was December 31, 1980. A day before the new year.
After the funeral, Carpenter talked with Tom Easterbrook, McLuhans closest friend for over fifty years since school days. Tom spoke to Carpenter bitterly about all of the exploiters who had taken advantage of McLuhan even when he was ill and failing. In fairness, Carpenter adds, it should be noted "no one sought fame more eagerly than Marshall." The McLuhan quest for fame though was a gentle one, befitting an artist-poet. "He never walked over others to achieve it," notes Carpenter, "but he let others walk over him."
The contrast between the McLuhan Carpenter and Theall knew in the 50s and the McLuhan of the 70s is illustrated by two events Carpenter recalls at the close of the book.
"Years ago, walking north through Central Park, I saw coming toward me, like a silent jet, the most handsome, graceful, powerful man Id ever seen. Pure energy. He stared me right in the eye as he shot past. Muhammad Ali. Last year, in a hotel lobby in Islamabad, I saw him again: listless, witless, flabby. Strangers lifted his arms into a boxing position and posed themselves for pictures while throwing mock punches at his jaw. He was then led to the water fountain and his head pressed down to drink."
Carpenter adds, "I thought of Marshall."
A year before McLuhans death, Donald Theall went to Ontario to become the third president of Trent University. After retiring in 1987 as president of Trent, Theall returned to academic work, primarily on literary and communication theory and modernist and post-modernist literature and art, particularly Joyce.
Yet his interest in his old mentor never disappeared.
Thealls "quest" to rediscover the McLuhan he once knew started with an article on "McLuhan and Joyce" in an anniversary issue of The Canadian Journal of Communication which he guest edited in 1989. It was continued with the article "Beyond the Orality/Literacy Principle: James Joyce and the Pre-history of Cyberspace" published in Postmodern Culture in 1992.
In the late 90s, the quest took the form of two McLuhan- related conferences Theall participated in. One was a 1997 conference at Columbia University on French theory in North America. The other was a 1998 conference on McLuhan at Fordham University in March 1998.
The result of these events led Theall to "realize that a reconsideration of McLuhans work from someone who was as close to him as I was during a crucial formative period" was important. For Theall it was important in developing the "true nature of his significance, while also providing a more personal portrait of this unique man with his strengths and weaknesses."
The book is the result of Thealls quest. But perhaps not the final result. For Theall or for others. Just as there is really no ending to Joyces Finnegans Wake there might also be no ending to rediscover McLuhan anew in different times.
In an email to me dated 3/19/01, Donald Theall writes "After The Virtual Marshall McLuhan the work is continuing on a project financed by a grant from the Canadian Social Science and Humanities Research Council. The title of the project is Radical Modernism and its Aftermath: Cultural Production and the Pre-history of the Digital Infomatrix and Cyberculture."
Yes, it sounds pretty scholarly and not too practical for our practical times. Yet Thealls work needs to be considered in a much larger context than McLuhans relationship to Joyces strange, prophetic masterpiece Finnegans Wake or explorations into the paradoxical trickster methods of McLuhan. In effect, McLuhan as a prophetic poetic trickster "medium" is no less than modern man in the last half of the twentieth century.
Don Theall, again, states it very well saying "
behind McLuhans own conception of the role he had to play, there is the recognition of the centrality of schizophrenia in modernity and capitalism." To McLuhan, literate man is schizophrenic, a declaration he made in The Gutenberg Galaxy. As Theall adds, "The tensions arising from the ambiguities generated by all the conflicting elements in McLuhans works dramatically reflect the essential tension of the era within which his vision unfolded."
In the end, one is reminded of a quote from C.G. Jung. "Eternal truth needs a human language that alters with the spirit of the times."
And so it is for the "language" needed to consider the "eternal truth" of Marshall McLuhan. It is a language and truth that, like McLuhan, like all of us, alters with the spirit of the times. Donald Theall has created a "language" to see McLuhan in the spirit of our postmodern times. But there will be new times and new perspectives. As in Finnegans Wake, beginnings will be grafted onto endings and endings will become beginnings.
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Caen, Herb. San Francisco Chronicle. August 12, 1965. Page
Carpenter, Edmund. "That Not So Silent Sea." Appendix of The Virtual Marshall McLuhan.
Costello, Peter. James Joyce.
Eco, Umberto. The Aesthetics of Chaomos.
____________. The Open Work.
Eisentein, Sergei. Film Form.
Fraim, John. The Medium and the Light.
Gordon, Terrence. Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding.
Lapham, Lewis. Introduction to Understanding Media. 30th Anniversary Edition.
Levinson, Paul. Digital McLuhan.
Marchand, Philip. Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger.
McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy.
_________________. Understanding Media.
Naipaul, V.S. The Mystic Masseur.
Potter, Andrew. "Rescuing McLuhan." Canadian National Post, March 24 2001.
Thall, Nelson. Email messages to John Fraim dated 3/19/01 and 3/20/01.
Theall, Donald. Email message to John Fraim dated 3/19/01.
______________. Email message to discussion group posted September 1999.