If the Media Didn't Get Marshall McLuhan's Message in the '60s, Another Is on the Way
At 4 a.m. Herbert Marshall McLuhan, hip prophet of the ’60s for whom “the medium was the message,” awakens in his Toronto bedroom and slips into an ancient green bathrobe. He hurries into the kitchen not for breakfast but for a taste of biblical scholarship. For an hour he pores over scriptures in Greek, Latin, French, German and English, while gnawing on an orange.
Then he shifts to research for a new book, reading and scribbling notes. It will be called Laws of the Media, a sequel to his landmark Understanding Media. This year he also will publish a media textbook for high schools, one book on Canadian identity and two more on literature. McLuhan is returning to public prominence after a fallow period of nearly five years.
Just as Sigmund Freud is the father of psychoanalysis, Marshall McLuhan is the pioneer in media sociology, the study of the effects of electronic information—TV, radio, stereo and cassettes—on society. Understanding Media created a storm of controversy when it was published in 1964, but now it is used in nearly every university on the North American continent and has been translated into 15 languages.
At 5:10 a.m. the 65-year-old scholar reaches for a white wall telephone and dials. “Barry, I think I’ve discovered something,” he booms in an imperious English accent. Barrington Nevitt, a consultant to the Ontario government like many of McLuhan’s friends, is accustomed to predawn calls. McLuhan plunges on. “I ran across a phrase just now which said that a scientific hypothesis can be disproved. Not proved. Disproved. I realized I might be able to use this in media study. It’s really quite enraging that nobody has ever thought of this before.” McLuhan apparently means that he will ask media students to consider what society would be like if radio and television did not exist. He hangs up abruptly and returns to his reading. Before he has breakfast he goes back to bed for a while. Second only to his devout faith in Catholicism is his belief in the catnap. He returns to the kitchen at 8 a.m., wearing a Hawaiian shirt and slacks. Corinne McLuhan, his wife of 37 years, is preparing his breakfast. He alternates between rare beefsteak and organic whole wheat bread, honey and an egg.
For years, while he waited for breakfast, McLuhan read the New York Times, until he suddenly decided it was obsolete. “The complicated layout of the Times is 19th-century. To get through the whole damn thing would take at least a week. In the electronic age people want information quickly.” He now picks up the news of the day from the Toronto Globe and Mail.
He is reading the society page aloud to his wife when George Thompson, his middle-aged assistant, walks in. “Good morning, George!” McLuhan bellows. “Did you get a chance to look at the glorious sky? There’s not a cloud in it. Why in the world would anyone want to do anything serious on such a beautiful day?”
McLuhan picks up his battered briefcase and marches across the lawn of his English manor house to Thompson’s vintage Chevrolet. He has driven McLuhan to his office at the University of Toronto for the past three years—ever since McLuhan gave up driving. “It was the least I could do for the environment,” McLuhan explains. Hidden from the road is a 19th-century carriage house which the university converted into the Centre for Culture and Technology to honor McLuhan in 1963. At 9:30 a.m. McLuhan bounds up the spiral stairway to his office. Poised stiffly with dictation pad in hand, Margaret Stewart, his secretary, runs down the messages. Woody Allen wants him to act in a film. After speaking to the comedian, McLuhan agrees. (Shooting took place two weeks later at 7:45 a.m. in a movie theater in New York. McLuhan plays himself.) Gov. Jerry Brown wants McLuhan to speak at a political conference in California. The vice-president of Televisa de Mexico asks McLuhan to a media conference in his country. Will he give hour-long interviews to Radio Québec and the BBC? Does he have time to fly to Denver to address a convention of computer executives? A Michigan educator has heard of the forthcoming textbook on the media. Can he order a thousand copies, even though it is not yet in print? Would McLuhan and his wife like to be the guests of the Smothers Brothers while they are performing in Toronto?
McLuhan closes his deep-set brown eyes, puckering his mouth as he listens. When Mrs. Stewart puts her pad down, he snaps impatiently to attention, shouting, “If I were to call back—let alone agree to—half the invitations that are now coming to me, how in the world would I ever get any work done?”
But underneath the complaint is a quiet pleasure with this renewed attention. After the first burst of recognition for Understanding Media, McLuhan rode the crest of popularity for six years. Then interest declined and eventually turned to hostility. The very scholars and journalists who had praised him in the 1960s tried to bury him in the 1970s, questioning the validity of his complex theories. “A superstar,” he laments today, “is just another word for a sitting duck.”
