Inside McLuhan’s head

An exclusive excerpt from Douglas Coupland's biography of Marshall McLuhan

Inside McLuhan’s head

Photograph by P.J. Salkovitch/ Canadian Press

“I knew going into it that this wasn’t going to be a straight biography,” says Douglas Coupland about his new study of Marshall McLuhan. What the Vancouver-based author has concocted instead is a historical mosaic that borrows heavily from McLuhan’s inimitable riffing style—that is, to dance non-linearly around ideas as a means of forming a distinct theory. Coupland also adds a healthy dose of his own literary signature to the mix—asides, like copies of online user-reviews of McLuhan’s works that appear in between chapters, seem at first glance peripheral to the subject at hand but later turn out to speak a distinct truth about it.

To be sure, this is still a biographical work. It’s just that, for Coupland, the things people already know about McLuhan—his famous phrases “global village” and “the medium is the message,” plus his cameo in Annie Hall—aren’t as interesting as, say, the great thinker’s biological and genetic makeup. And so, instead of analyzing McLuhan’s 1962 masterwork The Gutenberg Galaxy, Coupland investigates the brain that composed it.

Marshall McLuhan’s brain was fuelled by fresh blood from the heart through not one but two arteries at the base of his skull, a trait in the mammalian world found mostly in cats and rarely in human beings. As well, people in Marshall’s family tended to die of strokes. Marshall himself had countless small strokes during his lifetime—sometimes in front of a classroom of students, where he’d suddenly gap out for a few minutes and then return to the world.

Why mention this medical information? To establish that Marshall was not merely different but very different, and it wasn’t simply in the way he thought; rather, it was because of the biological mechanisms that made and allowed him to think what he thought.

Marshall exhibited throughout his life a certain sense of obliviousness about the physical world—he was the epitome of the absent-minded professor. He couldn’t drive a car. He tuned in and out of conversations with friends and strangers, and during classes he would ramble, seemingly unaware of those around him, clicking in and out of reality. Many people, when describing their encounters with him, say that with Marshall you had a few seconds to say your hellos or make your point, and after that he was back on Planet Marshall. And this is not to confuse obliviousness with cluelessness. Marshall had created a rich inner life. Why leave it if he didn’t have to?

Perhaps this disassociation, along with others of Marshall’s traits, should be placed on an autistic spectrum. For example, there was Marshall’s hypersensitivity to noise and sounds—loud and/or sudden and/or unwanted. The man disliked disruption of daily patterns. He disliked being touched or jostled. He loved ritual. He punned (punning is a form of disinhibition related to neural wiring in the brain’s limbic system). Marshall was also obsessed with words and memorization, and he was, it has been said, oblivious—not cripplingly so, but it did alter his ability to communicate in person in a way that, if nothing else, probably didn’t help him. Older people interpreted his obliviousness as arrogance; young people interpreted it as cool.

This is not to say that Marshall was autistic, or even a high-functioning Asperger syndrome autistic. But if he had any specific psychopathology, that would be the direction in which to look. He wasn’t depressive. He wasn’t schizophrenic. He wasn’t addicted to alcohol or anything else. He was, to an admirable degree, a happy man with a great family and career. But he did tend to be curiously and creatively oblivious. As his biographer Philip Marchand says, if he had a weakness, it was his inability to listen to speakers less forceful than he was. His forte, on the other hand, was talking tirelessly not only in brilliantly articulate sentences but whole paragraphs—a form of communication he much preferred to writing.

As Marshall aged, his eccentricities became more common and more pronounced. He had a massive collection of jokes and cartoons and loved sharing them with almost anyone in almost any situation—the sorts of corny things your parents email you that have a half-dozen FWD tags in the header. Marshall began his classes and his paid speeches with jokes and bad puns, partly because punning is a pathology and partly because starting an event this way unsettled the audience. Who is this guy? Is he for real? Is he on drugs? Oh, good God, these are the worst jokes I’ve ever heard. That pun was atrocious. This guy is nuts. And then he’d hit them with a wall of ideas, forcing them to challenge their basic assumptions, often alienating them, frequently disturbing them, and always leaving in his wake lots to talk about at the dinner table.

Inside McLuhan's head

Photograph by Bernard Gotfryd/ Getty Images

Most anyone who attended or audited his classes or went to any of his speeches will agree that Marshall became random quickly. He was tangential and self-contradictory, and could really piss people off. With his protective oblivious coating, it all bounced off him. He was out to stimulate people into making up their own minds and stimulating their own ideas, using his thinking as a catalyst. If they became wrapped up in a specific, it meant they’d lost sight of the big picture. He almost felt sorry for people who took him the wrong way.

There were underlying biological reasons for the acceleration of Marshall’s tics and eccentricities. Throughout the early 1960s he began to, for lack of a better word, freeze when in public, either teaching or in social situations. He’d be talking and then he would stop. His eyes would go blank, and then after a minute or two he’d continue where he had left off. It was disconcerting, and worried those close to him. Medically, there were three potential causes for these freezings: perhaps they were mini-strokes, or they may have been petit mal seizures (minor epileptic seizures), or they could have been related to a benign brain tumour the size of a lemon found in his brain later on in the 1960s. With each event, Marshall became a bit more of a prisoner of the wiring and plumbing of his head.

His blackouts became alarmingly frequent, but Marshall never wanted to give any indication of weakness, however slight. Finally, in the fall of 1967, his family broke through Marshall’s fortress of denial and begged him to get help. He went in for brain surgery on the morning of Nov. 25, 1967. The doctor exercised supreme caution, and Marshall’s surgery became, at that point, the longest recorded neurological surgery in medical history.

His family had braced themselves for all possible worst-case scenarios (paralysis, profound memory loss, retardation—a terrifyingly long list of possibilities). When Marshall woke up an hour after surgery, the surgeon asked him how he felt, and he replied that it would depend on one’s definition of “feeling.” He was back again—phew!—but he was back in reduced form. He had, in fact, lost swaths of memory; curiously, he had trouble remembering books he’d read many times over. He lived with staggering pain for months afterwards, and he lost some of his ability to be civil to colleagues and students. In addition, his hypersensitivity to noises, always high, became extreme.

Marshall had another health scare in 1971. An angiogram revealed that his carotid artery was blocked, but it was during the discovery of this that surgeons discovered his feline blood circulation: his external carotid artery (the artery that supplies blood to the face, scalp, and jaw) had formed huge connecting channels through the left base of his skull and inside his skull. Had it not been for his one-in-a-billion vascularization, Marshall’s brain would have been toast long ago. He considered this vascularization to be a miracle. Who’s to say it wasn’t?

On Sept. 26, 1979, he suffered a catastrophic stroke in his office. Marshall’s stroke left him unable to read, write, or speak. He could understand conversations but couldn’t participate verbally. The arteries that had blessed him had also cursed him. And, as happens with stroke victims, some verbal function remained: he could still sing hymns, and he was left with one signature phrase he could use when trying to speak. In his case, it was “Oh boy!”

Oh, the irony for Marshall. Words—the sound of them, the shape of their letter forms, their intricate relationship to each other, a relationship rendered industrial and homogenized by the printing press—were suddenly nothing but sounds with meaning, prehistoric noises with no means of being recorded or passed forward.

Well-meaning friends and family tried to retrain Marshall to read, but the neural damage was structural and too great. Devices like flash cards and Speak & Spell toys were tried, but to no avail. What seemed to make him happiest was to have visitors and friends come to read to him.

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