A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Little Epic: McLuhan’s Use of Epyllion

Andrew Chrystall, Massey University

Enculturation: http://enculturation.net/a-little-epic
(Published: December 5, 2011)

Commentary on Marshall McLuhan’s oeuvre has shifted from debating whether he was right or wrong to a deeper consideration of his rhetorical praxis. In Mondo Canuck: A Canadian Pop Cultural Odyssey, for example, Pevere and Dymond declare:

And if McLuhan wasn't right? Well frankly, who cares? For the fact is, no North American intellectual of his era held the world's ear quite as intensely and obsessively as this incessantly talkative, grammatically impeccable, six-foot-two professor of English literature from Toronto, and none mainlined the peculiar zeitgeist of the era with such voracious, surgical precision. (132–133)

Elena Lamberti, whose work is, in some senses, also indicative of the shift, makes a persuasive case that to retrieve and make good use of McLuhan we need to understand how he wrote. We need, Lamberti argues, to “move, in fact, from the literal (what McLuhan said) to the structural (how he said what he said) and try to carry out a different exegesis that, in time, may recompose the cosmogony and reassemble the fragments” (63).

This essay makes a contribution to this theme. Here I explore how McLuhan, in a bid to create a new way of writing history and a new art that would enable his readers to relate to the present, set about “invading the old arts”—the rag and bone shop—and ravaging them for materials for “stylistic innovation” (McLuhan “Strike the Set” 7). I reveal the contours and lineaments of McLuhan’s study of a form known as the epyllion, anglicized as “little epic,” and how McLuhan retrieved the epyllion to inform and serve as the structural ordering principle of The Gutenberg Galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man and Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Hopefully, I also go some ways towards showing that two of McLuhan’s major written works are not merely a heap of splendid fragments. Rather, they are deeply informed by a unity of underlying pattern.

Focusing on the epyllion is also consistent with the kind of exploration of McLuhan’s oeuvre recommended by McLuhan’s former student and, perhaps, his most comprehensive critic, Donald F. Theall. Like Lamberti, Theall has called McLuhan’s critics to address the defects of earlier attempts to engage with his works by paying attention to how he derived his insights and by what means he propagated them (Beyond the Word xvi). McLuhan’s critics and commentators, Theall asserts, need to confront the literary and artistic aspects of his work (The Virtual Marshall McLuhan 185). According to Theall, McLuhan needs to be read with a full understanding of Joyce, literary and rhetorical history, and the history of education. Theall also suggests that McLuhan’s critics and commentators acquaint themselves with the epyllion/little epic, and he intimates that the form resides at the very heart of what he calls McLuhan’s techno-poetics and Menippean or Varronian satiric-science. McLuhan’s employment of the form, Theall implies, helps give his outputs a seductive quality, and allows him to be complex, ambivalent, and transgressive (The Virtual Marshall McLuhan 28-29).

Theall, however, offers little in the way of elaboration and development on the place and significance of the epyllion/little epic for McLuhan’s work. While noting that he was complicit in McLuhan’s discovery of the significance of the epyllion, having collaborated with him on a work intended to extend the seminal work of Marjorie Crump, Theall states that the materials they developed remain housed in the Marshall McLuhan collection held at the Library and National Archives Canada. Here some of those materials will receive discussion for the first time. The value of this exploration, over and above an historical inspection of McLuhan’s foundational work in English and comparative literature, is that it serves as necessary propaedeutic for the kind of exegesis outlined and recommended by Lamberti and Theall. Hopefully, this paper also goes some ways towards provoking thought on ways of writing about the emerging “post-literate world of the hyper-sensory, the new technological artifactual cosmopolis where synaesthesia and coanesthesia produce a more inclusive, tactile space” (Theall, The Virtual Marshall McLuhan 79).

1. Breakdown

Before engaging McLuhan’s study of the epyllion it is necessary to consider some background material. In 1951 McLuhan published his first major book, The Mechanical Bride. He perceived the work had failed: “Mechanical Bride is something that happened before the Flood. Assumed an audience .... It is a wedding announcement found 1000 years from now in a block of concrete” (“to Hugh Kenner, 30 January 1951” n.pag.).1 Faced with the breakdown in his ordinary procedures in the wake of the Bride McLuhan embarked on a new exploration with a view to finding a solution to his own technical problems. He sought a way to make an audience and draw attention to the new technological dispensation and/or tactile environment of television. He also sought to explore: (1) compositional techniques, (2) different approaches to the question of transcendence (or escape from the “problem” of consciousness), and (3) how various artistic techniques, e.g. compositional techniques, achieve effects consistent with various paths of transcendence and/or escape.

