C. P. Snow on the 'Two Cultures':
Literary Modernism, Irrationalism & Reactionary Politics

I remember being cross-examined by a scientist of distinction. 'Why do most writers take on social opinions which would have been thought distinctly uncivilised and démodé at the time of the Plantagenets? Wasn't that true of most of the famous twentieth-century writers? Yeats, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, nine out of ten of those who have dominated literary sensibility in our time—weren't they not only politically silly, but politically wicked? Didn't the influence of all they represent bring Auschwitz that much nearer?'

I thought at the time, and I still think, that the correct answer was not to defend the indefensible. It was no use saying that Yeats, according to friends whose judgment I trust, was a man of singular magnanimity of character, as well as a great poet. It was no use denying the facts, which are broadly true. The honest answer was that there is, in fact, a connection, which literary persons were culpably slow to see, between some kinds of early twentieth-century art and the most imbecile expressions of anti-social feeling. That was one reason, among many, why some of us turned our backs on the art and tried to hack out a new or different way for ourselves.

I am reminded of D. H. Lawrence reflecting on an anecdote in Dana's Two Years Before the Mast. The passage is a very long one, and should be read in full: it is about Dana feeling revolted when the captain of the ship has a sailor called Sam flogged. Lawrence denounces Dana for being revolted: Lawrence approves.

Master and servant—or master and man relationship is, essentially, a polarized flow, like love. It is a circuit of vitalism which flows between master and man and forms a very precious nourishment to each, and keeps both in a state of subtle, quivering, vital equilibrium. Deny it as you like, it is so. But once you abstract both master and man, and make them both serve an idea: production, wage, efficiency, and so on: so that each looks on himself as an instrument performing a certain repeated evolution, then you have changed the vital, quivering circuit of master and man into a mechanical machine unison. just another way of life: or anti‑life.

. . . . . . . . . .


You have a Sam, a fat slow fellow, who has got slower and more slovenly as the weeks wear on. You have a master who has grown more irritable in his authority. Till Sam becomes simply wallowing in his slackness, makes your gorge rise. And the master is on red hot iron.

Now these two men, Captain and Sam, are there in a very unsteady equilibrium of command and obedience. A polarized flow. Definitely polarized.

. . . . . . . . . .

'Tie up that lousy swine!' roars the enraged Captain.

And whack! Whack! down on the bare back of that sloucher Sam comes the cat.

What does it do? By Jove, it goes like ice‑cold water into his spine. Down those lashes runs the current of the Captain's rage, right into the blood and into the toneless ganglia of Sam's voluntary system. Crash! Crash! runs the lightning flame, right into the cores of the living nerves.

And the living nerves respond. They start to vibrate. They brace up. The blood begins to go quicker. The nerves begin to recover their vividness. It is their tonic. The man Sam has a new clear day of intelligence, and a smarty back. The Captain has a new relief, a new ease in his authority, and a sore heart.

There is a new equilibrium, and a fresh start. The physical intelligence of a Sam is restored, the turgidity is relieved from the veins of the Captain.

It is a natural form of human coition, interchange.

It is good for Sam to be flogged. It is good, on this occasion, for the Captain to have Sam flogged. I say so.

This reflection is the exact opposite of that which would occur to anyone who had never held, or expected to hold, the right end of the whip—which means most of the poor of the world, all the unprivileged, the teeming majority of our fellow men. Such a man may not be lazy like Sam: nevertheless he doesn't like being in another's power. He doesn't take this Rousseauish view of the virtue of the direct expression of emotion, or 'the circuit of vitalism', or 'the blood contact of life'. He has suffered others' tempers, at the receiving end. He is not romantic at all about the beauties of the master‑and‑man relation: that illusion is open only to those who have climbed one step up and are hanging on by their fingernails. He knows, through the long experience of the poor, what the real condition of direct power is like—if you want it treated with ultimate humanity and wisdom read Bruno Bettelheim's The Informed Heart.

So, with singular unanimity the unprivileged have elected for societies where they are as far away as possible from the Captain‑Sam situation—which, of course, highly articulated societies are. Trade unions, collective dealing, the entire apparatus of modern industry—they may be maddening to those who have never had the experience of the poor, but they stand like barbed wire against the immediate assertion of the individual will. And, as soon as the poor began to escape from their helplessness, the assertion of the individual will was the first thing they refused  to take.

