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Britain's two cultures - a third look.

IN 1959 the novelist C. P. Snow gave his Rede Lecture in Cambridge, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution'. He articulated some ideas which had been around for some time, principally that modern industrial society was living not in one, unified, culture but in two. On the one hand there are the |literary intellectuals' (Snow's term); on the other, the scientists, particularly the physical scientists. Between the two is a lack of mutual understanding amounting sometimes to hostility. The non-scientists, Snow went on, |have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of man's condition'. In contrast, |the scientists believe that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment'. Some of the literary intellectuals, like Pound, Yeats and Wyndham Lewis, were |not only politically silly, but politically wicked'. The two sides hardly entered into each other's area of knowledge; Snow claimed to know scientists who were totally ignorant of literature, who had never read Dickens or Shakespeare, and literary intellectuals who knew nothing of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that scientific equivalent of Shakespeare. The two cultures had been separating for some time -- between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension -- sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding'. Snow knew that, so crudely expressed, the dichotomy was a simplification but, as a novelist who was widely read in European and American literature, and as a scientist who had done some distinguished work in his youth, he straddled both cultures and knew what he was talking about. He was careful to point out that the split was not confined to Britain, but was apparent everywhere in developed countries in varying degrees.

So far there could have been little dissent from the analysis. But Snow went further. The literary intellectuals were more to blame for they are |natural Luddites'. Here Snow took sides for he believed |Industrialism is the only hope of the poor' and in a key paragraph he took a vigorous stick to the Luddites: |It is all very well for one, as a personal choice, to reject industrialisation -- to do a modern Walden if you like, and if you go without much food, see most of your children die in infancy, despise the comforts of literacy, accept twenty years off your own life, then I respect you for the strength of your aesthetic revulsion. But I don't respect you in the slightest if, even passively, you try to impose the same choice on others who are not free to choose. In fact, we know what their choice would be. For, with singular unanimity, in any country where they have had the choice, the poor have walked off the land into the factories as fast as the factories could take them'.

Here Snow took another tack. There is a difference, he maintained, between the industrial revolution and the scientific revolution. The latter is that applied science which is changing all our lives, electronics, atomic energy and automation, mainly. The literary intellectuals know nothing about this, nor about the various levels of organisation in industry which the revolution requires. Britain is particularly bad here. The split between literary people and scientific applies to all modern societies. But in Britain there is a further split which hardly obtains elsewhere and that is between the pure scientists and the applied. Britain because of its specialised education system, |the old pattern of training a small elite' is much worse than other countries, particularly America and Russia. This is worrying, for the main issue in the scientific revolution is that |the people in the industrialised countries are getting richer, and those in the non-industrialised countries are at best standing still: so that the gap between the industrialised countries and the rest is widening every day'. The consequence is that the West must help in the transformation of the poor, for the poor countries have noticed the disparity and they won't put up with it. |The trouble is, the West with its divided culture finds it hard to grasp just how big, and above all just how fast, the transformation must be.' The dangers to us, Snow continues, are the H-bomb, over-population and the gap between rich and poor. |Since the gap between the rich countries and the poor can be removed, it will be. If we are shortsighted, inept, incapable either of good-will or enlightened self-interest, then it may be removed to the accompaniment of war and starvation: but removed it will be.' Education is not |the total solution to this problem: but without education the West can't begin to cope'. So closing the gap between the two cultures is a necessity |in the most abstract sense, as well as in the most practical'.

The ideas Snow expressed were not particularly new but they came from him with considerable force and insight. They were widely discussed and, printed, the lecture became a text for sixth-form and college discussion. At this point there entered the debate one of the literary intellectuals, the almost archetypal figure of a literary critic in the shape of F. R. Leavis. Leavis was probably the best known critic in the country; anyone who took an interest in literature or who studied it in a university English school had been influenced by him, either, in most cases, positively, or, since he generated much opposition, negatively. Totally incorruptible, Leavis scorned the literary establishment and the support and professional advance which that establishment for the most part denied him. He lived on the fringe of Cambridge literary life, which returned the scorn he poured on it. But many readers respected him for the considerable insights he brought to the study of texts, particularly those of individual Shakespeare plays (his treatment of Othello for example, was outstandingly searching) or of works by authors like Milton, George Eliot and D. H. Lawrence. His weaknesses, as many were not slow to point out, were his inability to see shades of quality in writers (they were either in his good books, as it were, or out, and not worth bothering with) and the bitterness which so often seemed to accompany his work. There was also the problem of his style; over-qualified, dense, tortuous, it was hardly penetrable by some readers.

