The Errant Knight and the Anarchist
I have known two great men. One restored a windmill from a rundown shell to working order. The other fixed a pasteboard visor to a mind-bending Cambridge education funded by the Imperial Daughters of the Empire. Standing tall in Gutenberg amour several sizes too large for him, he knew he was better equipped than most to play the foolish knight. He went off in several directions at once to tilt against windmills — and anything else immense and threatening to humanity.
Both men, miller and scholar, were born in 1911, the year the mill stopped grinding flour. Both were teenagers in the twenties when the jazz age introduced them to sad music of free slaves, helping nearly everybody escape from primitive roots. To the sound of row after row of wires humming the blues, the dilapidated mill was cheerfully gutted.
The anarchist who worked half a century bringing its old ruins back to life was Archie Dalloway. Archie did the impossible. He reshaped six-foot wooden cog wheels, replaced a crippled fifty-foot sweep of pitch pine sails with great new ones of ash. Almost alone, he restored the lost soul of a dead landmark on the Sussex Downs.
A day came when once again the mill took possession of Black Downghostly in moonlight, radiant in sunsets. And trying to pierce it with his Cervantesque lance was the other great man I knewknight-errant Marshall McLuhan, armed with a postmodern quill retrieved from the English fens.
A couple of summers ago the miller, aged eighty-two, died. Fortune had taken McLuhan to his death at about the same time lightning ripped the restored windmill open from top to bottom, setting it ablaze. McLuhan was sixty-nine. I knew both men for quite a long time.
Archie kept my 1937 vintage car going while industry retooled after a successful war. Archie didn't drive himself but liked working on cars. Enjoyed turning old ones like mine into tractors. Most farmers within sight of Black Down Mill owned one of his tractors, never doubting it would last a lifetime.
People in the village said the last car Archie drove ran over somebody and killed them. That night all his hair fell out. From that time on, Archie always wore his dusty miller's cap, his small eyes glinting under its peak, summing you up with a shrewd squint. He wore that cap indoors and out like a scarlet letter or stigma.
Born at the mill owned by his family for more than a century, Archie Dalloway rarely had much to say. His hands did the talking. I spent hours with him, watching and marveling at what his hands could do on a lathe or at his makeshift forge.
In the sixteen years I knew him I don't believe I took much notice of Marshall McLuhan's hands. Of course, his talking never stopped, he spoke nonstopto himself, to anyone at all who gave an impression of listening. For the benefit of the most educated, their well-groomed minds already sunk in swamps of socially-induced numbness, his thrusts became noticeably impatient and bizarre. "Remember to give your reader a little pinch now and then," he told me. Still, I don't recall his hands adding much to his discourse.
Sober don, quixotic grandee to the core, most expression was in his face. Like a fabled Stradivarius violin, his features shaped the cadence best suited to reify his thought. If he tucked his chin down into his shoulder and raised an eyebrow, you knew at once his mental bow was about to thrill to deep cello chords. Even as humble Sancho Panza it was worth marveling at the way his mind gathered a vortex of scrambled words into enduring, layered patterns.
For quite different reasons, he shared Archie's driving phobia. Though electronic ads tried to hallucinate for him images of Don Quixote's lean hack, or Rozinante (or its lethal metal offspring) as "lofty, sonorous and significant," he was never tempted. What fascinated him most was their power of hallucination. A scorching shimmer dancing in a mirage of consumer attractions— that's what he tried hard to understand; emperor and empress jigging in the nudedelightful, he agreedbut always a manufactured deception.
At every checkout counter on earth dancers are the dance you and me, he said. His driving phobia wasn't because he had run over somebody but because he knew he might. Further explanation lies in the fact he didn't encounter the city in the casual way most of us do. To his restless brain it presented a deadly serious blip or glitch along global one-way streets, often reversing commonly valued domestic services into abrasive and humiliating disservices. For example: no longer can one's city face serve as a means of identification. Even in prison line-ups, your face could be anybody's. As predictably manageable beings, we become what we behold: plastic repositories with identifiable squirts of DNA staining our freedom of information files. To cope at all demanded utmost power of reflection and good humor. Such dedicated mental application, he knew, is out of the question for busy earthlings locked forever in the amber of the presentnever to be granted, like civilized humans, a rewarding past and opulent tomorrow. Thought takes time. And, strictly speaking, time is an overvalued human invention; animals and gods most high get along without it. Proof of this he observed among the simplest creatures, no more capable of timely ratiocination than motorists performing knee- jerk tasks in their prefabricated concrete hive.