McLuhan’s exploration, during this phase in his career, came to focus on a “mythic” and “motivational genre of the greatest importance in the history of European literatures” known as the epyllion/little epic (McLuhan & Watson 165).2 McLuhan notes that the essence of this form, in its most basic aspect, is a pair of plots or situations, each serving as a digression or subplot for the other.

The principal structural feature of the little epic form concerns the relation of plot and sub-plot. The sub-plot was referred to as the digressio. It was considered that the sub-plot acted upon the prime plot or statement as a transmuting and spiritualizing force. The two plots were not connected, but paratactic. (Letter to William Ryan n.pag.)

In his correspondence with Kenner, McLuhan presents the case that: epyllion~double plot~heroic couplet~hokku [haiku]~ideogram (Letter to Hugh Kenner, n.d. n.pag.); where “~” designates “significant comparability” (See Levin 10). He also goes so far as to say that the mode of the epyllion, and its construction by way of interfacing two situations, constitutes a minimum system for and/or condescended essence of all artistic organization.

The greater weight of McLuhan’s study of the epyllion is taken up with the history and contexts in which the form was used. McLuhan’s history of the form is fragmentary and far from complete. Many of his reflections and meditations on the form are not fully developed. Perhaps, the incompleteness of his study reflects the fact that the debate as to whether the epyllion is an accredited form of antiquity still continues; a debate McLuhan attributed to the form’s thousand faces (“The Little Epic: The Greeks” 13).

McLuhan, however, argues that the form can be traced from its inception in antiquity. The origin of the epyllion, he asserts, is liturgical, ceremonial, and McLuhan holds that it is the basic form of the Greek pastoral. McLuhan also notes that the epyllion can be seen as a response to a new, heterogeneous public that arrived with the development of cities, commerce, and the separation of art and ritual; a situation, he asserts, the epyllion met with comedy, ambivalence, and hidden meanings for the esoterically inclined (“The Little Epic: The Greeks” 17).

McLuhan argues that the epyllion was often referred to as an aetiological poem given its concern with ultimate ends and ultimate causes (“Tennyson and the Romantic Epic”). The “meaning” of the epyllion, he asserts, was as speculative as modern physics is today.3 The epyllion, McLuhan held, is a representation of cosmic law and drama that we now call myth. As such, it can also be understood as an attempt at science and philosophy before the awareness of the individual, given that natural phenomenon were regularly conceived of in terms of human experience and human experience was conceived in terms of cosmic events (“Little Epic: The Greeks” 4-5).4

McLuhan also held that the epyllion was tied up in religious controversy involving the competing claims of Olympic and Dionysic faiths and questions pertaining to transcendence, divinization and the attainment of godhead by man. The major epic, based on heroes—children of the gods—who had assumed fixed status, McLuhan claims, tended to be allied with the Olympic. The epyllion, or little epic, with its concern for the world of change and becoming, was largely allied with the Dionysiac. In contrast with the major epic, with its concern with heroes and pushing them through the houses of the zodiac, the epyllion tends to avoid the cycle of the major epic in favour of concerning itself with a single ordeal or mental state (“The Little Epic: The Greeks” 15). The epyllion was also aligned with the Dionysic because the essence of the form, if not its raison d’être, is the manipulation of time in a bid to evoke the “eternal moment.” The action emerging from the interface of the plot, as the carrier or container, and the subplot, the older form in the role of context, spiritualized the whole in such a way that the reader experiences timelessness. The double-ness of the form is a principal means of snatching actions from time into eternity with its accompanying recurrent imagery (“Tennyson and the Romantic Epic”).

