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What the Thunder Said

from the fanzine Banana Wings #36

Strange and wonderful Canadians come to mind. Glenn Gould, the pianist whose performance of classical music was so idiosyncratic the great conductor George Szell muttered "That nut is a genius." A.E. van Vogt, the s-f author who dazzled our minds, whose stories ended, and who was praised as a stylist by no less than Harlan Ellison. Marshall McLuhan, the student of communications media who included money and clocks, whose Understanding Media was one of those books everyone talked about but no one had read, and who dedicated its paperback edition to Jack Paar. I've praised these famous men, I've found fault with them.

In the best tradition of 16th Century England, and incidentally Japan, Shakespeare the comedian was likely to say Sit on my shoulders so I can understand you. McLuhan didn't say communications media stood under us; he was more interested in our noticing we stood under them. His famous sentence They became what they beheld stood on when they didn't notice. He was not a determinist. It was possible, though people might not trouble, to avert the stern decree.

McLuhan had no trouble understanding the thunder of James Joyce, who was, he said, a comedian. In the rumbling of Finnegans Wake he found discharges of modern potential and a lot of good jokes. To him it was not a waste land.

T.S. Eliot in the last part of "The Waste Land" also alludes to the Hindu parable of gods, humans, and demons begging their Creator to speak. The thunder rumbled da. They each heard their own message. The gods heard datta, give. The humans, dayadhvam, sympathize. The demons, damyata, govern the passions. This is not bad advice. Two thousand years after the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the Muslim poet Rumi put six men in a dark room trying to perceive an elephant. Two hundred years after that, John Saxe said the six men were blind. He and Rumi both said the men were Hindus. In Rumi's version any of them could have struck a light.

McLuhan rumbled that each medium has qualities of its own. When a new medium emerges, it only appears to supersede another. In fact it is more likely to free a previous medium from the pressure of being the latest thing. The previous medium shines in this fresh light. People come to it less faddishly than for itself. What is done with it will ring truer.

In fact the word "oldfashioned" is oldfashioned. We build musical instruments Henry Purcell would have used so we can play his music. We discuss them across the planet by electronic mail, or by paper mail carried on jet airplanes. If we prefer his music, or what we write ourselves, it is not because one is older or one is newer.

McLuhan's theory says the rise of the Internet should be good for paper fanzining. And it is so. My mailbox is freer of crudzines than ever. There is no need to do them. Those who wish to make paper fanzines are free to. Call it an artisan revolution.

Passion is hip these days – incidentally, the opposite of action. The wisdom of governing the passions is to rise above enslavement by them. Some of us may think to live by sympathy. Alas for the decay of this thought into a search for people to feel our pain; what do they feel? Some of us may have to improve how we receive, but many sages have said it is better to give. A fanzine is a gift.