I don't mean to say McLuhan was unhappy in cities. I remember one day in early summer walking with him along a downtown Toronto street. To our surprise snow began to fall. "Like cherry blossom!" he exclaimed, delighted, quoting something oriental about white petals on a wet, black bough. Another occasion comes to mind—a Sunday evening. I arrived at his house to find him and several of his grown-up children in the kitchen wondering what to do about supper. With his wife off at a function somewhere, the future appeared to hold nothing for them but unattractive scraps. Everyone brightened when I suggested a restaurant only a few blocks away. After the meal he and his younger daughter, Teri, arms around one another, tripped a light-fantastic along city pavements. He was at home wherever pavements climb to the sky.
Again at night, a group of us reached a vacant lot on the Toronto University campus where a new college was to be built. We paused while he improvised a design for it, including five columns. Each column stood for one of the five senses known to early Greeks. It puzzled me to find him ready, like them, to reduce our senses to five; I wondered why he wouldn't subscribe to current opinions, especially knowledge of the so-called proprioceptive sense, said to ensure balance and sense of proportion.
Having no vested interest in any theory whatever, from then on his writing was peppered with quotes from a paperback revealing this new information. That's how he worked—alert to any idea, always ready to meet half-way the slut who keeps the corporate information till.
So the city as medium fascinated him, not its trifling, multi-faceted bits and pieces. He counted himself lucky to live in a cultural backwater, neither sucked beyond recall into the pinched drain of New York and London anorexia, nor yet worthy of blandishments from underage thugs. For him the striking significance of city-as-medium lay in its ability to create (and scrap) environments of its own. Each fresh environment soon surrounds and transforms established social institutions in somewhat the same way lower forms of life learn, by reflex, to surround and ingest even lower ones. That gnawing cannibalism is the message that matters. Cultural immunity eroded away by neglect and organized ignorance, yesterday's domestic treasures become today's art or junk. Sometimes an insane fusion of the two: bomb craters and dead children, for example.
Thanks, however, to a new agility allowing us to rock around the clock, drivers and airline pilots—animal senses blown up by a factor of thirty, sometimes by a factor approaching the speed of lightmust never lose their grip on the dreadfully inflated present moment, grotesque as it may appear to the sane. To do so is to plunge themselves and us in peril. It is perhaps to become saturated in blood and lose face with insurance company clerks. McLuhan's compassion for such fortitude always surpassed his amazement.
It seemed to him life speeded up, magnified like this beyond human scale, not only rivals reason: it may blot it out entirely. Like his contemporary Archie, another displaced person, he was totally hooked on the anachronistic kaleidoscope of eighteenth century reason. Carrying so much old-fashioned baggage, it was uncivilized for either man to accelerate as fast as everyone else. Nor could they hope to burden posterity with abstract arguments in favor of personal preferences unlikely to win over market croupiers and turn a profit.
Luckily, neighbors noticed the windmill on fire after lightning struck one cold December morning at 3 a.m. They helped Archie, now an old man, control the blaze.
More than once I heard McLuhan say "The city's where any child may learn to regulate environmental thermostats for a neighbor's comfort." And, lowering his chin, raising an eyebrow: "We all own the roads," he added.
Maybe it was a trite insight. But I feel sure he relished it, taking personal credit for getting the jump on his foe, the Marxists. He was sure his pronouncements on the need for sensory antenna make old-hat of Marx's rallying cry to the workers. If we really mean to invest the entire spectrum of our sensibilities at zero interest, subject to the whim of post-Gutenberg rogues, remedies from pre-electric days count for little.
Marx juxtaposed our potential as humans to the sleight-of- hand practiced by rascally churls claiming to own our means of production. McLuhan said, yes; but who is looking after your mind as you negotiate busy streets owned by free citizens? Surely it matters little who owns dead-end streets and means of production when random access to your own mind is up for grabs. He didn't live to see the Russians, struggling against unfair odds, prove him right. In fact, happy endings to gulags and cancer wards still leave us gasping when called upon to buy roads, airports and prisons back from ourselves. Or sell them back to ourselves. Whichever it is, buy or sell, depends, we are told, upon which hemisphere of democracy holds the upper hand.
I don't think McLuhan and I liked one another much at first. We met in 1963, a year before the Beatles' black-and-white film, A Hard Day's Night signaled a neat twist to a moribund popular culture. Having lunch with him in a favorite Austrian restaurant, I confessed to seeing portents of danger in his writing. His hostile look pitied me. He lifted his spoon from a bowl of potato soup, jabbed it towards a window looking out on a busy downtown street: "Dangerous to walk across that street," he snapped.
It was the street where, years later, snow flakes fell like white petals on a wet black bough.
