in those regions
of the wave
wherein all reality dissolves
( "A Dice Throw Will Never Do Away with Chance" Stéphane Mallarmé)
This entire blog is an extension of Finnegans Wake. By "extension" here, I do not mean that it in any way compares to the perennial mystery and majesty of the Wake, but only that it would not exist had there been no Wake. (And is this not also true of the whole freaking plenum?)
As an extension, though, it is merely a strand in a wormier cluster of mycelia attached to the outer rootwork of Wake studies, which Joyce himself may have helped to initiate along with the twelve jurors/disciples in Our Exagmination Round His Factification for Incamination of Work in Progress (1929).
To keep from completely drowning in the Wake, one needs to trace the tendrils as least as far back as Homer and as far forward as the maddening nonstop electronic feed of the flickering nanosecond. The Wake is the node which opens up and reproduces in miniature the complete rhizome.
Dante, Giordano Bruno, William Blake, W.B. Yeats -- bottomless singularities of their own -- are way stations along this road arriving from the past. Joseph Campbell, Philip K. Dick, Robert Anton Wilson, Terence McKenna shuffle in, all dusty and disheveled, from the opposite side of time's arrow, in the wake of the Wake. And contemporary to it are other interpenetrating and resonant literary whirlstorms; The Cantos, The Waste Land, The Apes of God -- Pound, Eliot, Lewis -- all essential, all prophecies of the unfolding whatever.
And so, given the track this blog is trudging, it was likely inevitable that it would eventually get sucked in by yet another vortex -- the maelstrom that is Marshall McLuhan, another soul struck by the spell of the Wake.
I have been circling around the edges, orbiting the event horizon, of this maelstrom for many years now, aware of its powerful attraction but without being fully submerged. No longer. The whirlwind has been reaped.
The Human Chain Extends
What finally nudged me over into the spiraling void was a form of contact through the electric ether. The simultaneously lucid and obscure, radiant and enigmatic, Bob Dobbs, arguably McLuhan's most worthy living emissary, left a series of comments to a recent post of mine.
Dobbs noted the "xenochrony" (a Zappa-coined designation for strange coincidence, sync beyond sync) of the fact that the themes of my post were virtually identical to those discussed by he and his posse on his weekly marathon 16-hour radio show. He invited me to phone in to the show and discuss these points.
I unfortunately was unable to join the conversation, but later I listened to the archives [from 17:08 in] of the show. Within the free-flowing mind-meld is commentary on my post from Dobbs and friends, including the channeled voice of an entity representing -- if I get this right -- the extension of immateriality. This charming alien presence goes by the moniker of iON.
At any rate, this all risks getting sidetracked from the get-go. Dobbs is a wild hare warren in himself. I've only dipped a big toe into the immense pool of content that Dobbs has produced on the most fascinating of topics, projecting MM out into hyperspace. I'm certain that Dobbs will come up again in this blog, and his insights and visions much more thoroughly explored, but for now he plays the role as an emissary, a kind of magical helper of the monomyth, and an entry point into the McLuhan Maelstrom.
Dobbs' essay, which I'll touch upon here, is the crucial "McLuhan and Holeopathic Quadrophrenia: The Mouse-That-Roared Syndrome." In this essay Dobbs claims that his archives include "the largest collection of McLuhan's creative output -- outside of Langley, Virginia." There is no reason to doubt this claim, nor to be skeptical about its tacit allegation of the CIA's intense interest in McLuhan's work. The latter will also be a significant subtext of the present post.
In "Holeopathic Quadrophrenia," Dobbs aptly divides McLuhan's career and legacy into three 20-year phases. The first phase, from 1937 to 1957, stretches from McLuhan's life-changing conversion to Catholicism to the Soviet launching of Sputnik on the fourth of October, 1957; the start of the satellite age. The second phase, 1957 to 1977, includes the two decades in which he achieved international fame and infamy for being the world's foremost media critic and prophet.
The third phase, from 1977 to 1997 (around the time Dobbs wrote his essay), is a post-McLuhan phase which the mage foresaw but did not get to witness himself. Dobbs describes this phase as one where the machines -- for McLuhan, "the extensions of man," -- began to extend themselves.
In short, the extensions of humanity had evolved to the point of actualizing their own drama of cognition.
At this point, I will not get into Dobbs' incredibly intriguing thoughts on this third phase (and presumably the "fourth phase" we are all living through right now), which Dobbs calls "the Android Meme," but my attention here also revolves around McLuhan's key theoretical obsession with the drama of cognition and perception.
Accordingly, it is to the first of Dobbs' phases which I'll primarily explore. This is when McLuhan's visionary career really began and the stage-doors of perception started to crack open. This is also when McLuhan began his lifelong study of Finnegans Wake.
The title of this post is taken from Dobbs' essay in which he notes that in one of McLuhan's copies of the Wake, Marshall had penciled in the words "me" and "moon child" next to the name "Meereschal MacMuhun" on page 254 of the Wake. McLuhan, born on July 21st, 1911, characterized himself as a Cancerian "moon child," an impression doubtlessly reinforced with the Apollo 11 moon mission coinciding with his 58th birthday.
...Orion of the Orgiasts, Meereschal MacMuhun, the Ipse dadden, product of the extremes giving quotidients to our means, as might occur to anyone, your brutest layaman with the princest champion in our archdeaconry, or so yclept from Clio’s clippings, which the chroncher of chivalries is sulpicious save he scan, for ancients link with presents as the human chain extends...
