The Two Cultures

C P Snow’s epochal essay published online for the first time.

Melvyn Bragg’s new Radio 4 series, The Value of Culture (9am and 9:30pm every day this week), interrogates beliefs about the meaning of "culture" since the 19th century. Each episode is framed around a high-profile fissure on the subject, having begun on Monday with Matthew Arnold and his argument that “Men of culture are the true apostles of equality”, which was met with fervent criticism from “Darwin’s Bulldog”, Thomas Huxley.

This morning Bragg discussed the life and work of C P Snow, whose famous thesis on the division of the two cultures we broadly delineate as the arts and sciences, was first published in essay form by the New Statesman in 1956. Snow, himself an esteemed chemist and fiction writer, lamented the “mutual incomprehension” which separated the scientific and “traditional” cultures – defining the latter as “mainly literary … behaving like a state whose power is rapidly declining, spending too much energy on Alexandrine intricacies, occasionally letting fly in fits of aggressive pique quite beyond its means”.

He continued, “Not to have read War and Peace and La Cousine Bette and La Chartreuse de Parme is not to be educated, but so is not to have a glimmer of the Second Law of Thermodynamics.” This would be the scientific equivalent of “Have you read a work of Shakespeare’s?”

Bragg considers the importance of anthropology in shaping canonical norms: “It’s fascinating, the contrast,” he told The Telegraph’s Sameer Rahim on Monday. “You can’t say culture is just this narrow thing: culture is the way a tribe interacts, culture is habits, traditions, ways of believing and ways of dressing up.”

On Friday the series will end with a debate on the meaning and value of culture in the twenty-first century, recorded before a live audience at the Lit and Phil in Newcastle – a symbol, if ever there was one, of the question's longevity. Clearly the 73-year-old broadcaster has a vested interest – his South Bank Show and In Our Time have seen Bragg take a rigorously intelligible approach to a broad spectrum of topics from across the arts and sciences, hoping to spread a little of what Arnold terms “sweetness and light” to the "raw and unkindled masses".

When asked how far he thinks we have evolved since C P Snow first formulated his argument, Bragg replied:

I think we’ve liberated an awful lot of talent. Compared with when I was a boy, this country is far fresher, more vigorous and bolder. Two or three years ago I was listening to Radio 3 and a 16-year-old cellist was being interviewed. She said, "I play in a heavy metal band." She wasn’t showing off.

Perhaps Snow was not alone in lamenting this incomprehension. In November 1956, a month after Snow published his essay, the American novelist and professor of biochemistry Isaac Asimov completed “The Last Question” – a short story which centres on the pressing reality of universal entropy: endgame of the Second Law. As humanity merges with the technology it has created, each generation repeats the question “How can the net amount of entropy of the universe be massively decreased?” only to receive the answer, “THERE IS AS YET INSUFFICIENT DATA FOR A MEANINGFUL ANSWER.” After mankind has disappeared, the sum mental potential of its mental processes lives on in AC, a supercomputer which continues to “think” while the stars crumble, planets cool, and space and time cease to exist. Aeons have passed, and AC has finally discovered how to reverse the direction of entropy. But there is nobody to tell, mankind and the universe being dead. No matter. “LET THERE BE LIGHT!” AC says, “And there was light–”.

Philip Maughan

The Two Cultures

C P Snow

“It’s rather odd,” said G H Hardy, one afternoon in the early Thirties, “but when we hear about ‘intellectuals’ nowadays, it doesn’t include people like me and J J Thomson and Rutherford.” Hardy was the first mathematician of his generation, J J Thomson the first physicist of his; as for Rutherford, he was one of the greatest scientists who have ever lived. Some bright young literary person (I forget the exact context) putting them outside the enclosure reserved for intellectuals seemed to Hardy the best joke for some time. It does not seem quite such a good joke now. The separation between the two cultures has been getting deeper under our eyes; there is now precious little communication between them, little but different kinds of incomprehension and dislike.