Not to give up too readily, I let him know, too: his book Gutenberg Galaxy recently published, seemed to me to have much in common with another book I had just read called Theatre of the Absurd, by Esslin. I thought the chief difference between these books came from the fact he saw no need to dress the absurd in costume for the stage. For him it is everywhere. Thawing a little, he wrote down the name of the publisher.
Aware that this knightly fool in full prickly armor had no use for fools, I changed tactics. After lunch, walking back to his office, I started asking questions. He warmed to me at once. Didn't want me to leave. I think he was in need of a Sancho Panza just then.
But I did leave, wandered into a bookstore. Serendipity led me straight to a copy of Theatre of the Absurd . I bought it for about a dollar-fifty and posted it next day.
About a month later I received the first letter in a correspondence that continued over sixteen years—into 1979, when he was struck down by fate—unable to talk or write again. But his first letter contained a two dollar bill to pay for the book. That was characteristic of him. He was beholden to no one. More to the point, it contained a brilliant commentary on the role of the absurd in contemporary life. It was unbelievable. Here was this busy professor dressed in tweeds, pushing his colossal boulder to the top of the mountain, taking time to be my teacher. I see now he was a Sisyphus who needed help with his stone, just as Archie needed help raising those marvelous fifty-foot sweeps of ash.
Months later he wrote to say that Understanding Media was out: "Hope it doesn't let you down." Within days of publication I went to talk to him about it, and within minutes he was telling me he would drop his "media is the message" tag. Critics had been quick to acknowledge they hadn't a clue what he meant.
In future he would speak of technologies simply creating tell-tale environments. That groundswell is far more crucial than any tidal flotsam bobbing around as meaning. He recalled a similar large-scale social dislocation occurring as print surrounded and absorbed oral culture, sustained entirely by an illusion of progress and superioritysustained in turn by degrading non-print folk as primitive, barbaric, cruel: skin, hair and body wastes smelling familiarthreatening to turn progress and superiority into a joke. We soon learned to distance ourselves from shared blood, guts, ganglia, shit.
Similarly, the important message from television, he took trouble to explain, was the way it restructured the tribal Africa within, its function as electronic tit, its distortion or canceling of values formerly etched in family environments by the eclipsed printed word. Ways of seeing become the ways we see.
Top-drawer violence comes with the package. That is to say, no violence depicted in program content, no matter how obscene and brutal, could hope to upstage the cagey violence of the medium's numbing ambience. Children are the lucky ones. They defuse the horror as aspects of illusion and unreality already familiar to themas simply unbelievable. Adults know better. Those chilling games really happen. Our senses leased to the airwaves help to endorse, if not condone, wickedness and disintegration of our abused animal senses on a massive, unchecked, unprecedented scale.
The medium extends, magnifies, amplifies sensibilities; reflects them backto mirror themselves as alien mutations in this more evolved or regressed form. Whose tongue hangs out of the rear view mirror? It is yours, children. Efforts to scrub it clean will prove futile and mutilating. If you envisage alternatives from prowling predator of abject child-self, from organized cosmic exterminators, start educating yourself. That is your only option. Did you think the authorities speak for our children? You are right; they do.
In earlier writing Marshall McLuhan appealed to reason. But now, as his title suggests, he has lowered his sights: he appeals to nothing more sophisticated than "understanding." Preordained order is said to have ended with Darwin. From then on ordering became the responsibility of each person who aspires to human status. Notice, for example, how gladly we welcome newspaper datelines and weather reports that reaffirm each day. Not unlike very early societies, we employ charms. But it's a tricky business.
Besides, understanding (not reason) is something we share with dogs. A dog understands signals when a frolic and much- needed pee is in the offing. And it's on that level of crude animal perception McLuhan now addresses us. Some otiose theory of communication on a conceptual level would no doubt earn him the praise of several distinguished scholars, pleased to spend the rest of their lives knocking holes in it. Instead, to their unanimous dismay, the only conceptual fabric he lays claim to is everyday currency: language itself.
Apart from that he examines the metamorphoses and illusions, to which, through media, we subject ourselves. He traces media ups and downs from earliest days of culture to the present. He saw how print turned the head of the first Don Quixote, making him, like us, "mad in patches, full of lucid intervals." He makes an inventory of our ways of perceiving, especially the bias shaping the only truths from which conceptual reasoning can eventually unfold. In short, he leaves the reasoning to us. And there's the rub, say those rewarded to relieve us of the effort.
Quaint as it may sound, he found himself out of favor with the most bookish. Strangers to subtlety, they mistook his satire for compliance, misinterpreted his passion to understand as advocacy of the hodgepodge forming the raw material of his understanding. They misrepresented him as someone applauding every jump through flaming hoops put on by mindless electric circus harlequins.
