Issue #186 - Wilf Cude

Wilf Cude


Stoking the Fires


Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy by B.W. Powe (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014, 354 pp., $32.95).



They met in Toronto in 1946.” Thus softly and simply, Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy opens. “It was a moment of a rare convergence,” author B.W. Powe continues, proceeding into his own confessed reconstruction of that rare moment, one occurring at a modest college situated within a provincial university located in a parochial small city “a sort of nowhere at that time in the North American grid.” There is no record extant of that portentous moment, so Powe calmly and convincingly builds his own. The underlying reality, now so apparent, then merely trembling in potential, had almost casually manifested itself back then: at a routine social occasion welcoming new faculty members, an initial personal encounter between “the two men who would become the most formidable and influential intellectual-seers that Canada had yet produced.” What might have transpired between them, then and there?  “I like to imagine their first conversation,” Powe muses, “I like to think that at their first meeting the sparks of brilliance between them were palpable.” All imagination, of course, all speculation. But it is all imagination, all speculation, stemming from yet another significant convergence over three decades later that would ultimately bring this splendid study into being.

     That second convergence, taking place at the very same place, on the ever-extending campus of the University of Toronto, the second convergence so much later in clock time to the first, and yet somewhat paradoxically (in a sense, a creative sense, a figurative sense that would have delighted both McLuhan and Frye) coming way before the first, at least before the softly subtle recognition of the first that opens the fine work at hand. For the two men at the centre were rather more, academically and spiritually speaking, than the intellectual giants whom all the historians of thought have abundantly recognized. They were teachers!  Yes, they were equally gifted in that dimension of their craft conventionally if shamefacedly generally shrugged aside as peripheral. But not by these two intellectual-seers. For decades on that campus, McLuhan from 1946 to 1978, a little over a year before his death, and Frye from the late 1930s to sometime close to his own death in 1991, day after day, week after week, academic year after academic year, each of these men, commencing before either had published the first of the major works that would catapult him into fame and ceasing only just before the inevitable closed his life and extinguished a legendary career, each of these men found his way into a classroom or lecture hall, made his way up to the head of the room, settled himself each characteristically, McLuhan constantly improvising, Frye consistently formal, but each in his own unmistakable fashion, “stoking the fires of illumination in the furnaces of learning.” Each converging with every student in the room. Each converging, in one particular instance, at one noteworthy time, with a brash and thoroughly clever kid named Bruce William Powe.

     It’s both very instructive and (it should definitely also be said) intensely challenging to go back to B.W. Powe’s first book, the immediately and deservedly praised 1984 A Climate Charged, to appreciate the insight and comprehension implicit then in his appraisal of each of his two internationally celebrated teachers. The first appearing in the book, McLuhan comes across as genuinely personable, wildly engaging and just plain intellectually mercurial: at the head of the room, he seems in a perpetual state of ideas in flux, a dizzying and dazzling display of “jokes, judgments, references to his friendship with Ezra Pound and Lewis, and tantalizing ideas about media and modernism.” After experiencing a whirlwind two hours of McLuhan’s spectacular talk, offered unstintingly to a depressingly diminished turnout of six students, an entranced Bruce William confesses: “I was hooked.” But there was far more happening than showmanship, far more intensive and demanding dimensions of thought to pursue. “McLuhan always filtered his perceptions through literature,” B.W. marvels, listing the scope of those perceptions as they unfolded in class. “The depth of his commitment to awakening audiences to the ‘Pure Present’; his literary bias, despite his predilection for oral teaching and dialogue; his emphasis on humour and satire; and how little he cared for the new technological environments.” And the concomitant irony of those perceptions so dramatically imparted in the classroom was that they somehow never widely registered much beyond that point. “Few read McLuhan,” B.W. remarks; “they came to know him through TV and radio.” Sadly, a marvellous visionary who could prophesy where technology would take us, and prophesy with nerve-grating accuracy, “also became for many a vulgarizer, a charlatan, an enthusiast of pop trash, an apologist for the new technologies.” Over three decades further on, B.W. will once more address the memory of this great teacher, and he will ensure that this lingering shadowy misconception would finally be laid to rest.