The traditional culture, which is, of course, mainly literary, is behaving like a state whose power is rapidly declining – standing on its precarious dignity, spending far too much energy on Alexandrine intricacies, occasionally letting fly in fits of aggressive pique quite beyond its means, too much on the defensive to show any generous imagination to the forces which must inevitably reshape it. Whereas the scientific culture is expansive, not restrictive, confident at the roots, the more confident after its bout of Oppenheimerian self-criticism, certain that history is on its side, impatient, intolerant, creative rather than critical, good-natured and brash. Neither culture knows the virtues of the other; often it seems they deliberately do not want to know. The resentment which the traditional culture feels for the scientific is shaded with fear; from the other side, the resentment is not shaded so much as brimming with irritation. When scientists are faced with an expression of the traditional culture, it tends (to borrow Mr William Cooper’s eloquent phrase) to make their feet ache.

It does not need saying that generalizations of this kind are bound to look silly at the edges. There are a good many scientists indistinguishable from literary persons, and vice versa. Even the stereotype generalizations about scientists are misleading without some sort of detail – e.g. the generalizations that scientists as a group stand on the political Left. This is only partly true. A very high proportion of engineers is almost as conservative as doctors; of pure scientists, the same would apply to chemists. It is only among physicists and biologists that one finds the Left in strength. If one compared the whole body of scientists with their opposite numbers of the traditional culture (writers, academics, and so on), the total result might be a few per cent more towards the Left wing, but not more than that. Nevertheless, as a first approximation, the scientific culture is real enough and so is its difference from the traditional. For anyone like myself, by education a scientist, by calling a writer, at one time moving between groups of scientists and writers in the same evening, the difference has seemed dramatic.

The first thing, impossible to miss, is that scientists are on the up and up; they have the strength of a social force behind them. If they are English, they share the experience common to us all – of being in a country sliding economically downhill – but in addition (and to many of them it seems psychologically more important) they belong to something more than a profession, to something more like a directing class of a new society. In a sense oddly divorced from politics, they are the new men. Even the staidest and most politically conservative of scientific veterans, lurking in dignity in their colleges, have some kind of link with the world to come. They do not hate it as their colleagues do; part of their mind is open to it; almost against their will, there is a residual glimmer of kinship there. The young English scientists may and do curse their luck; increasingly they fret about the rigidities of their universities, about the ossification of the traditional culture which, to the scientists, makes the universities cold and dead; they violently envy their Russian counterparts who have money and equipment without discernable limit, who have the whole field wide open. But still they stay pretty resilient: they are swept on by the same social force. Harwell and Winscale have just as much spirit as Los Alamos and Chalk River: the neat petty bourgeois houses, the tough and clever young, the crowds of children: they are symbols, frontier towns.

There is a touch of the frontier qualities, in fact, about the whole scientific culture. Its tone is, for example, steadily heterosexual. The difference in social manners between Harwell and Hampstead, or as far as that goes between Los Alamos and Greenwich village, would make an anthropologist blink. About the whole scientific culture, there is an absence – surprising to outsiders – of the feline and oblique. Sometimes it seems that scientists relish speaking the truth, especially when it is unpleasant. The climate of personal relations is singularly bracing, not to say harsh: it strikes bleakly on those unused to it who suddenly find that the scientists’ way of deciding on action is by a full-dress argument, with no regard for sensibilities and no holds barred. No body of people ever believed more in dialectic as the primary method of attaining sense; and if you want a picture of scientists in their off-moments it could be just one of a knock-about argument. Under the argument there glitter egotisms as rapacious as any of ours: but, unlike ours, the egotisms are driven by a common purpose.

How much of the traditional culture gets through to them? The answer is not simple. A good many scientists, including some of the most gifted, have the tastes of literary persons, read the same things, and read as much. Broadly, though, the infiltration is much less. History gets across to a certain extent, in particular social history: the sheer mechanics of living, how men ate, built, travelled, worked touches a good many scientific imaginations, and so they have fastened on such works as Trevelyan’s Social History, and Professor Gordon Childe’s books. Philosophy the scientific culture views with indifference, especially metaphysics. As Rutherford said cheerfully to Samuel Alexander: “When you think of all the years you’ve been talking about those things, Alexander, and what does it all add up to? Hot air, nothing but hot air.” A bit less exuberantly, that is what contemporary scientists would say. They regard it as a major intellectual virtue, to know what not to think about. They might touch their hats to linguistic analysis, as a relatively honourable way of wasting time; not so to existentialism.