McLuhan’s survey of the epyllion reveals that the form enjoyed popularity from the Greek and Roman worlds through to medieval times. Ovid, he asserts, used the form to provide a history of technology (“to Eric McLuhan” 418), Dante uses the epyllion always and everywhere in his Commedia (Letter to S. P. Rosenbaum) and it is the basic Renaissance form for the short poem. The epyllion, McLuhan argues, also holds an important place in Christian tradition. On one hand, McLuhan notes: “the Christian bias was against the ritual efficacy of the juggling of narrative order” (“Tennyson and the Romantic Epic” 24). On the other, however, the Gospel of St. John, McLuhan asserts, opens with a perfect little epic pattern of interplay between the World and the Word, leading him to state: “what may in fact be true,” is that “this type of parallelism so dear to the arts and the ancient world, was also used as a principal mode of meditation upon the mystery of creation and redemption” (Letter to William Ryan n.pag.). Further, as McLuhan notes in “Little Epic—Notes 97/32,” the epyllion afforded Christian writers a means of using pagan mythology in a way that did not compromise Christian belief and practice.

McLuhan’s exploration of the Christian use of the form focuses on Chaucer. He argues that Chaucer adapted the structure of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which are built using the epyllion, and transformed the eternalizing ritual— the ability to manipulate time—into a form directed toward Christian ends. The key to Chaucer’s Christian-humanist synthesis and subsequent transmutation, McLuhan shows, was accomplished by fusing the epyllion with the whole Christian awareness of personality—providing his natural phenomena, the pagan impersonal myth and science of both Greece and Rome, with human voice or personalities. Chaucer’s success, extending from the fusion of an essentially pagan technique with Christian anthropology and understanding of personality, McLuhan argues, enabled Chaucer to both encompass and surpass the eternalising techniques of the pagan use of the form (“Tennyson and the Romantic Epic”). The example McLuhan offers for the contemplation of Chaucer’s achievement is the bar scene where normal time is broken into and Chaucer’s pilgrims are described as he, the narrator, will come to know them. The effect, McLuhan finds, of the curious montage of past, present, and future, is that we readers are precipitated into a nebulous time and carried off toward a far-off holy place.

McLuhan also explored how various poets and writers—particularly how Pope, Wordsworth, Tennyson, Browning, the Elizabethans, and the Symbolists—were able to leverage the form to bring about various effects in their readers. As he considers each writer and/or period of the form’s use, McLuhan brings to light one or more resources of the form. Shakespeare, McLuhan notes, uses the interface of plot and sub-plot to obtain the emotion of multitude or sense of crowd and universality (McLuhan & Nevitt, “The Argument” 15).

The book of nature contains innumerable borderlines and inter-faces. The resonant interval may be considered an invisible borderline between visual and acoustic space. We all know that a frontier, or borderline, is a space between two worlds, making a kind of double plot or parallelism, which evokes a sense of the crowd, or universality. Whenever two cultures, or two events, or two ideas are set in proximity to one another, an interplay takes place, a sort of magical change. The more unlike the interface, the greater the tension of the interchange. (McLuhan & Powers 4, emphasis added.)

In the case of the Elizabethans, McLuhan notes that they had realized that the form provided an answer to the question as to how to write on many levels simultaneously and present the “ineluctable” (“The Aesthetic Moment in Landscape Poetry” 159). Juxtaposition of plot and subplot, McLuhan states in “Double Plots in the Poetry of Pope,” is never a blend but means of revealing both plus the third thing—the ineluctable. McLuhan also discusses this effect, via use of the double plot or juxtaposition of two momentary environments or digressions, in terms of hendiadys—one by means of two (“Joyce’s Use of Epyllion”).5

Via his meditations on the Joyce, Pound, and Eliot’s pervasive and technical use of Ovid, McLuhan reveals how the form can also be used to involve the reader and require their participation. McLuhan elaborates on Pound’s use of the form by way of meditating on Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro." McLuhan regarded Pound, in his Cantos, as being consciously bardic, oral, and belonging to the ancient tradition of the epyllion and the work of Ovid (“Pound: The Playboy of the Westend World”).

‘The apparition of these faces in a crowd/petals on a wet, black bough.’ The first line presents the situation; the second presents the effect on the sensibilities. The discovery that you could present effects directly and that one could bypass the cause of the effect, led to many developments in the arts in the past century. In a sense, it is embodied in my phrase “the medium is the message” in the way I present the effect of the medium on the sensibilities in a way that bypasses causes, at least those causes most people locate in the content. (Letter to P. Bruckner n.pag.)

Each of Pound’s Cantos, McLuhan claims in his introduction to “Great Tom” (an unpublished manuscript on poetry of T. S. Eliot), employs plot and subplot, in various combinations, and their interface constitutes a metamorphosis. Pound makes no explicit connections. Rather, in a bid to present emotional and intellectual complexes in a single instant, he sets items, ideas, texts, and phrases side by side without comment or conjunction in analogical ratios, in accord with the Aristotelian principle of metaphor (“Great Tom” 1-4).