McLuhan stretches his long, muscular legs in front of him and pulls his chin into his neck. “You see, I’m a sleuth, a kind of Sherlock Holmes character who simply investigates the environment and reports exactly what he sees. Strangely enough, some people are actually frightened by me. I find the whole exploration of the environment very exciting. Once you decide to become an explorer, there’s no place to stop. I’m like Columbus. I discover new worlds everywhere I look.”
Much to his satisfaction, more and more of his early prophecies are coming true. Twelve years ago, for example, he predicted that high school students would soon be more dramatically influenced by the audiovisual media than by print. At the time educators doubted him. Now HEW and several educational testing services confirm that reading scores among such students have dropped alarmingly.
Watergate, of course, was for McLuhan a microcosm of what is happening everywhere in this electronic age. “Electronic devices are making what we think of as privacy obsolete,” he explained back in the 1960s. Nixon, to hear McLuhan talk about him, was a Greek hero. His tragic flaw was his failure to recognize that he could not defend his own privacy while depriving everyone else of theirs. “He also wasn’t good television,” McLuhan points out. “He looked too different, too private. People are suspicious of privacy in the electronic age. Now, Gerald Ford is the perfect electronic man. He becomes whatever you want him to be.”
McLuhan predicted a major shift in power from politics to the media long before Watergate. And he wondered if politicians “may become tomorrow’s movie stars.” John Lindsay has made a movie. Jackie Onassis appears on fan magazine covers, and Pat Nixon’s sex life is as controversial as Cher’s.
Marshall McLuhan grew up in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His father was an insurance salesman and his mother an actress. Young McLuhan was a hardy outdoors-man. “I love the smell and touch of wood. I can’t say the same about metal. I used to make a sailboat every year to take with us to the beach. When we left I’d sell it.” In the 1930s McLuhan set out to become an engineer at the University of Manitoba but switched to literature when he became enchanted by the Romantic poets. After graduation he took a cattle boat to England to attend Cambridge University. “The Depression was a wonderful time for students,” he recalls. “Since you couldn’t possibly get a job, you could spend all your time reading literature.”
After touring Europe on a bicycle he returned to teach English at the University of Wisconsin, where he converted to Catholicism. “I had been reading Catholic authors at Cambridge, and I was impressed with the civilizing effect of the Church throughout history. I prayed each night. One day a fellow in class asked me why I wasn’t a Catholic. I had absolutely no answer. That was it. I converted immediately.”
During a summer interlude in Pasadena, Calif., McLuhan met his future wife, a native of Fort Worth, who, McLuhan proudly says, once won a Mary Pickford look-alike contest. She still speaks with a drawl despite 30 years in Canada.
After earning his doctorate in Renaissance literature and teaching in several Catholic colleges, McLuhan settled in Toronto. The McLuhans produced six children (he is regarded as a strict and overprotective father) who were brought up on Plato and Aristotle. Eric, 34, is earning his Ph.D. at the University of Dallas. (When Eric taught speed reading in Toronto, his father enrolled, complained incessantly about the methods used and eventually flunked the course.) Mary, 30, is in California raising the first McLuhan granddaughter, and Teri, her twin, was recently honored at the Moscow Film Festival for a documentary and is shooting a film on twins. Stephanie, 28, is a TV newscaster in New York. Elizabeth, 26, just published a book of poetry, and Michael, 23, repairs guitars in a Toronto music shop.
At the height of his celebrity in 1967, McLuhan was operated on in New York for a brain tumor. While still in intensive care he tried to persuade the nurses to take dictation so he could continue working on his books. Five years later he suffered a second medical crisis—an artery in his neck was becoming atrophied. Last rites were considered, but the condition corrected itself. McLuhan dismisses the whole thing as simply a miracle.
Though none of the children lives at home, the house is lively. Nuns and priests are frequent visitors. McLuhan entertains at lunch by combining two different cans of Campbell’s soup. Dinner is more elaborate, although McLuhan usually leaves his guests at the end of the meal to read. If a guest follows, he is handed a book. “I think you may enjoy this,” McLuhan says.
Because of his theory that print is becoming obsolete, McLuhan is sometimes considered an enemy of books. On the contrary, he devours them, as many as 30 a week in five languages. Curiously, McLuhan moved his TV set into the basement recently. Although his theories pivot upon the importance of TV in shaping the future, McLuhan wants to minimize the effect it has on him. “I did not want it invading my home,” he explains. (Likewise, he never uses a dictation machine and prefers that his secretary use a manual rather than an electric typewriter.)
A month ago McLuhan got word that he has achieved a kind of immortality. The Oxford dictionary, bible of the English language, will include the word “McLuhanism” in its next edition, a colleague advised. McLuhan considered the prospect sourly. “I can just imagine,” he says, “what that word is going to mean.”