When the English don went nuclear: For National Science Week, a memory trace. To the left: C P Snow, technocrat and novelist, bemoaning the gulf between arts and science. To the right: F R Leavis, a critic about to explode. Frederic Raphael evokes 1959

Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
It is now half a Biblical lifetime since CP Snow denounced the traditional British gulf between science and the humanities. In his famous, perhaps notorious, 1959 lecture, he declared that the Two Cultures spoke different languages; scientists and humanists were lamentably blind to each other's beauty and deaf to each other's equally valuable message. Post-war Britain thus suffered from a sort of cultural apartheid. The cure was to make the Second Law of Thermodynamics as natural a part of civilised wisdom as, say, Jane Austen's line: 'It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.'

Since he was a novelist and literary journalist, as well as a former civil servant (influential in organising atomic research during the Second World War), Snow had reason to believe that he qualified for citizenship in both the domains whose fusion he proposed. Strangers and Brothers, the sequence of novels that made him famous, advertised the ascent to power of the white-coated New Men who, despite lacking metropolitan or artistic graces, had proved their right to manage post-war Britain according to enlightened, scientific standards.

This new class of practical pundits had vindicated its claims not only over Hiroshima but also at Bletchley, where Oxbridge wits had cracked the Nazis' secret codes; given the right backing, they could now engage with confidence on the riddle of the universe.

Snow insisted that if Britain was to meet the challenge of change, science rather than the humanities - in the old sense of a classical, literary education - had to supply an objectively valid, forward-looking philosophy. Education had to be practical. There was, in truth, timely prescience in his fear that, unless it geared itself to change course, Britain might become a kind of 20th-century Venice: a once pivotal power which, with new currents in world trade, would be reduced to the status of a marooned curiosity. Investment in science, Snow suggested, was the only plausible way to remain in the mainstream.

Why should a reasonable warning against incipient obsolescence have excited such passionate hostility? Thirty-five years ago, Britain had only just been reminded, in the sullen aftermath of Suez, that its position in the world was rocky. If Winston Churchill was still alive, along with the receding memory of his - and Britain's - finest hour, Harold Macmillan was proving a lugubrious successor. Gestural inertia had replaced the commanding effortlessness with which Great Men had once held the tiller.

However, if the Old Etonian posture at amateur superiority was increasingly tottery, as were the mores that sustained it, it could still be claimed that the Old Guard was on parade and should not hurriedly be changed. On the intellectual front, was not our - and perhaps the world's - most renowned philosopher Bertrand Russell, who had been central to the intellectual and moral revolution in which he had figured since early in the century?

If he had taken Snow's part, Russell might have given it some much-needed class, but he was probably too much of an egotist to play the foot-soldier in so pedestrian a cause. Where Russell's idea of higher education was lofty to the point of vertiginous, Snow wanted to raise (and revise) the general efficiency rather than to prime an elite to reach for undiscovered conclusions. Lacking Russell's standing, he was wise to be modest, but modesty did not insure him against F R Leavis, who was the very type of the one-track - and not particularly broad-gauge - mind.

As the essential Cambridge literary critic, he regarded the common pursuit of true judgement in literature - by which he meant almost exclusively English literature - as an end no less than a means; the purpose of a humane education was to nurture the moral self-sufficiency necessary to resist, if not prevent, the very technological revolution that Snow advocated.

Leavis found his idol in DH Lawrence, on account less of his dark gods than of his veneration of Old England. He was not only an open-necked puritan and purist, he was also an unsmilingly disappointed academic who, like so many who scorn worldly values and popular success, craved the professorship which he believed that adroit fixers such as Snow (though not Snow in person) had unjustly denied him. Only Wittgenstein - with whom he affected to have had a closer relationship than the facts warrant - had the ability to render him somewhat humble. Certainly the great philosopher was alone in daring to express his admiration for Leavis's qualities by imploring him to 'Give up literary criticism]'.

When it came to the two cultures, Snow's laborious studies were more than matched by Leavis's invective. The universality of science appealed to Leavis no more than dilettante ideas about art and literature that he associated with Bloomsbury or Sunday journalism.

Had not Lawrence advised that when you were asked why grass was green, you should not offer a scientific answer about chlorophyll, but respond simply 'Because it is'? Perhaps the only writer who achieved a synthesis between standards which both Leavis and Snow might have respected was Primo Levi, but neither the literary nor the scientific pundits of the insular Fifties ever began to acknowledge the significance of so marginal a phenomenon as the Holocaust.

Although Leavis was too busy resenting his enemies, real or imagined, to propound a coherent political ideology, it was clear that, while not a formal conservative, he regarded traditional British values, and the literary canon that articulated them, as a hermetic system to be preserved rather than expanded: no living novelist merited his admiration, least of all the luckless Snow, whose jejune compositions were judged to be of a piece with his flaccid opinions. From the other end of the ground they could never have in common, Leavis out-Jeremiahed Jeremiah with anathemas against a Craven New World in which the grant-aided laboratory might banish the library.

The peace process that might have federated two cultures was stalled before it started. Cuttings headlined 'SNOW FALLS HEAVILY' were larkily pinned to college notice boards after Leavis had taken up arms.

The truth is, of course, that Snow and Leavis could not possibly agree since they were arguing from different premises. As for who won and who lost, Snow was briefly installed as a Science Minister in 1964 in Harold Wilson's first government, where he was teamed with Frank Cousins, a trade union boss whose knowledge of science was not his first qualification. If Wilson supported the white heat of technological revolution, Cousins was reluctant to stoke the furnace if it meant any alteration in the restrictive practices that made the TGWU the force it was. Snow fell once again.

As for Leavis, it no more occurred to him to alter his stance than it would have to disparage DH Lawrence. If science and the humanities are still unable to find common ground, it is due not least to the first science graduate to become Prime Minister. Margaret Thatcher, matching the complacency of Snow with the stiff-neckedness of Leavis, had little use for reconciliations or mutual respect. If the two cultures are still at all vigorous, they are both now at the mercy of market forces. When William Waldegrave announced this week that we (still) have no choice but to invest in science, his air of woeful obligation was enough to make you rush out and bury your head in Pride and Prejudice.

The Science Museum and the 'Independent' are co-hosting 'Art and Science Don't Mix?', a forum organised as part of National Science Week, at the museum tomorrow. All seats are taken.

(Photographs omitted)

Comments