A Sign Is Sent
In a collection of McLuhan's writings and interviews on religion, entitled The Medium And The Light: Reflections On Religion (edited by Eric McLuhan and Jacek Szklarek), his son Eric McLuhan in the introduction very clearly reveals the immense importance that his father placed in his conversion to Catholicism, a matter he was fairly private about throughout his public career:
He was baptized and confirmed on the same day: 25 March 1937, Holy Thursday. In his journals for the rest of his life he never failed to mark the anniversary, but always on Holy Thursday before Easter, whatever the calendar date.
McLuhan was born into a liberal Protestant family and naturally drifted towards agnosticism as he became a young adult. It was during work on his dissertation on Thomas Nashe and disputes in theology that questions of faith began to preoccupy him. It came to a crux, so to speak, and as Eric McLuhan explains a very stark choice was laid out:
Either the entire matter was true, all of it, exactly as the Church claimed, or it was the biggest hoax ever perpetuated on a gullible mankind. With that choice clearly delineated, he set out to find which was the case. What came next was not more study, but testing.
An experiment was conducted, but in no way could this be scientific. It was a test conducted from within his own cognition and perception, an experiment that would forever alter the experimenter, in a realm where science still cannot venture. Eric McLuhan continues:
The matter had to be tested -- on its own terms: that is, by prayer. He told me that the principal prayer that he used was not some long or complex formula, but simply, "Lord, please, send me a sign." He reported that, almost immediately, not one but a deluge of signs arrived. And they continued to arrive unabated for a long time. As to just what the signs consisted in and what happened next, well, some things must remain private.
Of course this is incredibly tantalizing. What happened? What exactly did McLuhan experience? Was it a full-blown mystical revelation or more akin to a string of meaningful coincidences? The mystery remains and there is nothing wrong with mysteries. What is clear, though, is that McLuhan did not convert through reason -- he was not intellectually swayed by the superior logic of Catholic theology -- but because his own experiences, witnessed by his own senses, compelled him to change.
In a later interview, which Eric McLuhan also quotes in his introduction, McLuhan lucidly spells out the importance of percepts over concepts, a conviction that is not only the key to McLuhan's religious conversion, but to his work as a whole:
I had converted myself by working at the whole question. I didn't have any point of view, any problems; I had no difficulties. I've never had any difficulties. By the way, faith is not a matter of concepts: it's percepts, a matter of immediate reality.
For McLuhan theology offers no proof and it is asinine to expect that it should supply proof. It provides only a means, more or less adequate, to attempt to describe and explain the extraordinary yet very subjective evidence of regular perception during a religious experience. Perception itself is crucial. As a historical event, the Death of God took place shortly after God became purely conceptual, an ontological category, instead of a living, experiential reality.
I am myself quite aware that there is a great contrast between perceptual and conceptual confrontation; and I think that the "death of Christianity" or "the death of God" occurs the moment they become concept. As long as they remain percept, directly involving the perceiver, they are alive.
From his conversion to his death, McLuhan considered himself to be an orthodox Catholic. He never spoke against the Church as a whole, and he considered all schisms, including the many Protestant sects, to be anathema to Christianity, in which there could only be one Church just as there was only one Christ.
He was certainly a Catholic, but he may not have been a Roman Catholic. For McLuhan, the Church preceded the Bible, which was only compiled in its final and orthodox form centuries after Christ, and it certainly preceded the official conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, beginning with Emperor Constantine's own mystical "bust thru" in AD 312.
McLuhan was in many ways was an Early Christian, although he was also enamoured of the Catholic manuscript culture of the High Middle Ages. Just as this medieval manuscript culture was for McLuhan a near perfect blending of the media of Eye and Ear, visual and oral/aural, the electronic media culture of the late 20th century and onward offers the same potential of decentralized perceptual balance. With the electronic media the Church could again, and inevitably would, become completely "de-Romanized." Indeed the process is well underway.
De-Romanization is a fact ever since the telegraph. Any speed-up of communication de-centralizes. Slow forms of communication centralize: information is localized and the decision-making takes place at the centre. All this is reversed by electric speed when information becomes available at the same moment everywhere. Decisions can be made at the periphery the same as at the centre. The President does not have to be in Washington; the Pope does not have to be in Rome.
McLuhan was in fact a very active advocate of this process of de-Romanization, something that seems to have been missed by critics who paint him as being merely a conservative Christian. A Pope would remain in McLuhan's vision of the future Church -- as even if only two Christians remained on Earth one would be Pope, the symbolic teacher and mediator -- but the entire hierarchy and centralized apparatus of Roman Catholicism would be inescapably levelled.
The Church has in various periods consisted of hermits in very scattered huts and hovels in all sorts of backward territories. It could easily become this again, and in the age of the helicopter I see no reason why the Church should have any central institutions whatever. So any of the visible forms of the church could undergo total transformation and dissipation, but this would have no relevance to the central reality and thingness of the revealed and divinely constituted Church.
A forward return to a decentralized network of inspired and enthused helicopting hermits holing up in huts and hovels is not a typical aspiration for conservative Christians, and by no means does McLuhan fit this bill. His religious philosophy is extremely complex and his Christianity is so radical, as this essay will attempt to show, that it just barely -- and yet fundamentally -- conforms to what is usually considered at present to be Christianity.
