Category Archives: Marshall McLuhan

Kook Books

Bob Denham’s post yesterday on Marshall McLuhan’s belief that Frye was part of a Masonic conspiracy against him, in part because of his esoteric reading list, raises the issue of Frye’s interest in what he called “kook books.” Here are a couple of examples from the notebooks.

For years I have been collecting and reading pop-science & semi-occult books, merely because I find them interesting. I now wonder if I couldn’t collect enough ideas from them for an essay on neo-natural theology. Some are very serious books I haven’t the mathematics (or the science) to follow: some are kook-books with their hair-raising insights or suggestions (CW 6, 713)

There’s a lot of semi-occult fascination with Atlantis in the last two centuries: one very fine book (despite its obvious weaknesses and lapses) is Merezhkovsky’s Atlantis/Europe, which tries to go all out for the historicity of Atlantis and doesn’t mention Thera, but is really based on an ascending ladder diagram in which we go up to the future, unless we get caught in the same cycle again, while Atlantis is our buried or forgotten past. He links the Timaeus and the Book of Enoch in some curious ways, coming close to a lot of the von Daniken mythology, but he’s better than that: an example of how yesterday’s kook book becomes tomorrow’s standard text. (CW 6, 495)

Bob Denham provides some context in his introduction to the Late Notebooks volumes:

Some of Frye’s reading is, if not altogether odd, at least surprising—books such as Merezhkovsky’s  Atlantis/Europe and Maureen Duffy’s Erotic World of Faerie. Frye admits that Merezhkovsky comes “close to a lot of von Daniken mythology,” but then adds, “yesterday’s kook book becomes tomorrow’s standard text.” There are in the notebooks, as one might expect, a number of Frye’s old chestnuts—books such as Graves’s The White Goddess, Frances Yates’s studies in hermeticism, the mythical speculations of Gertrude Rachel Levy, Huxley’s Perennial Philosophy, Carroll’s Alice books, the novels of Bulwer-Lytton and Rider Haggard. But some readers will no doubt think it strange that Frye would even be curious about such books as Michael Baignet’s The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, Robert Anton Wilson’s The Cosmic Trigger, Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy, Itzhak Bentov’s Stalking the Wild Pendulum, and A.E. Wait’s Quest of the Golden Stairs, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, and The Holy Grail—“kook books” all. It would be difficult to imagine Frye citing such esoterica in Words with Power, but he does justify his interest in such writers as Waite, who is only “superficially off-putting”:

I’ve been reading Loomis and A.E. Waite on the Grail. Loomis often seem to me an erudite ass: he keeps applying standards of coherence and consistency to twelfth-century poets that might apply to Anthony Trolloppe. Waite seems equally erudite and not an ass. But I imagine Grail scholars would find Loomis useful and Waite expendable, because Waite isn’t looking for anything that would interest them. It’s quite possible that what Waite is looking for doesn’t exist—secret traditions, words of power, an esoteric authority higher than that of the Catholic Church—and yet the kind of thing he’s looking for is so infinitely more important than Loomis’ trivial games of descent from Irish sources where things get buggered up because the poets couldn’t distinguish cors meaning body from cors meaning horn. Things like this show me that I have a real function as a critic, pointing out that what Loomis does has been done and is dead, whereas what Waite does, even when mistaken, has hardly begun and is very much alive. (CW 5, xxxv-xxvi)

Michael Dolzani picks up the thread in the introduction to the “Third Book” Notebooks:

The notebooks are also more uninhibited than Frye’s published work, both intellectually and rhetorically. Frye’s speculations are much more open, more daring, sometimes breathtakingly so, and he is more willing to risk venturing upon works which professional prudence restrained him from making extended public comments upon, even if they had greatly influenced him. These include, on the one hand, works whose language or culture was not native to him; on the other, books of ill-repute with whom respectable scholars feel they cannot afford to be caught in public, what he called the “kook books” of unreserved mythopoeic speculation, from Jacob Boehme to Hamlet’s Mill, whose vision has affinities with his own project and which thus form part of its secret imaginative background even when their methods are flawed and their authors half-psychotic. (CW 9, xxii-xxiii)

See our Kook Books category, which includes more from Denham and Dolzani.

