The English novelist and civil servant C.P. Snow was a big, shambling man with a voice full of portent and the face of a bespectacled baby, and he is famous for starting a fight. He was celebrated for other reasons too—he was knighted for his work hiring scientists for the Ministry of Labour in the second war, and was made a life peer in 1964: Baron Snow, of the City of Leicester. But all that was small beer in comparison with the enduring cultural wallop of “The Two Cultures,” a lecture he gave at Cambridge in February 1959.
It seemed inevitable that science and technology would improve the lot of the world’s poor during the postwar period, and even to question that outcome was seen by organization men like Snow as standing in the way of human happiness and prosperity. The literary culture in England was far too dismissive of Science, he thought; as a novelist who’d originally trained as a chemist and physicist he felt himself a senior member of both tribes, entitled to speak with authority.
So in “The Two Cultures,” Snow set forth a manifesto urging the “literary intellectuals” to get out of the way of the scientists, who “have the future in their bones.” Boo to the hidebound old historians, belletrists and philosophers, and Hooray for the brash, can-do fellows in their white coats leading the charge of Progress! The lecture became an instant sensation, debated feverishly in the press and the academy, and assigned as reading for university-bound students.
The most persistent message of “The Two Cultures” is in Snow’s view of “the common man”—who, he believed, would be set free by the pursuit of materialist Progress:
“Common men can show astonishing fortitude in chasing jam tomorrow. Jam today, and men aren’t at their most exciting: jam tomorrow, and one often sees them at their noblest.”
The elitist notion that poverty is itself ennobling—that working people should be forced to chase “jam tomorrow” as if they were so many horses on a track, and thus appear “at their most exciting” to people like C.P. Snow—is alive and well in the tax-cutting austeritarians of today from Theresa May to Paul Ryan, all still richsplaining to everybody else that we really ought to be pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps and Succeeding, while the privileged like themselves remain conspicuously “free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise.”
On the surface, Snow had condemned the schism between the Two Cultures, and called for science education to be given equal stature with the liberal arts in English schools. Beneath it, more elemental forces were loosed.
As the sixties began, the Western democracies were highly receptive to cheerleading on behalf of Progress, like Snow’s. A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow was coming. American nationalists were furious at having been caught napping by the Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957. The “space race” was on, with the USA and the USSR duking it out to be first at everything—rocket-launching, space-animal assassination, blasting astronauts into orbit, etc.
These were the most furious birth-pangs of the Industrial Revolution. Countless technologies were roaring to life at once, and many of them, it must be admitted, came with substantial benefits. There were magical breakthroughs in industrial automation and computers and medicine. Organ transplants, bypass surgery, the removal of brain tumors. Agricultural revolutions right and left. A certain summer evening came, after which nobody would ever see the moon quite the same way again.
Soon, very soon, everyone on earth would be fed, healthy, educated, prosperous—technology was making that inevitable—so why would we ever need another war? And the glorious crescendo of “progress” would come almost effortlessly, as if the human race were gliding toward a new Golden Age on a frictionless track: it was only a matter of time.
But certain observers remained unconvinced, among them the critic and Cambridge don F.R. Leavis. He was some ten years older than Snow, and an eminent literary authority—a super prickly, opinionated one, too, and no kind of fool-sufferer. He belonged to the hypermodern school of literary criticism that demanded modern fiction be read seriously, which was in 1959 an insane and heretical notion. Leavis was a fiery advocate for D.H. Lawrence at a time when English dons, like J.R.R. Tolkien, thought that Chaucer was plenty modern enough for scholars of English, and Shakespeare was some kind of a parvenu. A passionate champion of freedom of speech and thought, Leavis was the diametric opposite of the blandly conformist establishment man, Snow.
Leavis cared more about literature than he cared about his literary career. So he was increasingly appalled as Snow’s views gained, bit by bit, in influence and reputation; when he learned that bright sixth-formers were being assigned to read “The Two Cultures,” that was the last straw. He cooked up a Molotov cocktail in lecture form and hurled it into history before an audience in Cambridge in February of 1962.