At the core of this radical vision -- simultaneously at the heart of his celebrated yet more exoteric media theory -- is his deeply mind-shattering analysis of the process of perception. And this analysis, that he took no pains to hide and every opportunity to announce and emphasize, was inspired directly from his study of Joyce and other avant-garde modernists.
Throughout his career, therefore, McLuhan was a tireless missionary for an imagined yet eternal, electric and de-hierarchized, Blakean and Wakean, universal Church of all times and places at once, a Church pledged to blowing off the doors of our collective perception. And there is no better statement of this, no matter how low-key and arcane its language, than a lecture McLuhan presented in 1954 and later published as "Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters."
Study of this essay, which is the really the centrepiece of The Medium and the Light, initiates a journey that leads from Alexander Pope to Edgar Allen Poe to the Symbolists to Yeats, Joyce, the Vorticists and beyond to the total media saturation of the overexposed present. Sticking closely to the text of "Catholic Humanism," and occasionally branching off to different works by McLuhan and those revered by him, this article is an attempt to discover the heart of the process of perception.
The Reverse Metaphorics of Whodunnit?
McLuhan is famous for his observation that any technology, and most notably any media, is an "extension of man." Our tools extend the reach of our bodies and minds. A decade before Understanding Media, though, McLuhan begins his lecture with an analysis of the foundational extension of the human being, the Ur-media of language itself. And language is an ever-shifting composite of metaphors, by which we employ one sensory experience as a lens to compare to others.
When we look at any situation through another situation we are using metaphor. This is an intensely intellectual process. And all language arises by this means. So that it is a commonplace of the poetic and critical discussion of the last one hundred years to note that human languages themselves are the greatest of all works of art beside which the works of Homer, Vergil, Dante and Shakespeare are minor variations. The English -- or any other -- language is itself a massive organization of traditional experience providing a complex view of the world.
All of the great epics then, all art and literature, are mere footnotes to language itself. Every language through translation and interpretation can be related to every other language, each a vast synonymic resonator of the other, each a unique and nuanced facet of the great Language which extends and manifests collective human consciousness. This is the starting point, the framing mechanism, for all subsequent technology. All of our tools, from a stone hammer to calculus to the internet, are more or less physical manifestations or representations of forms generated by language.
Just as language is an extension of our senses, bodily gestures and movements, all subsequent technology, all media, is a particularized instant of language. This view in itself is revolutionary, is deeply mind-shattering, but this is only where McLuhan begins his lecture.
It should be kept firmly in mind that McLuhan, while famous for being a prophet of cutting-edge electronic media, was initially and primarily a student and professor of English literature. However, unlike others of his tweedy ilk, other worshipers of the written word -- and most notably his colleague, Northrop Frye -- McLuhan not only viewed all texts as being interwoven threads of one great Text, but saw the entire human-built environment, and in fact all of nature altered by this, as chapters and verses of the same Epic.
A walk through the city streets is a stroll through the stanzas of Homer, as Joyce knew very well. A shopping mall manifests The Bhagavad Gita. Every point of human creation is a synesthetic synthesis of the whole Imagination. Hendrix blares from the pages of Chaucer. A jet engine's roar sings out the architecture of the Notre Dame in Paris. These are metaphors, but the entire fabric of reality is constructed and destructed by metaphor. This approaches the psychedelic headspace of Marshall McLuhan.
And because of this universal interpenetration, the whole panoply can be best explored, best analyzed, through the most powerful lens that language presents to us; the great works of literature -- the most highly condensed statements or prisms of the human imagination available. Intricate tissues of metaphors, they themselves supply the metaphoric lens by which to best explore the totalized and totalizing media environment.
But this is shooting too far ahead. Back to the lecture. For McLuhan, though, this awareness of the centrality of language in framing all of human perception and creation did not arise suddenly out of nowhere. It, too, has a history, a development, an evolution. What is now a more or less accepted and commonplace, however stunning it still is, worldview -- that language shapes and defines reality -- was once a notion only experimented with by the most wild-eyed and wooly-footed of visionary poets and artists.
It was from this hairy bunch that came the idea that the lives and thoughts of individuals from very different times and places could be re-created and re-experienced through focused applications of language. McLuhan explains:
The poet, said Thomas Brown of Edinburgh, is different from other men in that his mind works backwards in association. This insight, common to that age, has been steadily applied and reigned in all the arts and sciences since that time. So that Whitehead could say of the nineteenth century that its distinction lay not so much in the arrival of any particular discovery as in the discovery of the technique of discovery itself.
The discovery of discovery. The creation of creation. This process becomes increasingly more self-aware, more self-reflective. It was already quite advanced by the time of the Romantic poets, who were beginning to become conscious of the perceptual tyranny of print and the written word, but it was Edgar Allen Poe who first directly articulated the importance of "working backwards" in his literary essays, "The Philosophy of Composition" (1846) and "The Poetic Principle" (1850). These essays would have a huge impact and influence on French Symbolism, and through them the entire European avant-garde.
