:: Article

Between Parentheses

By Ryan Ruby.

On Wednesday, December 4, 1935, beneath an article about the removal of a controversial monument from the front lawn of the county courthouse, the twenty-first page of the Los Angeles Times carried an item about the death of an assistant professor, thirty-two years of age [sic], a graduate of the Universities of California and Paris, then employed in the Classics Department at Harvard, in a hotel suite overlooking downtown’s MacArthur Park, where he and his wife, Marian (née Tanhauser), were staying during a visit to her gravely ill mother, whose estate they were putting in order. The tragic climax to their cross-country trip from Cambridge occurred when the revolver he had been keeping in his suitcase accidentally discharged, mortally wounding him, an occurrence so improbable from a forensic ballistics point of view that a reader could be forgiven for suspecting that this PISTOL MISHAP, as the headline put it, was merely the Times style guide’s official euphemism for suicide, not that the paper was in any way squeamish about reporting on the same page the gruesome details of the death of Mrs. Bessie Tribbet, of 3530 Chadwick Avenue, who went into the bathroom, grabbed a pistol and shot herself in the head, all because her mind was inflamed by drink and her husband declined to allow her to take their car out for a drive, nor that anything in the known details of the dead man’s personal and professional life warranted coming to this conclusion either.

Besides his wife and his mother-in-law, he was survived, the obituarist tells us, by a daughter, also Marian, and a son, Adam, who would go on, the obituarist was not in a position to mention, to be the editor of his father’s unpublished work and a celebrated classicist in his own right, until a June day thirty-five years later, when the motorcycle carrying him and his wife, Anne, crashed in Colmar, France, suggesting that there was a curse on the House of Parry just as implacable as the one on the House of Atreus. Otherwise, the assistant professor was survived by what has become known as the “oral-formulaic hypothesis,” his answer to the Homeric Question, the problem to which he had devoted the better part of his short career, the equivalent in classics to Fermat’s Last Theorem in mathematics, a problem that had preoccupied such minds as Cicero, Josephus, Rousseau, Vico, Byron, Goethe, and Schliemann, among others, and which asks, quite simply: Who was Homer? A historical personage or a fictional creation? A single poet or the collective creation of the Genius of Hellas?

Since Friedrich August Wolf’s Prolegomena ad Homerum, published in 1795, it had been generally accepted that Homer, if he existed, had not been, as nearly everyone since Herodotus had believed, a writer at all, having operated in a time between the loss of Linear B after the collapse of Knossos, Mycenae, and Pylos in the late 12th century B.C. and the introduction of the alphabet to Greece from Phoenicia four centuries later, but was instead an illiterate and probably itinerant bard, a Singer of Tales, to quote the title of the book by the assistant professor’s assistant, Albert B. Lord, about their work together, which would go a long way to explain, according to the assistant professor’s doctoral thesis, an essai sur un problème de style Homérique, the poet’s use of epithets like the one about the rosy-fingered dawn and the one about the wine-dark sea, and by extension, the formulaic scenes and images of counsel and battle and supplicating by grasping the knees, not to mention the use of the heroic hexameter itself. If the poet was a singer rather than a writer, and if he was composing, not in the quiet context of his study, but in the real-time context of a musical performance, whether before the king at a stately palace or before a crowd of drunks at a lowly tavern, he would need precisely these building blocks, or, better still, this needle and this thread, passed down over centuries and remembered only as the lyrics of songs can be remembered (without writing, what other art of memory could there have been?) to stich together his story.

Next to the obituary, the Times ran his academic photograph, in which he bears a strong resemblance, to put it anachronistically, to the RAF officer played by Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, but if they had had the photo taken of him earlier that year, wearing native Bosniak costume, in which he bears a strong, and entirely intentional, resemblance to T.E. Lawrence, the assistant professor’s personal hero, the newspaper, with its love of sensationalism, surely would have printed it instead. In these two photographs, we have two images of two kinds of classicists, the old and the new, the philologist, locked away in the university library with his texts, and the anthropologist, who goes out into the field, hoping to find there some living remnant of the time before the texts, some small group of people still in touch with an unbroken ancient tradition, in order to get some insight into the way the texts studied by the philologist were ultimately produced. To prove an argument about epithets: that is why he brought Marian, Marian, Adam, and Albert, along with a recording device built specially for him by the Sound Specialties Company of Waterbury, Connecticut, hundreds of twelve-inch aluminum disks, the battery of his 1934 Ford V8, and perhaps a pistol, to a stone house in Dubrovnik, in what was then Yugoslavia, where he had yet to learn the local language and dialects, where the milk had to be boiled before it could be drunk, where bandits roamed the hinterlands, and where, in the coffeehouses of villages like Bijelo Polje on the border of Montenegro and Serbia, were men like Avdo Mededovic, an illiterate farmer in his mid-sixties, who had never heard of Homer perhaps, but could play a rich drone on the single horse-hair string of his bell-bottomed gusle, and could, over the course of a few days and many cups of dark Turkish coffee and a little prompting, sing a tale some thirteen thousand lines long, of all the adventures leading to the wedding of a young hero named Smailagic Meho.

