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On B.W. Powe’s Marshall
McLuhan and Northrop Frye:
Apocalypse and Alchemy (Toronto: University of Toronto, 2014).
By J. S. Porter, Hamilton, Ontario – www.spiritbookword.net
You hear a voice when you read a B.W. Powe book. All his works are voiced works where a personal voice – probing, playing, stretching, listening – is speaking to you. Not surprisingly he defines a book this way: “A book is truly one person speaking to one person.” Having co-interviewed him in a four and half hour conversation in Toronto in 1995 for the college journal Kairos, I know from personal experience what a superb conversationalist B.W. Powe is. Powe in person is open, generous, imaginative, courteous and vulnerable, just as he is in his books. Powe talks in his books as if you were seated across from him sharing a pot of coffee. His books are one person speaking to one person.
Powe’s new book is his personal take on two master thinkers, both of whom he had as teachers, Frye in his undergraduate course on myth criticism and McLuhan in his last graduate course. Usually Powe’s books seem more stylistically akin to McLuhan than to Frye, but in this volume he leans towards Frye. There is a deep and thorough scholarly element to the book, but not to the point that it eclipses Powe’s conversational voice. On every page you hear him speaking from the heart about what matters.
I suspect that Powe could comfortably stand by the words he quotes from Marshall McLuhan’s letter to John Polanyi, “I have always found questions more interesting than answers and probes more exciting than products.” Like McLuhan, Powe is more comfortable with percept than concept, fluid than solid, movement than fixity.
In his new book, he links both Frye and McLuhan, along with Harold Innis, to the “Toronto School of Communication Theory.” Both are, in Powe’s words, “memorable mythmakers at the centre of our literature and our imagination.” Powe sees their commonalities as well as their divergences: “The two left unfinished ideas and implications for others to develop. Their enterprises were invitations to grow our souls and minds.” They were alchemists (transformers) of the imagination and communicators of the apocalypse (“heightened awareness, the moment of epiphany, where an individual sees into… his or her time and place”).
McLuhan was a westerner (born in Edmonton), a Catholic, and someone, like the sailor in Edgar Allan Poe’s story “A Descent into the Maelström,” who learned to be at home in the turbulence of media. Ride the wave, McLuhan posits. Don’t resist it. “The new media,” he says, “are not bridges between man and nature – they are nature.” McLuhan was also, however, a great reader of books (as well as media at large). As Powe notes, “The McLuhan paradox is this: you have to be literary to understand what is wordless, musical, sensual, strobing, buzzing, interfusing, and iconic.”
Frye was an Easterner (born in Moncton), a Protestant (a United Church minister to be exact) and a lifelong bookman for whom the book was the central medium for culture and the other media were for the most part distractions. “Democracy and book culture are interdependent, and the rise of oral and visual media represents, not a new order to adjust to, but a subordinate order to be contained,” says Frye.
The central book in book culture for Frye is of course the Bible. “The Bible is to me the body of words through which I can see the world as a cosmos, as an order, and where I can see human nature as something redeemable, as something with a right to survive. In Western culture it’s the comprehensive book that takes in everything. It takes in the divine and the demonic, as well as the human.”
Like William Blake before him, Frye links God and man very directly: “If you insist on separating God from man, you have merely God who is a scarecrow in the sky and merely man who is a psychotic ape” (David Cayley’s Northrop Frye In Conversation).
McLuhan and Frye were colleagues at the University of Toronto, sometimes speaking of each other disparagingly and sometimes admiringly. Both have been fittingly honoured by the university. Frye has a building to his name (Northrop Frye Hall) and McLuhan has a street (Marshall McLuhan Way).
Powe acknowledges their differences in this summarizing sentence: “The mutable tensions between them, and within them, are those of the scholar-humanist and the experimental discoverer, the perpetual reader and annotator and the reimagining aphorist and poet.”
For all their differences, they do at times converge. When Frye late in his life says to the CBC’s David Cayley — “I am more and more drawn to thinking in terms of a great swirling of processes and powers rather than a world of blocks and things…the text is not a thing any more…It’s a focus of powers” — one wonders if he is channeling his friend and sometime combatant Marshall McLuhan.
Both Frye and McLuhan are master phrase-makers who build their books around pithy, and often playful, insights and speculations. The challenge for both, in Frye’s phrasing, is “translating discontinuous aphorisms into continuous argument…” At the heart of McLuhan is a Book of Investigations (his son Eric brought to print The Book of Probes published by Gingko Press in 2003); and at the heart of Frye is a Book of Aphorisms (clearly visible in The Northrop Frye Quote Book, expertly compiled by John Robert Colombo).
In Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye, B.W. Powe himself combines a talent for McLuhanesque probing with Frye’s facility for pithy, memorable statement. He learned his lessons well from his masters. And he delivers these lessons to his readers in personal and engaging prose. If you’re looking for an indispensable exploration of two essential Canadian thinkers, this is the book.
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* On a personal note: I’ve always been open to McLuhan’s experimental thought. On the other hand, I’ve tended to dismiss Frye as a scholarly categorizer. Thanks to Powe’s book, I now see Frye as a member of a select group of Canadian visionaries. For more about B.W. Powe, himself a seer, read an interview with him on my website – www.spiritbookword.net – first published in the ecumenical journal Grail. [Click the “spirit” icon on my website.]
– John Porter, Hamilton
[Column in the Autumn 2014, Vol. 28, No. Edition of Dialogue magazine]
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