The Eccentric as a Cultural Hero: An Essay & Reminiscence of Marshall McLuhan

19Feb12

Brennan Hall, St Michael's College, University of Toronto

St. Mike’s, University of Toronto

The Eccentric as a Cultural Hero

James Paupst MD, Senior Fellow, Massey College

It’s easy to describe a phenomenon, but difficult to explain it.

Eccentricity, with its antipodal intuitions and arcane connections, is phenomenal; for this reason I decided to become an auto-eccentric.

I did, but it took and became my métier.

I was beguiled by those who displayed the eccentricity of genius: Marshall McLuhan, Edward de Bono, Haruki Murakami , Brian Stock and Stanley Holmes.

Genius is immediate, talent takes time.

Without genius I could only aspire to talent: In 1977 I sold my XJ 12 Jaguar bought a two door 1977 Chev Caprice Classic, $6800 brand-new which I continue to drive.

My earlier electronic address was recluseathome@aol.com.

My collection of Harry Rosen suits: Polish blue, French blue, grey and houndstooth were of the early 1980s

A friend of mine characterized my participation in social events as Alfred Hitchcock appearances.

In the cloak of eccentricity, I was able to evade social occasions so that I could spend more time reading, my only unpunishable vice.

In July 2011 I was invited to a garden party for investment banker DK Johnson, to celebrate his 75th birthday with the Canadian tenors in the background; my written response was that I would be unable to attend because I was dining alone on July 18.

The act of thinking for me has always been conceptual, rather than visual; out of this I developed a unique system of selecting triactor winners: In a field of 12 horses I would create a narrative using the horses names and soon discovered that this was so successful that I opened an RBC account dedicated to wagering.

My intuition has always been strong, a Celtic ancestral gift: Intuition is knowing, without knowing why, a sacred act while the rational mind is the servant.

I read English at St. Michael’s College and later drew upon this training in the 70s to write a book entitled The Pill, published by Clarke Irwin.

As a physician I was bombarded by questions from young women who had begun taking oral contraceptives; they wanted to know how the pill would affect their mood, their future fertility, their weight and libido.

No reference book existed: I wrote the first book on the subject.

For this same reason, later in the 70s, I wrote the first book on the phenomenon of sleep, entitled The Sleep Book, published by Macmillan in Canada, and later released in German, Spanish and French.

No work existed, in a single book, on sleep deprivation, difficulty falling asleep, snoring and sleep apnea, sleeping medication, chronic insomnia, bedwetting, night terrors, narcolepsy, sleep walking, rapid eye movement sleep and what sleep really is: The Sleep Book provided many of the answers.

In the 80s executive stress became a dominant cultural theme; this led me to write Breakthrough or Breakdown. I was a village doctor, however the village just happened to be Bay Street, the country’s financial centre: In my medical practice I was dealing with the executive class.

In 1957 I was in residence at St. Michael’s [College] in a house that we called 2/96, a house with two entrances: 2 Elmsley Place or 96 St. Joseph Street.

McLuhan’s office faced St. Joseph’s Street, right around the corner from my room, and I couldn’t resist visiting him; we considered him to be our de facto housemaster.

I was in his second year English class, the Joycean lectures; his office door was often open and there he sat, angular, beneath his totemic Cambridge oar, a trophy from the Cambridge triumph over Oxford: McLuhan was a member of the victorious racing shell.

In one of my visits I asked the question about Joyce’s declamation:

“Ineluctable modality of all things visible is my visionary aim.” Why ineluctable?

His response: “You may find the answer in Finnegan’s Wake.”

At this time he was introducing his theory of communication to the university community; he would often meet with anthropologist Edmund Carpenter who collaborated with him on the Exploration series; sometimes they met at the King Cole room, the KCR, in the Park Plaza Hotel, a favourite watering hole for professors and students.

On one Friday afternoon, McLuhan and Carpenter were sitting at a table studying Finnegan’s Wake when a professor tottered over to their table, read a couple of paragraphs and blurted out:

“God, I must be drunk; I really have to go home.”

In 1958 I was accepted as a student by the faculty of medicine at the University of Toronto; I went in to tell Dr. McLuhan my news and he kindly offered to later collaborate with me on a medical topic.

I didn’t learn until Philip Marchand’s McLuhan biography was published that McLuhan would often use this offer of collaboration to dispatch students: We couldn’t wait to rush out and tell our classmates about this proposal.

An intoxicating irony arose in 1961 when McLuhan contributed an article, Stress, Media and Medicine to the Adversary.

There was no journal of arts and letters with an editorial content that targeted the faculty of medicine; in 1960 I decided to publish the journal, Adversary, as a way of contributing to my tuition and to my classmates’ literacy.

In the first issue I had contracted with Brian Stock, a premedical student, to contribute an essay on Hippocrates; he was to be paid $25, but after paying for the printer and the subscriber mailing, I was left with no money.

Later that year he won a Harvard scholarship in literature and went on to doctoral studies at Cambridge.

His essay was coruscating in its brilliance: he presented Hippocrates as a humanist.

This was a portent of what was to come (I wish that I could have claimed prescience): Professor Stock in his writing displayed a prodigious intellect; he has been able to cross several disciplines leading him to pose the essential question: “Why do we read?”