It happens that, of all novelists, Dostoevsky is the one I know the best. When I was twenty, I thought The Brothers Karamazov was by a long way the greatest novel ever written, and its author the most magnificent of novelists. Gradually my enthusiasm became more qualified: as I grew older I found Tolstoy meaning more to me. But Dostoevsky is to this day one of the novelists I most admire: besides Tolstoy there seem to me only two or three others who can live in the same light.

This confession of personal taste is not so irrelevant as it seems. Of the great novelists Dostoevsky is the one whose social attitudes are most explicitly revealed—not m his novels, where he is ambiguous, but in The Writer's Diary which he published once a month during the years 1876‑80, when he was in his fifties and near the peak of his fame. In the Diary, which was produced as a single‑handed effort, he gave answers to readers' problems of the heart (the advice was almost always practical and wise), but he devoted most of his space to political propaganda, to passionate and increasingly unambiguous expression of his own prescripts for action.

They are pretty horrifying, even after ninety years. He was virulently anti‑semitic: he prayed for war: he was against any kind of emancipation at any time; he was a fanatical supporter of the autocracy, and an equally fanatical opponent of any improvement in the lives of the common people (on the grounds that they loved their suffering and were ennobled by it). He was in fact the supreme reactionary: other writers since have aspired to this condition, but no one has had his force of nature and his psychological complexity. It is worth noting that he wasn't speaking in a vacuum; this wasn't like Lawrence banging away with exhortations, some of them similarly regrettable. Dostoevsky lived in society; his diary was influential, and acted as the voice of the ultra‑conservatives, to whom he himself in secret acted as a kind of psychological adviser.

Thus I have not a social idea in common with him. If I had been his contemporary, he would have tried to get me put in gaol. And yet I know him to be a great writer, and I know that, not with detached admiration, but with a feeling much warmer. So do present day Russians know it. Their response is much the same as mine. Posterity is in the long run forgiving, if a writer is good enough. No one could call Dostoevsky an agreeable character, and he did finite harm. But compare him with the generous and open-hearted Chernyshevsky, who had a sense of the future of the world flat contrary to Dostoevsky's, and whose foresight has turned out  nearer to the truth. The goodwill, the social passion of Chernyshevsky have kept his memory fresh: but posterity ignores wrong or wicked judgments, and it is Dostoevsky's books which stay alive. What is to be done? or The Brothers Karamazov?—posterity, if it knows anything of the two personal histories, gives a grim, reluctant, sarcastic smile, and knows which it has to choose.

It will be the same in the future. Persons ignorant of the nature of change, antagonistic to the scientific revolution which will impose social changes such as none of us can foresee, often think and talk and hope as though all literary judgments for ever will be made from the same viewpoint as that of contemporary London or New York: as though we had reached a kind of social plateau which is the final resting‑ground of literate man. That, of course, is absurd. The social matrix will change, education will change, with greater acceleration than it did between the time of the Edinburgh Review and the Partisan Review: judgments will change. But it is not necessary to go to extremes of subjectivity. Major writers are able to survive the invention of new categories; they resist the influence of ideologies, including most of all their own. As we read, our imaginations stretch wider than our beliefs. If we construct mental boxes to shut out what won't fit, then we make ourselves meaner. Among near contemporaries whom I admire, I could mention Bernard Malamud, Robert Graves, William Golding: it would be a tough job to assimilate these three into any scheme or ideology, literary or non‑literary, which could conceivably be associated with me. So, in a future society, different from ours, some of the great literary names of our time will still be venerated. This will be true of the major talents in the 'movement' of which Dostoevsky was a distant and eccentric precursor and which lasted, as the literature of the western avant-garde, down until the very recent past.

The writers who have taken part in this movement are nowadays often called 'modernists' or 'moderns'; the terms may seem a little odd for a school which began well back in the nineteenth century and which has left scarcely any active practitioners; but literary terms are odd, and if we don't like these we can think of them as terms of art, like the adjectives in New College or art nouveau. Anyway, we all know what is meant: there would be fair agreement on some of the representative names—Laforgue, Henry James, Dujardin, Dorothy Richardson, T. S. Eliot, Yeats, Pound, Hulme, Joyce, Lawrence, Sologub, Andrei Bely, [51] Virginia Woolf, Wyndham Lewis, Gide, Musil, Kafka, Benn, Valéry, Faulkner, Beckett.

