Trompe l’oeil

Through the Vanishing Point: Space in Poetry and Painting

by Marshall McLuhan, by Harley Parker
Harper & Row, 267 pp., $7.50

War and Peace in the Global Village

by Marshall McLuhan, by Quentin Fiore, co-ordinated by Jerome Agel
McGraw-Hill, 192 pp., $5.95

McLuhan: Pro & Con

edited by Raymond Rosenthal
Funk & Wagnalls, 308 pp., $5.95

Sense and Nonsense of McLuhan

by Sidney Finkelstein
International Publishers, 122 pp., $1.45 (paperback) (paper)

As more and more pours out by and about McLuhan it becomes clear that, although little can now be profitably said about his work, the episode as a whole has some bearing, diagnostically on the condition of present-day intellectual life. It raises three questions. For what forms of malaise does he seem to bring relief? What is wrong with the contemporary version of rational discourse which he defies? And what has happened to education that people literate and interested enough to read his work can be so credulous or at best uncertain?

The second question is the most sobering to orthodoxy. McLuhan’s scornful rejection of logic and of linear progression from premises and data to conclusion serves, it is true, as a defense for untenable ideas, but it also appeals to an understandable discontent with the negative uses to which reasoning, logical criticism, and sound knowledge are too often put in the common run of intellectual discussion. Dubious maneuvers though they are, there is something attractive about his mosaic presentation, his “probes,” his invitations to explore, not argue, with him; these maneuvers try to break free from self-inhibition and sterile dispute. His writing is reminiscent of the lecturing of M. D. Forbes, who played a major part in creating the Cambridge English school (which began its existence as an independent school of the University only in 1919), helping to bring in I.A. Richards and contributing more than anyone else in those early years to the school’s unorthodox vitality and concern with contemporary literature. (A glimpse of his importance emerges from E. M. W. Tillyard’s The Muse Unchained, a history of the school’s development from the standpoint of a university politician.) Forbes died suddenly in 1936, during McLuhan’s second year in Cambridge, but until then, and in spite of the distractions of his immense range of interests, he offered to those who wanted it an invigorating element of iconoclasm, creativeness, and challenge, expressed whimsically with a sweep of paradoxical generalization, cross-fertilizing references from widely separated fields, tangential wit, and the explosive compression of meaning in puns.

That there should be room for such people, in spite of all the sober objections, is the feeling of Richard Kostelanetz in one of the “Pro” essays of Mr. Rosenthal’s new collection. He is indignant at the reviewers’ relative neglect of “significant recent explorations”: “Like Herman Kahn and Norman O. Brown, McLuhan believes in thinking which is exploratory and speculative, rather than substantive and definitive; and the books of all three are products of men who do not necessarily believe in their thoughts.” The risk is obvious of course—the false prophet, the spell-binder. Equally obvious is the need for a first stage, without rigorous critical discipline, in any new thinking, whether the author makes it public or not, and whether he or others do the equally necessary checking and closer formulation. If the exploratory stage is published it deserves an exploratory welcome. The Gutenberg Galaxy was well …

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