The Science Lover and the Snob

By Chris Mooney | April 22, 2009 12:24 pm


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.


Comments (5)

  1. Jon Winsor

    Good stuff.

    …except, amazingly enough, on Comedy Central!…

    Time magazine a while ago did an interesting issue on Mark Twain:,9171,1820144,00.html

  2. Nobody can quite turn a phrase like the British…

  3. Jon Winsor

    Again, on the subject of “serious comedy,” I can’t remember if I linked to this CJR story on Rachel Maddow before or not:

    And here’s Maddow defending her comedy-meets-Murrow delivery style:

  4. MadScientist

    Meh. Leavis sounds no different than a rabid creationist; much of the time he appears to be saying something but if you take a second look you see that he’s merely spouting empty words – something like a deChardin or an Aquinas – verbose but mostly senseless, he is best left in his own corner frothing at the mouth and undergoing violent spasms. Leavis is rightfully forgotten by history; he was not so much as a mere amoeba compared to other literary figures. Jon Winsor brings up Mark Twain – hah, hardly a comparison. Twain is well known as a master of understated sarcasm and he can take a man down without resorting to mere vulgarity; Leavis was a mere twat.

  5. Jon

    Actually, the Twain article is very relevant to some of the discussions we’ve been having on this blog. When was the last time you saw a popular magazine article mentioning Matthew Arnold, Mark Twain, Jon Stewart, and Stephen Colbert in the space of 7 paragraphs? It’s a pretty good bet that something’s going on zeitgeistwise…


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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