It was his acerbity which made his treatment of Snow (in |Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow,' the Richmond Lecture of 1962) so remarkable, for it reached a level which had hardly been matched since the eighteenth century. |Yet Snow is portentously ignorant,' and, as a novelist, |he is intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be' were typical of his style. Yet beneath the vituperation Leavis made some shrewd and valid points. In denigrating Snow's understanding of literature and science, Leavis lines him up with his other enemies, with Cambridge dons, newspapers and intellectual weeklies. The worst thing about Snow to Leavis was that he placed among the literary intellectuals, among the natural Luddites, the creators of great literature in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. |The upshot is that', Leavis went on, |if you insist on the need for any other kind of concern, entailing forethought, action and provision, about the human future -- any other kind of misgiving -- than that which talks in terms of productivity, material standards of living, hygienic and technological progress, then you are a Luddite'. He equates Snow with H. G. Wells (not a writer Leavis had any time for) in his enthusiasm for the results of applied science, for what Snow called |jam'. To Snow, whereas there was little individual hope (|each of us dies alone'), there was |social hope'. To Leavis |nothing matters but life', the maxim of Lawrence that |only in living individuals is life there'. Against Lawrence, |the greatest English writer of our century' Leavis contrasts Snow's |crass Wellsianism'. As for Snow's assertion that the poor go into factories as quickly as possible, Leavis claims that this is too simple and ignores the insights of Dickens, Ruskin and the other great writers down to Lawrence. He is probably thinking of Ruskin's dictum (although he does not quote it) that |there is no wealth but life'. For Ruskin, Leavis suggests |"well being" or "welfare" could not conceivably be matters of merely material standards of living, with the advantages of technology and scientific hygiene'. He goes on, |Who will assert that the average member of a modem society is more fully human, or more alive, than a Bushman, an Indian peasant, or a member of one of those poignantly surviving primitive peoples, with their marvellous art and skills and vital intelligence?'

Here Leavis has arrived at his most important point -- couched in his usual involved expression -- that, |the advance of science and technology means a human future of changes so rapid and of such kinds, 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 ...' And he implies that full humanity must come at least partly from the insights of the great writers (interpreted perhaps by university English schools) and not from either of Snow's cultures.

Four years later in The Two Cultures: A Second Look Snow returned to his theme. Apart from a reference to the |Personal abuse' he had received after the original lecture and the correction of a minor misquotation, he refrained from discussion of the attack by Leavis, whose name he mentions only once, in a footnote. He did not add much to his thesis except in two matters. The first was a rather cryptic reference to the possibility of a |third culture' coming into existence in the attention some social historians were giving to concepts such as the |organic community' (could he have had Leavis in mind?) or the nature of pre-industrial society or the scientific revolution. The other was the abandoning of the Second Law of Thermodynamics as a criterion of scientific literacy in favour of a knowledge of molecular biology. Thirty years later, somewhat ironically, the Second Law has become an almost essential part of the intellectual equipment of policy makers for it bears upon questions of energy and entropy which underlie the supply of power to our industrialism. But it was shrewd and intelligent of Snow to substitute molecular biology, for of all the concepts of science, pure or applied, bio-technolo,y or genetic engineering as we would call it today, is beginning to pose the most acute moral problems. It is one of those consequences of science and technology which, as Leavis foresaw, would demand our full intelligent possession of our humanity. At the same time literary intellectuals will ignore it at their peril for it will not ignore them. Its potentialities were foreshadowed in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Wells' The Island of Dr Moreau, but it has moved on from imaginative literature to actuality or near-actuality. The practical results of it from, at its crudest, a chimpanzee with a human head or a cow the size of an elephant, to the patenting of new forms of life by commercial interests demand moral judgements we do not find it easy to make. Scientists will not for much longer be able to shrug off, as they have tended historically to do, their moral responsibility for bringing into the world new forms of life which may have the most profound ecological consequences. It is here that the two cultures will intersect if anywhere,

In the years after their publication, the lecture and its sequel had wide influence. In education they brought about, or confirmed where already existing, attempts to heal the breach by, as at Keele University, offering science to art students and arts to scientists. Snow's other idea, that Britain, more than any other industrial country, was saddled with a weakness in its applied science which should have underprinted its industrial structure, received support from many books and articles which might be called, following Disraeli and his followers, |condition of England' writings--England rather than Scotland with its different educational traditions. Library shelves began to groan with titles such as Britain: Progress and Decline (Gwyn and Rose), The Stagnant Society (Shanks) and The Decline of Britain (Krammick). They are still being written.

