Thursday, May 7, 2009

This Day in Literary History (C.P. Snow Decries “2 Cultures”)

May 7, 1959—Physicist, bureaucrat and novelist, C.P. Snow gave rise to an enduring bit of intellectual shorthand about the knowledge and attitudes separating the sciences and the humanities with his lecture, “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.”

Snow is a figure from an age and environment utterly alien to 21st-century American culture. We’re used to novelists who spend years—decades, even—on a single work of elephantine proportions, meant to corral the Great American Novelist. Think Harold Brodkey. Think Norman Mailer with Harlot’s Ghost, a 1,000-plus-page behemoth ending with the most frightening phrase in the English language: “To Be Continued.”

In contrast, Snow was the kind of workhorse who leaves an astonishing amount of work that leaves one envious, especially when considering his very active life in politics. Unfortunately, little of his fiction is read or remembered years after his death.

Twenty years ago, inspired by a “Masterpiece Theatre” mini-series, I spent much of several months on my way to work listening to audiotapes of Snow’s entire 11-novel Strangers and Brothers sequence. After so much time, it’s hard to recall much of this staggering narrative of his alter ego, Lewis Eliot, from youth to late middle age. Two of the novels, however, I would recommend: The Masters, an unusually insightful dissection of academic politics, and The Light and the Dark, a poignant character study of Eliot’s manic-depressive intellectual friend Roy Calvert.

Ironically, it’s not so much entire novels as a pair of phrases he popularized that have lingered in the collective intellectual consciousness. One was “corridors of power,” taken from the title of a 1964 novel. The other, the subject of today’s post, is “the two cultures,” a seemingly rarefied topic that sparked a surprisingly personal controversy in Snow’s lifetime and that continues to be debated to this day by academics.

What surprises me about this lecture is not so much the stark distinction between science and the humanities but the perhaps overly optimistic faith of Snow in science and development as positive goods. Though a member of the Labour Party (he served briefly in Harold Wilson’s cabinet as parliamentary secretary to the minister of technology), he sounds here, in hailing industrialization as the engine of upward mobility, like nobody so much as the American Federalist Alexander Hamilton, another boy from humble circumstances who rose, by dint of education, to the top of his circle.

A society that stifles such promise—as, Snow believed, the Britain of his time was doing, by steering bright students with an aptitude toward the sciences into the humanities instead—wills itself to irreversible decline and fall. Here, for instance, he likens Britain to an earlier seaside power—and as I read it, I couldn’t help seeing parallels to a republic far closer to home:

“Like us, [the Venetians] had once been fabulously lucky. They had become rich, as we did, by accident… They knew, just as clearly as we know, that the current of history had begun to flow against them. Many of them gave their minds to working out ways to keep going. It would have meant breaking the pattern into which they had crystallised. They were fond of the pattern, just as we are fond of ours. They never found the will to break it."

In one sense, Snow was far from being a soothsayer. The gap between rich and poor would provide another battleground for the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., and whichever superpower was most convincing about its ability to bridge this gap would win the Cold War, he believed.

And then, this kicker: “This disparity between the rich and the poor has been noticed . . . most acutely and not unnaturally, by the poor,” Snow explains, adding: “It won’t last for long. Whatever else in the world we know survives to the year 2000, that won’t.”

As we know now, he couldn’t be more painfully, sadly wrong about this.
Ironically enough, reading his description of who would lead the Third World out of hopelessness, the technocrat who comes to mind is Robert McNamara. Yes, the same man who, after misleading the American public about his feelings about the Vietnam War he led, was hustled out of his old job by Lyndon Johnson and into 13 years at the World Bank. There, with his customary energy and bullying, he preached with evangelical fervor the necessity of saving Africans from want—all the while saddling them with massive debt and pursuing construction policies that imperiled the environment.

In the course of his lecture, Snow shifted from a fairly evenhanded discussion of the two sides’ shared responsibility for these intellectual divisions to a more partisan one in favor of scientists, whom he hailed for having “the future in their bones.” At least one humanist, F.R. Leavis, launched such an ad hominem attack on the quality of Snow’s novels that his publisher nervously asked Trilling if he wanted any changes in the work before publication. Fortunately, Snow did not answer in kind.

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