Beyond this, however, Poe was also the inventor of the modern detective novel. He has the rare honour, therefore, of being the originator of the "highest" and "lowest" of the arts. But for Poe these were tailored from the same cloth. Both only become possible upon awareness of the perceptual process. McLuhan explains:
To put the thing briefly, Poe saw that poetry should be written backward. One must begin with the effect that is to be achieved and then seek out the means for obtaining that effect and no other effect. Thus the same insight which enabled Poe to be the inventor of symbolist poetry also made him the inventor of detective fiction. For the sleuth works backwards from the effect of the event to reconstruct the circumstances which produced the particular event or murder.
This is really the secret in a nutshell. The crime, the murder, is the desired aesthetic and creative effect. The poet/detective works backwards, reverse engineers so to speak, to recreate the steps that will lead to the final act of birth/death. It is worth a meander into Poe's essays for a stretch before returning to McLuhan's lecture.
In the Volutes of the Flower
In "The Philosophy of Composition," Poe, thus revealing a secret that has previously "never been given to the world," sets out to let general readers sneak a "peep behind the scenes" to the actual messy process of creative composition. Far from confirming the romantic image most of us have of the inspired poet directly and divinely transcribing his or her visions of pure light into ink on paper, Poe unveils a much more quotidian -- yet in the final analysis more fascinating -- practice.
Most writers -- poets in especial -- prefer having it understood that they compose by a species of fine frenzy -- an ecstatic intuition -- and would positively shudder at letting the public take a peep behind the scenes, at the elaborate and vacillating crudities of thought -- at the true purposes seized only at the last moment -- at the innumerable glimpses of idea that arrived not at the maturity of full view -- at the fully-matured fancies discarded in despair as unmanageable -- at the cautious selections and rejections -- at the painful erasures and interpolations -- in a word, at the wheels and pinions -- the tackle for scene-shifting -- the step-ladders, and demon-traps -- the cock's feathers, the red paint and the black patches, which, in ninety-nine cases out of a hundred, constitute the properties of the literary histrio.
Poe, true to his word, goes on to reveal the process involved in composing his most famous of poems, "The Raven." He begins, in his own confession, with the consideration of the poem's length. A poem, to be a poem in the real sense, must be short -- "a poem is such only inasmuch as it intensely excites, by elevating the soul; and all intense excitements are, through a psychical necessity, brief." Long poems, like Paradise Lost, are essentially a string of these soul-elevating intensities -- individual poems -- bound together by largely uninspiring prose.
Poe, then, conspires to compose a short and intense poem -- and so a true poem -- of about one hundred lines (and, most significantly for this blog, the poem ends up being precisely one hundred and eight lines long). The length thus determined, Poe goes on to consider the subject, or what he terms the "province" of the poem.
And this province is precisely that which most reliably elevates the soul. This is the apprehension of Beauty. There is an obvious circularity or self-reflexivity here. The task of poetry is to elevate the soul (and pointedly not the "mind" or the "heart"), and the way to do this most effectively is through the apprehension or the beholding of Beauty. Beauty, therefore, is always the subject of real poetry and so, in a sense, Poe is deliberately choosing to write a poem about poetry itself.
In "The Poetic Principle," published after his death, Poe is explicit about this:
I would define, in brief, the Poetry of words as The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. Its sole arbiter is Taste. With the Intellect or with the Conscience it has only collateral relations. Unless incidentally, it has no concern whatever either with Duty or with Truth.
The Rhythmical Creation of Beauty. This is all poetry worth the name. This is "The Raven." And of the primary Platonic Forms -- the True, the Good and the Beautiful, all three ultimately facets of the One -- the unique province of poetry and the aesthetic arts is Beauty, which is arguably the easiest of the three to discern. And it is through the Beautiful that the soul, through Knowing if not through Being, achieves transcendence. Poetry provides a glimpse of this. It is the unique crystallization into words-as-images of the mystical apprehension of the Beautiful.
The poem is not an attempted copy or reproduction of this moment, but a complete re-creation of it. It is a portal constructed of condensed language infused with intention, emotion and rhythm, which opens into to the temple of Beauty. And yet, as Poe explains, it is the construction of poetry that is key. While the initial moment which precipitated the poem may have been experienced as a spontaneous outpouring of divine grace, the poem itself is as planned and as structured as the design of a cathedral. And this is precisely how Poe composed "The Raven."
I select 'The Raven' as most generally known. It is my design to render it manifest that no one point in its composition is referable either to accident or intuition -- that the work proceeded step by step, to its completion, with the precision and rigid consequence of a mathematical problem.
As Beauty is the province of Poe's poem, the "tone" of Beauty -- as its fleeting nature invariably involves loss -- is melancholy. This is also the tone of "The Raven" and it is this tone that also determines the central symbol and subject of the poem; the bird of ill-omen and its rhythmical and melancholic cry, "Nevermore." And with these elements established, the topic of "The Raven" directly follows:
I asked myself -- "Of all melancholy topics what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy?" Death, was the obvious reply. "And when," I said, "is this most melancholy of topics most poetical?" From what I have already explained at some length the answer here also is obvious -- "When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death then of a beautiful woman is unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world, and equally is it beyond doubt that the lips best suited for such topic are those of a bereaved lover."
The death of a beautiful woman, Lenore, becomes, or is already, poetry. In the "Poetic Principle" Poe provides a long list of equally inspiring instances. They may arrive in the splendor of nature:
[The poet] recognises the ambrosia which nourishes his soul in the bright orbs that shine in Heaven -- in the volutes of the flower -- in the clustering of low shrubberies -- in the waving of the grain-fields -- in the slanting of tall eastern trees -- in the blue distance of mountains -- in the grouping of clouds -- in the twinkling of half-hidden brooks -- in the gleaming of silver rivers -- in the repose of sequestered lakes -- in the star-mirroring depths of lonely wells.