To prove an argument about epithets. And so it might have remained, a local, disciplinary affair, a explosion to be sure, but a controlled one, limited for that matter to one of the narrower halls of the academy, had it not been for the day in 1960, that someone, perhaps Harry Levin, then employed at the Department of English Literature at Harvard, put a galley of The Singer of Tales by Albert B. Lord into a manila envelope and mailed it to the address of the office of the person whose essay on myth and mass media had recently appeared alongside his own contribution to the aptly-titled journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences:

Marshall McLuhan
Sullivan House
96 St. Joseph Street
Toronto, ON M5S 2C4

* * *


As was his custom, McLuhan opened The Singer of Tales to its sixty-ninth page. Although half of what was printed there was in a language, Serbo-Croatian, that he could not understand, he evidently liked what he saw, because he flipped immediately to the Author’s Forward and continued on to the Preface by Professor Levin, whose monograph on Joyce, which contained a fruitful observation about the influence of film on the Irishman’s retelling of the Odyssey and the influence of radio on his retelling of La Scienza Nuova, stood on his shelf, heavily annotated. When he was done, he tucked Professor Lord’s book with purposeful satisfaction under the short sleeve of the Hawaiian shirt he wore in the warmer months and walked the dozen or so paces from the front door of his red-brick Victorian office, with its flamboyant turret and the sunburst pattern emanating from the gabled dormer, down the block that is now named after him, to the entrance of neighboring Carr Hall, an austere modernist fortress with an octagonal steeple, where the library collection of St. Michael’s College, University of Toronto, was temporarily being housed.

Spread out on the mahogany tables of the reading room on the ground floor that McLuhan had commandeered while the students were away during the summer holidays in order to sprint to the finish of the book whose theme he had announced in a July 16, 1952 letter to his pen pal at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Criminally Insane as the End of the Gutenberg Era, were hundreds of index cards, containing long quotations from nearly as many authors, representing some two decades’ worth of deliberate and accidental research into the impact of alphabetic and print technology on the bodies and bodies politic of the persons and societies that used them.

He lit a cigar. Through the open window of the reading room the faint notes of a trumpet arrived on the breeze; someone was listening to the second track of Birth of the Cool. On an empty index card he copied out a long passage from Professor Levin’s preface and on another he copied out a short passage from the book that followed it. The cards would get shuffled and reshuffled many times that summer, as McLuhan searched for an order to the story they would be used to tell, but by the time his secretary sat down to type up the final draft for his editor at The University of Toronto Press, these were the ones that wound up on top. The first line of the Prologue to what he now called The Gutenberg Galaxy reads: The present volume is in many ways complementary to The Singer of Tales by Albert B. Lord.

Like Joyce and Pound, McLuhan was not shy about recognizing his source material, though in the extremes to which he pushed their citational practices, the book his book most resembles was an encyclopedia, the Byzantine Suda, for example, or closer in time, an unfinished study, written largely in German, of the 19th century Parisian arcade system, whose existence, long the subject of speculation and rumor, would only be confirmed in 1981, the year after McLuhan’s death, when thirty-six sheafs of folded, yellowing paper were discovered in the archives of the pornographer / philosopher in whose capacity as the librarian of the Bibliothèque Nationale they had been entrusted a few months before their author’s botched attempt to flee Occupied France culminated in his overdose on morphine tablets in a dingy room in a small, three-story hotel in a resort town on the Costa Brava.

Thus The Gutenberg Galaxy may have been complementary to the work of Parry and Lord, as we have seen, but it was also, we learn a few pages later, a prolonged meditation on [a] theme of [zoologist] J.Z. Young; it was a footnote of explanation to his mentor’s book Empire and Communications, indeed nothing more than a gloss on a single text by Harold Innis; one that nevertheless owe[d] a good deal of its reason for being written to H.J. Chaytor’s study of medieval manuscript culture; and one whose method was directly related to that found in physiologist Claude Bernard’s introduction to a textbook of experimental medicine, but whose procedure by contrast could be explained by a passage from mathematician E.T. Whittaker’s attempt to prove the existence of God and whose explanation and justification could be provided by William Blake’s poem “Jerusalem.” More than three-quarters of the way into the book, a manic and apparently exhausted McLuhan even confesses: At this point it would be a joy to have a de Tocqueville to take over the writing of The Gutenberg Galaxy, for it is his mode of thought that is here followed so far as possible!

With only the Byzantine analogy at hand—though he would have certainly appreciated the German-Jewish writer’s characterization of his Passagenwerk as montage—he likened his own eclectic method (or procedure or mode of thought) to the construction of a mosaic, from the Greek mouseios, which, as he was surely aware, meant belonging to the Muses, of whom the above might be said to be nine. For just as quadratic tesserae of gold and porphyry and lapis lazuli could be combined to produce the image of Christ Pantocrator in the main dome of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, or better, just as pinpricks of paint could be arranged according to color theory to produce the image of a woman with a parasol walking a monkey on leash through the Île de la Grande Jatte, or better still, just as electron guns could shoot beams of red, green, and blue light through a cathode ray tube to produce the image of Fred Flintstone on a television screen, so too, McLuhan wagered, could a series of quotations, when framed by his commentary, produce an image of the making of typographic man.

