CP Snow


Another writer who seems to have slipped through the cracks in recent decades is C. P. Snow. As a young man I read most of his Strangers and Brothers series of novels and recently watched the TV adaptation from 1983 for the first time. He was not a novelist of the first water but I found – still find – his works relevant and interesting from a historical and social perspective. They chart the history of Britain from the 1920s through to the 1960s and afford great insights into the “corridors of power” (the title of one of the novels).

The TV adaptation is remarkable because it allows the characters to engage in lengthy political and philosophical discussions, something that would be unthinkable in today’s drama productions. I found the later episodes particularly interesting because they dealt with the ethical debate over nuclear weapons and Britain’s decision to develop its own nuclear deterrent. These were big issues in the late 50s and early 60s, with the prospect of nuclear war a constant preoccupation.

The title of the series of novels is a reference to humankind’s existential aloneness but also to the importance of people “connecting” with one another . After the wife of the main character in the novels, Lewis Eliot, kills herself,  Lewis says: “We are all strangers. I’ve always known that each of us is alone in parts of our individual lives but I believe we can and should feel for each other socially like brothers.” This was an idea championed by many writers in the first half of the 20th century, including E. M. Forster in Howard’s End (“Only connect” and “connect without bitterness until all men are brothers”). Soberingly, Snow also said that “Civilization is hideously fragile [and] there’s not much between us and the horrors underneath, just about a coat of varnish.”

Last month [May 2009] was the 50th anniversary of Snow’s famous Two Cultures lecture and many articles about it appeared in the press.

Seedmagazine.com wrote:

“May 7 [2009] marks the 50th anniversary of C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures lecture. Half a century ago the prominent novelist and speaker, who studied under Lord Rutherford, described a chasm between literary intellectuals and scientists, a gulf that impoverished both sides and impeded efforts to relieve suffering around the world. Science was not understood or respected by the dominant culture, to the detriment of all, he said. At some point scientists had ceased to be considered intellectuals, Snow noted, and though any educated person was required to know Shakespeare, almost none knew the second law of thermodynamics.”

Jonathan Jones wrote a very interesting article in The Guardian.  It begins: “The Prescience of CP Snow, 50 years on. The novelist’s warning of cultural fragmentation has come to fruition; but now we face a worse deterioration than he feared.” Commenting on a collection of essays on the state of education today, published to coincide with the anniversary of Snow’s lecture, Jones wrote:

“Now, say the authors of From Two Cultures to No Culture, the very survival of serious education is at stake. English literature students reach university without having read a Shakespeare play and science is being betrayed by the combined science GCSE. The very assumption of an educated elite on which Snow’s argument rested is no longer a given. Scientific understanding, historical memory and literary sophistication are all on the edge of the abyss as education becomes increasingly feeble and surrenders to the tyranny of mass culture.”

It is well worth reading the complete article.

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