Crackpots and Undistinguished Flakes

In Anatomy of Criticism Frye notes that critics often break forth into an “oracular harrumph” when they encounter references to alchemy, the Tarot, Rosicrucianism, and the like, and the same attitude persists more than a half‑century later.  One encounters readers here and there, having discovered that Frye thought highly of Colin Still’s book on The Tempest or that he had read some esoteric work, recoiling in amazement, as if it automatically followed that Frye was a card‑carrying member of some mystery cult or was engaging in the ritual practices of Freemasonry.  In the late 1970s I was invited to a party in Toronto by a friend at York University, where the assembled party‑goers turned out to be McLuhanites. When they discovered that I had an interest in Frye, they began to pepper me with questions about Frye’s having been a Mason. I naturally asked what evidence they had for this claim, but none was forthcoming, their assumption being that this was common knowledge. The rumor, apparently, was initiated by Marshall McLuhan, or at any rate perpetuated by him. McLuhan’s biographer Philip Marchand writes that McLuhan “certainly never abandoned his belief that his great rival in the English department of the University of Toronto, Northrop Frye, was a “Mason at heart, if not in fact” (Marshall McLuhan, 105).  In a book review Marchand removes the qualification, saying flatly that “McLuhan thought Frye was a Mason” (Toronto Star, 30 November 2002).  He goes on to say that it’s no wonder that McLuhan suspected that Frye was a Mason because (check out this logic) he was interested in the occult, used diagrams, and, heaven help us, took Colin Still’s Shakespearean criticism seriously.

“Colin Still,” Marchand declares, “was a crackpot,” whose book on The Tempest “[m]ost academics would have been embarrassed to be seen reading.”  Really?  This is an example of a little learning having turned into ignorance.  Marchand has no sense of allegory, and he has no sense of the difference between the reading of a text and the use to which that reading is put. All this gets picked up by Colby Cosh, who does Marchand one better: “The crushingly excellent Philip Marchand has a mesmerizing column about the poisonous rivalry between Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye. . . . McLuhan, a conservative Catholic, despised Frye because he thought he was dabbling in dark occultic forces and perhaps messing about with Freemasonry. . . . Marchand has discovered a new and major source for Frye’s thinking in Colin Still, a hitherto undistinguished flake who believed The Tempest was a disguised representation of some sort of pagan initiation rite” ( 30 November 2002).

Although Frye occasionally comments on Freemasonry (e.g., the Masonic overtones of The Magic Flute, the Masonic links with the trade unions in the nineteenth century, the affinity between the Freemasons and the Royal Society, and the Freemason scapegoat myths), there is not a shred of evidence that Frye was a Mason. As for Still’s being a “crackpot” and an “undistinguished flake,” no less a critical intelligence than R.S. Crane speaks of the “pioneering work” of Still in reading Shakespeare allegorically, discovering in the play “the double theme of purgation from sin and of rebirth and upward spiritual movement after sorrow and death” (The Languages of Criticism and the Structure of Poetry, 132).  Peter Dawkins refers to Still as an “eminent scholar” (The Wisdom of Shakespeare in “The Tempest,” xxv), and Michael Srigley has defended Still’s thesis (Images of Regeneration).  Ronald Tamplin finds in Eliot’s The Waste Land “a pattern corresponding in outline, imagery, and incidental material to Still’s account of initiation into the Greek mystery religions” (American Literature 39 [1967]: 361). In a detailed examination of Still’s argument, Michael Cosser says, “Certainly it is not stretching credulity to see a close parallel between the play and what can be pieced together from classical sources as to the training received in the Mystery-centers of old” (Sunrise 49 (December 1999–January 2000). And in his study of the sacerdotal features of The Tempest my colleague and friend Robert Lanier Reid, though not convinced of the explicitness of Still’s claims, nevertheless takes seriously Still’s view that the play is a “universal purgatorial allegory” (Comparative Drama 41, no. 4 [Winter 2007–8]: 493–513). These critics, like Bishop Warburton before them, are far from being crackpots and flakes. In the eighteenth century Warburton, as both Still and Frye were aware, had proposed the theory that book 6 of the Aeneid––the descent to the underworld––corresponds to the ancient rites of initiation.  In other words, observations about parallels between literary works Greek initiations rites had been around for some time: noting such parallels was a common critical practice.

