F.R. Leavis’s response to C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures”

I’ve just acquired this slim volume from an Amazon reseller, and I’m a little saddened to see, from an ex libris sticker, that it came from the library of Prinknash Abbey. It even has some annotations in a beautiful neat monkish hand (not illuminated, unfortunately). The few monks I’ve ever spoken to have proven to be intriguing, fascinating individuals and this piece of evidence makes me worried that something horrible has happened to their library.

The first part is a glorious object lesson in ranting. As the object of a good sex session is to keep the recipient of your attentions just before the peak of orgasm until the final exposive moment, and the keep the tension and the anticipation building, the object of a good rant is to convince the reader for as long as possible that you are about to turn apoplectic without, in this case, it ever happening. And so far as it goes, it’s a wonderfully entertaining read. As good as Charlie Brooker. However, and here I have a confession, halfway through, Leavis enlists the aid of Lawrence, Eliot and Ruskin, and I find myself totally out of my depth. So it’s time for me to add, once more to the reading list.

There’s an interesting second essay in the volume, by Michael Yudkin, which while critical of Snow in no uncertain terms is much less ranty and more direct. While still (justifiably) accusing Snow of missing the point, it makes two egregious errors:

1. The assumption that science and technology are the same thing, and that understanding of science cannot, of itself, add to literature, since science is mere knowledge and does not speak to the human condition; and

2. The assumption that, unfortunately, the scientific “culture” is the one which will, if there is no bridge created, prevail.

The second I have already addressed. The first is more interesting. Science can inform literature in a number of ways:

1. In its most basic “technology” sense, it can posit alternative worlds or new inventions which can be the setting for (much of the dullest kind) of science fiction;

2. Scientific metaphors can enliven literature. When I’ve thought of some examples I’ll insert them.

3. Science can be the basis of literature. I don’t hesitate to say that Oliver Sacks, or Primo Levi’s writings count as literature.

4. Science in itself can be beautiful. The theory of evolution is beautiful. That something so simple can have such fascinating consequences is beautiful. It transcends pure knowledge. It generates an urge to know more, to explore, and to wonder. Mathematics can be beautiful. In its most basic sense, a simple formula or algorithm can generate beautiful images (like the Mandelbrot set, or a logarithmic spiral). In a deeper sense, a theorem or equation can be beautiful and beguiling. It can show us glimpses of deeper symmetries and connections, and dare us to discover more, and open our eyes to possibility. Isn’t that what great literature does?


4 Responses

  1. What an extraordinary little review you offer. I have read ‘The Two Cultures’ (transcript, 1959) but not Leavis’ response, which I eagerly seek.

    Similarly I hope that Pricknash Abbey have not been fraudulently deprived of their book. I, for one, do not know of the place but it sounds quite fine and hobbit-like.

    Anyhow, your words have whetted my appetite.
    Many thanks.

  2. Dear wjkennaugh,

    Do not fear for Prinknash Abbey and its hobbit-like monks. It still exists and there are lots of web links. It appears they relocated and had no need for Leavis. But I too have been looking for a copy of this rant.


  3. Anthony O’Hear described the lecture as like artllery being directed at a (resilient) blade of grass. See his essay “Two Cultures Revisited” 1996.

  4. Leavis’s lecture is a masterful polemic.

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