Time To Revisit The Two Cultures
In education, ministers have been Snowites (“white-hot” Harold Wilson put him in government for a while), new universities and institutes have appeared, and schools have largely abandoned the classics; A levels now include economics and psychology, and it has become easier to mix arts and sciences at A level than it was, while university courses have diversified enormously.
The public appetite for science has grown hugely, and shelves in bookshops are full of titles such as John Gribbin’s In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat, and James Gleick’s Chaos. Pitched at various levels — from those of TV science star Brian Cox to Sir Roger Penrose’s daunting and stupendous thousand-page The Road to Reality, they provide further evidence that it is scientists more than writers who enjoy a caste-like status as gifted initiates. Their realm of almost hieratic symbols and equations remains tantalisingly out of the reach of most. Now that God is discovered to be the One True Mathematician, they are His prophets, and the popularisers their disciples. Writers must deal in mere words; they are preoccupied in finding their niche in a land of a hundred sub-cultures; they have lost confidence in the “traditional culture” — isn’t everybody else’s culture interesting too?
Our culture has become so fragmented, sprawling, relativistic, pluralist, populist and hyperactive that it is more difficult than ever to understand great achievements in fields not our own. We can only attempt it by making a real effort not to be specialised to the blinkers. Those who can should try at least to appreciate some of the elements of maths rather as the Greeks admired those of Euclid. On the other hand, that does not mean (as Snow thought) that we all have to sign up to a repellent conformist technocracy. Why shouldn’t creative writers, if they are intelligent and thoughtful, be pessimistic, nostalgic, radical, angry, or otherwise dissatisfied with the failings of contemporary civilisation? They are entitled to be subjective, and should, in the proper sense of the term, be aesthetes (which Snow, despite being a novelist, wasn’t).
The two-cultures question can never be fully resolved, but it might be better understood. In trying to make sense of ourselves and our civilisation, we do need powerful cultural critics, both in creative and analytical writing, to help us. We have plenty of good academics and incisive commentators, but perhaps none to fill the shoes of seers and sages of the past, from Coleridge and Mill to Orwell and Russell, or of the “public intellectuals” now apparently more valued in France and the US.
On the other hand, imaginative writers should make more frequent ventures into the bounds of science (I don’t mean the fantastic fake science of most science fiction): it would enrich their work. I love the way Milton mentions Galileo (whom he visited in Florence in 1638) in Paradise Lost (“Through optic glass the Tuscan artist views /At evening from the top of Fesole”) and I wonder whether if he’d been more interested in what was going on in the England of Newton and Hooke, and less in seraphic historiography, his epic might have been more consistently engaging. Writers should aim, if not to “justify the ways” of the cosmos to man, at least to help us understand what it is, who we are, and how we should react to what we have learned. Too many are just not very interested.