Still’s books, listed in all the bibliographies, were also celebrated by the distinguished Shakespearean G. Wilson Knight, who calls Shakespeare’s Mystery Play an “important landmark” (Shakespeare and Religion, 201). As an undergraduate at Victoria College, Frye had known Knight, who taught at Trinity College at the University of Toronto in the 1930s.  T.S. Eliot referred to Still in his preface to Knight’s The Wheel of Fire, and it is possible that Frye ran across this reference even before he checked Still’s book out of the Toronto public library during his sophomore year in college––the same year that The Wheel of Fire was published (1930). In The Wheel of Fire Knight writes, “Since the publication of my essay, my attention has been drawn to Mr. Colin Still’s remarkable book Shakespeare’s Mystery Play . . . .  Mr. Still’s interpretation of The Tempest is very similar to mine. His conclusions were reached by a detailed comparison of the play in its totality with other creations of literature, myth, and ritual throughout the ages” (16). Knight regards Still’s book as confirmation (“empirical proof”) of his own view that The Tempest is a mystical work (ibid.). A year later Knight wrote that his view of The Tempest

is most interestingly corroborated by a remarkable and profound book by Mr. Colin Still, Shakespeare’s Mystery Play: A Study of the Tempest (1921). . . . Mr. Still analyses The Tempest as a work of mystic vision, and shows that it abounds in parallels with the ancient mystery cults and works of symbolic religious significance throughout the ages. Especially illuminating are his references to Virgil (Aeneid, VI) and Dante. His reading of The Tempest depends on references outside Shakespeare, whereas my interpretation depends entirely on references to the succession of plays which The Tempest concludes.  We thus reach our results by quite different routes: those results are strangely––and, after all, I believe, not strangely––similar.  To the skeptic this may suggest that mystical interpretation of great poetry may be something other than Horatio’s (Hamlet, I. V. 133) ‘wild and whirling words’. It is not without its dangers, yet it is the only adequate and relevant interpretation of Shakespeare that exists; since, if the vision of the poet and that of the mystic are utterly and finally and in essence incommensurable, where are we to search for unity? And yet if the art of poetry has its share of divine sanction and transcendent truth, what limit can we place to the authentic inspiration of so transcendent and measureless a poet as Shakespeare?” (Shakespeare and Religion, 67–8)

Marchand and friends are of course free to say whatever they wish about the interpretations of Still, Knight, and Frye, though one wishes that their dismissals had not been based on such ill-informed opinions about the parallels between Shakespeare and ancient myth and ritual.

Previous posts on Frye and McLuhan here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. The complete McLuhan thread here.

Frye‑McLuhan Rivalry?

A great deal has been made of the claim that Frye and McLuhan were rivals.  But were they?  W. Terrence Gordon’s Marshall McLuhan: Escape into Understanding: A Biography says twice that they were rivals, without indicating any basis for the claim.  Philip Marchand’s Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger (Toronto: Random House, 1989), takes a different view, showing McLuhan to be jealous of Frye’s eminence and noting several small-minded actions on the part of McLuhan to chip away at that standing.  Take for example this episode from Marchand’s biography:

A panel of graduate English students was organized by the Graduate English Association at the University of Toronto to discuss Frye’s book [Anatomy of Criticism] shortly after its publication.  One of the panellists, Frederick Flahiff, recalls, “One morning after the announcement of the panel had gone out, Marshall appeared in my room carrying a copy of [an] essay entitled “Have with You to Madison Avenue; or, The Flush Profile of Literature.”  The essay, written by McLuhan, was an attack on Frye’s criticism as the formation, via literature, of a perceptive mind to a pseudo‑scientific charting of the features of literature vaguely analogous to Madison Avenue profiles of consumer groups (“Flush profile” is a reference to a method of measuring viewer response to radio and television programs by gauging the incidence of toilet flushing. [“Flush Profile” is reproduced below.]

McLuhan was not at his best in this essay.  His argument, studded with tortured metaphors, was extremely convoluted, and would have succeeded in confusing any audience, no matter how well versed in Frye’s book.  One thing was clear though: no one but McLuhan could have written it.  Nonetheless, McLuhan asked Flahiff if he would read the essay on the panel as if it were his own response to Frye.  We went out and walked around and around Queen’s Park, Flahiff recalls.

