An Unpublished Letter From Marshall McLuhan to Father Walter Ong, SJ: The Bicameral Mind


Father Walter J. Ong (1912 – 2003)

Professor Thomas Farrell posted the following unpublished letter from Marshall McLuhan to his former student Walter Ong, dated Sept. 3, 1976, to the listserv of the Media Ecology Association on Feb. 11, 2015. The original letter  is in the Walter J. Ong Archive at Saint Louis University. The letter is republished here by permission of Dr. Farrell and the Walter J. Ong Archive at SLU:

As some of you may know, fifteen letters that Marshall McLuhan (1911-1980) sent his former graduate student and friend Walter Ong, S.J. (1912-2003), between 1944 and 1962, have been published in *Letters of Marshall McLuhan* (1987: 162, 185-87, 188-89, 190-91, 215-16, 234, 236-38, 243-44, 251, 280-81, 282, 283, 284, 285, and 285-86). Young McLuhan taught English at Saint Louis University from 1937 to 1944, with a leave of absence one year during which he returned to Cambridge University to work further on his 1943 doctoral dissertation. As part of Ong’s Jesuit training, he did graduate studies in philosophy and English at Saint Louis University from 1938 to 1941. I have 0btained from the Ong Archives at Saint Louis University a copy of McLuhan’s unpublished letter to Ong dated September 3, 1976, that is worth quoting here in its entirety:

“The enclosures [a copy of which I do not have] may help you to follow my
work more easily. For thirty years at least [in 1944, McLuhan left Saint
Louis University, where Ong had known him from 1939 to 1941], I have [in
effect] been using the two hemispheres approach under the names of the
*written* and the *oral*, the *visual* and the *acoustic*, the *hot* and
the *cool*, the *medium* and the *message*, *figure* and *ground*, and so
on [but he does not refer specifically to any of his publications in the
1940s in which he explicitly uses any of these binary terms]. Now it turns
out that medicine has been building a great beach-head for this approach
with its new understanding of the two hemispheres of the [human] brain. If
you look at the traits of the left hemisphere, you will discover the
lineaments of the First world – the literate and industrial world – and, on
the other hand, in the right hemisphere you will perceive the
characteristics of the Third world – the world without the phonetic

“During the past century, while the knowledge of the two hemispheres has
been growing, there has also been a new electronic milieu or environment
which automatically pushes the right hemisphere into a more dominant
position than it has held in the Western world since the invention of the
phonetic alphabet. The two hemispheres naturally respond to the milieu or
total surround in which people live and work. *My work has been a dialogue
between the two hemispheres in which the characteristics of the right
hemisphere are given so much recognition that I have been unintelligible to
the left hemisphere people. It happens that the left hemisphere people are
completely out of touch with the results and the formal characteristics of
their own new electric technologies*” (emphasis added).

I have no idea if there are any other unpublished letters from McLuhan to Ong, or if there are any letters from Ong to McLuhan in the Ong archives at Saint Louis University. If Ong sent McLuhan a reply letter, it is not in the Ong archives at Saint Louis University. However, in his 1982 book *Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word* (29-30), Ong briefly discusses the two hemispheres of the human brain in connection with Julian Jaynes’ 1976 book *The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind*.

In *McLuhan Misunderstood: Setting the Record Straight* (2013: 95), Bob Logan reports that McLuhan also wrote letters dated September 14, 1976 (to Jim Striegel), and November 10, 1976 (to Edwin C. Garvey), in which he also discusses the two hemispheres of the human brain in connection with his own work. Those two letters may be available from the McLuhan archives at the National Archives of Canada.

In the latter part of his massively researched 2009 book about the two hemispheres of the human brain, *The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World*, Iain McGilchrist constructs a sweeping account of the ascendancy of the left hemisphere in the prestige culture of our Western cultural history. His account of the left hemisphere’s dominance in our Western cultural history supports McLuhan’s claim about the dominance of the left hemisphere in our Western cultural history.


Thomas J. Farrell
Professor Emeritus
Department of Writing Studies
University of Minnesota Duluth

McLuhan & Ong

Marshall McLuhan (centre) & Walter Ong (to his right, seated) at SLU

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