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This article is taken from PN Review 188, Volume 35 Number 6, July - August 2009.

Fifty Years On: A Note on C.P. Snow Roger Caldwell

Why, fifty years on, does C.P. Snow’s Rede Lecture of 1959, ‘The Two Cultures’, still have a certain resonance? Surely we by now know better - that there are not two, but innumerable, cultures. So why is this particular intervention - by a not very distinguished thinker and half-forgotten novelist - not consigned, like so many other debates of its kind, to the dustbin of history? It caused, of course, a furore in its day, provoking a vitriolic response from F.R. Leavis, and a more measured - but still negative - response from Lionel Trilling (among many others) and, for all its rather parochial concerns with English politics and the English educational system, reached across the Atlantic and was taken up in counties such as Poland and Japan - as Snow himself notes with just a hint of self-satisfaction in his ‘Second Look’ at the subject in 1964.

But what strikes one now is the simplistic nature of the dichotomies - between forward-looking socially responsible scientists and backward-looking self-obsessed literary intellectuals - and the failing on all sides to quite hit home. One can understand why Leavis sees Snow as embodying ‘a technologico-Benthamite world-view’ - this was after all the age of the technocrat - but it is less clear that he is ‘the prophet of the new consumer society’. For all his socialist and scientific optimism, he is aware too of ‘personal tragedy’, that ‘Each of us is solitary; each of us dies alone.’ Such awareness ...

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