McLuhan was at his most obsessive.  I don’t mean that he was hammering away at me to do this thing, but he was obsessive about Frye and the implication of Frye’s position in the same way he had talked about black masses.  It was the first time I had seen this in McLuhan––or the first time I had seen it so extravagantly.  As gently as possible I indicated that I could not do this and that I was going to write my own thing. . . . Later, on the night of the panel, he phoned me before my appearance and asked me to read to him what I had written.  I indicated that he could come to the session if he wanted, but he said “Oh, no, no.” (105–6)

Marchand also reports on a letter from McLuhan to a close friend in which “McLuhan mentioned Frye’s leaving Toronto for a conference and added that he hoped Frye would not bother to return” (105).  Perhaps McLuhan did see Frye as a rival, but I find no evidence in all of Frye’s comments on McLuhan that Frye considered McLuhan to be a rival.  Nor does Frye say anything unkind about McLuhan, except perhaps for the remark that McLuhan had a reputation as a great thinker but he didn’t think at all.

If Frye saw McLuhan as a rival it seems doubtful that he would have argued long and hard that McLuhan should be given the governor general’s award for Understanding Media. Or that, as David Staines reports, he would have said to Corrine McLuhan after Marshall’s death, “I always wanted to be closer to Marshall than I was.”

After the jump, McLuhan’s review of Anatomy.

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Frye’s References to McLuhan in the Correspondence

From Northrop Frye: The Selected Letters, 1934-1991, ed. Robert D. Denham (Jefferson, NC, and London: McFarland & Co., 2009)

Letter to Robert Heilman, 29 October 1951

. . . I am very deeply obliged to you for being responsible for my having a wonderful summer.  I have seldom enjoyed a summer so much.  We topped it off with ten days in San Francisco and two weeks in New York—one at the English institute, which turned out to be a very good one.  I got Marshall McLuhan down to give a paper [“The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry,” in Alan Downer, ed., English Institute Essays (New York: Columbia University Press, 1952), 168–81; rpt. in The Interior Landscape: The Literary Criticism of Marshall McLuhan 1943-1962, ed. Eugene McNamara (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1969), 91–7].

Letter to Richard Schoeck, 24 November 1965

You may know that Marshall and Ernest have asked me to do a collection of comments on myth and criticism as one of the Gemini books.  I gather that their original idea was to collect contemporary essays on the subject, but I thought it might be more interesting and useful to go back into the history of the tendency.  Things like Raleigh’s History, the opening of Purchas, Camden, Reynolds’ Mythomystes, Bacon’s Wisdom of the Ancients, Sandys’ Ovid, from that period; some of the “Druid” stuff from around Blake’s time; some of the material used by Shelley and Keats, and so on down to Ruskin’s Queen of the Air, but without incorporating anything much later than The Golden Bough and the turn of the century.  An introductory essay would of course indicate the relevance of this to what came after Frazer.  I’ve spoken about this to Marshall and he suggested that I might consult the other editors.  [Frye wrote a preface for the proposed collection, but the project was for some reason aborted.  His preface was published forty years later in CW 25:326–8.]

Letter to John Garabedian, 12 September 1967 [In reply to an letter by Garabedian (1 September 1967), a feature writer for the New York Post, wanting Frye to expand on a comment quoted in an article in Time magazine that hippies were inheritors of the “outlawed and furtive social ideal known as the ‘Land of Cockaigne.’” The Time article also referred to Frye as a disciple of McLuhan.]

Thank you for your letter.  I am not sure that I can be of much help to you, as I did not have hippies in mind when I spoke of the Land of Cockaigne as one form of Utopia.  The association was due to the Time writer, and I doubt very much that the Land of Cockaigne is really what the hippies are talking about.  Neither was it correct to describe me as a disciple of McLuhan, although he is a colleague and a good personal friend.

Letter to Walter Miale, 18 February 1969

. . . Korzybsky was, because of his anti‑literary bias, a person I was bound to have reservations about, but there was still the possibility that he might be, like Marshall McLuhan today, probing and prodding in directions that might turn out to be useful.