The arts? The only one which is cultivated among scientists is music. It goes both wide and deep; there may possibly be a greater density of musical appreciation than in the traditional culture. In comparison, the graphic arts (except architecture) score little, and poetry not at all. Some novels work their way through, but not as a rule the novels which literary persons set most value on. The two cultures have so few points of contact that the diffusion of novels shows the same sort of delay, and exhibits the same oddities, as though they were getting into translation in a foreign country. It is only fairly recently, for instance, that Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh have become more than names. And, just as it is rather startling to find that in Italy Bruce Marshall is by a long shot the best-known British novelist, so it jolts one to hear scientists talking with attention of the works of Nevil Shute. In fact, there is a good reason for that: Mr Shute was himself a high-class engineer, and a book like No Highway is packed with technical stuff that is not only accurate but often original. Incidentally, there are benefits to be gained from listening to intelligent men, utterly removed from the literary scene and unconcerned as to who’s in and who’s out. One can pick up such a comment as a scientist once made, that it looked to him as though the current preoccupations of the New Criticism, the extreme concentration on a tiny passage, had made us curiously insensitive to the total flavour of the work, to its cumulative effects, to the epic qualities in literature. But, on the other side of the coin, one is just as likely to listen to three of the most massive intellects in Europe happily discussing the merits of The Wallet of Kai-Lung.

When you meet the younger rank-and-file of scientists, it often seems that they do not read at all. The prestige of the traditional culture is high enough for some of them to make a gallant shot at it. Oddly enough, the novelist whose name to them has become a token of esoteric literary excellence is that difficult highbrow Dickens. They approach him in a grim and dutiful spirit as though tackling Finnegan’s Wake, and feel a sense of achievement if they manage to read a book through. But most young technicians do not fly so high. When you ask them what they read – “As a married man,” one says, “I prefer the garden.” Another says: “I always  like just to use my books as tools.” (Difficult to resist speculating what kind of tool a book would make. A sort of hammer? A crude digging instrument?)

That, or something like it, is a measure of the incommunicability of the two cultures. On their side the scientists are losing a great deal. Some of that loss is inevitable: it must and would happen in any society at our technical level. But in this country we make it quite unnecessarily worse by our educational patterns. On the other side, how much does the tradition culture lost by the separation?

I am inclined to think, even more. Not only practically – we are familiar with those arguments by now – but also intellectually and morally. The intellectual loss is a little difficult to appraise. Most scientists would claim that you cannot comprehend the world unless you know the structure of science, in particular of physical science. In a sense, and a perfectly genuine sense, that is true. Not to have read War and Peace and La Cousine Bette and La Chartreuse de Parme is not to be educated; but so is not to have a glimmer of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Yet that case ought not to be pressed too far. It is more justifiable to say that those without any scientific understanding miss a whole body of experience: they are rather like the tone deaf, from whom all musical experience is cut off and who have to get on without it. The intellectual invasions of science are, however, penetratingly deeper. Psycho-analysis once looked like a deep invasion, but that was a false alarm; cybernetics may turn out to be the real thing, driving down into the problems of will and cause and motive. If so, those who do not understand the method will not understand the depths of their own cultures.

But the greatest enrichment the scientific culture could give us is – thought it does not originate like that – a moral one. Among scientists, deep-natured men know, as starkly as any men have known, that the individual human condition is tragic; for all its triumphs and joys, the essence of its loneliness and the end death. But what they will not admit is that, because the individual condition is tragic, therefore the social condition must be tragic, too. Because a man must die, that is no excuse for his dying before his time and after a servile life. The impulse behind the scientists drives them to limit the area of tragedy, to take nothing as tragic that can conceivably lie within men’s will. They have nothing but contempt for those representatives of the traditional culture who use a deep insight into man’s fate to obscure the social truth – or to do something prettier than obscure the truth, just to hang on to a few perks. Dostoevski sucking up to the Chancellor Pobedonotsev, who thought the only thing wrong with slavery was that there was not enough of it; the political decadence of the Avant garde of 1914, with Ezra Pound finishing up broadcasting for the Fascists; Claudel agreeing sanctimoniously with the Marshal about the virtue in others’ suffering; Faulkner giving sentimental reasons for treating Negroes as a different species. They are all symptoms of the deepest temptation of the clerks – which is to say: “Because man’s condition is tragic, everyone ought to stay in their place, with mine as it happens somewhere near the top.” From that particular temptation, made up of defeat, self-indulgence, and moral vanity, the scientific culture is almost totally immune. It is that kind of moral health of the scientists which, in the last few years, the rest of us have needed most; and of which, because the two culture scarcely touch, we have been most deprived.

