Marshall McLuhan’s Spiritual Vision for a Virtual Age

It is wonderful to go out into empty streets—they are very narrow and not too crooked—and hear great bells striking solemnly all about you,” Marshall McLuhan wrote of his time studying at Cambridge. His life there was busy with “rowing, teas, halls, and lectures morning and evening,” and he marveled at how “it is amazing what one can do in a buoyant mood.” “Certainly I have no right to be as fortunate and happy,” he wrote to his family, “but shall probably have enough of thin times hereafter to level up so that I shall die neither more or less felicitous than common men.”

McLuhan's years at Cambridge were the most formative in his life. There he became established as a traveler, an itinerant preacher of the electronic age, whose distance from his native Canada helped him develop his perceptive sense—especially attuned to how cultural assumptions formed and sometimes stunted thought. He converted to Catholicism, concluding an emotional and academic journey that replaced the anodyne faith of his youth with a fervent, mysterious belief that offered supple metaphors for understanding the world. He read deeply and widely in the literature of the early Church, an especially fraught era when faith and secular power clashed. He found two Catholic touchstones that would offer him intellectual anchors for the rest of his life: Gerard Manley Hopkins and James Joyce.

McLuhan thought Hopkins's syntax transcended the English of his time. A radical stylist with earnest faith, Hopkins's poetic sense of inscape enabled him to revise conventional ideas about language. McLuhan posited that Hopkins was the essential point in a literary evolution that began with Baudelaire and Rimbaud and ended with Joyce: the recognition that language is not merely an “environment” of communication but a “probe” and “instrument of exploration and research.”

McLuhan's preferred mode of communication was the mosaic: discrete and succinct observations and references, which were “not uniform, continuous, or repetitive” but instead “discontinuous, skew, and nonlinear, like the tactual TV image.” McLuhan conceived of television as a palpable medium, one that projected its image onto the audience. In language appropriated from Hopkins, McLuhan considered touch the most alive of all senses, for with touch, “all things are sudden, counter, original, spare, strange.” Hopkins's poem “Pied Beauty” was a “catalogue of the notes of the sense of touch,” a “manifesto of the nonvisual, and like Cezanne or Seurat, or Rouault it provides an indispensable approach to understanding TV.” A nineteenth century Victorian Jesuit priest can help us understand mid-twentieth-century media: a paradoxical claim, but as with much of McLuhan's thought, his paradoxes soon became viable prophecies.

For McLuhan, there was no greater modern inheritor of complex stylistics and paradoxes than James Joyce—a writer whose latent Catholicism and Jesuit instruction created the perfect synthesis of the word and the Word. “Irremediably analogical,” McLuhan wrote, “Joyce's work moves as naturally on the metaphysical as on the naturalistic plane.” McLuhan thought Joyce had “devised a new form of expression” that prefigured the electronic and digital modes of communication.

McLuhan arrived at his full appreciation for Joyce through his work at Cambridge. In 1943, McLuhan received his PhD there, completing a dissertation titled “The Place of Thomas Nashe in the Learning of His Time.” An Elizabethan satirist known for play and provocation, Nashe might seem like an odd choice for a scholar who would soon become interested in the electronic world. But McLuhan was drawn toward linguistic dissenters—those who ruptured the conventional idea of what language, syntax, and communication might accomplish. "The oral polyphony of the prose of Nashe offends against lineal and literary decorum,” McLuhan noted.

McLuhan accomplishes the goal of his study, but in its final pages, he teases an interesting nugget: “It required, perhaps, the advent of such a successful devotee of the second sophistic as James Joyce, to prepare the ground for a scholarly understanding of Elizabethan literature” The dissertation ends without further development of the point, but we get the sense that McLuhan recognized his historical study would compel him to turn his attention toward more contemporary concerns. However interesting, Nashe is a minor writer—yet often minor writers are the most potent pivots in literary history.

McLuhan converted to Catholicism during his dissertation work. There was certainly an emotional element to his arrival at the faith, but his research syllabus is instructive: McLuhan was reading patristic writing, the Bible, Thomas Nashe, James Joyce, G. K. Chesterton, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. He was reading writers steeped in Catholicism—or, in the case of Nashe, the kind who could pivot from a ribald to an Anglican apologia. Earnestness and satire were read in tandem. Although varied in subject and style, writing in satirical and apologetic modes often employed some measure of affect in order to accomplish rhetorical goals. The medium and its delivery were essential.

Nashe turns out to have been an apt choice for the conclusion of a dissertation on classical rhetoric. As the critic Alan Jacobs observes, those of Nashe's time “near the beginning of the age of print, in a London raucous with ballads, playhouses, and pamphleteers, were people who were at one and the same time thoroughly classical and utterly contemporary.” An even more contemporary version of this synthesis was James Joyce.