Letter to Walter J. Ong, S.J., 28 March 1973

. . . I saw Marshall [McLuhan] the other day at a meeting on Canadian Studies, where we were discussing the question of how difficult it is for students in this bilingual country to acquire a second language when they don’t possess a first one.

Letter to William Harmon,  13 August 1974

Harmon had requested (8 July 1974) the source of Joyce’s referring to Eliot as “the Bishop of Hippo,” which Frye quotes in his book on T.S. Eliot (pp. 67–8).  Frye replied that he wasn’t certain as he was quoting “orally from someone who had been working in the Joyce papers at Buffalo.”  Harmon responded with a note of thanks, which prompted Frye to write again to say “Marshall McLuhan was present when this tag from Joyce was quoted, and his memory of it may be more accurate than mine.”

Letter to Richard Kostelanetz, 7 January 1976

. . . Please don’t make me an enemy of Marshall McLuhan: I am personally very fond of him, and think the campus would be a much duller place without him.  I don’t always agree with him, but he doesn’t always agree with himself.

The statement of Colombo’s on page 16 strikes me as curious, but it’s your article. [John Robert Colombo had said that “McLuhan and Frye are Canada’s Aristotle and Plato.  McLuhan is the scientist, and Frye the mystical theorist, with the eternal paradigms and everlasting forms” (qtd. by Kostelanetz, Three Canadian Geniuses, 131).]

Letter to Andrew Foley, 20 April 1976

. . . I think psychologists are now moving away from the Freudian metaphors about an unconsciousness buried below a conscious mind, and are thinking more in terms of the division in the brain between the hemisphere controlling a linear and verbal activity and the one that is more spatially oriented.  It seems to me that the most important aspect of McLuhan is his role in the development of this conception.

Letter to Fr. Walter Ong, December 1977

. . . I saw something of your student Patrick Hogan this year, but he left early.  I don’t know whether he was disappointed in what we did or didn’t do for him.  He was very keen, and one of his proposals was that he and Marshall and I should form a seminar to discuss Finnegans Wake, which hardly fitted my working schedule or, I should imagine, Marshall’s.


Letter to Barrington Nevitt, 20 September 1988

This is in connection with your letter about your proposed book on Marshall McLuhan.  I am sorry if I am unhelpful on this subject, but I doubt that I have anything very distinctive to say on the subject.  What I could say I said at the teacher’s awards meeting you referred to [Distinguished Teacher Awards, December 1987], but unfortunately I had no text for that talk.  I think I remember saying that Marshall was an extraordinary improviser in conversation, that he could take fire instantly from a chance remark, and that I have never known anyone to equal him on that score.  I also feel, whether I said it or not, that he was celebrated for the wrong reasons in the sixties, and then neglected for the wrong reasons later, so that a reassessment of his work and its value is badly needed.  I think what I chiefly learned from him, as an influence on me, was the role of discontinuity in communication, which he was one of the first people to understand the significance of.  Beyond that, I am afraid I am not much use.

Frye on McLuhan, McLuhan on Frye

I heard B.W. Powe’s paper on Frye and McLuhan at this year’s Frye Festival in Moncton. It covered a lot of ground and was powerfully rendered. On a couple of occasions Powe seemed to suggest that Frye was in some way envious of and threatened by McLuhan. He cited this anecdote from George Steiner:

Many years ago, one evening in Massey College, I sat with Robertson Davies, Norrie Frye, Kathleen Coburn (the world’s greatest Coleridge scholar), when there walked in a very much younger Marshall McLuhan. Astounded, and without thinking, I turned to Professor Frye, and said, “There’s Marshall McLuhan.” I cannot hope to reproduce the air of sardonic melancholy which immediately invaded Norrie’s features. He had a long look, and said, “So the man alleges.”

If I understood Powe’s point in citing this passage, a display of envy does not seem to be the best interpretation of it. Frye’s references to McLuhan in the Collected Works are evidence of his consistently frank and even-handed appraisal of McLuhan. I think his often repeated concern that McLuhan’s celebrity compromised his full potential as a scholar offers a better read on what Steiner describes as Frye’s “sardonic melancholy.” Frye’s response, “So the man alleges,” similarly recalls his frequent dismissal of the “McLuhan cult” (or as he more pungently puts it at one point, “the McLuhan rumour”) in order to maintain at least some distinction between the scholar and the media guru.