6 October 1956

C P Snow and novelist Pamela Johnson after their wedding in 1950. Photo: Getty Images
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Mother of all bloodlusts: Sexual politics and Greek tragedy

New interpreteations of ancient stories show the deep roots of our thinking about sex and gender

During the 1960s Pier Paolo Pasolini made two films based on ancient Greek tragedy, Oedipus Rex and Medea. In the latter, Maria Callas played the heroine with predictably operatic bravura – dark eyes flashing out dark emotions, thrilling voice conveying ferocity and pain. Pasolini’s Oedipus, by contrast, was almost silent (there was dialogue, but very little of it) and unmitigated by consoling theatricality. Distant figures crept across a scrubby desert. Thebes’s mud walls rose, like an organic growth, from the bare ground. The leading actor’s face was thuggish and inexpressive. The soundtrack was dominated by the soughing of the wind. Pasolini used barely a line of Sophocles’s verse, but I remember the film as having a desolate grandeur unmatched by any of the theatrical productions I have seen since. It was nothing like the tragedies acted out by masked performers in 5th-century Athens, but its harsh beauty felt appropriate to the Bronze Age legends on which those tragedies were based.

Those legends are still attracting new interpreters. “The finest tragedies are always on the story of some few families,” wrote Aristotle. He was thinking of the House of Atreus, whose terrible sequence of internecine killings provides the material for Colm Tóibín’s latest novel; of Oedipus’s incest-entangled web of relationships, now unravelled by Natalie Haynes; of Medea, the heroine of David Vann’s Bright Air Black, a sorceress whose royal status, adventurous spirit and unearthly powers have all been eclipsed in the collective memory by her shocking transgression against family values – the slaying of her own children.

Sexual politics has been intrinsic to these tales since the Greek tragedians first explored them: 21st-century gender politics isn’t going beyond, merely keeping pace with, the thinking of the ancients here. ­Aeschylus framed the Oresteia as a conflict between mother-right and father-right and concluded with a judgement from Athena. The motherless goddess, born from her father’s head – woman but also all-man – ordains that humanity must find a way to reconcile the male and female principles. When Robert Icke, in his recent adaptation of the Oresteia, located the origin of the family’s trouble in Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter – the killing of a girl child for the sake of her father’s manly honour – he wasn’t making an anachronistically feminist point: he was faithfully following Euripides.

So there is nothing new about the way modern reinterpretations zoom in on the women. Colm Tóibín gives the husband-killing Clytemnestra a voice; Natalie Haynes does the same for Jocasta, the mother of her son’s children, and for one of her daughters. As for David Vann, he allows Medea to devour him and his readers: to read his book is to be swallowed down into her mad mind.

In House of Names Clytemnestra is the initial narrator. Tóibín has written about many mothers, including, in The Testament of Mary, the mother of Christ. None of them conforms to any sentimental ideal of the maternal. This one is particularly problematic. Clytemnestra was duped into delivering her daughter Iphigenia to a horrible death. She was an adulteress who took a lover while her husband, Agamemnon, was away at war, and subsequently murdered that husband. She killed the enslaved Trojan princess Cassandra out of jealousy. She so signally failed to win the love of her surviving children, Electra and Orestes, that they killed her.

