Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Marshall McLuhan Writes to Eric Voegelin, 1953

Dear Voegelin, your letter was most gratifying. Over and over again I have written to persons who seem to be in good faith in adopting an attitude of objective analysis towards the sectarian activities of the cults in art and literature. Not once before your letter have I ever received a reply that displayed a frank or dispassionate mind.

Very few people, I gather, are innocent of any hook-up with these cults and secret societies. They explain that nobody can get anywhere unless he is initiated. And this is strictly true.

I wish that 15 years ago I had known that it was impossible to get a hearing for one's ideas unless one was an initiate. Such being the state of Catholic culture on this continent, it has never occurred to me to seek a hearing among my fellow Catholics except in the class room. But in the past year or so I have changed my ideas on this matter. However, there is no hurry. And I don't suggest that had I known sooner that I would have become initiated.

It was only last summer, while doing some work on S.T. Coleridge that I discovered the complete rapport between the arts and the secret societies. I was flabbergasted. Coleridge has directed me to Porphyry, apropos of The Ancient Mariner. At the same time T.S. Eliot's essay on Byron had hinted at a hook-up between Byron's The Giaour and Coleridge. Those two bits of evidence served to ignite a great quantity of material which had lain about in my mind for 20 years. There were no more secrets. All was plain as day.

The entire technique of the "secret" societies is to conduct their controversies as if the terms of reference were historical. Historical scholarship and criticism (in the arts) is as much their field of present battle as the news, poem, play, novel, painting or musical composition.

I hardly know where to begin to suggest to you now the arts are involved in the theology of modern paganism. They are split East and West in a technical sense, of course. The West is Platonic-Eleusinian. Pound's entire prose work is an attack on Eleusinian mystery. Dante's Inferno XIV presents Eleusinian cult as "Enemies of God, Nature and art" under figure of The Old Man of Crete. Eleusinian cults permit Sodomy and usury and regard the arts not as a means of knowledge or vision but of strengthening the will. Matthew Arnold is ultimate version of this position in the arts. West is non-cognitive in art theory. But it claims to be rationalistic as opposed to irrational, emotional, primitivism of Romantic, Eastern art form. Everything represented by Romantic-gnostic use of emotions as "stained glass windows of the soul" -- i.e. single poem as single emotion, single emotion as means of connatural union with specific aspect of the Real. West prefers exoteric art form. Art is for common people. A form of deceit like the system of future rewards and punishment taught as basis of society in ancient world.

(You might very well find useful matter in Bishop William Warburton's Divine Legation of Moses. This 18th century work was a full-dress attack on the revived pagan cults of that period, and Warburton is mainly concerned with the Lesser and Greater Mysteries as the ground-plan of the subsequent Doctrine of the Double Truth. He has much incidental light to shed on the relation of Mysteries and the Arts.)

Eastern art (not in geographical sense merely) is relatively esoteric, cryptic, discontinuous. It sees not catharsis (see Matthew Arnold's preface to Poems 1853 and G.R. Levy's Gate of Horn section on catharsis in Aristotle) but illumination. Gnosis. The mind is to be flooded with a particular quality in experience (see Eliot's essay on Hamlet). Johnson The Alien Vision of Victorian Poetry (1951 or 50) gives a good account of the reason-emotion dichotomies in Victorian poetry.

But both East and West regard the arts as the highest level of practical religious experience. Art is the sole means of grace in our fallen state (see pp. 440 ff. of Warburton vol I ed. 1846) e.g. Ovid's Metamorphoses and Milton's Paradise Lost are popular histories of Manichean providence. Existence as fallen state can only be retraced to our previous paradisal condition by means of Ariadne Thread of art experience. The fanatic cult of art, East and West, is religious in inspiration and significance.

(Cassirer's Essay on Man distinguishes these East-West matters in terms of "epic" and "dramatic" modes of experience and art. Drama is discontinuous, dynamic. Epic is narrative and discontinuous [sic?]. Little epic of Alexandria represented direct presentation of East rituals. Same as Wasteland.)

Wilhelm Meister is a ritual presentation under guise of educational novel. As such it has had 100s of imitations. See Howe -- W. Meister and His English Kinsmen.

W.B. Yeats says only art form possible for a Catholic since the Renaissance is satire. See Donne's 1st and 2nd Anniversaries as satires of solar cycle. Year daimon etc. See Alexander Pope's Dunciad as direct use of Masonic ritual as satire of the cults. And P.W. Lewis The Apes of God as satire of the cults in modern Bloomsbury. Entire esthetic of symbolists and of Joyce, Eliot, Pound is "East", Theosophical. Jane Harrison's Thomis excellent on daimon culture. But such books I had always read as merely archaeological accounts. Now I know that these matters are accepted as living Theological truths. Modern anthropology is a battle ground of the cults. In psychology Freud is West. Jung is East. In USA Republican theory and jargon is West. Democratic jargon is East. Pardon my haste and starkness of characterization. I'm really very tentative in my mind about these things though I sound dogmatic. In poetry I really know the ground in detail. But a person feels like an awful sucker to have spent 20 years of study on an art which turns out to be somebody else's ritual. To have studied it as an art is to have been taken in by the vulgar or exoteric facade.

For the gnostic there are no autonomies in art, life, politics or anything else. A Christian cultivates these things as particular disciplines having a limited importance. There are it seems, no such limits in the gnostic world. Everything is everything else.

When I said I wish I had penetrated these matters 15 or 25 years ago I meant that there are strategies which need to be adopted in these affairs. And I'm floundering at present.

A recent book on Melville's Quarrel With God by Thompson reveals the ritual diabolism followed quite mechanically in Melville's novels. Yes, it is the banal mechanism of the cult rituals which stares at one from literature and the arts. As for example in last section of the Waste Land compare with the rite of exorcism as managed in crystallomancy according to E.M. Butler's Ritual Magic (Cambridge Univ. Press 1949 p 245).

I would say apropos of Bergson's Deux Sources that (a) it is largely popularized stuff compared with the same doctrines in Rimbaud, Mallarme or Valery. Bergson looks amateurish in their company or that of Joyce. Eliot's prose repeats most of him. But, most of his ideas belong in an esthetic context from which he has not too skillfully extracted them.

Edward Sapir and Benajamin Lee Whorf are the most significant exponents of gnostic linguistic theory in modern anthropology. They have some remarkable insights.

Need I say that a great deal that is involved in gnostic speculation appears to me as quite valid? That it should flourish side by side with diabolism, the secret sectarian organization of intellectual life, and the falsification of the entire linguistic currency -- that is the deplorable thing.

Secrecy and power seem to be intertwined. Also the very conditions of gnosis postulate secrecy, an Elite, and a vulgar who are to be swamped with lies. That the cynical contempt for the bulk of mankind should co-exist and even be expressed by fanatical assertions of universal benevolence, does not appear to them as disturbing. Thompson on Melville is best on this point.

Most sincerely yours,
Marshall McLuhan
81 St Mary St
Toronto 5

1 comment:

  1. Compelling, I would love to hear him expound on this further in a lecture.