He perceives it in the songs of birds -- in the harp of Aeolus -- in the sighing of the night-wind -- in the repining voice of the forest -- in the surf that complains to the shore -- in the fresh breath of the woods -- in the scent of the violet -- in the voluptuous perfume of the hyacinth -- in the suggestive odour that comes to him at eventide from far-distant undiscovered islands, over dim oceans, illimitable and unexplored. He owns it in all noble thoughts -- in all unworldly motives -- in all holy impulses -- in all chivalrous, generous, and self-sacrificing deeds.
And most especially in the beauty of women:
...in the grace of her step -- in the lustre of her eye -- in the melody of her voice -- in her soft laughter, in her sigh -- in the harmony of the rustling of her robes. He deeply feels it in her winning endearments -- in her burning enthusiasms -- in her gentle charities -- in her meek and devotional endurances -- but above all -- ah, far above all he kneels to it -- he worships it in the faith, in the purity, in the strength, in the altogether divine majesty -- of her love.
What Poe is describing in these essays is truly profound, as the Symbolists later realized and brought to the next level and were in turn, as McLuhan found, eclipsed by the aesthetic discoveries of James Joyce. Yet Poe was the first to articulate the inner-workings of the creative process and by doing so he allowed the process itself to become its own subject. For the Symbolists, the creation of a poem represented the greatest possible subject of poetry. As McLuhan explains:
... the symbolist poet makes of the poem not a vehicle for views, ideas, feelings, but a situation which involves the reader directly in the poetic process. That is why he will always say that the poem is not about anything; it is something. It doesn't say anything; it does something.
This idea was also expressed by Samuel Beckett in his 1929 essay "Dante... Bruno. Vico.. Joyce" in reference to Finnegans Wake (then called Work in Progress):
Here form is content, content is form. You complain that this stuff is not written in English. It is not written at all. It is not to be read -- or rather it is not only to be read. It is to be looked at and listened to. His writing is not about something; it is that something itself.
And long before the Wake this idea was already present in the work of the Symbolists. In Arthur Symons’hugely influential book (crucial to Joyce's development as a writer), The Symbolist Movement In Literature (1899), the mad poet Gérard de Nerval is presented as epitomizing this process way back in the 1850s:
Gérard de Nerval, then, had divined, before all the world, that poetry should be a miracle; not a hymn to beauty, nor the description of beauty, nor beauty's mirror; but beauty itself, the colour, fragrance, and form of the imagined flower, as it blossoms again out of the page. Vision, the overpowering vision, had come to him beyond, if not against, his will; and he knew that vision is the root out of which the flower must grow. Vision had taught him symbol, and he knew that it is by symbol alone that the flower can take visible form.
Through symbols -- word-windows onto the eternal -- a poem becomes a miracle. With Stéphane Mallarmé, deliberately following from de Nerval, this process is taken even further, is made even more self-conscious. The poet, for Mallarmé as for Poe, is the master architect who literally disappears into the work. "The pure work," Mallarmé reveals, "implies the elocutionary disappearance of the poet, who yields place to the words, immobilised by the shock of their inequality."
The poet, working and reworking, tweaking words, images and rhythms, does not rest until the result is flawless, seamless, until the miracle is produced or conjured into writing. Symons explains that,
By the time the poem has reached, as it seems to him [the poet], a flawless unity, the steps of the progress have been only too effectually effaced; and while the poet, who has seen the thing from the beginning, still sees the relation of point to point, the reader, who comes to it only in its final stage, finds himself in a not unnatural bewilderment.
The poet starts "with an enigma and then withdraw[s] the key of the enigma." This is precisely Poe's process in both his poems and in his detective stories; envision first the aesthetic effect/murder, then work backwards to best create the steps leading to the desired effect, and finally erase all traces of these footsteps. Poetry is the perfect crime.
Poeting The World
For McLuhan, however, -- and I will return finally to his lecture -- this awareness of the creative process has had, and continues to have fundamental implications for the whole of modern culture. The awareness of this process, which is really the process of perception itself, leads directly to either collective enslavement or to total salvation. It is the ultimate double-edged sword.
Now, I suggest that the poetic process as revealed by Poe and the symbolists was the unexpected and unintentional means of establishing the basis of Catholic humanism. Moreover, I shall show that the widest possible extension of this discovery to the transformation of all common life and politics has provided the intellectual matrix of a new world society.
What McLuhan came to realize is that the process that Poe described in his essays, and the Symbolists later incorporated into their work, is the same process that was later successfully employed in modern science and technology, and that both are really only extensions of the normal process of human perception and cognition. And just as ordinary language is an "infinitely greater work of art" than the classical epics, so ordinary human perception is infinitely greater than any process "devised by philosophers or scientists."
The poetic process is a reversal, a retracing of the stages of human cognition. It has been and will always be so; but with Edgar Poe and the symbolists this central fact was taken up to the level of conscious awareness. It then became the basis of modern science and technology.
The full awareness of the poetic process, and the acknowledgement that it is identical to and in fact an extension of the process of perception, offers almost godlike powers.