A reader nevertheless comes away from The Gutenberg Galaxy with the impression that it never quite manages to achieve escape velocity, that even in its concluding chapter it is still trying to define what it is hoping to do, and that she, the reader, is left, in the end, holding nothing more than an IOU some three hundred pages long, to be cashed upon the publication of a special study in another volume at some as yet unspecified point in the future. But for all the eccentricities of his choice of medium, McLuhan’s message could not be more straightforward. Media technologies are extensions of the sense organs, tools that, over time, shape the forms of thought and the mental outlook of their users: change the tools you use and you will change everything about your experience; change enough people’s experience and you will inevitably change everything about the society out of which they are composed. The alphabet, perhaps the most consequential tool of all, especially once it was put through the force multiplier of moveable type twenty-four centuries after its arrival in Greece, orients its users visually rather than acoustically, and this, in turn, distances them from the world, from each other, from themselves. Whereas to a member of an oral culture, like Odysseus, Orpheus, or Smailagic Meho for that matter, space is an immersive environment of interwoven forces, to a member of a literate culture, it is a series of discrete objects seen from the outside, as though through the regular panes of a grid. Time, likewise, is not the mystico-cosmic fusion of past, present, and future it is perceived to be in oral cultures, it is the inexorable, unidirectional march of the chronological. The corporate interdependence of the tribe slowly gives way to open society of detribalized individuals, in whom the mind’s private thoughts are split from the body’s public actions and who thus may be said to exhibit, to a greater or lesser degree, a kind of dualistic schizophrenia in the core of their being.

McLuhan, as McLuhan would be the first to admit, was by no means the only person to have noticed this. Alongside The Singer of Tales and The Gutenberg Galaxy, the early sixties saw the publication of Eric Havelock’s Preface to Plato, Claude Levi-Strauss’ The Savage Mind, Ernst Mayr’s Animal Species and Evolution, and Jack Goody and Ian Watt’s paper “The Consequences of Literacy,” all texts that were concerned, in whole or in part, with the profound differences between oral and literate cultures. McLuhan, though, may well have been the first person to notice that he had noticed—and to wonder how it was possible, being himself a fully-fledged member of a literate culture, that he could have noticed at all, and moreover why the problem was only now coming into view.

His hypothesis? The new electronic media like film, radio, and television were disrupting literate culture just as violently as the alphabet had disrupted the oral cultures into which it had been introduced. We were on the cusp of an electric or post-literate time, he wrote, and thanks to the particular features of these media, above all to the volume and speed of their transmission, the characteristic modes of thought and expression of their users had come to bear more than a passing resemblance those of pre-literate cultures. As a result we were becoming reoralized, he wrote, and that meant retribalized. The distinctive mentality of literate culture, which had sometimes been taken as a natural faculty of the human mind, or at least the progressive culmination of a centuries-long intellectual struggle to free the mind from what it viewed as ignorance and superstition, was now in danger, along with all the political and social institutions to which it had given rise, liberal democracy among them, of being revealed as nothing more than a long parenthesis between the chaos and night from which it had emerged and to which it was now returning.

So, given that, according to the many scholars in the fields of media studies and media ecology and media archeology of which he is rightly regarded as a common ancestor, his insights into the disruptions of literate culture in the face of electronic media have grown more and not less extensive and, for that matter, intensive, as we have added networked digital media to them, it is worth again posing ourselves the question that was posed in the opening of a 1965 profile in The New York Herald Tribune, which appeared in the wake of the publication of Understanding Media, the special study that was promised in the conclusion of The Gutenberg Galaxy, and whose runaway success turned the son of an Edmonton elocutionist from a backwater academic into an international celebrity, by a certain white-three-piece-suit-wearing New Journalist from Richmond, Virginia, whose own bombastic prose style would be unthinkable without the oral, noisy brashness that McLuhan pioneered in the making of his mosaic: What…if…he…is…right?

Photo Credit: Carleen Coulter

Ryan Ruby is the author of The Zero and the One: A Novel (Twelve Books, 2017) and a book-length poem Context Collapse, which was been a Semi-finalist for the Tomaž Šalamun Prize and is currently a Finalist for the 2020 National Poetry Series Competition. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming from such venues as The Believer, Poetry Magazine, NYR Daily, The Paris Review Daily, and Conjunctions. In 2019, he was the recipient of the Albert Einstein Fellowship from the Einstein Forum in Potsdam and was an Affiliated Fellow of the ICI Berlin. He teaches Creative Writing at the Berlin Writers’ Workshop.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, February 2nd, 2021.