These writings reflected what was a widespread apprehension that since 1945 Britain had fallen well behind its main industrial competitors to the extent that some commentators saw it as becoming not much better than a Third World country. Some ascribed the malaise to post-war fatigue or to out-dated equipment, (Germany by contrast had new equipment as a result of war damage), or loss of Empire markets or to a combination of these. But there was also a view that, although they may have had a contributory effect, the main blame was to be found in inappropriate education and class differences which together resulted in severe management weaknesses in many British industries. There was no lack of brilliant scientific discoveries. The weakness lay in exploiting these discoveries within a context of efficient manufacture. The best brains, it was held, did not go into manufacturing enterprises and the resulting weakness of management exacerbated, though probably did not originate, the |British disease' which had such a disastrous effect on the economy, at least before 1979. British education was simply not producing the managers, entrepreneurs and innovators. Engineering and manufacturing had a low status therefore in the minds of those, mainly at Oxford and Cambridge, who still thought that their duty was to produce people who could go out and govern an Empire or to train pure scientists to keep up the traditions the country still possessed in the higher reaches of discovery. The classic exposition of this point of view is Martin J. Wiener's English Culture and the Decline of the Industrial Spirit, 1850-1980 (1985).

Thus the existence of Snow's |natural Luddites' received confirmation from those who were concerned about the low rate of economic growth of the country compared to that of most of its rivals. Then in the late 60s, Luddism, which it was readily perceived existed in the writings of Ruskin, William Morris, Matthew Arnold and R. H. Tawney and others of the nineteenth century, both on the left and right of the political spectrum, who were critical of the pursuit of material wealth at the expense of other goals in life, was reformulated. Now the Luddites were found in that infant, although rapidly growing, body of opinion, the ecologists, environmentalists or Greens or however they called themselves. Although the opinion had existed earlier, it first became clearly articulate in this country as a result of Frank Fraser Darling's Reith Lectures Wilderness and Plenty of 1969 and the more practical and overtly political Blueprint for Survival of 1971.

It seemed simple enough -- and it was widely done -- to equate ecologists with Snow's anti-scientific Luddites. But this was to oversimplify and to distort, for the Blueprint for Survival had been supported (in general, not in every detail) by some thirty of the most eminent scientists in the country. Against them were equally eminent scientists, notably Lord Ashby, Chairman of the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution, who while agreeing with the document's aims, differed on means (although later he was to describe it as |sensational and shoddy'), John Maddox, editor of Nature, the foremost scientific journal in the country, perhaps in the world, and Sir Kenneth Mellanby, an ecologist, in the original sense of the word. Indeed it was these ecologists, notably Mellanby, Ashby and more recently John Horsfall (Guardian, April 20, 1990) who were among the strongest opponents of the Blueprint and other literature, as though their resentment over the hi-jacking of their professional name were more important to them than the health of the planet.

The economists too were divided. Some like E. J. Mishan shared the fears of the environmentalists. Others, notably Wilfred Beckerman, took a more optimistic view. While accepting the international dimension of the problem, Beckerman, who had been a member of Ashby's Royal Commission, where he had taken the view that pollution was, in the words of another committee on which he had sat, |nuisance' rather than |nemesis', tended to concentrate on the British dimension. In In Defence of Economic Growth, pollution was largely local, in the past (he cited the diminution of London smog since the fifties as evidence that things were improving) and a middle-class fad. It was an example of |resource misallocation' which a second year economics student could easily sort out. As for depletion of resources, market forces would take care of that. These influential views found their way into a book by that atribilious Right-winger Paul Johnson, Enemies of Society, in which the |ecolobby' appeared as one of the enemies. Pollution by man was puny by the side of the works of Nature. In any case it was mainly in the past, local and a concern about it middle-class. He also repeated Beckerman's view that the horse was more polluting than the motor car and added his own that the ecolobby was responsible for the 1973 oil crisis. More important than this was Beckerman's influence upon Anthony Crosland, one-time Secretary of State for the Environment, whose adviser he had been. Crosland's writings, especially the Fabian Pamphlet A Social Democratic Britain, did a good deal to change the policies of the Labour Party into what they are today.