Of all the writers who employed the form, McLuhan afforded James Joyce the most attention. He regarded Joyce to be the master of the form, albeit due to a myriad of debts to his predecessors:

Edgar Allan Poe's rediscovery of the transforming power of the interval was a retrieval of the Ovidian technique of metamorphosis by the use of double plots or actions. W. B. Yeats had discussed it as the technique for creating “the emotion of multitude.” This “magical” parallelism was the mode beloved by Dante and Shakespeare. It is the pattern used by James Joyce in Ulysses to bridge the ancient and modern worlds by a continuous parallel or interface between myth and realism, order and anarchy. In the detective story Poe discovered the missing clue as the bridge for all scientific research: the Cyclopean and encyclopaedic scanning of the total field by the omission of the private point of view. (McLuhan & Nevitt,Take Today 10)

Joyce, McLuhan apprehended, had not only completed what Chaucer started, he went further. Joyce utilized all the resources of the form including its ability to facilitate writing on several levels simultaneously, present the ineluctable, involve the reader, energize and enliven, and evoke an emotion of multitude. He also realized that the use of two levels enabled temporal transcendence, and that when additional levels are employed, spatial transcendence automatically follows—endowing the form with a more pronounced metaphysical character (“Joyce’s Use of Epyllion”). Something of the quality and effect McLuhan is gesturing at here is echoed by Ezra Pound:

It is the presentation of such a “complex” instantaneously which gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art. (Make it New 336)

In Joyce’s hands, the form of the epyllion was a means forging a creative synthesis of the intuitive and more comprehensive faculties of the east and the visual and rationalistic as of the west. It was also leveraged by Joyce to update Ovid and Dante and present a new kind of poetic history. Joyce, McLuhan states, was “making his own Altamira cave drawings of the entire history of the human mind, in terms of its basic gestures and postures during all phases of human culture and technology” (McLuhan, Fiore & Agel 120). As McLuhan notes in “The Victorian Mode,” the simple, linear perspectives of the past that began with Petrarch ended with Gibbon. From that point on, McLuhan asserts, “history” became lost in a multiplicity of simultaneous views that awaited cubist manipulation, as was accomplished by James Joyce (3).

The continuous parallel between ancient and modern provides a “cubist” rather than linear perspective. It is a world of a “timeless present” such as we meet in the order of objections in a Thomistic article, but also typical of the nonperspective discontinuities of medieval art in general. History is abolished not by being disowned but by becoming present. “History is now,” as Eliot sees it in Four Quartets. This “cubist” sense of the past as a dimension of the present is natural in four-level scriptural exegesis and ancient grammatica. It is necessary to enjoyment of Ulysses or the Wake with its theme that “pastimes and past times,” that the popular press, popular games, and ordinary speech are charged with the full historic weight of the collective human past. (“James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial” 45)

McLuhan was not alone in his admiration of Joyce’s achievement. Eliot too had seen in Joyce a model that must be followed:

In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. They will not be imitators, say more than the scientist who uses the discoveries of an Einstein in pursuing his own, independent, further investigations. It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. (T. S. Eliot, cited in Letter to T. C. Clark n.pag.)

McLuhan frequently offered Eliot’s assessment to several of his correspondents as guide to his own rhetorical praxis. Arguably, the reason why is that, following Joyce, he had found an answer to the weight of his own technical problems he was trying to solve. The epyllion, McLuhan appears to have seen, would permit him to:

(1) Create an encyclopaedic and/or universal (post-) cubist history of “media” and survey of a variety of individual and social postures or states as they relate to various periods in media history.

(2) Manipulate and motivate his readers while, simultaneously, providing instruction and awareness of media effects—the motivation by and manipulation(s) of technological environments.

(3) Write in a way that was consonant with what he was talking about and resonant with the audiences he sought to address—a heterogeneous, public undergoing significant transformation.

(4) Create a mythic and multi-level disquisition on causation and agency (the aetiological dimension).

(5) Gesture in the direction of the ineluctable dimension of life at electric speed.

(6) Awaken his reader(s) from the repetitive nightmare of history.

