McLuhan: unknown but famous
Marshall McLuhan is back in the spotlight in a worldwide celebration of 100 years of McLuhan. He wasn’t really gone. What McLuhan – as a cult figure – predicted years ago of an emerging global village, a sort of a Promised Land would arrive. McLuhan, who didn’t think it would necessarily be agreeable or tolerable, was uncannily correct with the ruthless phone-hacking culture that the British tabloid News of the World engaged in that caused media mogul Rupert Murdoch to close it down in July 2011.
What separates McLuhan from a host of other opinionated philosophers and junk-theorists was a strong belief in the existence of God. It’s summed up on his tombstone – which is a modest flat copper plate in a quiet part of Holy Cross Cemetery in Thornhill, Ont. – often almost covered by weeds and grass. But it did not obscure his big lettering: “The truth shall make you free.”
If McLuhan’s grave was in any other part of the world there would be tour buses driving up daily to visit the burial site of this worldwide famous icon and seer.
His funeral Mass, which I attended on a cold winter day in January 1981, at Holy Rosary Church in Toronto, which acknowledged his Scottish heritage, had one bagpiper pipe his body into the church and out afterwards before a good sized crowd of worshippers.
What shaped Marshall McLuhan’s deep and original thinking and philosophy was his Catholic faith and that is not generally known to the public. McLuhan’s daily life lacked the grist for scandal sheets and media speculation. However McLuhan knew very well how important it was to get his “message” out to the public – often a hostile or indifferent public. In his late ‘60s, he suffered a stroke causing considerable brain damage. Although still alert, he was unable to speak and he knew he was never going to regain his speech.
Thousands of words written by and about Marshall McLuhan, starting with his Understanding Media, translated into 20 languages, brought him to prominence. The first McLuhan festival in San Francisco, which he attended himself, celebrated the yuppie culture which promoted “God is dead” thinking. It adopted McLuhan into their counterculture and made him a guru but failed to realize that he was a deeply devout, practising traditional Roman Catholic who was openly pro-life. McLuhan was aware of the pitfalls of estranging himself from the media, but never fudged on those issues.
One of the biggest aids to McLuhan’s career as a writer was his late wife, Corinne, an American from Fort Worth, Texas. They had six children and McLuhan had to take on frequent speaking engagements to support his growing family.
The only time I had the opportunity to speak to McLuhan was when I phoned him for Holy Rosary Church in Toronto about making a Jesuit weekend retreat at Manresa, in Pickering, and mentioned the date. As I recall it, McLuhan was very polite and listened carefully but said he was busy at that time and he couldn’t make it. When I told Father Fleming, S.J., the retreat master, that I had called McLuhan about a retreat, he laughed and said: “Francis, don’t bother Marshall about a retreat – he doesn’t want to make a retreat – he wants to give one.”
McLuhan was born in Edmonton on July 21, 19ll. He obtained his BA and Masters in English from the University of Manitoba in 1932-34 and then his Ph.D. at Cambridge in in 1942. He received honourary degrees from nine other Canadian universities. He taught at several universities in England, the U.S. and Canada before settling at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto in 1946.
While highly intelligent he was rarely patronizing or arrogant. B.W. Powe, a long time associate said that McLuhan was generous, witty, engaging and always began his classes with a joke. Phil Marchand, a McLuhan biographer, said that his associates speculated about his intellectual connection to the Virgin Mary, with one saying, “He had a direct connection with the Blessed Virgin Mary. He alluded to it very briefly once, almost fearfully, in a please-don’t-laugh-at-me tone. He didn’t say, ‘I knew because the Blessed Virgin Mary told me,’ but was clear from what he said that one of reasons he was sure about certain things was that the Virgin had certified his understanding of them. “I have a feeling we have a saint in the wings.”