How Many Cultures Was It Now?

One of my valued readers, Taskerdunham, has gone and started me off on the whole C P Snow/F R Leavis debate again.  To recap quickly, Snow presented a lecture in 1959 (I was two at the time and had very little culture at all) suggesting that there was a gap between the arts and the sciences in both academia and popular culture.  The advantage, he said, was generally on the side of the scientists because although most of them had read the usual books * most people on the arts side couldn’t even tell you the first law of thermodynamics which, he suggests, is equivalent to asking ‘have you read a book?’

*it was of course much easier to say which were ‘the usual books’ in those days, as indeed Leavis did, at great length (see below.)

Hm.  Let me think: I know the second law of thermodynamics is ‘heat cannot of itself travel from a cooler to a hotter body,’ but the first?  I seem to think it’s something like, ‘whatever temperature a thing is at, that’s how hot it is.’  Yeah, that was it… I have consulted the Oracle and It says the first law is, ‘heat is work and work is heat’ which means energy can’t be created or destroyed.  So there.

Aaaanyway, long story short, dear old F R L who had already written what many see as an elitist account of what constitutes Great Literature, takes huge exception to this and slags Snow off in no uncertain terms.  I have yet to read the full lecture (I’ve gone all scholarly on this and ordered both books, which are due to arrive within a few days) but his criticisms of Snow personally are uncalled-for* and his strictures on the novels somewhat unfair.  I’ll get back to this when I’ve read both lectures but meanwhile Snow’s novels are something I can talk about as I’ve read them a number of times.

*possibly the only thing Thatcher ever said that I agree with is: ‘If they criticise you personally they have shown they do not have a single argument left.’

I first came across Snow by accident.  It was my habit, not really knowing what to read, to browse library shelves and open books at random to see if anything grabbed me.  By chance one day I opened a book called The Masters and read a sentence that said something like: ‘he apologised too much for a man who was often so easy.’  And I thought, ‘here’s a man who understands me’ (I was eighteen at the time.)  Well, he wasn’t – at least not in the way that I thought – and yet he did understand diffident people, so I checked out ‘The Masters’ and read it avidly even though I had no idea that university colleges had Masters or what manner of man these might be.  Nevertheless it engaged me (which ought to say something about Snow’s powers as a writer) and this set me off on the whole ‘Strangers and Brothers‘ series.  (Shortly afterwards in my interview for Nottingham University the panel were very impressed by the inclusion of Snow on my reading list.)

Many people have since pointed out his shortcomings as a novelist.  Yes, he can be sententious; his prose style can be heavy and his characters speak wordily.  But I know of no-one who could begin to make committee meetings exciting or indeed to elicit any interest whatsoever in the election of a Master to an obscure Cambridge college in an eighteen-year-old woman; but Snow does.  His involvement in every nuance, every balance and shift of power and his insight into what each character wants; all these draw us in without the need to resort to grand dramas or intrigues – which means that when an affair does come such as in ‘Corridors of Power’ the drama is all the more effective for being understated.

The world Snow wrote about has gone: it was a world with men at its heart and women round the periphery; in fact the word ‘men’ resounds like a gong through the books.  His is a world we would now call ‘pale, stale and male’ – the world between and after the wars (the novels run from the ‘twenties to the ‘sixties) and although his women are rounded, even powerful characters in their own right, they very much inhabit their own sphere and Snow, both as narrator Lewis Elliott and as author, exhibits an attitude best described as Olympian.  You’d never know there were any women in the professions: when he comes across a young woman with meticulous observation skills he remarks that she would ‘make a good nurse’ and he once disparages a woman scientist as ‘not as good as her husband.’  The world will not forgive him for this and neither will I, but nor will I forget the insights his books offered me.

Next exciting instalment on the – ahem – 55-year-old Two Cultures debate coming up… and I won’t even have a rant this time on how the city of Leicester has forgotten him.

Or will I?  By the way, did anyone at all spot the carefully-concealed April Fool on Monday?

Kirk out