My latest Science Progress column just went up–it is yet another discussion of C.P. Snow, this time with a focus on his famous battle with the literary critic F.R. Leavis. I argue that Leavis really behaved badly–launching various low blows at Snow–but that if you strip away the vitriol, both thinkers had something important to say.
Here’s an excerpt, describing the most colorful aspects of the Snow-Leavis battle:
…most memorable were Leavis’s attacks. The man knew how to hurl an insult in a way we really don’t any more; even as you recoil at the incivility, you must admire the wordcraft. Snow, Leavis stated, “doesn’t know what he means, and doesn’t know he doesn’t know.” “The intellectual nullity,” he added, “is what constitutes any difficulty there may be in dealing with Snow’s panoptic pseudo-cogencies, his parade of a thesis: a mind to be argued with—that is not there; what we have is something other.” But what else to expect from a crappy writer like Snow? “As a novelist,” wrote Leavis, “he doesn’t exist; he doesn’t begin to exist. He can’t be said to know what a novel is.” A few more scenes from the execution:
Snow’s argument proceeds with so extreme a naiveté of unconsciousness and irresponsibility that to call it a movement of thought is to flatter it.
Snow rides on an advancing swell of cliché: this exhilarating motion is what he takes for inspired and authoritative thought.
It is characteristic of Snow that ‘believe’ for him should be a very simple word.
And so on. As one ringside observer put it, Leavis “threw Sir Charles Snow over his shoulder several times and then jumped on him…the whole thing left one with a sense of comradely sympathy for Sir Charles, as it might be for a man who had been involved in a serious motor accident.” The eminent critic Lionel Trilling added that while he had problems with Snow’s argument, there could be “no two opinions” about Leavis’s breach of decorum: “It is a bad tone, an impermissible tone.”
You can read the full column here. I’m particularly interested in what people think of my attempt to find common ground between Snow and Leavis at the end.