It’s been one of those days; I had to take my son to school, which I hate doing as getting up early is always detrimental to the old chronic fatigue, and then I got caught in a traffic jam on the way home, and finally arrived back to find the cat had had a hairball that needed quite some cleaning up. So I wasn’t thrilled then to end up in an online discussion defending the arts against a blogger who felt quite strongly that it was futile to study them. I hate this row because it’s pointless: we need to study BOTH arts AND sciences and if it’s hard to see why, here is a story about one of the most spectacular public disputes between them.
It all began with a lecture given by a Cambridge man, C. P. Snow. Snow has fallen off the map these days but he was one of those multi-talented souls, who trained as a physicist, became an important civil service administrator, wrote novels, plays and journalistic articles and was for a while a fellow of Christ’s College. In 1959, Snow gave a lecture entitled The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution in which he extolled the clear material benefits of science and technology and criticized the traditional culture of ‘intellectual persons’, a very ill-defined collection of literary types who were supposed to have deplored in a short-sighted way the damage wrought by the Industrial Revolution. And he accused them of infusing culture with a kind of snobbery that held Britain back from participating in the international scientific revolution that was about to transform the world.
Like any polemic, Snow’s argument packed an emotional punch but rested on a number of prejudiced or undefined assumptions. Enter the English literary critic, F. R. Leavis, in pugnacious mood, having been invited to deliver the Richmond Lecture in Downing College in early 1962. By now, Snow’s Two Cultures in its published version was being taught in sixth forms as received wisdom, its message clear that of two equal cultures, sciences and arts, the latter was intent on crippling the former. The underlying implication, that art could have nothing but limited, personal value, as opposed to salvationary science that could rescue the world, was the kind of red rag that turned Leavis into a sleek and fearsome bull.
Leavis’s lecture was an intense attack. He was too smart to argue against the march of technology, or to seek to undermine its significance. Instead, he argued that Snow was ‘portentously ignorant’, or that he was not looking far enough ahead to see what the wider consequences of scientific progress might be. He drew his audience’s attention to the complex factors that combine to make quality of life, and suggested that our nebulous sense of contentment was a matter for the world of the spirit, not technology. What he meant here was that we might have all the gadgets and gismos in the world, that we might discover cures for illnesses, and that we might STILL not know reliable contentment. And in this prediction he was correct – the technological progress that we’ve made since the 1960s has been incredible, and yet, the Western world has never been so unhappy. America is the worst of the English-speaking nations, in fact, with just over a quarter of the population admitting to mental health difficulties in 2007 (my stats come from a lecture given by Oliver James, the psychologist who has studied this area most rigorously). Whatever it is that makes us feel happy and secure, it isn’t down to progress in science and technology alone.
Continuing to look ahead, Leavis spoke of ‘a human future of change so rapid and of such kinds of tests and challenges so unprecedented … that mankind – this is surely clear – will need to be in full intelligent possession of its full humanity’. Leavis might have guessed at the crisis in the environment, the lure of genetic engineering and many other fraught modern issues – such ‘unprecedented challenges’ he saw would require the operation of a certain kind of intellectual mind upon them; a mind fuelled by the desire for accuracy, insight, and judgment. He was arguing that the training given to students in the arts, the sort of critical thinking that is often dismissed as pointless, would offer an essential counterpart to the fierce march of science. He foresaw the need for an attitude that would refuse to compromise truth or disquieting consequence for short-term gain, or simple, weary relief. The rush to embrace scientific solutions because, as Snow would say ‘a fact is a fact’, could only be countermanded by the sort of difficult, unbending folk who know that no fact exists outside a narrative of its own creation, that facts have no life in airy isolation from the cajoling and the scare-mongering that would seek to exploit them.
This paved the way to Leavis’s other main point. Snow had described two distinct cultures, the literary and the scientific, in such a way as to suggest that they were equally accessible to all individuals, a matter of choosing one method of perception over another. But the language of science reduced those not professionally involved in it to the status of children, held apart from the adult’s talk by insurmountable barriers to understanding. Leavis argued that the literary world, by contrast, was open to public appropriation, required it, in fact, as the necessary counterpart of its existence. Books came to life when read and discussed and their contents were pertinent to all. Leavis described the discourse of literary criticism as the basic exchange: ‘This is so, isn’t it?’ to which the answer is, ‘Yes, but….’. Literature was something everyone could have an opinion about, and as such, it was a social activity, a communal activity. It brought people together in the contemplation of the human condition, in the way that science, with its exclusive authority and elite circle of participants, did not. By implication, literature was the place where the course of human development was discussed, science the realm in which the course was imposed.
The lecture caused an almighty row when its full text was published in The Spectator. And C. P. Snow took the rebuff badly, believing in later years that Leavis had obstructed his chance of the Nobel Prize. This was a sort of baffled wishful thinking – there is no evidence to suggest that Snow might have been awarded the Nobel and fifty years in the future his vision turns out to have been the tenacious one. Science, medicine, technology, these are still our favoured disciplines, in fact we’ve now entered a phase that the philosophers term ‘post-humanism’, which is to say that we’ve placed all our faith in science and technology to save us from the difficulties of our current situation. But nothing has changed: we know that what makes us happy is indeed a matter of the spirit, even though we give less credence and value to it than ever before. We know we need to debate what happens in challenging areas of progress, like genetics, like artificial intelligence, like stem cell research and not be bamboozled by the promise of facts. And for those of us who aren’t research scientists, we have few tools at our disposal beyond the cultural ones – books, films, television, journalism, radio – with which to represent the pros and the cons, the fears and the challenges as we see them. So we need to keep producing art that considers what all forms of invention and progress might mean for us, and we need to keep talking about that art because it’s the only way we can engage as a community in the unfolding of our world.