Saturday, May 15, 2010

Marshall McLuhan on Wyndham Lewis

A few days ago, while reading a Marshall McLuhan interview in Understanding Me, I came across this:
I am resolutely opposed to all innovation, all change, but I am determined to understand what's happening because I don't choose just to sit and let the juggernaut roll over me. Many people seem to think that if you talk about something recent, you're in favour of it. The exact opposite is true in my case. Anything I talk about is almost certainly to be something I'm resolutely against, and it seems to me the best way of opposing it is to understand it, and then you know where to turn off the button. (101-2)
I found this extremely interesting—it reminded me that I don't know much about McLuhan, one of the more interesting Canadians, though (in my limited experience) a somewhat "careless" and confusing writer. I found the above statement very direct and apt, given my feelings about "social networking," which I will discuss before long.

It also reminded me that I have a strange McLuhan interview in my collection of Wyndham Lewis things. In the November 1967 issue of artscanada—a special issue on Lewis edited by Sheila Watson—there is included a 7" Flexidisc with recordings of Lewis reading his poem One-Way Song and McLuhan talking about Lewis. Since the Lewis recording is available on The Enemy Speaks I thought I would just include the unavailable McLuhan interview.

The interview on Side A isn't particularly interesting, except for the last part, where McLuhan talks about Lewis's frustration at finding his books were never taken as seriously as he hoped they would be. It's also the first taste of Sheila Watson's incredibly weird way of talking (spliced in after the fact, as you can tell from the different background hiss from the McLuhan sections.) Here it is, with the transcript below.

Now, here is Marshall McLuhan recalling his experience in recording Lewis reading.

In St. Louis—Lewis came down to visit and to do some paintings. And I managed to persuade him to read something from One-Way Song for our little home recorder. And it was most interesting to observe Lewis upon hearing his own voice. He just simply roared with laughter! In all the years preceding it had never occurred to him that he had essentially an English voice. Anyone who reads Lewis doesn't tend to get a very strong English effect or English enunciation from his prose. And Lewis himself apparently had nourished the idea that he spoke with a rugged American accent. And so he just went into fits of laughter when he heard this very English voice coming forth. And upon hearing the Harvard recording myself just now I too was surprised at just how English he sounded because after years of talking with Lewis I had forgotten altogether that he had an English voice. He didn't bear down on his English character at all.

He was very fond of opera. And he would occasionally produce a trill or two in that direction. But I wasn't—after all I wasn't in his presence all day and night, as it were. But I can certainly recall his breaking out into song occasionally. But often to illustrate a point. He would use some operatic aria just to "theme in" some discussion.

I think Lewis thought of his work as having immediate relevance to decision-making at the highest levels of human affairs, and naturally felt somewhat frustrated that his kinds of perceptions could not be made available in decision-making at very high levels.

The interview on Part B I find more interesting. It contains a very direct statement of Lewis's influence on McLuhan—one that is not, I don't think, available anywhere else. Here it is:

We asked Marshall McLuhan what influence Wyndham Lewis had on him.

Good Heavens—that's where I got it! [Laughter] It was Lewis who put me on to all this study of the environment as an educational—as a teaching machine. To use our more recent terminology, Lewis was the person who showed me that the manmade environment was a teaching machine—a programmed teaching machine. Earlier, you see, the Symbolists had discovered that the work of art is a programmed teaching machine. It's a mechanism for shaping sensibility. Well, Lewis simply extended this private art activity into the corporate activity of the whole society in making environments that basically were artifacts or works of art and that acted as teaching machines upon the whole population.

Why was this book of poems called One-Way Song?

In many of his writings he asserts the primacy of the visual. In his perception and his general feeling of preference of the visual over the other senses his feeling was that the passion for musical form in the later nineteenth century and in his own time betrayed this—betrayed our traditional visual values. Now, the clue then to One-Way Song may be in the fact that the visual sense is the only sense we have that is continuous and connected. All the other senses are discontinuous—whether touch, every moment of which is different form every other moment, or hearing, which is discontinuous—the interval is necessary for the very act of hearing. In sight alone, or in the visual alone, is there [sic?] a continuum—a connected universe that we associate with rationality and detachment. But One-Way Song seems to draw attention to these qualities of rationality and detachment and continuity and connectedness in thought and perception.

Now, back to Wyndham Lewis in 1940.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I had the good fortune find myself in a media studies class taught by the late (and awesome) Michael Dixon in 01/02 and unsurprisingly Understanding Media was first on the list. Towards the end of our time with the book I asked Professor Dixon about McLuhan's conservatism, his Catholicism, his pro-life rallying, etc., all of which was hard to square with the kind of CHAMPION OF THE FUTURE McLuhan that emerges out of reading say Wired magazine and such (no diss to Wired which is obviously the best). The more I learned about all of that, the more it all began to read as resistance writing, as this quote from Understanding Me makes that totally clear. ANYWAY I asked Professor Dixon if he could say anything about McLuhan, like, as a dude, since they were colleagues for a number of years. I don't remember his exact words but his response was essentially in the register of "lol that guy was weird."

your pal,