Part 6. Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination: Marshall McLuhan (1911—1980)
Multiculturalism before Multiculturalism
In the last installment, “Hungarian Literary Roots,” I traced some of Zend’s foundational influences in his native Hungary. In this section, I’d like to investigate the corresponding Canadian “cross-pollination”: writers and artists who inspired in Zend new aesthetic explorations. The 1960s saw an explosion of experimentation in the arts as well as paradigm-shifting ideas (to use Thomas Kuhn’s term) in cultural theory. Many of these would likely have been banned in Communist Hungary as decadent or counter-revolutionary. In his adopted country of Canada, Zend was free to delve into these new trends, to which he responded with a spirit of generosity and enthusiasm.
I’m describing the influence of Canadian cultural figures on Zend as cross-pollination, for although his inalienable roots were in Hungarian traditions, his poetry and art that emerged since the 1960s blended aspects of both. His penchant for humour, mythology, and the fantastical, inherited from his Hungarian lineage, merged with ground-breaking Canadian ideas such as Marshall McLuhan’s theories on media culture and bpNichol’s avant-garde mixed-genre poetics. Knowing Zend’s delight in creating hybrid words like “peapoteacock,” I like to think he might have called such a hybrid of Magyar and Canadian influences something like “Magyanadian.”
As this essay took shape, I’ve been continually reminded of the illusory nature of unified national culture in my description of literary lineage. Zend’s Hungarian influences included traditions from populations that immigrated to Hungary (as we’ve seen from the Budapest joke, which also provided a creative wellspring for Zend’s “spiritual father,” Karinthy), as well as poetry and novels from around the world, thanks to translations of world literature into Hungarian (including Zend’s own translations of Italian poetry). Similarly, Zend’s Canadian associates were often writers and artists who, like him, immigrated to Canada from other countries, such as poet Mary Melfi (Italy) and artist Jiri Ladocha (Czechoslovakia).
In this respect, Zend’s work in Canada embodies a multicultural spirit — not only by virtue of his country of origin. His was among the crescendo of immigrant voices that eventually led to Canada’s official embracing of multiculturalism as a defining national feature in 1988 with the Canadian Multiculturalism Act.
Although lineage can be documented, in reality the entangled network of influences is much more mysterious. Impossible complexity notwithstanding, what follows is an attempt to point out some Canadian cultural figures who had a transformative effect on Zend’s development as a writer and artist.
And the most striking transformation of his work is due to the influence of the Canadian avant-garde. Although all of Zend’s early poems written in Hungary were lost to the chaos of the Hungarian Revolution, his earlier poems written in Canada in Hungarian, some of them unpublished, are likely a continuation of poems in a humorous and fantastical vein, sometimes with logical twists. Others are impressionistic, sometimes exploring dream states, more in the vein of Miklós Radnóti’s lyricism than Frigyes Karinthy’s modernist satire and science fiction.
It is possible that Zend was influenced in Hungary by avant-garde culture, which most likely would have come from his knowledge of 1920s Russian constructivism. Janine Zend astutely points out that some of the concrete poetry in Oāb is reminiscent of such visual art. Certainly the work to which he gravitated in Hungary was influenced by European international modernism as opposed to traditional lyricism and narrative. However, I think it’s fair to say that his exposure to the Canadian avant-garde was transformative to his work, in ways that can be traced to specific influences.
Among Canadian writers, Zend’s work is most closely related to the formally innovative writers of the 1960s and onward, such as the TISH poets of UBC Vancouver, including Lionel Kearns; other experimental poets such as bpNichol and Steve McCaffery; his fellow poets named “Robert” in a performing and publishing group called The Three Roberts (Priest, Sward, and Zend), and media theorist Marshall McLuhan.
The following correspondences do not, of course, fully explore the breadth of Zend’s Canadian aesthetic affinities, and I’m no doubt omitting some important ones. Perhaps someone will take this topic as an opportunity to write a more developed analysis.
Marshall McLuhan, Lionel Kearns,
and Norman T. White’s Hearsay Project
Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian media theorist who wrote about the effects of media and electronic communications on society, was a frequent guest speaker at the CBC, where Zend worked as a producer. Zend was obviously fascinated by his ideas; some of his works were written under the sign of McLuhan, such as the following short one in a series entitled “Tissues:”
The time will come
when there will be no time
only electronic circuits
and I will remember
what the dead have forgotten
what the unborn have planned1
In a futuristic world in which brains are replaced by electronic circuits, time, memory, and desire will have collapsed into a static omniscience in which every thought — past, present, and future — is always already immortalized. In such a world, total knowledge paradoxically becomes oblivion, a vacuous nothing (in human terms), since it is no longer parsed by the meaning-producing processes of remembering, forgetting, and planning. Birth, growth, change, and death would be equally meaningless. In a few linguistic strokes, Zend captures the essence of the age of electronic information, and we don’t have to exchange brain cells for circuitry to experience the effects of a culture increasingly reliant on electronic information storage.
A closely related work is “The Message,” which Zend dedicates to McLuhan:
The messenger arrived out of breath. The dancers stopped their pirouettes, the torches lighting the palace walls flickered for a moment, the hubbub at the banquet table died down, a roasted pig’s knuckle froze in mid-air in a nobleman’s fingers, a general behind the pillar stopped fingering the bosom of the maid of honour.
