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Mechanisms for shaping sensibility

January 12, 2011

January 10, 2011

I am excited to be able to share this with you, dear reader.

I came upon this flexidisk included in a magazine: arts/canada No. 114, November 1967. The items were in their original clear plastic case which I slit open, over 40 years after it was sealed. I couldn’t resist. The magazine features an article on “Electromedia: a movement”, and includes a separate several-page colour edition of [former student of Marshall McLuhan’s at UofT] Sheila Watson’s essay: “The Great War: Wyndham Lewis and the underground press”, as well as many war-era drawings of Lewis’ and a couple portraits. [Lewis’ portrait of Marshall is dear to me.]

The flexidisk is two things: an interview with Marshall, and Lewis reading excerpts from his book of poetry, One-Way Song. I edited my transcript a little to cut out some of the ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’.

“…here’s Marshall McLuhan recalling his experience in recording Lewis reading.”

“In St. Louis, Lewis came down to visit and to do some paintings [Marshall had arranged several portrait commissions for Lewis in St. Louis where Marshall was teaching. I don’t know exactly how Marshall and Wyndham became acquainted, but I will try and get the story from Eric and relate it to you in a future post] and I managed to persuade him to read something from One-Way Song for our little home recorder. And, um, it was most interesting to observe Lewis upon hearing his own voice – he simply roared with laughter: in all the years preceeding it had never occurred to him that he had essentially an English voice. Anyone who reads Lewis doesn’t tend to get a strong English effect or English annunciation 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 come forth. And upon hearing the Harvard recording [I thought Marshall recorded it?] myself just now I too was surprised at just how English he sounded, because after years of taking 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, um, he would occasionally produce a trill or two in that direction. But I wasn’t, I’m not, after all, I wasn’t, ah, in his presence day and night as it were, but um 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 at decision-making at very high levels.”

End of side one. Marshall certainly felt the same way, that he had much to contribute to decision-making at very high levels. He befriended Pierre Trudeau before Trudeau was Prime Minister of Canada, a friendship which carried through the rest of his life. Trudeau would have dinner with the McLuhans at their Wychwood Park house [number 3, beside the pond if you want a nice walk. The sale of that house after Corinne McLuhan’s death made me very sad – I thought it should have been preserved as a historic site, but it was not nearly my decision] and even attended some of the famous Monday Night seminars. Trudeau consulted with Marshall often, but I can imagine that he took many suggestions with more than a single grain of salt. No question, Marshall was brilliant – but he also had a lot of wacky ideas.

The interview continues on side 2.

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

“Good heavens, that’s where I got it – 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 man-made environment was a teaching machine – a programmed teaching machine. But earlier, you see, the Symbolists [Mallarmé, de Nerval, Verlaine, Rimbaud, Laforgue, et cie, late 19th century] had discovered that the work of art was a programmed teaching machine. It’s a mechanism for shaping sensibility. Well Lewis simply extended this private art activity to the corporate activity of the whole society in making environments that basically were artifacts, or works of art, and that acted as teaching machines on 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 for 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 – which every moment of which is different from 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 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.”

What an amazing opportunity for me to hear my grandfather’s voice – not to mention his thoughts on Lewis’ poetry. In the preceeding part of the interview, we hear Marshall credit Wyndham Lewis with putting him on the track of the study of environments as teaching machines. Listening to interviews through the years, one can hear Marshall give credit where credit is due when it comes to his ideas. So much for criticism that he simply stole ideas from others without crediting the source: he did it all the time.

[A friend recently asked me where would be a good starting point to begin to get to know McLuhan’s work. I initially suggested starting with Understanding Media, but then suggested looking up interviews on Youtube (they abound) as, in my opinion, Marshall was most approachable in conversation. Reading McLuhan requires much more from you.]

Hearing Lewis read is a treat for me also. Many years ago I read his Human Age trilogy. It went way over my head, but I stubbornly read the entire thing anyway. I suppose I could read it through again now and try to get more out of it. Maybe now I will read it with his voice in mind.

Side one:

Side two:

9 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2011 6:24 pm

    Very well done! You are sharing valuable history and have a fine blog voice.

  2. Michael Edmunds permalink
    February 6, 2011 11:25 am

    I liked your youtube showing the flex disk in play. Your transcription and comments too are much appreciated.

  3. February 6, 2011 10:31 pm

    Great find

  4. Paul Edwards permalink
    February 7, 2011 6:45 am

    On Lewis’s sense not being allowed to make a contribution during the war, Carl Schaefer, in an interview with Charles Hill now available on Cybermuse, recalled:

    And [Wyndham Lewis] and Alec Jackson came over to my house various times, spent an evening. And Lewis was a sad figure, “Alas, alas, my friend Ezra Pound, who’s gone over to the Fascists, broadcasting from Rome.” . . . And Lewis, such a tragic figure sitting there. And he said, you know, almost tears coming to his eyes. He wasn’t a big, strong man, a very sensitive person. In a foreign land, you know. Cold in the winter, on the edge of poverty, his wife and he living in a second hotel over in Sherbourne Street, poverty-stricken: “England has no use for me.” And he did all the wonderful Vorticist things in the British war records.

    (By the way, the recording of Lewis on the disc was made at Harvard, which explains McLuhan’s reference to it. It would be wonderful if a family search could turn up the recording he made ‘for our little home recorder’.)

    • February 7, 2011 8:34 am

      Thanks, Paul. Can’t say for sure, but the recording’s likely either lost or at the Canadian Archives in Ottawa.

  5. March 16, 2011 2:34 pm

    We seem to share similar interests! I wrote a very similar post last May here and continue to be fascinated by the connections between McLuhan and Lewis. I understand that the U of Toronto has some of Lewis’s books in its collection with McLuhan’s annotations—these are next on the list.

    • March 16, 2011 5:33 pm

      Thanks for reading, Adam. News to me that UofT has any of Marshall’s personal books…. they shouldn’t!

      That quote from Understanding Me is too often overlooked. So many people consider HMM a ‘champion of the future’, ‘futurist’ or other nonsense…. he was anything but.
      (That’s the first time I’ve seen anyone with that issue of Arts/Canada!)

  6. March 16, 2011 7:39 pm

    I haven’t looked for myself — I’ve been told that the Fisher’s copy of Lewis’s America and Cosmic Man has an underlining with HMM’s initials next to it… but haven’t verified it.

    I’d be happy to show you my copy of artscanada some time… Send me an email to — I have an “offline” question or two I’d like to ask you as well!


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