His seminal works include The Implications of Literacy, Augustine the Reader, and After Augustine.

Fifty years later, in 2010, I delivered a cheque to him for $25; this has been framed (with not quite the exultation that he experienced after receiving the 2009 Feltrinelli Prize and the $350,000 US that accompanied it).

Not only did Dr. McLuhan contribute an essay, on my behalf he wrote to Wyndham Lewis’s wife requesting permission for his short story, The Rebellious Patient, to be published in the 1961 issue.

McLuhan had befriended Lewis and arranged for him to have a university teaching position, in Canada, during World War II.

He requested that I send her a money order for 15 (use the sign for L British currency).

Of Wyndham Lewis, T.S. Eliot wrote:

“The fact that Mr. Wyndham Lewis is known as a draughtsman and a painter is not the least consequence to his standing as a prose writer. To treat his writing as an outlet for his super abundant vitality, or a means on his part of satisfying intellectual passions and keeping his art healthy, cannot lead to accurate criticism… he must be allowed the hypothesis of a dual personality.”

The McLuhan essay and the Lewis short story imparted cachet to the second issue.

Edward de Bono, physician and psychologist, who went on to develop a wide range of thinking methods emphasizing thinking as a deliberate act rather than a reactive one, derived part of his genius by an eccentric act.

When he was an undergraduate and Rhodes scholar at Oxford, he missed curfew and was forced to enter his college surreptitiously. An old hand at this told him that the problem was surmountable. He first had to climb a set of railings, then a wall, make a short sprint, and climb a second wall.

De Bono, fully carbonated after a party in London, easily ascended the first wall, paused and then dropped to the ground. He did the mandarin shuffle (Oxonians don’t stagger), looped around and confronted what he thought was the second wall. He scaled it, slid to the ground and found himself once again outside his college.

After invoking the deity, he set forth purposefully and deliberately. He made it to the top of the second wall, and found that he was sitting astride the gate, which would give him final access to the college’s rooms.

Sitting there, mulling over his experience, he remembered never seeing anyone lock the gate. The reward for his intact memory appeared in an instant: The gate, buffeted by the wind, swung open.

Perhaps it was this trace memory that broke his subservience-others had told him that the gate was always locked-to vertical thought, and projected him into his research and writing on the use of lateral thinking and the mechanisms of the mind.

In an earlier paper on the phenomenon of memory, the only cognitive function that works backwards, I wrote about Stanley Holmes but did not expand on the eccentricity of his genius.

This led to significant mining discoveries in Spain and Italy. He told me this story: “After taking my doctorate in economic geology at Cornell, I worked for several years in Death Valley, California, then in Blind River and the Elliot Lake District in Ontario. It was at this time I came to know Steven Roman. He was the entrepreneurial genius behind Denison Mines. He became my friend, my protegé and my boss. He sent me to explore the countries around the Mediterranean basin as a prospector for uranium-bearing ore.”

Holmes’s exploration carried him across the lands that had once made up the Roman Empire: “I was constantly being told by my hosts, when we came upon old mining properties, that these were the ancient mines of the Romans and would have no interest for me.”

He began to dream of Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Etruscans. However during wakefulness, his dreams and the memory trace that they symbolized continued to elude him. The memory remained in the periphery of his consciousness.

It finally burst through: “When I was a student at McGill University, one of the books that struck me most was Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It taught me that the infrastructure of the Roman Empire was based on their ability to use metal. The ancient Romans used the same mining techniques that we use today, except that because of mechanization, we can go deeper.

“It stood to reason that wherever the Romans staged their military campaigns, and established colonies, there might be major mineral belts and worthwhile metal deposits.”

He then began to “prospect” the libraries of the universities of London, Madrid, Lisbon, Paris and Rome. He plotted the sites of long forgotten mines and organized all the information he collected.

Holmes believed that his memory of Gibbon was unlocked somewhere within the interstices of his memory dream. And it was this wisp of memory, this arcane connection, that ultimately was pounded into layers of gold, tin, copper and silver-effectively rejuvenating mining for metal in Europe with the discovery of the Rubiales mine. This property was an ancient Roman mine, in the north of Spain, in the province of Galacia.

Holmes went on to say: “In all of life the odds are 6 to 5 against, but not in this case.”

Now for the audible click: The eccentric has been identified often as idiosyncratic, a misfit, someone who deviates from what society deems to be the centre.

The true eccentric is a cultural hero because he or she, by intellect and primal curiosity, has established a different centre.

 St. Basil’s Church

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2 Responses to “The Eccentric as a Cultural Hero: An Essay & Reminiscence of Marshall McLuhan”

  1. Although this is spam, I’ll approve it, as I’m a graduate of U of T, Western and worked for half a year at U of Guelph. My favourite spots at U of T are Hart House Theatre, where I worked on theatrical productions and the Chapel at Massey College where I had my Wedding 2.0. My favourite places at UWO? Talbot Theatre in Talbot College, where I worked on theatre productions and Somerville House Cafeteria…….AlexK


  1. 1 My Favourite Hangout Spot on Campus! ‹ ‹ The Notesolution BlogThe Notesolution Blog

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