Thanks to the nearly twenty thousand words related to McLuhan that Frye committed to paper, we can see that Frye confidently read him, confidently saw beyond the misguided “nitwit McLuhanism” he inspired, and confidently disagreed with him for reasons he was always willing to articulate in detail. Frye often cites and lucidly critiques McLuhan’s characterization of the “global village” and his distinction between “linear” and “simultaneous” perception. At the same time, he is also characteristically generous wherever McLuhan might be effectively cited (and, again, there are scores of such citations amounting to thousands of words), even if he remained vigilant wherever he thought McLuhan might be reasonably challenged. Throughout it all, Frye regards McLuhan as a scholar first. He in fact observes a number of times that McLuhan was celebrated for the wrong reasons in the 1960s and then ignored for the wrong reasons in the 1970s. Perhaps most tellingly, there is no indication of any sustained personal hostility toward McLuhan himself, whatever their professional differences. In an interview after McLuhan’s death, Frye refers to him as “my beloved colleague.”

If there is any manifest expression of resentment, and even paranoia, in this relationship, it appears to have come from McLuhan’s side. According to Philip Marchand‘s biography, Marshall McLuhan: the Medium and the Messenger, he had a long held belief that he had been targeted by a worldwide Masonic conspiracy. Frye was at least peripherally implicated:

McLuhan had sense enough not to express these views in public, and by the 1960s he pretty well kept quiet about the Masons even with friends and colleagues at St. Michael’s, although, appalled by the post-Vatican II changes in the church, he occasionally voiced the suspicion that some prelates of the church, including Toronto Archbishop Philip Pocock, were secretly Masons. He seems never really to have abandoned his thesis about a Masonic conspiracy and even wondered occasionally whether some of his own employees at the Centre for Culture and Technology (established at the University of Toronto in 1963) might be Masons.

He certainly never abandoned his belief that his great rival in the English department at the University of Toronto, Northrop Frye, was a Mason at heart, if not in fact. (114)

McLuhan seems to have possessed an aggressive personal animosity toward Frye. According to Marchand, McLuhan considered him an “enemy” early in their careers together in the English department at the University of Toronto, and then in later life Frye is referred to as his “old enemy.” McLuhan’s enmity was evidently a longstanding one. The other references to Frye in Marchand’s book do not vary much from this theme.

As already promised, I will be writing a longer paper in which I will provide a more extended and detailed account of Frye’s reading of McLuhan.

Frye on McLuhan Roundup

The Frye on McLuhan thread has been a good one. You can review it in the Marshall McLuhan Category. The collection of Frye’s references to McLuhan in the Collected Works is worth reading through, particularly as it provides insight into the way Frye worked through any issue that interested him.

There is McLuhan blog you might want to check out: The McLuhan Galaxy. They have also just discovered us and reposted the Frye on McLuhan compilation.

This website’s second anniversary is on the 18th. We’ll begin our third year with a refurbished library and journal. We’ll have that rolled out for September.

I’ll be posting if something interesting crosses my path. Otherwise I’ll be working behind the scenes. And, of course, I will always be looking for input from you. Our email address is

Enjoy the rest of your summer.

Northrop Frye on Marshall McLuhan: A Comprehensive Compilation

Of the twenty-nine volumes of Frye’s Collected Works, there are references to McLuhan in twenty-three of them, from his 1949 diary to the late notebooks of the 1980s and one of his last interviews in November 1990. Here they are.

(This item will be posted in the library once we have our new PDF format up and running.)


From the 1949 diary:

Norma Arnett came up to me last night & wanted to know why a poem she (and I remember to some extent) thought was good had not been considered even for honourable mention in the Varsity contest. . . I said the judge was just plain wrong (I think it was McLuhan, so it’s a reasonable enough assumption). (CW 8, 94)

Marshall McLuhan went after me [regarding a paper on Bacon’s essays] with talk about essences & so on–Helen Garrett reported back from Jack that he’d said he was out to get me. He didn’t quite, though a stranger would have been startled by his tone. Actually, I imagine he agreed with a fair amount of the paper, though he didn’t say so when I went home with him. . . McLuhan again on his anti-English line–I think Jack Garrett is right in regarding it as a phobia. (CW 8, 143)