“Two Cultures? The Significance of C.P. Snow” began with a blistering appraisal of Snow’s novels, their “utter lack of intellectual distinction and… embarrassing vulgarity of style,” and things blasted downhill from there. “Unrelieved and cultureless banality,” “never was dialogue more inept; to imagine it spoken is impossible”; as a novelist he “doesn’t exist; he doesn’t begin to exist.” Worse still, Snow understood nothing of the humanist establishment he claimed to represent; his “culture” was the empty, shallow culture of the Sunday papers—Potemkin, cocktail-party stuff, worlds away from the real culture that is charged with taking art seriously, with cultivating it and preserving it for the future.
So that nobody could ever imagine he regarded Snow as anything like a colleague, let alone a worthy one—to avoid “normalizing” him, if you like—Leavis dispensed with every speck of politeness: Snow’s literary culture, he said, “is something that those genuinely interested in literature can only regard with contempt and resolute hostility… his ‘literary intellectual’ is the enemy of art and life.”
(Or as we might say today, “Do not even dream of inviting me to have a ‘civilized debate’ with this fuckin’ clown on some godforsaken talk show.”)
Leavis’s critical firebomb had a blast radius so wide and fierce that you can still feel the heat all the way from the 21st century. But his real target, his true enemy, wasn’t Charles Percy Snow at all, but the far more dangerous one he’d long fought as a critic and teacher: The machine-world of bloodless materialism he saw smashing down on human freedom. Snow was only its trumpeting herald, a messenger fit to be shot.
It is the world in which […] ‘standard of living’ is an ultimate criterion, its raising an ultimate aim, a matter of wages and salaries and what you can buy with them […] and the technological resources that make your increasing leisure worth having; so that productivity—the supremely important thing—must be kept on the rise, at whatever cost…
The capacity for art, the literary capacity to make and interpret meaning, Leavis feared, would diminish as a result of this encroaching materialism and the passivity it would produce, so that life’s real values—the humanist values of creativity, beauty, communication, aliveness—would slip away, leaving only a dry, empty ‘prosperity’ in their place. Snow’s “terrifying confidence of simplification” made him not only an inferior novelist, not only an inferior technologist and scientist, but an inferior human being, lacking imagination or humility enough even to speak cogently on the subject of what was really about to come down.
And how right Leavis proved! (Except, alas, for the “increasing leisure” part.) Technological progress really did become “the supremely important thing” for the next half century. Now we can see who came closer to the mark about what would happen next.
In the event, the breakneck pace of progress—the vain, blindly stampeding version of “science” that Snow championed—came with an avalanche of unforeseen disasters. Yes, there were magnificent triumphs: There is less hunger in the world and there are better infant survival rates, there is stem cell therapy, and immunotherapy, and a cure for Hepatitis C and all the mindblowing miracles of the information age that make it child’s play to read almost anything, and communicate with almost anyone, and research a magazine article like this one.
Also instability and violence on a global scale, a vile, repulsive herd of international plutocrats who’ve got the world by the throat, a dangerous imbecile and freak in the White House and a nonzero chance that we’ve poisoned the whole planet as the result of our addiction to Progress. As for the world’s poor, they are still with us, in their hundreds of millions. There are children still dying of politically engendered starvation, or dying of cholera, or drowning and washing up dead on a Turkish beach.
Scientific progress, it turns out, isn’t the magically self-correcting engine of eternal benefits that the 20th century Snovians, drunk on Progress, had blithely assumed it would be, and the 21st century is only barely now waking up to the horrible hangover.
Leavis, for all his irascibility and dogmatism, foresaw this danger clearly in 1962.
The advance of science and technology means a human future of change so rapid, of tests and challenges so unprecedented, of decisions and possible non-decisions so momentous and insidious in their consequences, that mankind—this is surely clear—will need to be in full intelligent possession of its full humanity […] What we need, and shall continue to need not less, is […] an intelligence, a power—rooted, strong in experience, and supremely human—of creative response to the new challenges of time; something that is alien to either of Snow’s cultures.
Neither a dullard humanist culture built on complacent conventionalities, nor a scientific culture hell-bent on progress at any cost, would stand the ghost of a chance of navigating the coming insanity wisely.
