by Thomas O’Dwyer
The career of Kenneth Widmerpool defined an era of British social and cultural life spanning most of the 20th century. He is fictional – a character in Anthony Powell’s 12-volume sequence, A Dance to the Music of Time – but he is as memorable as any historical figure. In the first volume, he is a colourless Eton public schoolboy. Across the series, he tunnels his way under British upper-class and bohemian society. A powerful and sinister self-made monster, he even gains a life peerage. In the final volume, the aged Widmerpool joins a hippie cult and dies naked while chasing girls in the woods. Widmerpool lived and prospered in the solid certainties of his acquired culture. He died in the midst of its fragmentation.
Widmerpool was an original snowflake – one who believed that he was so unique that greatness and adulation were his destiny. His lowly father sold fertilisers. His mother raised him to be this snowflake with an inflated uniqueness that would override his mediocrity. The metaphor then was poetic – snowflakes are lovely, and no two are alike.
Today, we have a “snowflake generation,” defined by British author Claire Fox in her 2016 book I Find That Offensive!: “It is a derogatory term for one deemed too vulnerable to cope with views that challenge their own, particularly in universities and other forums once known for robust debate.” With some irony, these delicate modern snowflakes are also called “new Victorians.”
The collapse of cultural certainties was most clear in Britain but rippled through all Western societies. The origin of certain culture-war debates, which erupt from time to time like temperamental volcanoes, is pinned on one Englishman, Lord Charles Percy Snow. A chemist and novelist, Snow in 1959 published The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. He first delivered it as a lecture at Cambridge University. Snow observed that a group of educated people talking in a room would make allusions drawn from books and the arts. Not one of them would be expected to make, or understand, a reference to “the second law of thermodynamics.” Half of human culture – science – appeared to be non-existent for literary intellectuals.
Snow found this odd and alarming, and he considered it a problem whose solution was obvious.
In an advancing civilisation, science should have an equal place in schools alongside literature and the arts. A bi-cultural snowflake should be well-rounded – like Snow himself, although he never implied that. (Wags remarked that he was so well rounded he was almost spherical). When considering Snow, it’s impossible not to think of Widmerpool. Snow and Anthony Powell were friendly acquaintances and Snow too wrote a sequence of novels, Strangers and Brothers. It ran to 11 volumes, one less than Powell’s work. Powell’s magnum opus is still read and well regarded, but Snow’s has vanished onto the forgotten bookshelves of history. It is for his cultural theory he is still known and debated.
For academics, The Two Cultures is a convenient old hat rack, of little value in itself, parked in the office of the Chronicle of Higher Education for them to hang their grievances upon it – tenure, nerds, corporate hegemony, wars on science, snowflake students and, oh, the inhumanities. (A sample of Chronicle article titles this year – The ‘Two Cultures’ Fallacy; The End of Literary Studies?; The Intellectual War on Science). These are the Snow-flakes now. Old theories never die, but they do sometimes reverse themselves like a magnetic field. In a world where technology geeks dominate and classical humanities have withered, Snow’s theory has flipped.
The average person can pass through daily life without being aware of any such cultural divide. The world has definitely moved on. It was moving even in Snow’s day, as he acknowledged in a less well known “second look” edition of his book in 1963. Even in 1959, reviewers noted that Snow was revisiting a debate that had developed during the Industrial Revolution. English philosopher William Whewell coined the words “scientist” and “physicist” only in the 19th century. Before him, those investigating nature were “natural philosophers.” Friedrich Nietzsche tried to put “science” in its place. “It is totally dependent upon philosophical opinions for all of its goals and methods, though it easily forgets this,” he wrote. Before the newly invented “scientists” and “physicists” forked off into a world of their own, culture was just life, in all its variety of attitudes, behaviours and ideas.
Away from the world of academic snarling, the concept of two cultures does look flaky. Scientists continue to do their science and relax with one of the arts — a novel, a concert, a movie. The artists continue to practice their crafts. Giving thanks for the gifts of science, they also check their smartphone apps for ideas and information, or to schedule medical appointments. In The Third Culture, in 1995, John Brockman added a new concept. His “third culture” was a group of well-known scientists who directly explained their new ideas to the public in plain English. The late Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and Yuval Harari’s Sapiens, prove that these bridge-builders exist and thrive. Their book sales would not shame Stephen King or John Grisham.
But where does that leave nerds, economists and politicians on Snow’s updated spectrum of Western ideas? There is another fly in the cultural ointment that many in the debate ignore – religion. Snow himself did not attack religion, but ignorance. And yet its interference is still with us, the unwanted preacher at the party. Traditional Christians could not abide the fact-based meddlings of scientists in their dogmas. With its philosophy and art, religion hovered for a while on the humanities side of the cultural divide, before forking off on its own road to nowhere. Now, when allied to politics, religion lends pernicious fervour to creationists, climate-change deniers and elected hypocrites. The triumphant scientists, engineers and their postmodern acolytes, the computer nerds, have created our modern world. It does seem odd that scientists created their engineering, medicine and gadgetry under the noses of an ever more educated public who remained oblivious to how they were doing it. As civilisation in the West became more comfortable, the leisured middle classes would continue to chatter about their books, plays, concerts and movies. None or few, as the science-educated Lord Snow griped, argued over the second law of thermodynamics.