McLuhan did say something after all yesterday, about Germans. Said when a German met another human being it was like a root meeting a stone: he had to warp & twist himself into the most extraordinary convolutions to get around to the unpleasant fact of someone else’s existence. (CW 8, 145)

McLuhan’s Forum article [“Color-bar of BBC English”] suggests that he suffered abominably from the kind of self-consciousness he denies. (CW 8, 168)

Went for lunch with McLuhan and Ned [Pratt]. . . McLuhan brought up the subject about his magazine [about media communications] again. (CW 8, 209)


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Frye on McLuhan: An Overview

Wednesday I’ll be posting the compilation of Frye’s references to Marshall McLuhan that appear in the Collected Works.

I want to make a few observations here, which I don’t intend to be a definitive. I will be writing a longer paper to provide a broader perspective and a more detailed account. However, I think the following points can be responsibly made.

First, Frye’s references to McLuhan require 20,000 words to render them, suggesting that he read and thought about McLuhan’s work extensively. He certainly referred to it in his published work wherever the situation allowed. His private notebooks likewise suggest deep engagement, although with an added and characteristic tartness (“global village my ass”; “that blithering nonsense ‘the medium is the message'”).

Second, his observations are as consistent as his inquiry is thorough. There are more than forty years worth of references here, and they are remarkably free of any notable contradiction.

Third, Frye’s critical assessment of the core elements of McLuhan’s thought reveals that they are unacceptable to him. On the other hand, Frye’s published references to isolated aspects of McLuhan’s work tend to be generous and are regularly cited to make a larger point. Although Frye is careful to distinguish McLuhan from what he at one point calls the “nitwitted McLuhanism” of the 1960s, his frank critique of McLuhan’s work as a whole stands.

Finally, the elements of McLuhan’s thought Frye is most critical of are also those most familiar to general readers, including his formulations regarding “the global village,” “the medium is the message,” and the linearity of print versus the simultaneity of electronic media. It is the last notion especially that Frye believes compromised McLuhan’s work, and he returns to it on a number of occasions.

Below is a small but representative selection of quotes that captures some of this.

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Frye on McLuhan: First and Last References

Marshall McLuhan and Norman Miller go head-to-head in a 1968 debate on CBC television

I have finally put together a compilation of Frye references to Marshall McLuhan across twenty-three volumes of the Collected Works — almost 20,000 words worth. This was a very illuminating experience. Once I have proof-read the collection, I will post it. I will also put together a post providing an overview, which will be the basis of a much longer paper that I hope will be one of my contributions to the Frye centenary next year.

So, once again, here are a couple of quotes to prepare the palette: Frye’s first reference to McLuhan in his 1949 diary, and his last more than forty years later in an interview conducted in November 1990, two months before his death.

From the 1949 diary:

Norma Arnett came up to me last night & wanted to know why a poem she (and I remember to some extent) thought was good had not been considered even for honourable mention in the Varsity contest. . . I said the judge was just plain wrong (I think it was McLuhan, so it’s a reasonable enough assumption). (CW 8, 94)


From “Cultural Identity in Canada” (27 November 1990: interview with Carl Mollins):

Mollins: I suppose McLuhan has certainly acknowledged his debt to Innis and to you, I think?

Frye: Well to Innis, not to me [laughing]. I suspect a great deal of that—I think that’s something to give the critics to play with. Innis was a man who worked like a vacuum cleaner, picking up books everywhere, and he saw something very distinctive in McLuhan, and so he asked McLuhan for autographs, and they did exchange some correspondence. There was a bit of mixture there. I think McLuhan was just a coming person and, with no special reputation at that time, was very flattered by this (as he should have been), and the result was that you get a rather Innis-McLuhan link. But I don’t really see a great deal of influence from Innis on McLuhan.

Mollins: There is something in each of you—the use of the aphorism, the cryptic utterance which compels a reader to dwell upon a sentence.

Frye: It is true that both McLuhan and I are rather discontinuous, mosaic writers of very different kinds. It’s less true of Innis, although actually that book that Christian got out, The Idea File of Innis, does indicate that he thought aphoristically. That’s certainly true of me. I keep notebooks and write aphoristically, and ninety-five per cent of the work I do is putting them out on a line, and then you have a continuous rhythm. (CW 24, 1094-5)