     But appearing second in that early book, and second as well in the title of the current book, Northrop Frye comes across understandably as initially rather more distant and almost austere. Initially the alternate extreme, personally as well as intellectually, from the flamboyantly dynamic McLuhan, Frye is another pedagogical presence altogether: sedate, measured, and by comparison with his much more volatile colleague almost static — he is “what seems ... so flat.” He is what seems the consummate caricature of the absent-minded, out-of-touch-with-reality academic. “The professor shambles up to the front of the quiet classroom — which is filled to capacity,” the critically attentive Bruce William recalls. And this professor is, Bruce William rather unkindly also recalls, seemingly “the incarnation of what was once known as the browner: the studious, withdrawn, and invariably brainy student.” As this professor commences, with a “gentle, soft-spoken, informal” lecturing style, it becomes evident “this is a lecture, and not a dialogue.” Whereas Bruce William had enrolled in McLuhan’s last class ever, when the great man had (in Northrop Frye’s memorable phrasing) gone “away to the skies like a rocket and then came down like the stick,” he had also enrolled in just another of Frye’s ever-more-crowded classes, when the great man was at the very apex of his own ascent: he was (in Marshall McLuhan’s memorable phrasing) “not struggling for his place in the sun – he was the sun.” Although enchanted by the corruscations of the one, he rejected the “near deification” of the other, and probed relentlessly into what many (then and later) would not choose to examine: Frye’s “pseudo-scientific approach that operates beyond taste, value-judgements, and the uniqueness of an artist and his work.” Extremely valid points, that should neither be lost nor even neglected; and yet, over three decades further on, B.W. will once more address the memory of this great teacher, and he will strive to reconcile the astringent quality of his earlier view with a far more compassionate and mature vision.

     “My students are my publications” provocatively declared Garnett Sedgewick, a University of British Columbia professor so renowned across campus for his teaching prowess that the institution named an undergraduate library after him. The student as publication, bearing an imprint of the teacher’s presentation, is a necessary, legitimate but often far less properly acknowledged — now, perhaps more than ever — element warranting professional pride that every competent instructor can claim, ranking a vital but undervalued accomplishment with equal propriety among all other professorial attainments. And as it was for Professor Sedgewick, so it also was for those two Canadian humanists standing at the very forefront of their academic peers: Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye, each making his way to the head of the classroom or lecture hall, year after academic year, decade after decade, surveying group after group of bright, clever and ambitious young people, offering each of those bright, clever and ambitious young people a first-hand and uniquely individualized introduction into the incandescent mystical workings of the propagation of thought. In such circumstances, these two stood very like all the most prominent of their predecessors stood before them, not so much in the exalted role of cultural icon but rather in the more toil-stained yet dignified role of humble stoker: they stood, shovelling manfully, day in and day out, feeding the fuel of thought past all those intent and earnest young people, “stoking the fires of illumination in the furnaces of learning.” Above all else, the two of them lived in common through “faith in the mentoring act.” It is a toil-stained yet dignified role increasingly coming under both technological scrutiny and threat, as Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye themselves intuited, each through his own ever-evolving perception of apocalypse and alchemy. This we can discern through the writings of perhaps the most talented student the two scholars shared, the human publication as generator of publications, student Bruce William Powe transmuted over three decades into B.W. Powe, author of such impressive works as A Climate Charged, Outage, Mystic Trudeau and, of course, Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy.

     “I said at the start that they were my teachers,” Powe summarizes in his concluding pages. “What were the lessons?” Pay attention, reader, pay very close attention: here we have, in two simple, direct and completely unostentatious sentences, yet further evidence of a genuinely subtle prose mastery, a definitive quality of the book that rewards considerable inspection in its own right. The first sentence, in the active voice, is a blunt statement of fact taking us back to both historical time and authorial time of the book’s composition, and reminding us as well of one central theme of that composition. The second sentence, however, takes on something of a truly complex passive construction simultaneously tendering a dual meaning: “what were the lessons I as Bruce William the student learned and thereafter over three decades and change put into practice as B.W. the author;” and moreover, perhaps a little more impudently, but far more relevantly, “what were the lessons you, gentle reader, learned from your adventure through this truly rewarding and under-statedly sympathetic and spectacular examination of erudition.” A reply to the query within the first meaning, the answer to the question concerning Powe’s own lessons, is offered concisely enough: as a young man, as a student, he saw his two mentors essentially as opposites, contrasts personally and professionally, two far-seeing University of Toronto seers who incessantly “scolded and provoked one another;” nevertheless, as a much more personally, emotionally and intellectually weathered author and professor, he confesses “when I read them closely — mustering all my attention — I found harmonies.” Which brings us irrevocably to the multiplicity of replies to the query within that second meaning, the one directed to us, all of us readers, every one. What were the lessons we learned?