Commentators like these implicitly or explicitly equated the new ecologists with the older literary intellectuals, with Ruskin, Morris and a host of lesser writers who stressed the importance of the quality of life against the production of material goods. They were natural Luddites whose middle-class status ensured that they would not suffer unduly if measures were taken against polluting or wasteful industries. They were responsible for much of Britain's poor industrial performance since the war, or even before. It was largely seen as a British matter; no-one seemed to notice that Europe's strongest economy had given rise to Europe's strongest Green Party, in Germany's Die Grunen.

Then in the eighties came a change. Acid rain, lead in petrol, Chernobyl, ozone depletion, and global warming became apparent to all but the most insensitive. Less was heard of Luddism; Beckerman became almost silent; many of the ecologists' policies were quietly adopted in the manifestos of the major political parties. In 1988 in a speech to the Royal Society, the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, conceded much of the ecologists' case. We were, she said, conducting a huge experiment with the planet, the outcome of which was unknown, perhaps disastrous. But expectations that radical new measures would be taken to reverse dangerous trends were dashed when shortly afterwards it was announced that there was to be a great expansion to the motorway programme. Nothing was to be done to alter |the great car economy'. Many ascribed the lack of political will to an unwilling Cabinet. But at any rate pollution was no longer seen as local, in the past, and concern about it a middle-class fad.

Thirty years later in hindsight there are several things Snow got right. Above all he was right about the disparity, still growing, in wealth between the industrialised world and the underdeveloped, and the need for a technology transfer. He was right about that hot potato political parties are terrified of picking up, population increase. Fortunately his fears about nuclear weapons have not so far been realised. As for Luddism, which everyone in the past execrated and few examined, things are beginning to be different. To do without a mechanical contrivance is no longer the sin it used to be. Trams are reappearing, horses beginning in some parts to take the place of tractors, intermediate technology replacing high technology in parts of Africa. Similarly lead is disappearing from petrol, tower blocks being demolished, pesticides and herbicides being reduced, things no longer thrown carelessly away. Doubt is even being cast on the ultimate value of the private motor car. Snow's great error may turn out to be his belief that all technology is good, that any technology is better than no technology, and that industrialisation on the western model can be applied indiscriminatingly to the whole world. It is true that he did not think scientists were infallible (he cites Rutherford's belief that nuclear power could never come about) but he underestimated technologists' proneness to error and the ecological consequences of an ever-rising standard of living.

As for Snow's other point, that Britain bas suffered from its own two cultures arising from neglect of appropriate education and the disdain into which engineering and manufacture have consequently fallen, he was perhaps only partly right. Strenuous efforts, with limited success, have been made by successive governments to put the matter right. Recently novels have taken up the theme. There is for example the rather dismal picture of the country painted in Margaret Drabble's The Ice Age and the topic appears sporadically in the novels of Snow's friend |William Cooper'. The best of the novels is the more recent (1988) Nice Work by David Lodge, in which are entertainingly opposed a representative of the literary intellectual and a practical manufacturer. Yet for all its wit and insight, one can't help feeling that it is a novel of the fifties or sixties rather than the ecological late eighties. As was pointed out, often by Americans, in response to the earlier |condition of England' books, the British with their more relaxed attitude to economic success, their settling for quality of life rather than quantity, may have unconsciously taken a wiser approach to twentieth century living than their more energetic rivals, the Americans, Germans and Japanese. Perhaps this attitude has changed somewhat since the advent of the Conservative Government of 1979, but the ecological disasters and threats of recent times have gone some way to confirming the wisdom of the post-war decades. Consumerism is perhaps not enough; it is well worth a moment spent on contemplating what the planet will be like when everyone on earth will be a member of a two-car family. Leavis, with his insistence that |jam', that material advance, is not by itself enough, and that humankind will need all the insights it can get from the great writers of the past, the literary intellectuals, in order to cope with the problems ahead, may have been, one hesitates to admit, right after all.
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Author:Syer, Geoffrey
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Aug 1, 1992
Words:3758
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