According to taste, and according to one's fundamental attitude to the implications of modernism, one adds names or subtracts them. Thus Lukács, by far the most powerful of its antagonists, would not include Thomas Mann: while Trilling, one of its committed defenders, certainly would. And so on.

We should nearly all agree that the modernist movement includes a majority, though not all, of the high talents in western literature over a longish period. We should further agree that the individual works of individual writers have an existence of their own; and that the greatest of the modernists' creations will, like Dostoevsky's, swim above the underswell of argument in a changing culture. But about what the movement means in social terms (that is, the social roots from which it grew and its effects upon society), its meaning in the here‑and‑now of our divided culture, and its influence in the future—here there is a disagreement which can't be glossed over and which may continue after most of us are dead.

There have recently appeared three interesting texts: Lionel Trilling's The Modern Element in Modern Literature, Stephen Spender's The Struggle of the Modern, Georg Lukács's The Meaning of Contemporary Realism. The first striking thing is that, when they are talking of modernism and modern literature, they are talking of what is recognisably the same thing. They value it differently: their formal analysis is different: but, behind all that, the essence to which they are responding is the same.

The confrontation of Lukacs and Trilling is picturesque. Each is a very clever man, and clever in somewhat the same fashion. Each brings by design to literary criticism a range of equipment from nonliterary disciplines: Lukacs from philosophy and economics, Trilling from Freudian psychology. They often give the common impression of being unempirical: when they try to be empirical they have a tendency to overdo it. On modernism, Lukács, is temperately and courteously anti, Trilling devotedly pro. In a long and sustained analysis of modernism, Lukács sees its characteristic features as rejection of narrative objectivity: dissolution of the personality: ahistoricity: static view of the human condition (meaning by this mainly what I have called the social condition).

Trilling's views are familiar to most of us. In his recent essay there is an explicit passage:

The author of The Magic Mountain once said that all his work could be understood as an effort to free himself from the middle class and this, of course, will serve to describe the intention of all modern literature . . . the end is not freedom from the middle class but freedom from society itself. I venture to say that the idea of losing oneself tip to the point of self‑destruction, of surrendering oneself to experience without regard to self‑interest or morality, escaping wholly from the societal bonds, is an 'element' somewhere in the mind of every modern person who dares to think of what Arnold in his unaffected Victorian way called the 'fullness of spiritual perfection'.

Reading these closely argued, deeply felt and often moving essays one after the other, that is, Lukács's and Trilling's, one has a curious sense of déjŕ vu. Aren't the two insights, which look so different, seeing the same phenomenon? One approves, the other disapproves, and yet there is a link. They might disagree about the social causes of modernism—but each is too subtle to think that these are simple. As Harry Levin has demonstrated, the social origins of classical nineteenth‑century realism are more complex than we used to think.

Lukács, and Trilling are describing what has happened. The descriptions under the surface often run together. For Trilling's 'freedom from society' presupposes a static view of society. It is the romantic conception of the artist carried to its extreme. And the romantic conception of the artist only has full meaning if there is a social cushion, unaffected by change, unaffected by the scientific revolution, to fall back on. Such an attitude, such a desire, can lead to turning the original dichotomy on its head and taking an optimistic view of one's individual condition and a pessimistic view of the social one. Trilling would not do this, of course: he is too serious a man. But it is a temptation characteristic of the worst‑spirited of modernist literature.

I find myself asking a question. It is not a rhetorical question, and I don't know the answer. It would be a satisfaction to know it. The question is this: how far is it possible to share the hopes of the scientific revolution, the modest difficult hopes for other human lives, and at the same time participate without qualification in the kind of literature which has just been defined?

SOURCE: Snow, C. P. The Two Cultures; And, A Second Look: An Expanded Version of 'The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution'. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969. The first excerpt is from the original 1959 Rede Lecture, pp. 7-8; the rest are from "The Two Cultures: A Second Look," pp. 87-89, 90-97; all footnotes omitted.

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