2. Breakthrough

There is more that can be said regarding McLuhan’s study of the epyllion, and certainly much more rag and bone in the McLuhan Collection at the Library and National Archives Canada that warrants being brought to light. At this juncture, however, in the second part of this paper, I would like to move to explore the idea that McLuhan employed the epyllion as the dominant structural ordering principle of McLuhan’s most famous works: The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media.

In the The Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media McLuhan presents a comprehensive study of the psychic (individual) and social (corporate) dynamics of all media (just as he apprehended Joyce had done in the Wake). Central to his operation is to show how "media" are words, languages, myths, games, staples, and above all, metaphors.6 "Media," McLuhan shows, as with literary metaphors, are constituted by two figures and two grounds in dynamic and analogical relationship (Understanding Media 57). The Gutenberg Galaxy is encyclopaedic. It traverses the domains of politics, business, theology (both liturgical and ecclesiological), economics, law, mathematics, physics, business, medicine, and philosophy. Fundamentally, however, it explores the entire operation of literacy, including "the print phase of alphabetic culture" (45-46), and the preceding phases, particularly the rise of the phonetic alphabet as "indispensable prelude" (152). By contrast, Understanding Media concerns itself with all forms of transport of goods and information. Together the pair provides a comprehensive, universal and encyclopaedic exploration of the impact of media on humans, from the beginning of recorded time to the early 1960s. In both works, McLuhan approaches "media" in the broadest possible way making the designation "media" include all human artifacts.

Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media are not, however, media history in a conventional mode. In other words they are not history via what he calls the naïve or direct mode —simply considering the past from the standpoint of the present. This kind of approach McLuhan deemed unhelpful and perpetuated “habitual ways of avoiding the discontinuities of present experience with their demand for sensitive inspection and appraisal” (“Literature as Material for British History” 5). Rather they are more akin to the kind of poetic history prescribed by Heidegger and the (post-) cubist history of technology realized by Joyce. Consequently, as with the weight of McLuhan’s writings of the period (barring his Report on Project in Understanding New Media), they are not orientated towards “persuasion” in the sense of producing action. Rather, while works of prose, Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media are an action and/or drama, and they are intended primarily for contemplation and exploration. In the “Hot and Cool Interview” McLuhan makes this explicit: “literally, Understanding Media is a kit of tools for analysis and perception. It is to begin an operation of discovery. It is not the completed work of discovery. It is intended for practical use” (“The Hot and Cool Interview” 59). He is equally explicit in his correspondence with Edward T. Hall, 14 May 1962: “why I wrote the Gutenberg Galaxy was in order that they [the reader] might discover from whence they have derived their assumptions about the other media” (n.pag.).7 In both these admissions McLuhan clearly reveals the fundamentally aetiological dimension to his work. He also reveals that he perceives himself as operating in a manner akin to Eliot, Pound and Joyce—as an artist–scientist–educator—engaged in the poetic task of improving “perception through language” (“The Meaning of Television to Children” 33).

To execute his poetic history McLuhan forgoes linear, connected, Addison-Steele equitone prose in favor of the “mosaic” pattern of the epyllion. Understanding Media is built on an interface—a frontier situation, of imposition and explosion (3–4). Gutenberg Galaxy too is built on a frontier between both the typographic and the electronic revolutions. It literally, wears its organizational pattern on its sleeve. The original cover art for the book exhibits two interlocking G’s in the image of a Vortex by way of a small “G,” in reverse, inside the curvature of a larger “G.” 8

McLuhan also employs this fundamental structural organizing principle to manage the relationship between the two works. Understanding Media looks “back” at Gutenberg Galaxy as providing “the necessary background for studying the rapid rise of new visual values after the advent of printing from movable types” (201). Gutenberg Galaxy looks “forward” to Understanding Media (Gutenberg Galaxy 278–79). A sense of how Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media work together can be had in light of McLuhan’s correspondence with Edward T. Hall, 5 April 1962:

The Copenhagen school talks my language …. Heisenberg’s distinction between rotational and non-rotational systems as creating quite distinct spatial configurations corresponds exactly to my divisions between centre-margins and centres without margin systems …. Thus, the centre-margin system is explosive (fission), and the centre-without-margin system is implosive (fusion). The centrifugal system corresponds to that outering of sense and faculty, with all the consequent products familiar in fission, whereas implosion results in quite different products. It seems to be that an oral society is imploded, and a literate one exploded. (n.pag.)