Linearity was pleasantly logical, but life and even God, as Father Raymond J. Nogar argued, are absurd. The patterns that we think we find in nature might be arrangements of our own doing as we project onto the world a comforting order. In novels like Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Joyce rejects the traditional linearity of print narratives. The page, perhaps, was our prison.

“McLuhan, at times, does talk like a character that Joyce might have created,” quipped the Washington Post's television critic in 1966, when McLuhan seemed to be everywhere with an opinion about everything. The observation is not without merit. McLuhan was at his most provocative when the medium of language demanded it, and Joyce was a formidable model. Although McLuhan acknowledged that Joyce was not “a model Catholic,” he observed that secular appreciation of the Irish novelist's “genius and art” was “unthinkable apart from his immersion in the traditions of Catholic theology and philosophy.”

A complex thinker whose complexities were generated by—and perhaps sustained by—Catholic theology, Joyce was not long for belief, but Irish Catholicism is as much a culture and worldview as it is a religion, and his absence of practice might have made his literary Catholicism even more acute. Joyce did not rely on a shared belief with his audience, so his portrayal of Catholicism in his short stories and novels is especially textured and developed.

From the start, Joyce stimulated McLuhan's imagination: “A bit startled to note last page of Finnegan is a rendering of the last part of the Mass. Remembered that opening of Ulysses is from the first words of the Mass. The whole thing an intellectual Black Mass.” After reading an essay about “Joyce's esthetic doctrine of the epiphany” in the Summer 1946 issue of Sewanee Review, McLuhan thought the concept was the “same as Hopkins' inscape.” Joyce defined his vision of epiphany as “the gropings of a spiritual eye which seeks to adjust its vision to an exact focus.” Prose poetic vignettes, his epiphanies suggested that life was a series of sharp, disparate moments. Joyce's epiphanies were both structure and subject, medium and message. In both his epiphanies and his full-length works, Joyce appeared to suggest that profluent narratives were a literary desire rather than a reflection of actual existence, during which dry spells and spikes of joy invade our daily tedium.

Nashe was a curious footnote for McLuhan, a “Cambridge pet.” Joyce was the Catholic alchemist mystic that McLuhan needed; his study of media “began and remain[ed] rooted” in the Irish novelist. Joyce was the great disruptor. McLuhan would often observe that the layout of a newspaper—the “jazzy, ragtime discontinuity of press items” seemed more like a piece of modern art than a coherent arrangement, and he claimed that discontinuity is “the literary technique of James Joyce.” Joyce's Ulysses spurred artists across genres to see “that there was a new art form of universal scope present in the technical layout of the modern newspaper.” Rather than a “superficial chaos," the patchwork arrangement of the front page was the ultimate medium of the masses.

Upon reading the serialized version of Joyce’s Ulysses in 1918, Virginia Woolf wrote that his story was “like a cinema that shows you very slowly, how a horse does jump” and “all the pictures were a little made up before. Here is thought made phonetic—taken to bits.” Joyce was able to represent “both phenomenon observed and the subject perceiving and reflecting on it.” This is essentially Hopkins's conception of inscape: how all things have a unique proportion and presence, one that is literal but also spiritual. Perhaps the perfect form of writing is that which supplants the actual experience—that transcends what our senses can observe during the real moment. There is a liturgical, ritual sense to this transformation, and that process would not be lost on a student of the Jesuits, where God is seen in all things.

Joyce’s novels—down to their sentences—feel imbued with a modern sense of inscape. In the Proteus chapter of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus walks along Sandymount strand: “Stephen closed his eyes to hear his boots crush crackling wrack and shells. You are walking through it howsomever. I am, a stride at a time.” A cinematic, hypnotic feel carries these sentences: the eyes closing, sound replacing sight, the sharp “crackling” linked in letter and sound to “wrack,” creating a strong pop before “shells.” Joyce slips second-person perspective into the next sentence, putting us physically into the scene in which we have already experienced as a mere reader and then completing the transition with the teasingly Christological “I am,” followed by the implication that Stephen's body is its motion. No wonder McLuhan found Joyce to be downright liturgical. Joyce is best read aloud in the same manner that McLuhan thought Hopkins should also be spoken: “The words the reader sees are not the words that he will hear.”

McLuhan was especially drawn to Joyce’s Finnegans Wake and conjectured that “as the alphabet ends its cycle we move out of visual space into discontinuous auditory space again.” Joyce's notoriously inscrutable text was, for McLuhan, actually a deeply revelatory vision of a writer who concluded that traditional narrative and communication were inadequate for stories of our modern world. The novel was “a great intellectual effort aimed at rinsing the Augean stables of speech and society with geysers of laughter.”