“Well, what is it, man?” asked the King, rising regally from his chair. “Where did you come from? Who sent you? What is the news?” Then, after a moment, “Are you waiting for a reply? Speak up, man!”
Still short of breath, the messenger pulled himself together. He looked the King in the eye and gasped: “Your Majesty, I am not waiting for a reply because there is no message because no one sent me. I just like running.”2
“The Message” is reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s “An Imperial Message,” in which the dying emperor’s words, whispered to a messenger, never reaches its intended receiver, who nonetheless daydreams about the message’s content.3
Zend’s parable tells the reverse tale of a messenger approaching the king, whose expectations are thwarted by the runner’s denial of the role of messenger and thus the very existence of a message. The messenger-who-is-not-a-messenger is himself the message—which is simply the fact of his enjoyment of running. The king, like a good consumer of messages, has failed to comprehend the significance of the medium of that message.
In 1985, electronic media experimenter Norman T. White honored Zend several months after his death by using “The Message” for The Hearsay Project (fig. 1), a conceptual electronic art happening that took place in a span of twenty-four hours from November 11 to 12.
The story, minus the title, dedication, and author, was sent in succession to various countries around the world, in which each translator passed their rendition on to the next translator, in the manner of the children’s game of telephone, also known as hearsay. White reports that Zend’s “widow, Janine, was on hand to hit the ‘return’ key which sent the message on its way around the world,” from Toronto to Des Moines, Sydney, Tokyo, Vienna, Newport, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and back to Toronto. En route, “The Message” was translated into Spanish, Japanese, German, Welsh, Hungarian, and finally back into English. Not only was the text of the story transformed by the successive translations, but also the process “preserve[d] . . . the text distortions generated by typographical errors and by telephone-line ‘noise.’”4
The following is a comparison of the messenger’s last words in Zend’s story and the end result of The Hearsay Project:
Your Majesty, I am not waiting for a reply because there is no message because no one sent me. I just like running.
YOUR MAJESTY, THERE IS NO NEED FOR AN ANSWER. AFTER ALL, NOTHING HAS HAPPENED. NO ONE SENT ME. I RISE ABOVE EVERYTHING.
If the media of language and electronic transmission are the message, then the vaguaries and fallibility of those media are rendered transparent in this conceptual game. And the final words, “I RISE ABOVE EVERYTHING,” seem oddly apropos and fortuitous, for to rise above all is perhaps also to become less visible as a medium to consumers of messages.
Such theoretical concerns were emerging themes among TISH poets such as Lionel Kearns, who shares Zend’s fascination with the ideas of McLuhan: Kearns’ book of poetry By the Light of the Silvery McLune: Media Parables, Poems, Signs, Gestures, and Other Assaults on the Interface (1969) explores the ironies and paradoxes arising from mass media fallout on society.5 A prime example of Kearns’ preoccupation with media is “A Collage Education,” which “exposes television’s ironic juxtaposition of African-American poverty and pharmaceutical painkillers. . . . Kearns’ engagement with media culture also infuses poems of postcolonial irony, as in ‘Bleeding,’ in which Mexican Day of the Dead ceremonies are marred by arrogantly voyeuristic tourists and the intrusion of travelogue filmmakers.”7
In other poems, such as “Medium,” Kearns more directly pays tribute to McLuhan:
Once I’d be filling up poems
with outrageous images
and impossible ideas
just to keep track of them
and let you know I’m here
Now I give you only
silence and blank paper
but this too
is a kind of message7
One of the most striking (and most widely anthologized) works from By the Light of the Silvery McLune is the concrete poem “The Birth of God” (fig. 2), which Kearns calls “a mathematical mandela embodying the perfect creative/destructive principle of the mutual interpenetration and balanced interdependence of opposites.” In its creation of an image of the binary from characters that denote the binary system, it might well also be an homage to McLuhan.
An interesting counterpart to Kearns’ depiction of binaries is Zend’s Espanto (fig. 3), which creates the yin and yang symbol in Daoism using the Spanish words “no” and “si.” While I would not say that this work was directly influenced by McLuhan, it’s possible that the spirit of Kearns’ “Birth of God” was in the back of his mind when he created Espanto, which was, by the way, Zend’s first venturing into the kind of typewriter art exemplified in his collection Arbormundi.
Kearns, White, and Zend responded creatively to McLuhan’s theories of media communications. And in this section I have confined myself to poems that effectively transpose McLuhan’s theories into descriptive, allegorical, or concrete-poetic form. But McLuhan famously upheld modernist and avant-garde poetry as an exemplary manifestation of changes in the nature of communication through their juxtaposition of seemingly unrelated images, disruption of syntax, and disjunctive narrative, as he relates in a 1969 interview:
I began to realize that the greatest artists of the 20th Century — Yeats, Pound, Joyce, Eliot — had discovered a totally different approach, based on the identity of processes of cognition and creation.7
It’s beyond the scope of my present project even to begin to document such vast and complex territory, which is being explored by such communications scholars as Darren Wershler and Richard Cavell. So I will close by simply pointing out that in a similar way that bpNichol, Zend, and many other poets of their time were drawing attention to the medium and materiality of language through disjunctiveness and fragmentation, poets and New Media artists such as Kearns, White, and Zend were exploring ways to make visible the media and effects of mass communication, which despite (or because of) its pervasiveness tend to fade into background noise.
Next Installment: Part 7.
Canadian Literary Cross-Pollination:
bpNichol, The Four Horsemen,
and Jiri Ladocha