George Grant: Redefining Canada
By T.F. Rigelhof XYZ Publishing, 180 pages, $15.95 Marshall McLuhan: Wise Guy
By Judith Fitzgerald XYZ Publishing, 204 pages, $15.95
The spirits of two dead but profoundly influential Canadians sit side by side on the new-publications shelf of XYZ Publishing of Montreal. One was a Rhodes Scholar whose family members shaped such institutions as Queen's University and Upper Canada College, and who was such an ultra-nationalist that he found even the New Democratic Party distastefully in tune with the American-worshipping Liberals.
That was George Grant.
Alongside him rests a communicator who failed Grade 6, was rejected by the Rhodes Scholarship selection committee and whose Winnipeg schooling led him to say, "One advantage we Westerners have is that we're under no illusion we've had an education."
That was Marshall McLuhan.
Redefining Canada, a summary of the life of George Grant, and Wise Guy, a literary study of Marshall McLuhan's life, are two new additions to XYZ's Quest Library. This growing series is described as "a lively way to read Canadian history," and these two books live up to the billing.
Grant's life is explored by T. F. Rigelhof, a Montreal writer and teacher who has injected more of himself into his work than has Judith Fitzgerald in her presentation of McLuhan. At times, it is not clear whether Rigelhof is paraphrasing Grant's perception of Canada or whether he is interpreting his ideas through his own maple-leaf-shaded glasses.
Fitzgerald, an Ontario poet and writer, offers a lively account popping with McLuhanisms and delivered in brief bursts of prose to capture the essence of the great communicator.
Neither book is an attempt to deconstruct, analyze or re-interpret the theories of this pair of extraordinary professors. In a flowing, highly readable style of writing, the authors recount personal and family episodes in each man's life which lead to the development of their particular philosophies. They're much more than A Complete Idiot's Guide to Canadian Professors, but you'll learn more about the men than about their theories. Both turn out to be rather cool. Or maybe, in McLuhanesque, they're hot.
What you probably want to know about McLuhan is: Does he make any more sense now than he did in the 1960s and '70s? The answer is: Yes! It took the evolution of the Internet to do it, which makes one wonder how he could have foreseen communications today with such clarity. He never knew dot-com and dot-ca, but he would have pointed through CNN's window on the world as evidence of the global village.
His theories were baffling in his own lifetime. McLuhan, who commented that "all university taught you to do was bullshit," was oft described as the great communications BSer himself. We could grasp the concept of the global village, but some of us are still trying to find the handles on his definitions of hot media and cool media and his view of the medium being the message. It didn't help that McLuhan published one of his books in 1967 with a play on his most famous phrase, titling it The Medium is the Massage.
And would this title have been influenced in any way by a CBC Radio series hosted by George Grant in 1958, titled Philosophy in the Mass Age, later published as a book? Mass Age, Massage, Message. Who knows? Great communicators pick up messages from wherever. Rays from outer space, maybe.
That's what they may have been thinking at Oxford University, where McLuhan defended the study of comic books during his oral examination as an applicant for a Rhodes Scholarship. He contended that comic books comprised an essential element of contemporary culture and were therefore worthy of close examination.
Not at our university, sniffed the Oxonians as they showed him the door.
People of average intellect will feel their hearts warm smugly with the knowledge that the Great McLuhan not only failed Grade 6 (his mother offered the classic parental defence that he was bright and bored) but that he based his brilliant theories, in part, on a study of comic books. For those of us who grab the comics first on a Saturday, this revelation assuages a lifetime of literary guilt.
Grant's thesis on the mass age reflected McLuhan's theories of globalization and the homogenizing impact of the mass media. In the Mass Age, Grant said, our private lives have been collectivized in our own homes. Not only does the Mass Age standardize production, it standardizes consumption of what we eat and what we wear. It takes over our schools, our homes, our entertainment.
It's the McDonaldization of the world. Think Wal-Mart. Think Harry Potter. Think Nike. When Grant was developing these theories, in the 1940s and '50s, the mass corporate gotcha that grips the world today was still limited to Coca-Cola and General Motors.
Grant's most poignant work is Lament for a Nation, in which he argued that Canada's decline as a separate sovereign state began with the defeat of the Diefenbaker government in 1963. It wasn't that he felt Diefenbaker was protecting Canada so much as he was certain that the Liberals would sell it out. He once refused to shake the hand of his uncle, Vincent Massey, because Massey represented everything he detested about the Liberal Party. Lament for a Nation inspired nationalists such as James Laxer, who led the Waffle splinter group in the NDP.
Both Grant and McLuhan ran counter to convention. Grant's pacifism through the Second World War, although he performed heroically for bombing victims in London, cost him the wardenship of Hart House at the University of Toronto. The overseers felt his pacifism would offend returning war vets.
In the McLuhan household, Elsie despaired when her Protestant-raised son converted to Catholicism. He had ruined his chances for greatness because, she believed, Catholics were second-class persons in business and education.
It turned out both men made their substantial mark. In the Mass Age, their messages are more pertinent than ever. Orland French is a former Globe and Mail columnist and journalism teacher. He now publishes Canadian local history books in Belleville, Ont., at .