     Judging from two supportive reviews, each proffered from a sympathetic and discerning reader, Philip Marchand in the 27 June, 2014 issue of the National Post and Faye Hammill in the 21 November, 2014 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, there are most assuredly lessons aplenty to be learned. For Marchand, author of the well-received 1989 biography Marshall McLuhan: The Medium and the Messenger, there could have been a mildly discomfiting encounter with an extended sophisticated thesis concerning McLuhan and Frye amplifying but qualifying one central thesis of his own. Powe’s argument that “the thought of both men was ultimately complementary and converging” went well beyond Marchand’s earlier sustained analysis of the intellectual rivalry between the two, and Marchand felt impelled — in intellectual self-defence — to respond. “Powe also admits that there is little documentary emphasis on the supposed indirect collaboration between Frye and McLuhan.” But sheer courtesy also impels him to add “I am biased,” explaining “in this book Powe mentions my own biography of McLuhan in a generous but not uncritical fashion — he is courteous to all those with whom he disagrees.” A gentle lesson in civility extended and received, which the rest of us should take note. And for Hammill, something vaguely similar. In a gesture towards establishing her reviewer’s judiciousness, she observes: “Powe is by no means uncritical, but he is protective of his former teachers’ reputations, and perhaps sets them too much apart from their context, peers and predecessors.” However, even that fudge-factor “perhaps” doesn’t rescue her from the incongruity between that judgment and others immediately before and after. Before, she writes: “[Powe’s] long and intimate engagement with their [McLuhan’s and Frye’s] work has culminated in a rich, subtly argued book.” And after, she writes: “[Powe] convincingly proves, though, that the extent of their [McLuhan’s and Frye’s] interaction has been underestimated.” Having recognized the author’s full command of style, approach and content, isn’t it a trifle gratuitous to rebuke him for not accomplishing a task he never committed to undertake?  Another lesson, not so much from the book itself, but rather from a reader’s consideration of it. Again, the rest of us might profit from taking note.

     Above all else, though, the rest of us in closing should take note of the one lesson both reviewers have pretty well acknowledged, the one lesson each of us might have anticipated somewhere along in our own reading: B.W. Powe is one thoroughly talented author. Marchand is characteristically forthright. “Powe as novelist remains more or less in the background,” he affirms: “nevertheless [his] study is trenchant in its vision and often rhapsodic in its style.” Hammill, by contrast, and also characteristically a touch overly judicious, cannot resist commencing with a snide little jab: “At times, Powe — a writer by profession — seems quite as interested in his own prose as theirs.” Yet in an instant attempt to recover impartiality, she rattles on with this cautiously backhanded concession. “Happily, [Powe’s] portentous declarations do not dominate the text: he allows Frye and McLuhan plenty of space to speak for themselves, and closely analyzes their different styles of writing.” Granted, no review of any length can fairly and properly probe the full resources of an author’s skill: but one example, such as the concluding paragraph we find here, can alert us to something of the work’s stylistic potential.


There is the lesson that says do without your elders. You must abandon them to move on, living deeply. The path must be yours. I have learned this teaching slowly. But I have found the trust that you can come back — someday — fresh from frontiers, in a changed form, to meet your mentors again. Then other new and vital lessons can begin.


Six sentences, straightforward, uncomplicated. But how sly is the tricksy gerund “teaching” in the central fourth sentence, evoking “the thing taught” and simultaneously “the act of teaching.” Here we have a dual statement in the same words: from the student Bruce William so long ago savouring what he learned from his mentors over three decades, and from the author B.W. contemplating his accomplishments in print and in the classroom over those selfsame three decades. Very simple, very neat, very, very clever.

     “What are the laws at work?” The question, right before the close, is rhetorical. “These are what was called the two truths of the wisdom tradition,” B.W. replies, to himself and to us: “everything has two sides, which can be called the double vision and figure/ground, innocence and experience together, the visible and invisible always in vibrations of influence.” Two sides. Two books, A Climate Charged from so long ago and Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy, from just about yesterday. Thirty years between them, and a well-lived life, innocence and experience. Two bookend books, bookending a remarkable academic and intellectual enterprise, when student Bruce William has come back as author B.W. Powe, fresh from frontiers, in a changed form, finally to meet his mentors again. On more or less equal footing, this time around. Let other new and vital lessons begin.