Alternately, as Eric McLuhan has argued, Gutenberg Galaxy represents one chapter of Understanding Media properly expanded. By extension, Eric McLuhan implies that the same could be done for each of the chapters of Understanding Media (“Message to the Author”).

The structural ordering principle is mirrored again within each work. McLuhan uses several additional dichotomies in a bid to chart the “subordinate rhythms” (Letter to Lynn White n.pag.). Gutenberg Galaxy is divided in two and it is written from a frontier perspective, between the “typographic and the electronic revolutions” (141). The first section, “The Gutenberg Galaxy,” written using what McLuhan calls the mosaic style, sets out “to discover how far the visual bias of this phonetic culture was pushed, first by the manuscript, and then by typography” (108), and to “explain the configuration or galaxy of events and actions associated with Gutenberg technology” (139). The second section, “The Galaxy Reconfigured or the Plight of Mass Man in an Individualist Society,” written in a relatively linear way, looks at the new electric media and the “clash” between electric and mechanical, or print, technologies (i).

Gutenberg Galaxy also contends with several additional dichotomies including (but not limited to): eye and ear, light on and light through, hot and cool, Newton and Berkely, matching and making, simple and complex, invention and suspended judgement. Similarly Understanding Media employs the dichotomies: ear and eye, America and Europe; West and East, Euclidean and non-Euclidean, tactile and visual, sequential and simultaneous, fragmentation and involvement, square and triangle, mechanism and cybernation, mass production and custom-built, linearity and feedback. These dichotomies, all of them obsolete at the time of McLuhan’s use, are banged together with a viewing to revealing the contours and lineaments of an environment or new, post-literate technological landscape(s) that, McLuhan asserts, is just beyond the pale of the observable and grasp of our existing languages (Chrystall, “After the Global Village” 5-6).

To develop and explain McLuhan’s use of obsolete dichotomies requires an extended discussion of his various claims that he was writing Menippean satire. That said, however, a sense of McLuhan’s procedure can be had by considering his note that “print increasingly hypnotized the Western world is nowadays the theme of all historians of art and science alike, because we no longer live under the spell of the isolated visual sense” (Gutenberg Galaxy 183, emphasis added). Here, McLuhan presents the recent discoveries of orality and literacy scholars as items in his inventory of effects and/or symptoms of the new electric surround. Interfacing orality and literacy serves as a mechanism to gesture in the direction of the imagistic and tactile or verbi-voco-visual, post-Sputnik “single sound-light show” (McLuhan, “Roles, Masks and Performances” 22).

McLuhan’s use of the epyllion, however, extends well beyond merely using the device of interfaced situation. Like Chaucer, and following Joyce, McLuhan fuses the epyllion with a study of the psychic and social dynamics of all media. In other words, McLuhan takes Chaucer’s fusion (of the epyllion with the whole Christian awareness of personality) further by providing the new nature (media) with “human” voice or personalities, and human personalities with the voices of new media (or new nature). It is a complex matter and can perhaps best be observed in terms of concrete particulars, e.g. McLuhan’s treatment of Spengler as a singing telegram for “Radio.” Here McLuhan reveals the dual, simultaneous action of “media” to impose their assumptions, and, “anesthetize” its user’s awareness of those “assumptions” (Understanding Media 112). 9

McLuhan’s reasons for using the epyllion are myriad. Perhaps, the most important being that the first base for his artistic activity, on which everything else depended, was grabbing attention. The epyllion appears to have been ideal for the task because of parallel(s) between the situation of McLuhan’s day and the periods in which the form had thrived—we had recreated, electronically, a mythic and pre-literate state:

It must often have puzzled the scholars and physicists of our time that just in the degree to which we penetrate the lowest layers of non-literate awareness we encounter the most advanced and sophisticated ideas of twentieth-century art and science. To explain that paradox will be an aspect of the present book. (Gutenberg Galaxy 26)

In other words, McLuhan apprehended that television had retrieved the epyllion. The epyllion, McLuhan states, shares the same “audile-tactile” character as R. Buckminster Fuller’s “Byzantine domes” (“Pound: The Playboy of the Westend World” 4), the sensibility of the Eastern Church (“to John Mole” 489), and more importantly, television:

Television does not present a visual image, but an X-ray icon which penetrates our entire organism. Joyce called it "the charge of the light barricade"—part of the Crimean war against mankind. Stained-glass images are not visual either, since they are defined by light through, as in Rouault paintings. The structure of these images is audile-tactile, as in abstract art, both of Symbolist and Cubist kind. (“to Barbara Ward” 466)

McLuhan appears to have held that his use of the epyllion, having been retrieved by television, not only imbues both works with vitality and energy, it also mirrors the action of “active metaphors,” creating a harmonious union between what he is talking about and how he is talking about it.