Prone to a more congenital dullness, slow learners from Wall Street to the Bay; from the Bay to the Ginza, loved him. Good heavens, he was the biggest clown of the lotphoney pop art high priest and master of ceremonies, a better draw than the jaded fat lady of newsprint, now fawning at his side. It took a while for the brighter ones to tumble to their error, their embarrassment eased by scribes rewriting McLuhan in their own irrevocable shrunken image.
At the same time, an entrenched academic inquisition put him down for failing to uphold cloistered traditions of discursive prose, well-seasoned with footnotes—the sort of verbal arm-wrestling of higher education he found comical. They winced to watch this former boatman, known to have won his oar on the lovely River Cam(oh, yes: caught by a Times photographer bumping the ladies' eight from Clare College) — become self-appointed media guru, dogmatic and aphoristic, calmly throwing out the baby with the grungy bath water. "Please observe, won't you," he pointed out to offended guardians of the status quo, "how long your undernourished child has been dead as a doornail."
No longer hostile, his eyes looking into mine seem to recognize another mendicant in the global village. "We don't have much time," he says. Humans invented time as a means of becoming human; there never is enough. Most important, he saw how invention of electric media enables humans to take the next giant step towards evolution from the beast. Hence his pitying look years ago when I talked about "danger." What he wanted to celebrate was the divine potential of communication.
About this time he urged me to change the title of a talk I had prepared for national radiofrom "Breakdown" to "Breakthrough." Back in that Austrian restaurant I mentioned earlier, he was explaining, a decade later, that forebodings of doom make decent people panic. When people panic their behavior isn't nice. That's the fly in the ointment the strong man waits for. Appearing from right field in the nick of time, he promises to put a gun in every hand. The appeal to bursting gonads is exquisitely compelling, a suicidal call from the abyss. Voyeur rulers, dressed like kings and queens, want to watch young males consummate it. Wouldn't you?
"Why is it, do you think," he asked me, "people are totally unprepared to consider the consequences of any new technology whatsoever?"
I thought maybe it's because we learn by going from the known to the unknown. Therefore the unknown arrives biased by consequences we know, not by unfathomable consequences of the unknown itself. An example is how we admire the computer for calculating and collating faster than we can. The truth is, it renders those processes trivial, freeing our souls to imagine, create, judge, choose, laugh, embracethings no machine will ever accomplish outside gambling casinos already dedicated, in advanced countries like Canada, to raising petty cash for health care programs. When the unknown makes us feel insecure, it is comforting to clutch those old gambling chips; holy mary's, on real beads, proved disappointing.
We sat through the meal side by side facing a wall. Suffering pain from what turned out to be a large but benign brain tumor, he wanted to reduce the ambient information reaching him. Back in his office, cluttered and piled high with books, he asked me to repeat what I said, and wrote it down.
In due course he let me know he had dubbed the idea "the rear-view mirror effect." But after a marathon operation slicing open his head, he forgot that brilliant genesis of his slogan. His substitute renderings never seemed so apt. Today the slogan flashes amber along the candyfloss communications midway, trying, in vain, to catch up with its meaning.
"Start with the other person's ignorance," he was fond of saying. "Not what he [or she] knows—start with what he [or she] doesn't know." Perhaps it was his way of reasserting consequences of the unknown. "Nothing is inevitable," he countered critics who found him mired in determinism, "if we are prepared to contemplate consequences."
Not long before he died I watched Archie Dalloway's hands touch new wood. We climbed up ladders to the cramped space of the windmill's cap, fifty or so feet above ground. He had spent the years following the fire putting his Humpty Dumpty together again. But it stood in a shocking pink undercoat until money for white paint could be found. His troubles were not over, either.
A gale swept over Black Down, uprooting diseased elms from hedge-rows, ripping roofs from coast houses and barns. Afraid the sweeps would run out of control, Archie climbed again to the cap. He was eighty. Winds raging, he spent the night steadfastly holding the brake wheel against wooden brake blocks to prevent friction setting them on fire.
I like to imagine these two great men I knew, errant knight and quiet anarchist, meeting at last on the slopes of Parnassus. At a banquet held in his honor, Herbert Marshall McLuhan would be sure to ask about the silent chap in the dusty cap, left standing among the common shades, not invited to join god's decadent Light Show.
"Oh, an obscure miller who brought a perfectly useless, rat-infested windmill back to life," laughs a Parnassus-slope bureaucrat.
But I see McLuhan leaving the heavenly feast to join the miller. Now, on bad days, together they hold the brake wheel on the Windmill-in-the-Sky, arresting what is called the wallower from gyrating out of control, plunging us all into a black hole. On good days a terminal voice out of the blue gets through to me: "Didn't I say call it Breakthrough?"