Marshall McLuhan on Wyndham Lewis (1882 – 1957)

29Mar14

My thanks to Adam Swick on his blog for making this information available. See http://tinyurl.com/opt28x4 .

The November, 1967 issue of artscanada was a special issue on Canadian-born Wyndham Lewis, edited by Sheila Watson, Canadian novelist and University of Alberta English professor, whose doctoral dissertation,Wyndham Lewis and Expressionism was completed in 1965 under Marshall McLuhan’s supervision at the University of Toronto. It included a 7″ Flexidisc with recordings of Lewis reading his poem One-Way Song and McLuhan talking about Lewis.

On Side 1 Sheila Watson introduces McLuhan, who talks about Lewis’s visit with him in St. Louis (in 1944), his very English accent, fondness for opera,  and disappointment at his writings not being taken seriously by high level decision-makers. Adam Swick has provided a transcription of McLuhan’s comments below the audio recording.

Now, here is Marshall McLuhan recalling his experience in recording Lewis reading.

In St. Louis—Lewis came down to visit and to do some paintings. And I managed to persuade him to read something from One-Way Song for our little home recorder. And it was most interesting to observe Lewis upon hearing his own voice. He just simply roared with laughter! In all the years preceding it had never occurred to him that he had essentially an English voice. Anyone who reads Lewis doesn’t tend to get a very strong English effect or English enunciation from his prose. And Lewis himself apparently had nourished the idea that he spoke with a rugged American accent. And so he just went into fits of laughter when he heard this very English voice coming forth. And upon hearing the Harvard recording myself just now I too was surprised at just how English he sounded because after years of talking with Lewis I had forgotten altogether that he had an English voice. He didn’t bear down on his English character at all.

He was very fond of opera. And he would occasionally produce a trill or two in that direction. But I wasn’t—after all I wasn’t in his presence all day and night, as it were. But I can certainly recall his breaking out into song occasionally. But often to illustrate a point. He would use some operatic aria just to “theme in” some discussion.
I think Lewis thought of his work as having immediate relevance to decision-making at the highest levels of human affairs, and naturally felt somewhat frustrated that his kinds of perceptions could not be made available in decision-making at very high levels.

On side 2, more interestingly McLuhan explains Lewis’s considerable influence on him: of the idea that the man-made environment is a programmed teaching machine and of Lewis’s preference for the visual sense over the other senses, going on himself to compare the visual with the other senses.

We asked Marshall McLuhan what influence Wyndham Lewis had on him.
Good Heavens—that’s where I got it! [Laughter] It was Lewis who put me on to all this study of the environment as an educational—as a teaching machine. To use our more recent terminology, Lewis was the person who showed me that the manmade environment was a teaching machine—a programmed teaching machine. Earlier, you see, the Symbolists had discovered that the work of art is a programmed teaching machine. It’s a mechanism for shaping sensibility. Well, Lewis simply extended this private art activity into the corporate activity of the whole society in making environments that basically were artifacts or works of art and that acted as teaching machines upon the whole population.

Why was this book of poems called One-Way Song?
In many of his writings he asserts the primacy of the visual. In his perception and his general feeling of preference of the visual over the other senses his feeling was that the passion for musical form in the later nineteenth century and in his own time betrayed this—betrayed our traditional visual values. Now, the clue then to One-Way Song may be in the fact that the visual sense is the only sense we have that is continuous and connected. All the other senses are discontinuous—whether touch, every moment of which is different form every other moment, or hearing, which is discontinuous—the interval is necessary for the very act of hearing. In sight alone, or in the visual alone, is there [sic?] a continuum—a connected universe that we associate with rationality and detachment. But One-Way Song seems to draw attention to these qualities of rationality and detachment and continuity and connectedness in thought and perception.
Now, back to Wyndham Lewis in 1940.

Finally, here is a YouTube video of Wyndham Lewis, the Canadian-born English painter/writer/polemicist and founder of the Vorticists , appearing in a newsreel clip from 1938, standing outside the Royal Academy after the rejection by the Academy of his portrait of his longtime friend T.S. Eliot. His very English accent is plainly evident.

The artscanada recording of Lewis reading his poem One-Way Song is available on The Enemy Speaks .

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3 Responses to “Marshall McLuhan on Wyndham Lewis (1882 – 1957)”

  1. 1 Michael McLuhan MPA

    Loved this post Alex! THX

  2. 2 Michael McLuhan MPA
  3. Great, Michael. I’ll post it. Thanks.


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