Leavis was right, but that doesn’t mean he won the argument. He didn’t. Form took precedence over substance among the squares, who lost no time in taking him to task for having been rude. “Dr. Leavis only attacked Charles because he is famous and writes good English,” said Dame Edith Sitwell, who wouldn’t know good English if it smacked her with a bowling ball. Lionel Trilling called Leavis’s tone “impermissible,” and Lord Boothby was all on about his “reptilian venom.” Snow had a lot of friends and colleagues in high places… or put it this way, Leavis was not on visiting terms with Edith Sitwell. Though it should be noted, too, that Leavis had some public champions, and no small number of his Cambridge colleagues congratulated him in private for having had, as the retired Canon Professor Raven put it, “the courage to say what some of us ought to have said long ago.”
All this happened because, with science become almost a religion, with the gradual deprecation of the non-countable values pertaining to art and to literature and philosophy, everything is, must be, all about getting More. Put Progress in charge, belittle humanist principles, and what you’re going to get is a whole lot of counting. In other words: if More is the only good thing left, More is not only better, it’s all there is. There’s nothing else.
Leavis was keenly alive to the “callously ugly insensitiveness” and the deeper significance of judging the quality of life this way. He railed against “the world in which the vital inspiration, the creative drive, is ‘Jam tomorrow’ (if you haven’t any today) or (if you have it today) ‘More jam tomorrow.'”
Jam—for which, today, we may read iPhones, Amazon Prime Day, summering at the beach, wealth-worshipping Hollywood comic book movies starring Robert Downey, Jr., complicated devices for making the purest coffee, flying first class in ever-larger airplanes, food so elaborately wrought as to be entirely unrecognizable—has been the “vital inspiration, the creative drive” of Western culture for a half century. Leavis, who in 1962 couldn’t possibly have imagined the degree to which he would be proved right, described the coming cultural revolution as “the vision of our imminent tomorrow in today’s America: the energy, the triumphant technology, the high standard of living and the life-impoverishment—the human emptiness; emptiness and boredom and craving alcohol—of one kind or another.”
Net Worth. GDP. Polls. Bank balances. Probability values. SAT scores and college rankings. Yelp ratings. Stock charts and company valuations.
In a world where nothing matters but More, numbers are evidence; numbers are proof. It’s Science! If you cannot produce a number, your thesis is necessarily subjective, speculative or just plain pointless. Numbers are truth. Numbers are meaning. Voilà the sole commandment of the God of Progress, Thou Shalt Measure. We’ve reached a worldview in which nothing is really “true” unless it can be totted up in a formula, calculation or ranking. How else to measure Progress? Anything that resists or is insusceptible to direct measurement is an “opinion” rather than a “fact,” regarded as having no truth and no value.
The Two Cultures debate is a particularly clear expression of this, the key conflict of the 20th century, as we’ll be exploring in this occasional column. William Morris fought the same kind of blind, materialist industrial “progress.” The Bauhaus (and later, Dieter Rams at Braun) set craftsmanship up against “fine art” in a similar tension against the machine world. Pioneering epidemiologist Roy Laver Swank struggled likewise against a hidebound medical establishment from 1952 onward. Karl Popper had a parallel conflict with Thomas Kuhn in the field of scientific philosophy in 1965; Renata Adler had a literary version of it with Pauline Kael in 1980. Mark Zuckerberg patiently explains how Facebook can manage media and society via algorithm. Technical, expert, bureaucratic, scientific, commercial triumphalism against the human, the mercurial, the personal and imaginative. Digital vs. analog. The fixed idea versus the fluid one. The seeking of wealth versus the expansion of imagination. The virtues of push, calculation and certainty, against those of provisionality, experiment and skepticism.
Humanistic values have long been on the losing side of this battle. The magic wrought by science and technology, together with the arrogance it brought its leaders, skewed our culture more and more toward the “pragmatic” Snovian view: that scientists have a better grasp of the truth than the sloppy practitioners of the sissified arts of literature, history and philosophy, with the results that you see all around you.
Nobody has a lock on the truth. Not scientists, and not humanists. The narrow, calcified notion of Science vs. the Humanities has been wrong all along, and wrong all the way through. There never were Two Cultures, just one, governed by love of the truth, no matter where it may lead us.
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