So, here we are then. Listening to Melvyn Bragg’s series on Culture, it of course touched on Snow and Leavis. And here’s what I think: in short, Snow was Right and Leavis unbearable. OK? Got that? So now you know what to say at dinner-parties when the subject comes up. ‘Oh, of course Snow was right!’ you can drawl, between sips of your Merlot,* ‘but Leavis was simply unbearable!’
Want more detail? Well, Leavis maintained, in The Great Tradition, that Great Art must have a moral purpose. In this he was, ironically, similar to Dr Johnson who, though he is often quoted as saying ‘no man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money’, also thought that a writer should have a high moral purpose. Leavis could be seen I suppose as the last gasp of Christian morality (though I’m not sure if he was religious); and his scalpel cut right through the centre of literature: he thought Lawrence better than Joyce, Austen and Henry James entirely worthy, and both Eliots (George and TS) are Up There too. He left out Dickens altogether, though he later recanted, and thought that although an openness to life and experience was useful it was not a necessary condition of art: he thus dismissed the Bloomsbury set with one sweep of rhetoric, consigning them to the same rubbish-bin as Hardy.
Nowadays we probably think the opposite in many respects – and much of this is due to the influence of his opponent, C P Snow. Everyone knows the phrase ‘The Two Cultures’, even if they don’t know where it comes from: it’s from a lecture (later a book) which calls for more integration between arts and sciences – and in particular, more scientific awareness on the part of the artists. To illustrate the point, he sets the arts people in his audience a simple question:
‘What is the second law of thermodynamics?’
This, he says, is the scientific equivalent to asking ‘have you ever read a book?’ He overstates his case – but still, the point is made. What is the second law of thermodynamics? Hang on, I know this one: the first law is something like, whatever temperature a thing is at, that’s how hot or cold it is. And the second law is something about heat travelling from a hotter to a cooler body. OK, let’s see – have I got that right?
Blast! No – that’s the first one. The second one is ‘the entropy of a closed system tends towards the maximum.’ Which means, I think, that if you close the windows the heater will warm the room up.
OK then… so: to return to Leavis and his point about a moral purpose in writing. I think it’s self-evident that Dickens combined entertainment and a moral purpose – not only that, but the fact that he combined them so well, made his ideas more pervasive. ‘Nicholas Nickleby’ was instrumental in closing down those infamous Yorkshire schools where illegitimate children were basically dumped without hope of escape – it was because of his portrayal of Smike and the public’s outrage that this was actually happening, that he was able to be so effective. Beat that, Austen! There’s practical morality for you!
But nowadays we seem to think roughly the opposite of what Leavis said: that openness is all, and a moral purpose is a hindrance and frankly, a bore. It is interesting to note that Joyce is now celebrated as a thoroughgoing genius while Lawrence is, sadly, all-but forgotten (I have a poem about this – see below). And another irony is that Snow is remembered only for the phrase ‘the two cultures’ whilst his novels have been forgotten.
So there we are. Give me C P any day, for all his faults – and let’s leave Leavis outside bleating in the Snow…
*this is probably entirely the wrong sort of wine and shows how seldom I go to dinner parties.
The Lawrence poem begins:
They don’t give a fig about Lawrence
now sex is cascading in torrents
it’s hard now to credit
that folk who’d not read it
once looked on his work with abhorrence!
They don’t give a damn about Dave
the Messiah who came up to save
our bodies from virtue
that bodice can hurt you
but now he just spins in his grave
But now? Now that Harry’s met Sally?
it doesn’t take much to get pally
and everyone’s grabbing
to have what she’s having
and that’s not at all up your alley