- Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy by B.W. Powe
Apocalyptic and prophetic seers committed to the transformation and elevation of the human soul in a world where such words were fast becoming devoid of all meaning, Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye were dedicated humanists with deeper affinities than their lifelong intellectual agon might suggest. Such in any case is B.W. Powe’s argument in Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye: Apocalypse and Alchemy. Divided into five chapters framed by an introduction and concluding chapter, Powe’s comparative study is informed by his vision of the profound convergence between his two former teachers: while “the critical conflict between McLuhan and Frye” is the topic of his third chapter, the last two more than counterbalance it by detailing the “harmonies” and “synergy” in their thinking. Yet even the third chapter, dealing with the development of their intellectual duelling, insists that they “differed in methods and terminology,” not in “their sense of vocation.” As for the first two chapters, an outline of the author’s project and of his former mentors’ careers, they, too, are shaped by Powe’s vision of the complementary character of McLuhan’s and Frye’s theories. A media theorist and a literary theorist respectively, who ostensibly kept dismissing each other’s fields of interest as being solipsistic and anachronistic (McLuhan’s view of Frye’s dedication to literature in our electronic age) or as alienating and threatening mental integrity (Frye’s vision of McLuhan’s endorsement of electronic media culture), both still initiated a visionary-apocalyptic tradition that is at once “seminal to understanding the Canadian spirit,” Powe argues, and “paradoxically universal.”
To illustrate the deep yin and yang complementarity that he perceives at the heart of McLuhan’s and Frye’s intellectual endeavours, Powe resorts to a progression that, for all its apparent linearity, actually closely recalls Frye’s own cyclical writing: touching on the main motifs from the start to elaborate on them later, Powe’s technique is also reminiscent of McLuhan’s “aphoristic” mode of communication when one considers the subtitles regularly punctuating the text. So, what are these main motifs?
In keeping with the pattern of complementarity followed throughout the book, which is seen as key to understanding the dynamic interplay between opposites making up the “McLuhan-Frye matrix,” these main motifs come in oppositional pairs. So the Catholic convert born in the Canadian west (McLuhan) is opposed to the Protestant raised in the east (Frye), just as their theories and communicating styles are consistently paralleled: while McLuhan’s trademark aphorism “The medium is the message” is contrasted with Frye’s core teaching, summed up in the image of “the great code,” the opposition between McLuhan’s aphoristic and discontinuous orality and Frye’s scrupulous prose essaying [End Page 359] is variously—and somewhat inconsistently from a chronological viewpoint—seen to make them into late twentieth-century embodiments of the divide between the ancient orator and the modern philosopher, or the modernist and the romantic.
More fundamentally than these surface oppositions might suggest, however, McLuhan and Frye seem to have trod common ground: literally, as University of Toronto colleagues for over three decades with a common background in religious and literary studies and shared tastes for texts like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, and also, more figuratively but no less concretely, Powe suggests, as “charismatic personae” and holistic thinkers who, “more than teachers or critics,” were “indispensable guides” to “wider states of consciousness.” For both, reading was the Way, even if “they divided over what needed to be urgently read”—the alphabetic text (Frye) or “the Book of Nature” and its extension: “the Hyper-Text of super-Nature” (McLuhan).
This interpretation of McLuhan and Frye as spiritual guides whose only essential difference lay in their sensory preferences—McLuhan being a “hearer” and Frye a “seer,” Powe contends—is undoubtedly what makes this study original and arresting. It also accounts, as is made clear, for these two theorists’ marginalization at a time when, Powe notes, “spirituality in universities is...