McLuhan also appears to have employed the form on account of its effects. In Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media, McLuhan leverages nearly every effect that he perceived Joyce had achieved in and through the use of the form. Perhaps, the first of these is the ability of the form to not only elicit but motivate active reader participation, transforming the consumer into a producer or fellow explorer. Rather, following Joyce, and in and through use of the epyllion, McLuhan’s treatment of history is what he calls “oblique” and dramatic, and it is what I have called here poetic. At every juncture we find an action not dissimilar to how McLuhan describes the action of Finnegans Wake in “James Joyce: Trivial and Quadrivial”:

'One world burrowing on another' is a typical pun which invokes the two-way process of borrowing and burrowing plus the image of burial mounds and the tree-pillar cults which themselves were modes of communication between the living and the dead. Every word in the Wake is dramatically active in this kind of way, following not a road of meaning but carrying us on an every-way roundabout with intrusions from above and below. (46)

McLuhan does at the level of the sentence or paragraph or chapter what Joyce does in the Wake at the level of individual words. Every “point” of interface is explored in terms of a four-fold action or process in a variety of analogical ratios to one another. The effects that he seeks to achieve are noted in a letter to Sheila Watson: “From contemplation of the arrested image, the viewer is expected to involve himself in the elaborate re-tracing or dreaming back. This is the mythic method of Ovid and of the Symbolists alike” (Letter to Sheila Watson n.pag.). The interfaced situation is crucial as it permits the “ground” for the figures (dichotomies)—information moving at the speed of light—to be omitted or suppressed, and requires the reader to contemplate and weigh the relationships between figures with a view tracing back from effects to causes to find what is missing. This processes is repeated and required of the reader again and again in both works.

To come at this matter from another angle, McLuhan demonstrates and creates a space for his readers to recreate within themselves the processes whereby the new supplants the old by amplifying or accelerating existing processes and rendering the “slower” form obsolete (Understanding Media 8; 90). Further, at every interface he also shows how the new, in addition to rendering the old obsolete, reaches back and retrieves something from the ancient past, an action that McLuhan mimes having retrieved the epyllion under electric conditions:

We have no more difficulty in understanding the native or non-literate experience, simply because we have recreated it electronically within our own culture. (Yet post-literacy is a quite different mode of interdependence from pre-literacy). (Gutenberg Galaxy 46)

Finally, McLuhan also reveals the ineluctable—the inevitable flip—whereby anything pushed to extreme or excess reverses its characteristics (Understanding Media 30).

3. Beyond

More light can be shed on McLuhan’s procedure via his comments on Gilson in “Catholic Humanism and Modern Letters.” I will quote them at length because it is as though McLuhan is describing his own work:

Gilson does not set out to produce a theory or view that will unify the philosophical disputes of the past. He reconstructs the disputes. He enables us to participate in them as though we were there. We see that they were real. The questions had to be put that way at that time. And being put that way there were no answers, only wrong answers possible. By repeating the process of participation several times we are liberated from both past and present. We don't arrive at a simple unifying concept but are put on the road to achieving a wisdom. And the road to this wisdom is by way of sympathetic reconstruction, involving the abeyance of personal prejudice and preconception. (155)

Gilson has used the method of reconstruction in the history of philosophy as a new creative technique which permits a new kind of communication between the present and the past. The reader of Gilson is typically given not a view or theory of the past but an experience of it. But the past as experience is present. It is available once more as nutriment. Previous theories of the past really amounted to a way of disowning it or of explaining it away. (158)10

In and through his use of the epyllion McLuhan both involves the reader and simultaneously creates detachment—a space-time for the reader that is, in a sense, outside history. To be involved and detached simultaneously is, of course, a paradox. But it is also the crux and precisely what McLuhan is offering in and through these two works. By having the reader involve themselves with media forms and reconstruct the flux of history within themselves, again and again, the reader is “liberated” from history and comes to see the extent to which their own biases are historically conditioned.11

Perhaps, another way of presenting the matter is to say that in Gutenberg Galaxy and Understanding Media McLuhan has tried to win for his readers the kind of victory he apprehended had been won by Joyce:

As [Joyce’s] title indicates, he saw that the wake of human progress can disappear again into the night of sacral or auditory man. The Finn cycle of tribal institutions can return in the electric age, but if again, then let’s make it a wake or awake or both. Joyce could see no advantage in our remaining locked up in each cultural cycle as in a trance or dream. He discovered the means of living simultaneously in all cultural modes while quite conscious. (McLuhan, Fiore & Agel 120).