Tóibín, writing in grandly simple, declaratory prose, gives her a raging energy and a bitter intelligence. The unfolding of the story she tells – that he tells through her – will surprise few readers, but he structures it subtly enough to maintain its tension. Clytemnestra speaks at first in flashback, recounting the ghastly tale of Iphigenia’s sacrifice from a much later point in time, while Agamemnon’s and Cassandra’s bodies lie exposed outside the palace walls. The violence is gruesome and Tóibín doesn’t spare us any horror, but the folding of chronology creates a kind of decorous formality.

Clytemnestra’s story is one we know. When Tóibín shifts his attention to her son Orestes the book becomes stranger, its narrative more original and its tone more hallucinatory. None of the canonical texts tells us much of what Orestes was up to in the interim between his father’s murder and his own return, years later, to avenge it. The ancient sources speak of him growing up in a foreign court. Tóibín ignores that tradition and has him marched off instead, along with a column of other boy hostages, and imprisoned in an infernal complex of caves. He escapes with a charismatic older boy, a teenaged guerrilla named Leander. They wander through a landscape of poisoned wells and killer-infested groves as inhospitable as Pasolini’s imagined desert.

The journey makes for a haunting story, largely because Tóibín tells it in spare, resonant prose, from Orestes’s point of view. He is a child and then a bewildered, emotionally stunted adolescent. Filtered through his consciousness, his dangerous exile and even more dangerous return to his mother’s court are at once materially vivid and bafflingly vague. He just doesn’t understand the political and sexual currents eddying around him, and his incomprehension makes them all the more potently alarming.

Tóibín’s other addition to the story is a reimagining of the usually opaque Aegisthus, Clytemnestra’s lover and accomplice. Here he is not just Agamemnon’s rival in love and power: he is his shadow and counter-image, a king of darkness. Confined in a dungeon beneath the palace, he commands a hidden, irregular army. Once released he becomes a sexual predator, roaming the palace corridors by night in search of men or women to suit his appetites. After Electra’s coup d’état Aegisthus’s legs are broken to prevent him from leaving to establish a rival power base. Immobile in his chair, he still dominates the council meetings.

It is probably too simple-minded to ­suppose, just because Tóibín is Irish, that we should read into this a reworking of Ireland’s history of clandestine armies and generation-spanning revenges. Yet the tentative hopefulness of his book’s ending, involving the fading of a grim ghost, a benign forgetting and a baby’s birth, does seem to speak (albeit quietly) of better times.

“Can you name another man who has ever done what you have done?” Thus Tóibín’s Leander to Orestes. A son’s killing of his mother is an unheard-of transgression. Orestes realises that he is being kept at hand by the ruthless new regime as a
potentially useful tool, because he “had proved to them that he was someone who would do anything”. Medea’s crime – a mother’s killing of her sons – is the mirror image of his own, and breaches an equally powerful taboo.

In Tóibín’s Mycenae, a culture defined by its gods is giving way to a secular society. Clytemnestra has stopped praying: “The gods have their own unearthly concerns, unimagined by us. They barely know we are alive.” By the end, her consciousness fading, the only deity she can remember is the inhuman rapist who defiled her mother – Zeus, in the form of a swan. Her daughter Electra laments that as obfuscating superstition dwindles, the world is increasingly exposed to the light of day. That enlightenment, Electra thinks, is a blight. “Soon it will be a world barely worth inhabiting.” The world David Vann’s Medea inhabits is subject to no such diminishing daylight. We are in a dark age.

Rachel Cusk recently updated Euripides to present Medea as a modern wronged wife. Vann does the reverse. He is not interested in drawing parallels with banal, latter-day domestic upsets: he is conjuring up a pre-classical sorceress cloaked in darkness, fornicating on the deck of the Argo amidst the decomposing remains of her dead brother’s body and opening her mouth to show the vile worm that lies where her tongue should be.

His Medea has doubts about the myths that supposedly explain her world. If the sun is her grandfather, how come the human race, which should be only two generations old, is so numerous? But she has no understanding to put in its place. Her eye is innocent, not in the judgemental moral sense but literally. She knows what the golden fleece is – one of the sheepskins used to pan for gold in the rivers of Thrace and left glittering with gold dust – yet she knows almost nothing else. Her wonder at the sea, and the way its water buoys her up, prompts a beautiful passage. Her freedom from guilt verges on the absurd. She is a kind of Martian, travelling to us not from outer space but from the deep past.

