An exclusive excerpt from Douglas Coupland’s biography of Marshall McLuhan
“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.