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?


On the Laziness of Children’s Story Writers

It is not compulsory for animals to have names that are alliterative with the creature’s species. Thus cows do not need to be called “Clarissa”, pigs do not need to be called “Peppa” and rabbits do not need to be called “Rachel”. A particularly warm section of hell is reserved for those who call hamsters “Hammy”.

Alternatively, at least be consistent, and ensure that all humans in your stories have names beginning with “H”

Two Cultures – CP Snow

There’s so much commentary on this lecture, I thought it was high time I read it – so I did.

Granted, it started a storm of controversy which still rages to this day. But, frankly, it’s pretty dated polemic rooted in a 1930s mindset that was already pretty well rotted (apart from, possibly, around the Oxbridge high tables of 1959 where Snow developed his subject). Modern references forget Snow’s prediction that world poverty would have ended by 2000. Like many vintage polemics, many of the base assumptions seem rather quaint. But, to demonstrate that the relevance of the two cultures, if there ever was one, is almost non-existent now:

1. Science-literate novelists, like Ian McEwan, Iain Banks, David Foster Wallace and Martin Amis (his first book was about video games fercrissakes).
2. Scientists and mathematicians who write beautifully and persuasively, and have a pretty good grasp of literature to boot: Richard Dawkins, E.O. Wilson, Peter Medawar, Douglas Hofstadter, Oliver Sacks, Matt Ridley.
3. Melvyn Bragg.
4. Melvyn Bragg.
5. The internet and technology are pervasive. No one can succeed in any higher seat of learning, even in the humanities, without understanding them.

But, there are a few things that humanities scholars need to understand about the sciences (and probably the other way round, but I can’t comment on those):

1. Mathematical argument, in particular, works in a different way to dialectical argument in discussions. If, as a humanities scholar, you bring mathematics into play, you are forced to play by a different set of rules, or you appear very, very stupid. In mathematics, you can be right (don’t get too het up about Godel’s incompleteness theorem – it’s extremely unlikely to help you). So, for example, if you try to come up with a jurisprudential theorem involving a perfect judge (called “Hercules” for example) who knows the algorithm to calculate the “correct” outcome of a legal question based on the extrapolation of all previously available data, you will have to content with this fact that this is isomorphic to the problem of how many curves will fit through a finite number of discrete points in n-space, to which the answer is always infinity. Hercules therefore has an infinite number of solutions to any given legal problem, and you have proved nothing. QED. There is no more argument, unless there’s a flaw in the maths.

2. Statistical issues are much the same, added to which the complication is that they are terribly counter-intuitive. If a statistician colleague demonstrates, for example, that by using “catch and release” statistical techniques that it’s 1,000,000,000 times more likely that Timon of Athens was written by Shakespeare (or at least by the person who wrote all the other works attributed to Shakespeare) then you really have to shut up about the historical evidence surrounding your pet theory that they were written by Queen Elizabeth, until you can effectively demonstrate the flaw in your opponent’s statistical analysis. The maths trumps your evidence, unfortunately.

3. Reductionism doesn’t destroy beauty. Really. See 5 below.

4. Chaos theory is fascinating, relatively simple, but also easily misunderstood.

5. Evolutionary theory is incredibly simple, but has truly astounding consequences. In fact, any form of emergence is really interesting.

That’ll do for the time being