Vann’s novel shares with Tóibín’s book an interest in power: how to get and keep it, how legitimacy is trumped by assertiveness. Just as Orestes, returning to Mycenae, is baffled to find that, king’s son though he is, no one sees him as a potential ruler, so Medea and Jason share a naive belief that when they return with the sparkly sheepskin the old king will abdicate the kingdom to them. He doesn’t. The novel’s narrative swings round on the shocking passage in which it dawns on Medea that her betrayals and outrages aren’t to be rewarded with a throne, but have delivered her into slavery.

Vann’s title is borrowed from Robin Robertson’s version of Euripides’s Medea. Vann is indebted to poets, and he grants himself great poetic licence in his handling of syntax. His prose is as hacked and chopped as the corpse of poor King Pelias after Medea has bewitched his daughters into jointing him for a stew. It is as though Medea, barbarian from an immeasurably ancient world, has yet to reach the evolutionary moment when the human mind comprehended that causes had consequences, and sentences have main verbs. Vann writes always from her point of view. The resulting narrative can be wearisome, like spending time with someone too stoned to think connectedly, but it is also vivid, often appalling, sometimes piercingly
sad and frequently striking. This Medea is all sensory perception, no reflection. “The men wet and shining, skin burnt dark. Medea’s skin far whiter, turning red now, painful.” And so it goes on, right down to the final horror. “Hot blood on her hands, Aeson [her little son] jerking against her side.”

If Vann drags the reader with him into chaos and old night, Natalie Haynes seems intent on illuminating and rationalising the cluster of legends about Oedipus and his family. Haynes is an expert populariser. Her story is enriched by archaeological know-how. She gives us a clear account of the layout of the palace at Thebes. She describes markets and dresses, pots and meals. In its physical details, her story is a plausible reconstruction of urban life in a Greek palace-state – complete with obsidian mirrors and wax writing-tablets, dark rooms and sacrificial fires.

She has two narratives, arranged in orderly fashion in alternating chapters. The story of Jocasta’s marriage, widowhood and remarriage to a good-looking young stranger (who turns out to be her own son) is told in the third person, simply and realistically. Ismene, one of her daughter/grand-daughters, narrates the chapters that deal with her experience. She is attacked by an assassin. She looks on as her brothers compete for power in Thebes. She distrusts her uncle Creon. She doesn’t reveal, until the very end, when she is about to be reunited with him, that she knows why her father is a blind wanderer, and why her mother is dead.

The bipartite structure is efficient. The narrative progresses satisfyingly. But Haynes not only demystifies, she demythologises, stripping the story of its ­numinous charge. King Laius is homosexual: he orders a slave to take his place in the marriage-bed and impregnate his young wife (which means that Oedipus’s inadvertent killing of him is not actually a parricide). The sphinx is neither a fabulous monster nor a riddler: it is a predatory tribe. Jocasta kills herself not because she is shamed by the revelation of her incest, but because she has been infected with the plague and doesn’t want to pass it on to her children.

There are horrors certainly, but they are mundane ones. Eteocles’s corpse lies rotting in the sun when Creon denies it burial, but it is ghastly for its smell, and the circling vultures, rather than the offence against ­human dignity and divine decree. Even the characters’ names have been deprived of the resonance two and a half millennia of remembering have given them. Antigone and Ismene become here “Ani” and “Isy” – two ordinary girls in a tricky situation. The book is entertaining, but Pasolini it most certainly is not. Aristotle, who expected these stories to purge their audiences’ minds by overwhelming them with pity and terror, would have been sorely disappointed. 

House of Names 
Colm Tóibín
Viking, 263pp, £14.99

Bright Air Black 
David Vann
William Heinemann, 252pp, £18.99

The Children of Jocasta 
Natalie Haynes
Mantle, 336pp, £16.99

Lucy Hughes-Hallett is the author of “Heroes: Saviours, Traitors and Supermen” (Harper Perennial). Her latest novel, “Peculiar Ground”, is newly published by Fourth Estate

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Lies

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