Because the dream of ordinary perception seen as the poetic process is the prime analogue, the magic casement opening on the secrets of created being.
What is McLuhan talking about? He compares the discovery of these processes with Machiavelli's related discovery of the grammar of political power. Machiavelli did not invent deception, conniving and treachery in politics, but he was the first to openly affirm these techniques systematically as a basis to secure and expand secular power. What was previously committed by rulers with a guilty conscience was after Machiavelli celebrated as cutting-edge statecraft. A thing made conscious becomes a tool or a weapon.
Today with the revelation of the poetic process which is involved in ordinary cognition we stand on a very different threshold from that wherein Machiavelli stood. His was a door into negation and human weakness. Ours is the door to the positive powers of the human spirit in its natural creativity. The door opens on to psychic powers comparable to the physical powers made available via nuclear fission and fusion. Through this door men have seen a possible path to the totalitarian remaking of human nature. Machiavelli showed us the way to a new circle of the Inferno. Knowledge of the creative process in art, science, and cognition shows us either to the earthly paradise or to complete madness. It is to be either the top of Mount Purgatory or the abyss.
...psychic powers comparable to the physical powers made available via nuclear fission and fusion... a possible path to the totalitarian remaking of human nature... The gates to the Earthly Paradise and the Inferno are really only one gate. All of McLuhan's subsequent media studies are conducted with these all-or-nothing stakes firmly in mind. All media is an extension of human perception and cognition and as awareness of these processes grows so does the power of the new media. The most seemingly ordinary thing -- human perception -- is the most profound key of poetic creation.
In ordinary perception men perform the miracle of recreating with themselves -- in their interior faculties -- the exterior world. This miracle is the work of the nous poietikos or of the agent intellect -- that is, the creative or poetic process. The exterior world in every instant of perception is interiorized and recreated in a new matter. Ourselves. And in this creative work that is perception and cognition, we experience immediately that dance of Being within our faculties which provides the incessant intuition of Being.
Just as for de Nerval true poetry is a miracle, there is no greater miracle than each successive moment of perception. This is the path to the Earthly Paradise, and this is also precisely what allows for what McLuhan calls "Catholic Humanism." Again, however, it is worth recalling that by "Catholic" McLuhan in no way means Rome. He is referring to the universal Church of Christ which existed long before the Vatican, and which will exist long after Roman Catholicism is forgotten.
There is but one event that the universal Church is founded upon. This is the Incarnation -- the Word becoming Flesh. And this is precisely what is recreated at every instant of perception. We all daily create the world out of chaos. Perception is Incarnation.
I suggest that our faith in the Incarnation has an immediate relevance to our art, science, and philosophy. Since the Incarnation all men have been taken up into the poetry of God, the Divine Logos, the Word, His Son. But Christians alone know this. And knowing this, our own power of incarnating and uttering the world, becomes a precious foretaste of the Divine Incarnation and the Evangel. We can see how all things have literally been fulfilled in Christ, especially our powers of perception. And in Christ we can look more securely and steadfastly on natural knowledge which at one and the same time has become easier and also less important to us.
Just as the creation of poetry is an analogous extension of the ordinary process of perception, the latter is an analogy of the Incarnation, and beyond this to the original Creation of the world.
With the Incarnation of Christ, spirit entered into matter, eternity entered into history. Just as in the beginning, the cosmos was uttered anew. The fallen world was redeemed. At every instant this also happens within and without us.
A riot of raw, indecipherable data is taken in by the senses, processed immediately by the mind, and seemingly projected outward to create the world that we all live within. Let there be Light. And there was. In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was Light. This is all metaphor, but there is nothing but metaphor. Language is the sole container of perception.
McLuhan's conversion experience in 1937 must have involved the visceral realization of the equivalence of ordinary perception and the Incarnation of the Son of God. His entire career stems from this great vision. All of literature, all subsequent media, is the story of humanity's gradual collective realization of the process of perception.
The Incarnation is occurring right in front of us, and all around us, and even within us, continually. And yet we do not see it. By becoming aware of the process of perception, through art and through the electronic extension of our senses, we also become aware of the deeper mystery.
Although during McLuhan's long public career he did not often speak openly about these things, it is clear that they penetrated and drove everything that he wrote and said. He was more explicit with those closest to him, as is shown in a letter from 1939 to his future wife, Corinne Lewis:
The infinite merit of His Incarnation, His infinitely humbling Himself, was alone sufficient to "liquidate" all human sins for all time. But the subsequent acts of His life have a mysterious value (a mystery is, strictly, not something queer or hidden, but something unfathomably and inexhaustibly rich in meanings) which naturally (in their very nature) dwarf every historical event and every philosophical or scientific truth.
McLuhan's beliefs here are entirely consistent with early Christianity, and it is very apparent that this is where his religious affinities lie. For both primitive Christianity and McLuhan, the gospel of Christ was not at all opposed to the pagan philosophy of the classical world. In contrast with the later anti-philosophical bias of fundamentalist Protestantism and Counter-Reformation Roman Catholicism -- both infected, for McLuhan, by the literalist tyranny of the printed text -- early Christianity viewed itself as the culmination of philosophy.