McLuhan plainly states the significance of Joyce’s victory in “Wyndham Lewis: His Theory of Art and Communication”:

There is no need to re-immerse ourselves again in the destructive element of the Time flux or to return to that “Primitive Past saturated with blood and incest so generally favoured.” We have, as Finnegans Wake also proclaims, the means to awaken permanently from the repetitive nightmare of history. (84)

We can, instead, by choice and by labor, move beyond mere cross-cultural awareness and towards what we might, provisionally, call inter-mythic (or media) stage dialogue, without recourse to the time-tested mode of interface we have traditionally called wars, hot or cold.


1 McLuhan also documents that he perceived that, during writing of The Mechanical Bride, he had been something of an unwitting dupe; complicit, on account of using certain compositional techniques, in sectarian quarrels between “east” and “west.” This matter can, however, only receive mention here. I have treated the matter at some length in The New American Vortex: Explorations of McLuhan.

2 The narrative presented here is one dimensional. It needs to be remembered that McLuhan was, before anything else, a Professor of English literature. His research of the epyllion cannot solely be attributed to his goals for his Media Studies or criticism.

3 McLuhan does not elaborate on how or why this is the case. To develop the matter would require extended engagement with McLuhan’s extensive commentary on quantum physics throughout his oeuvre. While this would be fruitful, and has not yet been undertaken by any critic or commentator on McLuhan’s work, it is well beyond the scope of this essay.

4 The scholar wishing to pursue these observations would do well to start with Majorie Crump before moving through McLuhan’s contributions to Renascence.

5 McLuhan develops these observation in the “hendiadys” section in From Cliché to Archetype (108-110).

6 The theme of media as myths deserves more attention than I have afforded it. For a brief introduction to the theme see McLuhan, “Myth and Mass Media.”

7 As an aside, a more frivolous study of McLuhan’s career would not be out of place in suggesting that McLuhan’s meditations on the dual action of various liquors; to both impose their own assumptions, and simultaneously “anesthetize” its users awareness of those “assumptions” went a long way to informing McLuhan’s own understanding of the effects of media. The same study might also seek to re-examine the copious amounts of Gin (that “Spirit” in a bottle) consumed at the Monday night seminars as pedagogic aid.

8 As McLuhan notes in his introduction to Images from the Film Spiral: “The structural theme of Spiral presents the oscillation of two simultaneously and complementary cones or spirals, constituting the synchronic worlds of birth and death. Spiral is not a diachronic or lineal structure but synchronic and contrapuntal interplay in a resonating structure whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere” (Etrog & McLuhan 125). McLuhan adds: “[Sorel] Etrog comes from a rich audile-tactile background and tradition in iconic art. His imagery is always of stark confrontation and his work is always multi-levelled and multi-sensuous in ways that are not easily described in conventional literary terminology.”

9 This is a complex matter that warrants its own study. Perhaps, easy entry into the matter can be had by comparing McLuhan to Dante Alighieri. Both McLuhan, in Understanding Media, and Dante, in the Divine Comedy, provide portraits of figures hung up in a series of poses and postures. In Understanding Media, McLuhan substitutes periods in media history for the seven deadly sins Dante uses.

10 In the same essay McLuhan adds that: “The role of the Catholic humanist is to cultivate a more than ordinary reverence for the past, for tradition, while exploring every present development for what it reveals about man which the past had not revealed” (158–59). A deeper discussion of McLuhan’s orientation towards history would necessarily involve a discussion of McLuhan’s reading of the work of Eric Voegelin, particularly The New Science in Politics.

11 Admittedly this is a somewhat idealized reading, probably only possible within a decade of the initial publication of these works. Today, the weight of McLuhan’s observations are out of date and this militates against the possibility of reading McLuhan in this way.

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