There is, of course, more general interest in all the sciences now, with the plethora of popular books, magazines and videos on its various topics. Science fiction has blurred the line in literature but science facts also offer us mysteries as profound as any ancient legends. In the movie Arrival, a linguist and a physicist together investigate the nature of an alien race. The much loved Big Bang Theory exposed a mass audience to more science than they’d never heard of in a television sitcom. We can see modern culture in careers people choose, not in some random sample of arty types failing to discuss quantum physics. (Thank you at least, Mr. Schrodinger, for the folksy quantum-cat riddle). If you are going into medicine, manufacturing or the military, you’d better be able to manage mathematics and physics, including that damn second law. If your inclination is writing, music, movie-making or modern dance, you can survive without mathematics. You can even play with a mere artist’s concept of second-law entropy or the arrow of time.
So is the cultural convergence of the arts and sciences a done deal? In the room, do women come and go, talking of science and C.P. Snow? Not quite, for the passé wrangling remains alive and unwell in dreary schools and universities. Schools fret because girls remain reluctant to take STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, maths). The two cultures, apparently, are stubbornly gender dependent. In universities, the debates are about funds and “relevance.” The humanities were once masters of their universe with their Greek, Latin, Shakespeare and French critical theories. Now they are an impoverished former aristocracy, discredited orphans of Jacques Derrida and postmodern mumbo-jumbo. The shiny new offices and stunning laboratories go to the science faculty, administrators burgeon. The business types, opportunist as ever, have merged their dismal empiricism with the scientists. If it’s not measured, it’s not managed, so business is a science now, not the art of the deal it once was. Scientists may disagree; so too may the rest of us when billionaires burrow into politics.
Some intellectuals think literati are still too ignorant about science. “Many of the scientists I’ve met have read all the novels I’ve read, have been to the opera, know the partitas of Bach,” British author Ian McEwan said in a 2010 interview. “They know our stuff and we don’t know their stuff, and I do feel a little flush of intellectual embarrassment about this.”
Yet, Snow’s division was always too simple. Scientist Noam Chomsky wrote: “It is quite possible – probable, one might guess – that we will always learn more about human life … from novels than from scientific psychology.” And there was G.H. Hardy, who explained the mathematician’s mind: “A mathematician, like a painter or a poet, is a maker of patterns … I am interested in mathematics only as a creative art.”
Britain was quite an anti-intellectual philistine place in the 1960s. Even for middle and upper-class snobs like the fictional Widmerpool, learning was a veneer. Beneath the Greek odes and Latin aphorisms, these elites were boorish, selfish, bigoted and misogynist. C.P. Snow was not an elitist and did not elevate them. What he lamented was a time when serious literature was also popular literature, and he hoped only to add some science to the intellectual mix. Dickens, Thackeray, Tolstoy, Gogol, Flaubert, Zola were best-selling authors in the 19th century.
A few decades on, technology is the flavour of the new century. Being a nerd has never been so cool. In academia, humanities and arts have been not only dethroned, but sent to the basement. Culture is no longer an exploration of humanity, but a means to impoverish it with diversion. T.S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets that we are “distracted from distraction by distraction.” Pop culture has triumphed in most artistic fields. In many places, the very idea of artistic permanence is scorned and material wealth has allied with cultural degradation. Much of Western culture depends now on celebrity, shock, instant gratification – and avoiding intellectual effort. Literature, cinema, music may be labelled “lite” – even the effort to write the correct word light is too much. It’s a “what the people want” culture for the Twitter feeds of snowflakes.
Snow cannot be blamed for this any more than a canary can be blamed for a mine explosion. Now, snowflakes might be a “fourth culture” – if so, it’s time to declare “enough already.” In 2016 some lecturers at the University of Oxford introduced so-called “trigger warnings.” These alert students to subjects that might upset them. (Presumably, this would include frog dissection and the gouging of the Earl of Gloucester’s eyes in King Lear). This practice has expanded to students who react – with religious fervour? – against anyone or anything that could offend them, including political opinions. Their “no-platforming” tactics prohibit speakers on controversial topics from even setting foot on a campus. When you hear the word controversy, reach for your trigger.
In 2015, an angry confrontation took place between screaming, weeping, almost hysterical Yale University students and their faculty Head of College over “culturally insensitive” Halloween costumes. The video footage went viral and caused widespread outrage. Claire Fox described the students’ behaviour as classic “generation snowflake.”
While we were keeping a wary eye on the dangerous right, our cultural defences were being ouflanked on the extreme left. Authoritarian, narcissistic, and fanatical snowflakes threaten to coalesce into an avalanche of intolerance when anything jangles their delicate nerves or infallible certainties. At this point, we might permit C.P. Snow or Kenneth Widmerpool an elitist harumph from beyond the weed-covered graveyard of their classical culture. It would be in Latin – Horace, of course.
“Odi profanum vulgus et arceo” – I hate the unholy rabble and keep them at a distance.