At the September Shameless Steam event, Larry Gillick referred to an author I hadn’t considered in many years – Marshall McLuhan. Way back when, in Wired magazine’s Patron Saint’s distant past, I felt incredibly cool knowing who he was thanks to an undergraduate communications class. He comes to haunt me in the steampunk realm with his book, “The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man” copyrighted in 1951. In his preface to the original edition, McLuhan writes, “[o]urs is the first age in which many thousands of the best-trained individual minds have made it a full-time business to get inside the collective public mind.” He continues, “Why not assist the public to observe consciously the drama which is intended to operate upon it unconsciously?” Then he uses Edgar Allan Poe’s work “A Descent Into the Maelstrom” to illustrate how the main character studied the whirlpool in to avoid personal catastrophe.
I made, also, three important observations. The first was, that as a general rule, the larger the bodies were, the more rapid their descent; – the second, that, between two masses of equal extent, the one spherical, and the other of any other shape, the superiority in speed of descent was with the sphere; – the third, that, between two masses of equal size, the one cylindrical, and the other of any other shape, the cylinder was absorbed the more slowly.
The version I have is the Fiftieth Anniversary edition. If you are not familiar with his work, consider these quotes:
To what collective prayer is this amalgam of noble savage and the aristocratic sleuth an answer?
Is it just an accident that Tarzan, the nature force, is unclogged by family life? Just another cowboy?
The Boy Scout to end Nature Lore?
Is Superman’s jungle of criminals nearer to us than Tarzan’s jungle of beasts?
Do I think a lot about Sherlock Holmes? Not really. But I can’t seem to get enough! Why? McLuhan thought enough about him to offer his own analysis.
Why are both scientist and artist crackpots and pariahs I the popular imagination?
Holmes, Renaissance titan or Last of the Mohicans ?
Watson, wife or mother of the virtuoso of crime?
The sleuth cult foreshadows the arrival of the police state?
Wow. That hadn’t crossed my mind at all.
Then he goes on to embarrass me with that which I have not read:
The popular sleuth thus offers a window onto a complex psychological landscape. This landscape includes the figure of the superman as he has taken his stand on all the moral, political, and scientific issues of the West from Da Vinci to Holmes. It also includes the platform at Elsinore and the ghost-stricken figure of Hamlet. Hamlet the Dane saw one ghost. The modern Hamlet stares at a whole assembly. And not least among these is Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s echo of Christopher Marlowe’s supermen Tamburlaine and Dr. Faustus, that Nietzschean politician and scientist.
Steam at Harper’s Ferry invites you to write a 500 word blog post on along the lines of McLuhan’s book “The Mechanical Bride,” either fiction or non-fiction. Please contact Steam via email for further information.