Richard Tarnas. in his truly outstanding book The Passion of the Western Mind (1991), succinctly sums up this perspective:
In turn, Christianity was regarded as the true consummation of philosophy, with the gospel as the great meeting ground of Hellenism and Judaism. The Christian proclamation that the Logos, the word Reason itself, had actually taken human form in the historical person of Jesus Christ compelled widespread interest in the Hellenistic cultural world. In their understanding of Christ as the incarnate Logos, early Christian theologians synthesized the Greek philosophical doctrine of the intelligible divine rationality of the world with the Judaic religious doctrine of the creative Word of God, which manifested a personal God's providential will and gave to human history salvational meaning.
Christ represents the Word becoming Flesh within history. There are many mythological precedents to Christ which James Frazer and other scholars have identified -- Attis, Adonis, Dionysus, Orpheus, Krishna, even the Buddha -- but the unique claim of Christ's Incarnation was that it took place within history, into profane or fallen time, and thus uniting history with eternity. And, as Blake taught, it is irrelevant if this is a literal historical event or not. It is the perfection of the metaphor that is crucial.
Christ's Incarnation, therefore, cannot be seen as any species of sectarian dogma, and it is immediately falsified and negated when this is attempted. It is the transcendent becoming immanent, the intelligible becoming physical. Plato is the ultimate prophet of Christ, and Jesus as God/man shattered the walls of the Cave for evermore.
In Christ, the Logos became man: the historical and the timeless, the absolute and the personal, the human and the divine became one. Through his redemptive act, Christ mediated the soul's access to the transcendent reality and thus satisfied the philosopher's ultimate quest. In terms strongly reminiscent of Platonism with its transcendent Ideas, Christian theologians taught that to discover Christ was to discover the truth of the cosmos and the truth of one's own being in one unitary illumination.
For McLuhan this singular, time-dissolving instant of conjoining polarity, the Incarnation, is not only prefigured in all of the literature of the Classical and Eastern worlds, but it is eternally and miraculously recurring in every flash of ordinary perception. Our senses are extended, made expressible, through language and all of the great works of literature are mere chapters and verses of language.
Language is the first medium and all subsequent media -- manuscript, print, telegraph, radio, film, television, the internet -- are the tendrils and antennas of language. All stretch back, are reversed engineered, to the cosmic whodunnit, the murder mystery that redeemed the world. It is the beating heart of a multi-media mandala, with a centre nowhere and a periphery everywhere. Eternity is only ever happening now. It is right here, right before our eyes, if we only knew.
And as we trace the rise of successive communication channels or links, from writing to movies and TV, it is borne in on us that in order for their exterior artifice by which in ordinary perception we incarnate the exterior world. Because human perception is literally incarnation. So that each of us must poet the world or fashion it within us as our primary and constant mode of awareness. And the mechanical or mass media of communication must at least parrot the world in order to hold our attention.
Hanging By Our Ears
We are poets, but we don't know it. If we had whiskers we'd all be go-ats. But we do have whiskers; our senses and the technological extensions of these senses. And yet there is something blocking this realization. Most of us do not usually "poet the world." We lack Blake's Double Vision. We are not conscious. We cannot reverse the flow. Only the poet, the true lover of beauty, can make this happen.
Similarly, it would seem that the poet differs from other men only in his conscious ability to arrest the intake of experience and to reverse the flow. By this means he is able to externalize in a a work the actual process by which each of us in perception or cognition incarnates the external world of existence. But every word uttered by man requires a large measure of poetic ability. Our words are analogies of the miracle by which we incarnate and utter the world.
And the true poet for McLuhan, it must be said, is Catholic in the broadest sense of this word, is one who by faith -- through percepts not concepts -- knows that the unique Incarnation is paradoxically universal, ubiquitous.
And yet the gate to the Earthly Paradise and the Inferno is the same. We largely remain trapped in the Wasteland. Christ has been killed and the nightmare unfolds within the three days of the Harrowing of Hell. We are swallowed into the belly of Leviathan, and all of human culture is infected by the most virulent blasphemy; that the world is not perfect, that the Incarnation did not take place, that Nature is still fallen, and that we -- the master-builders, the micro-Demiurges -- can make it perfect.
[The Catholic] knows created Being has been marvelously preserved and recreated by the Incarnation, and that the human race in particular has been assumed into the life of the Divine Logos, which is Christ. But the secular world does not know these things and the consciousness has filled it with wild dreams and terrible programs for the ruthless refashioning of human nature.
Art and poetry, according to this blasphemy -- which McLuhan at times calls "Manichean" or "angelic,"are twisted and degraded into mere escapes from the horror of existence, and eventually, in false witness to vision, they only contribute to and accelerate the process of degradation. Art, technology, magic; all these are refashioned, are harnessed, in an attempt to paint over the void.
Art and poetry are regarded as private religions, secret escape hatches from the sunken submarine or the unguided missile of existence. The Catholic alone can laugh at these antics. He alone need not be deceived by such qualms and pretensions . And what the esoteric cultist proffers as magic he can accept as a single shaping of natural experience.
And the multi-media environment is magic made all-pervasive. There is no escaping the dominant spell. All must be recrafted, reforged, improved upon at a faster and faster rate. Information now largely exists as propaganda for the project of cosmic renovation, for the necessary leap beyond nature, beyond the human. The New World, the true transcendence, is almost upon us.
