McLuhan, Frye & me: B.W. Powe takes the measure of their genius
By Peter Robb, The Ottawa Citizen
For three decades the University of Toronto was the home of two towering intellects: Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye.
It was, according to B.W. Powe, whose 2014 book Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy (University of Toronto Press) followed their careers, a special time and place in Canadian intellectual life.
The two men, Powe said in an interview in advance of an event sponsored by the Ottawa International Writers Festival on March 8, were the yin and yang of Canadian cultural thought in the latter half of the 20th century. These days, Powe, who was born in Ottawa, teaches in the English Department at York University. He is a poet, novelist, essayist and critic. He is at work founding the McLuhan Initiative for the Study of Literacies at York and is also the university’s director of the creative writing program.
“They were two pivotal geniuses in the Canadian cultural landscape. They were at the same university at the same time through 30 years. Both recognized the other’s genius. Both knew the other one was doing something of landmark importance.”
ADDENDUM: MARCH 6, 2016 – Bruce Powe has requested the following corrections to be made in this essay:-
There are two errors in the Ottawa Citizen piece on my book on Marshall McLuhan and Nothrop Frye and my presentation at Carlton University that very much need addressing:
One: I am not the Creative Writing Program Coordinator at York University. I haven’t been since July 2014. The CW Coordinator is Michael Helm, a well known and much respected novelist. He’s been doing a remarkable job, and deserves the acknowledgment.
Two: I would never have said (and could never have said) Marshall McLuhan didn’t read books. He read voraciously. What I said must have been this, “His preference was for the oral.” I talked about how he listened deeply to the voices in poems. I said that his primary sensory approaches were oral-audile-tactile. And that he encouraged us to listen to the books of the world.
I would never have perpetuated the cliche and misconception that McLuhan somehow didn’t read.
In fact, he was much more of an attentive practical literary critic (following in the I.A. Richards’ line) than was Frye. Frye tended to read poems in terms of how they fit his grand theoretical scheme. McLuhan always looked closely at a poem, instructing us on its tonalities, rhythms, forms and effects.
This is important to convey. I hope these necessary corrections will be printed in the paper.
Thank you, B.W. Powe”
Powe, who was a student of both men, says that McLuhan, who was not given to praising his colleagues, said that Frye was “working on the frontier, that he was a true frontiersman. That was always a high compliment for McLuhan. That meant you were out in the wilderness thinking on your own.”
Frye said McLuhan was the greatest improviser he had ever met and was a genuine prophetic visionary.
Powe, who became very close to McLuhan’s family over the years, went to the memorial service for McLuhan at U of T’s convocation hall and “third row from the front, there was Frye. He was deaf at that point and was leaning toward the podium trying to hear what was being said with a look of extraordinary sorrow on his face because he knew that the only other one on campus that could match him with a similar level of genius was McLuhan.”
McLuhan is, of course, the man whose vision seems to have predicted our current time. The dictionary of popular culture is replete with his aphorisms.
“He did say that newspapers and books and all those phenomena based on the page and privacy and solitude, and communication through the printed word, would disappear. And when he said that in 1959, everyone thought he was some kind of heretical crank. Now, in 2016, to say that is a banality. It’s so obvious.”
McLuhan’s phrase “Breakdown Leads to Breakthrough” seems particularly apt for a time of Uber and Reddit and Airbnb.
“It was one of the eerie things about him. It seemed like he was visiting from the future. Being around him, you had the sense, sometimes, that he was mainlining something that was not immediately apparent to everyone else.”
Frye, on the other hand, was all about the book.
“In that sense, it may seem on the outside that he was a more conventional figure, but in many ways he was not. He had a great prophetic vision, which was that all the works were one book.”
That began with the Bible and extended to the novels of the second half of the 20th century.
“Don’t forget he was a United Church minister,” Powe said. “He said ‘I marry and bury students’ when asked how being a minister fit into his life” as an academic.
For all their disagreements and their extraordinary differences in personality, Frye and McLuhan forged a visionary core for Canada’s intellectual legacy, Powe believes.
“They are so well known everywhere else. I’ve lived in Spain and the priest at my wedding said ‘the global village was there between the two of you.’
“In some ways, they are our most adventurous intellectual writers, there are very few that you can put in the same territory.”
When he began his book on the two men, there was no other book written about them both.
Today McLuhan is accepted in the university world, but Frye is not, perhaps because he was so focused on literature and the primacy of the printed word, Powe said.
“In class, McLuhan seemed like he was translating the future to us instantaneously. He had an incredible ability to produce a headline. It would come out spontaneously and then he’d fall asleep.”
Frye stayed awake. When Powe was attending Frye’s lectures, Frye was riding a wave of intense popularity. His classes were full and they were very respectful discussions about literary works.
Both men had deep spiritual convictions. McLuhan was a devout Catholic convert.
“The global village could be seen as a catholic vision. It has implications of a new kind of communion in which we are sharing information and ideas.”
Powe’s McLuhan-Frye book was one he had thought about for many years. He was also teaching a course at York University on the two men.
The mark these two men made on Powe is still fresh. He remembers both men being very funny in their classes when he attended from 1978 to 1980.
McLuhan, for example, began all his classes with a series of jokes drawn from a file that he kept to hand.
“Looking back on that time, I thought that when I was a student of theirs, this is how it would always be. This utopian space was what university would always be like.”
McLuhan and Frye did butt heads, but in the beginning, Powe said, there was mutual admiration. One of the very first people McLuhan met when he came to U of T in 1946 was Frye at a meet-and-greet party.
Conflict began to arise in 1950s and ’60s when McLuhan became such a comet of success. Frye found McLuhan’s focus on pop culture trivial.
McLuhan saw that the TV screen was going to change consciousness itself.
McLuhan’s great discovery, Powe says, was that if you removed your personal opinions, suspend judgment and try to perceive the moment, you begin to see patterns forming.
Frye saw that at the heart of all literary writing is one great vision built around one seminal question: “Who Am I?” He believed the identity question is the key to understanding all human endeavour. He also believed in the honing of the imagination to learn heightened states of awareness.
He also thought that the Bible needed to be seen as a metaphor.
Powe believes Frye “wanted to revive comprehension of the Bible beyond literalism. He thought it was dangerous to see the Bible as history.”
Today that idea would be almost revolutionary in some political circles, particularly south of the border.
Both men could have taught somewhere else, but they chose to stay in the same English department for more than 30 years.
Neither man ever had a driver’s license. Their wives did the driving.
McLuhan didn’t like watching television or reading books. His primary medium was the radio, Powe said.
“He preferred to listen. He was grudging viewer of cinema.”
Frye prized his solitude and his library. “Even when he lectured, you got the sense he was talking to himself. McLuhan wanted us to go out into the streets and listen. To understand what the new is”.
“McLuhan would never remember your name, but he knew the face. I don’t think he never knew my first name. He just called me Mr. Powe.”
Writing the book was a bit of an exorcism and a measuring stick for Powe.
“It took me this long to feel that I could measure myself with them. Now I think I have taken them on board and will move onto new work.”
Powe’s latest book is poetry and is called Decoding Dust. It doesn’t mention either man at all.
McLuhan and Frye: A Reading by B.W. Powe
When: Tuesday, March 8, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Main Floor Reading Room, MacOdrum Library, 1125 Colonel By Dr., Carleton University
Free – Information: writersfestival.org
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