Saturday, December 19, 2009

Fit to Eat With the Hogs?

I just finished reading C. P. Snow's little book The Two Cultures, originally published in 1959, about elite conflicts in (mostly) British society about the status of science. Snow, who was a scientist and a novelist, complained that science got No Respect from academic "intellectuals", and The Two Cultures stirred up a lot of controversy when it first appeared. I've been meaning to get to Snow's work for many years -- somewhere I think I still have a paperback copy of his novel Corridors of Power that I bought in high school -- and I really just sought out a copy of The Two Cultures because it was discussed in a newer book I was reading on the Science Wars of the turn of this century. The edition I got from the library included Snow's essay "A Second Look" from the early 60s, in which he revisited his argument and acknowledged some of the more overwrought criticism it attracted. There, on pages 56-58, he made a wickedly lovely dismissal of a certain kind of criticism that more people ought to bear in mind.
A few, a very few, of the criticisms have been loaded with personal abuse to an abnormal extent: to such an extent in one case, in fact, that the persons responsible for its publication in two different media made separate approaches to me, in order to obtain my consent. I had to assure them that I did not propose to take legal action. All this seemed to me distinctly odd. In any dispute acrimonious words are likely to fly about, but it is uncommon, at least in my experience, for them to come anywhere near the limit of defamation.

However, the problem of behaviour in these circumstances is very easily solved. Let us imagine that I am called, in print, a kleptomaniac necrophilist (I have selected with some care two allegations which have not, so far as I know, been made). I have exactly two courses of action. The first, and the one which in general I should choose to follow, is to do precisely nothing. The second is, if the nuisance becomes intolerable, to sue. There is one course of action which no one can expect of a sane man: that is, solemnly to argue the points, to produce certificates from Saks and Harrods to say he has never, to the best of their belief, stolen a single article, to obtain testimonials signed by sixteen Fellows of the Royal Society, the Head of the Civil Service, a Lord Justice of Appeal and the Secretary of the M.C.C., testifying that they have known him for half a lifetime, and that even after a convivial evening they have not once seen him lurking in the vicinity of a tomb.

Such a reply is not on. It puts one in the same psychological compartment as one’s traducer. That is a condition from which one has a right to be excused.

The argument, fortunately, will suffer no loss if we ignore criticisms from this particular spirit, and any associated with them: for such intellectual contributions as they contain have been made, with civility and seriousness, by others.
(The "particular spirit" Snow had in mind, he acknowledged in an endnote, was F. R. Leavis, a famous academic literary critic of the period.)

I have many disagreements with Snow's thesis, which I hope to detail in a future post, but I hope I can stay on his level (or psychological compartment) about them.