At the end of the present accelerated communication process are we to expect a new world citizen? Cosmic man? We have switched from the problem of production to the packaging of information. It is not markets we now invade but cultures and the minds of men. And this process is farthest advanced here in North America.
The greatest treasure -- the realization that by the process of perception we all continually and actively participate in the ever-unfolding Incarnation -- has fallen into the worst hands. It has been weaponized and tweaked for the mass enslavement of consciousness and we are being entertained to endless death by the necromancers of perception.
The primitive witchdoctor had spells which controlled the elements. The modern advertiser concocts spells which compel the customer. What the advertisers have discovered is simply that the new media of communication are themselves magical art forms. All art is in a sense magical in that it produces a change or metamorphosis in the spectator. It refashions his experience. In our slap-happy way we have released a great deal of this magic on ourselves today. We have been changing ourselves about at a great rate like Alley Oop. Some of us have been left hanging by our ears from the chandeliers.
The active metamorphosis of culture. A Machiavellian judo chop to our collective cognition. Slap-happy, we gaze with glazed eyes on screens reflecting screens, selfies of selfies, instead of realizing what is already there. We the poets are out-poeted by the anti-poets. The media counterfeits our own unique apparatuses for incarnating the Beautiful and deploys them against us. We are caught in the spotlight of the "sacred grove," entranced by flickering images on walls that are no longer really there.
The movie projector unrolls the spool and recreates the daylight world as a dark dream world. In reversing the process of perception even the mechanical camera and projector bring about a mysterious change in everyday experience. The movie reconstructs the external daylight world and in so doing provides an interior dream world. Hollywood means "sacred grove," and from this modern grove has issued a new pantheon of gods and goddesses to fashion and trouble the dreams of modern man.
What could easily become something entirely unprecedented -- the collective nervous system of the entire human race, externalized through the electric media, in constant yet never tedious celebration of its own miraculous self-awareness -- has instead become the darkest nightmare. Simulations, idols, horrors, distractions of all sorts blind and bind us. We willingly get swept up into the Spectacle, funneled further and further down into the maelstrom, drowned by data and glitter.
So that granted the pagan premise that man is simply a fallen angel, the ideal of modern industrial humanism is quite consistent. Let us doll up the fallen angel and let us put it in ever more powerful machines until the whole world looks like Marilyn Monroe in a Cadillac convertible. Powered by the magic of the camera eye and the means of duplicating its imagery universally, we have begun to approach the realization of this angelic dream.
This is the worldview of the fallen angel, a worldview in which miracles are outlawed, ordinary perception is considered inadequate, uninteresting. Only through science and technology, fields of knowledge that are easily monopolized by the Manichean manipulators, can "novelty" be created. And art and poetry themselves are now forced to promote the lie. This becomes their sole accepted purpose.
In this angelic view the business of art has nothing to do with the analogy of cognition nor with our miraculous powers to incarnate the external world. It is a means rather to lift us out of our human condition and to restore us to the divine world from which we fell at birth. In this view the artist becomes one with the Nietzschean superman, the transvaluer of values. Reality is not to be trusted or revered but to be remade by social engineers.
Gyre And Gimble
Yet McLuhan, it should be very obvious by now, is the ultimate rebel against this view. The world does not need to be remade. It is no longer fallen. His Christianity, though in his aspired orthodoxy he might be loath to admit this, arrives at a near identical place to the medieval heretical Brethren of the Free Spirit. Like Joyce he is howling a great "Yes!" to life, and also an equally great "No!" to all that would attempt to block our complete apprehension of its singular beauty.
McLuhan, it should be profoundly grasped -- and despite his seeming advocacy of the electric media in his later career -- was no believer in the supremacy of science. Science is a tool, an extension of our selves, nothing more and nothing less. But there is something much greater of which science is only a facet. Blake called it Jesus the Imagination. McLuhan would likely not disagree.
A new doctrine is needed that should have been promulgated one hundred years ago: at the instant of Incarnation, the structure of the universe was changed. All of creation was remade. There was a new physics, a new matter, a new world. The doctrine would enable modern man to take the Church more seriously. The moment God touched matter its structure was altered, its potency was enormously enhanced. So was man's. Modern science is aware of this, not necessarily as revealed truth, but simply as truth. -- "The De-Romanization of the American Catholic Church"
At the Incarnation "all of creation was remade."But as in The Gospel of Thomas, "the Kingdom of the Father is spread over the earth and men do not see it." The fallen world was fully redeemed, the very structure of matter was altered. Blake can see the disk of the Sun as the Hallelujah Choir of angels for in truth that is what it is. And the choir, like all of creation, is singing in perpetual praise of the one unique event that shattered history, the singularity that has already happened.
Which brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Joyce, back to the Wake, back to this blog and to this post. McLuhan's lecture on "Catholic Humanism" is concluded with Joyce, who presented the awareness of the process of perception further than anyone previously. And as a result his work, most advanced in the Wake, is the innermost door by which we may enter the Garden or the Pit, the re-singing of the Good News or the blueprint of the new ordering.
And the dissolution gyres from here &c.
I see myself -- an angel! and I die --
Call the pane art, or mysticism -- and love
To be reborn, wearing my dream on high,
Where Beauty, as it once did, flowers above!
But, ah! This world is master: haunting me,
Sometimes even here its nausea will pursue,
And the thick vomit of Stupidity
Drives me to hold my nose before the blue.
-- Mallarmé "The Windows"