Monday, 2 January 2012

FR Leavis, CP Snow, and my worry about being sent back in time

Whenever I read a short story or watch a film about someone going back in time to a previous era, I feel vaguely embarrassed that I wouldn’t be able to contribute any useful scientific or technological knowledge. I could tell them all about electricity and cars and automatic weapons and computers and the atom bomb and heart transplant operations and aeroplanes – but I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone the principles behind any of these things.

A fat lot of use I’d be to anyone.

I was always useless at science. I can’t remember if I got an “O” level at it, but it would have been a miracle if I had, given that in any Biology, Physics or Chemistry class I'd invariably end up 23rd in a class of 24. I was okay at Maths in a two-thirds-down-the-form sort of way, but Science was a torture (literally, when it came to that experiment where you had to grasp two metal tubes while the teacher sent an increasingly powerful electrical charge through them, making your arms bend up behind your back – bet you can’t do that now!)

Since then, I’ve read a mound of popular science books, including approachable accounts of the working of human body, quantum physics and the cosmos. But none of it ever sticks. When I reach the end of any of these books, I’m convinced that I’ve constructed a decent mental model of the subject – but the moment I try to explain any of it to anyone else, the model turns out to be an insubstantial chimera which promptly disintegrates, leaving behind nothing but a mocking, nerdish smile.

One feels such a fool.

The only cure for the resulting sense of intellectual inadequacy is to pick up  Two Cultures? The Significance of C.P. Snow, F.R. Leavis’s 1962 Richmond Lecture, which was a direct response to the success of C.P. Snow’s 1959 The Two Cultures.

Snow’s central argument is captured in the following:
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?
In the unlikely event that you’ve never the Leavis lecture, it is the ne plus ultra of hatchet jobs. By page three, you’re hoping someone will step in and stop the fight before Snow suffers irreparable psychological damage. Here’s a lengthy extract from Leavis:
Yet Snow is in fact portentously ignorant. No doubt he could himself pass with ease the tests he proposes for his literary friends with the intimation that they would fail them, and so expose themselves as deplorably less well educated in respect of science than he, though a scientist, can claim to be in respect of literature. I have no doubt that he can define a machine-tool and state the second law of thermodynamics… But of history, of the nature of civilisation and its recent developments, of the human history of the Industrial revolution, of the human significance entailed in that revolution, of literature, of the nature of that kind of collaborative human activity of which literature is the type, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that Snow exposes complacently a complete ignorance.
That’s merely Leavis clearing his throat at the start. It gets worse. Much worse.
The intellectual nullity is what constitutes any difficulty there may be in dealing with Snow’s panoptic pseudo-cogencies, his parade of a thesis: a mind to be argued with  - that is not there…
Not only is [Snow] not a genius, he is intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be… 
Snow is, of course, a – no I can’t say that; he isn’t: Snow thinks of himself as a novelist… as a novelist he doesn’t exist; he doesn’t begin to exist. He can’t be said to know what a novel is… I am trying to remember where I heard [can I have dreamed it?] that [Snow’s novels] are composed for him by an electronic brain called Charlie, into which the instructions are fed in the form of chapter headings.
But Leavis does stop hurling ad hominem abuse at Snow long enough to answer his point. The essence of Leavis's main counter-argument (the others being that technological knowledge isn't what makes us human and that Snow is an utter wanker) is captured in the following sentences: “He enforces his intention by telling us, after reporting the failure of his literary friends to describe the second law of thermodynamics: “yet I was asking something which is about the equivalent of Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s? There is no scientific equivalent of that question: equations between orders so disparate are meaningless…”

Indeed. I’m pretty sure that sometime during the course of my life I have dimly grasped, if only for a few minutes, the second law of thermodynamics. Now, apart from the fact that it has something to do with entropy, I wouldn’t have a clue. And that simply doesn’t matter in the least – because I don’t need to know. Just as I don’t need to know – and have no interest in – how electricity works, or why airplanes fly or why I can plug my electric guitar into the back of my computer and the sound is amplified.

This isn’t, as Snow claimed, the result of cultural luddism. I'm always dead impressed by scientists and their enormous throbbing brains, and I'm endlessly grateful for all the marvels technology regularly provides - It’s just that only scientific types and the people who pay them need to grasp any of this. For the rest of us – if we’re not that way inclined – it isn’t what makes us human. I wouldn’t give up a line of the poetry in my head in order to be au courant with modern physics. And I’m grateful to F.R. Leavis for reminding of me of that fact whenever I need reminding, and for making me feel unashamed of what is, after all, harmless and unsurprising ignorance.

If I ever do go back in time, they’ll just have to be content with smatterings of Coleridge and Wordsworth and Robert Frost, a bit of Philosophy, lots of music haltingly plucked out on a lute – and descriptions of technological wonders which will no doubt have them all rolling about in the aisles or burning me at the stake.  


  1. Benjamin Zephyr Zodiac6 January 2012 at 22:42

    FR Leavis, him a mighty clever man,

    Him write de Common Pursuit with his very
    own hand.

    Got a wife called Queeny, she pretty smart too,

    Dem don' tink much of de CP Snow.

    Me tink dem great but wot do me know it,
    Me specialism is de metaphysical poets,

    Me like John Donne an' de Georgy Herbert

    I meet dem down de pub for a couple of sherberts,

    Fo me dey just like a couple of of amateurs

    Wid internal rhymes and Iambic Pantameters

    Me own poetising is totally free,

    Of form and shape and symmetry.

    I like it that way cos it's too much bother

    To make all de words rhymin' one to de other,

    Me tink me gonna get de Nobel Prize,

    Cos I totally de right shape, colour and size,

    Nebber you mind dat me rhymes are shite,

    Me gwonna pick up de Booty all thru de nite

    In a Babylon, Rass Claat.


  2. Mr Zodiac. Glorious. Thanks very much.