Torn between our personal, private visions and the feeling that we have a tribal identity, McLuhan thought we might find “liberation from the dilemma” through “the new electric technology, with its profound organic character. For the electric puts the mythic or collective dimension of human experience fully into the conscious” and everyday world. Raised on the same classical trivium that McLuhan examined in his Cambridge dissertation, Joyce was influenced by the French symbolist poets, whose vers libre was not arbitrary but instead "a return to the formal rhythms of early litanies, hymns, and to the psalter.” Among them, Stéphane Mallarmé especially offered Joyce a view “of language as gesture, as efficacious, and as representing a total human response,” so that what seemed like rigid rules of grammar and method were instead revelations of what it meant to be human. Mallarmé's views of language, McLuhan thought, were “familiar to the Church Fathers, and underlay the major schools of scriptural exegesis.”

In the end, what made Hopkins and Joyce especially apt for McLuhan was their Catholicism. The two were not similar Catholics. Hopkins was drawn to the wilderness, where he cultivated an earnest faith supplanted with a melancholy sense. Joyce was drawn to the circuit-like road ways of urban life; his writing became a form of religious practice. Hopkins was an actual Jesuit; Joyce once quipped, “You allude to me as a Catholic. Now for the sake of precision and to get the correct contour on me, you ought to allude to me as a Jesuit.”

McLuhan notes that everything Joyce wrote carried a “liturgical level,” a spiritual “dimension” that enabled Joyce “to manipulate such encyclopedic lore, guided by his analogical awareness of liturgy as both an order of knowledge and an order of grace.” In the same way that Hopkins, Baudelaire, and other Catholic poets used language to transform reality rather than merely communicate experience, Joyce sought the “submerged metaphysical drama” of language. In that place, Joyce could play: the “quirks, 'slips,' and freaks of ordinary discourse” enabled him “to evoke the fullness of existence in speech.” Again, here was Joyce mirroring the Catholic literary art of a writer as different as Chesterton, who similarly used “the pun as a way of seeing the paradoxical exuberance of being through language.” McLuhan was nourished by these Catholic antecedents.

Joyce, living on the precipice of mechanical and technical change, became McLuhan's literary guide. Joyce's particular gift was his recognition of the paradox that language, while pliable, often fell short of actual experience and yet certain turns of phrase feel more beautiful than reality itself. The tension sounds like an impossible task for writers, but Joyce's Catholicism prepared him well. Writing in the French experimental literary magazine Transitions in 1927, the poet William Carlos Williams observes that Joyce's style was uniquely powerful: “his broken words, the universality of his growing language which is no longer English.” Contrary to the provincial readings of Joyce that imagine him to be exclusively Irish, Williams argues that Joyce's language “has no faculties of place.” Joyce included “German, French, Italian, Latin, Irish, anything”—resulting in a transformation: “Time and space do not exist, it is all one in the eyes of God—and man.”

None more than McLuhan would appreciate such synthesis: a literary transubstantiation, perhaps. “For me, the model of the turned-on, tuned-in, dropped-out man is James Joyce, the great psychedelic writer of this century,” wrote Timothy Leary—the Jesuit-educated, Irish Catholic psychologist-guru—in 1967. Delivering a literary allusion that revealed his appreciation for Finnegans Wake, Leary said that Joyce “pour[ed] out a river-run of pun, jest, put-on, up-level, comic word acrobatics,” before concluding, “The impact of Joyce via McLuhan on the psychedelic age cannot be overestimated.” According to Leary, it was McLuhan himself who offered Leary's iconic, almost vaguely Trinitarian-rhythmic phrase “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Joyce and McLuhan, however different in background and experiences, shared an eccentric, deeply Catholic vision that informed their understanding of communication and popular culture.

Years after Cambridge, when he was traveling as a prophet of the electronic age, McLuhan was examining a world that was unfinished and contradictory. Some wanted to stop the coming electronic era, while others just watched it happen. For decades, radios had blared news, music, and stories. By 1962, nine out of ten American homes had a television. The first issue of Computerworld, claiming to be the “first newspaper for the full computer community,” launched in June 1967. McLuhan documented technological changes, examined them, and wondered how they might change us: our identities, our modes of communication, our humanity. Bacon's example of a thinker who has pondered himself into certainty is unprepared to examine a changing world. Only a fragmented approach could engage the electronic world. While Hopkins and Joyce were revelatory precedents for McLuhan, like them, he needed to encounter his own era. Steeped in literary and religious history, steeled by faith, and charged with an open and omnivorous mind, McLuhan was ready to take on his electronic present.

EDITORIAL NOTE: Excerpted from Digital Communion: Marshall McLuhan’s Spiritual Vision (Fortress Press 2022), all rights reserved.

Featured Image: Photo by NASA on Unsplash.


Nick Ripatrazone

Nick Ripatrazone is the author of Longing for an Absent God and Wild Belief. He is the Culture Editor of Image Journal and a Contributing Editor for the Catholic Herald (UK).

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