Five Sovereign Fingers Taxed the Breath (1955) by Marshall McLuhan, Echoing Dylan Thomas


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An Analysis of Marshall McLuhan’s “Five Sovereign Fingers Taxed the Breath” (1955)

By Donald F. Theall

From Prelude to The Virtual Marshall McLuhan by Donald F. Theall, Montreal & Kingston, ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press (2001), 10-11.

 An early example of how McLuhan actually developed his probes poetically is exemplified in a short essay first published in Explorations 4 (1955) in which he explores a large number of the probes listed above. The essay is entitled “Five Sovereign Fingers taxed the Breath,” a title taken from a then well-known poem by Dylan Thomas, “The Hand That Signed the Paper,” the first quatrain of which is:

The hand that signed the paper felled a city;
Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath,
Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country;
These five kings did a king to death.

Using the second and fourth lines of this quatrain and the concluding line, McLuhan alludes to the entire poem, which refers not only to the power of the written word but to the dominion it comes to have over people both physically and socially, for:

The mighty hand leads to a sloping shoulder,
The finger joints are cramped with chalk;
A goose’s quill has put an end to murder
That put an end to talk.

Yet it also is:

The hand that signed the treaty bred a fever,
And famine grew, and locusts came;
Great is the hand that holds dominion over
Man by a scribbled name.

Thomas’s recognition of the historical “effects” of writing as a medium dramatized a central aspect of McLuhan’s perception of writing as a medium. But his use of Thomas’s poem in this brief key essay has another aspect, for the essay itself is a prose poem playing poetically with Thomas’s poem. In a first anticipation of the “global village,” McLuhan begins by declaring “The CITY no longer exists, except as a cultural ghost,” for it is, as Thomas’s poem dramatizes, writing that established civil society, so now McLuhan can say “The INSTANTANEOUS global coverage of radio-tv makes the city form meaningless, functionless.” His prose poem circumscribes Thomas’s stanzas on the power of the written word both referring back to the pre-written era when McLuhan declares that:

SPEECH structures the abyss of mental and acoustic space, shrouding the race; it is a cosmic, invisible architecture of the human dark. Speak that I may see you. WRITING turned a spotlight on the high, dim Sierras of speech; writing was the visualization of acoustic space. It lit up the dark. These five kings did a king to death.

And McLuhan then also juxtaposes to the pre-written, the later move that would lead beyond writing for:

A goose’s quill an end to talk, abolished mystery, gave architecture and towns, brought roads and armies, bureaucracies. It was the basic metaphor with which the cycle of CIVILIZATION began, the step from the dark into the light of the mind. The hand that filled a paper built a city.

Then playing on Thomas’s opening line “The hand that signed the paper felled the city,” but in the spirit of the ambivalence of Thomas’s poem, he underlines aphoristically that through writing the hand could both effect destruction and creation.

But now “The handwriting is on the celluloid walls of Hollywood; the Age of Writing has passed.” Playing on his probe of old media becoming the content of new media, his text has surrounded Thomas’s text with the perception that we have now succeeded in “surpassing writing.” He builds on this by inventing “a NEW METAPHOR [to] restructure our thoughts and feelings.” This metaphor is outlined through an epigrammatic history of mechanization taking command that moves from “The MECHANIZATION of writing [that] mechanized the visual-acoustic metaphor on which all civilization rests; [and] created the classroom and mass education, the modern press and telegraph. It was the original assembly line” through the emergence of photography, telephone, and radio to culminate with how “movies and TV complete the cycle of mechanization of the human sensorium. With the omnipresent ear and moving eye, we have abolished writing.” By so doing “we have regained our WHOLENESS… on… a cosmic plane.” Being back in acoustic space (but on a new level) we must seek a new language for this technological culture and our new tribalized world of primitive feelings, so that McLuhan’s concluding line of Thomas’s poem: “Hands have no tears to flow.” (pp. 10 – 12)

The hand that signed the paper felled a city; Five sovereign fingers taxed the breath, Doubled the globe of dead and halved a country; These five kings did a king to death. - Dylan Thomas

Read Dylan Thomas’s complete poem here:

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