1993, Cambridge UP, 180 pages
Most thought-provoking read this year. Novelist and chemist C.P. Snow’s 1959 THE TWO CULTURES. He talks about the divide between the sciences and humanities. What he found was that his humanities friends would roll their eyes when they found out his science friends hadn’t read Dickens or Shakespeare. But his science friends would roll their eyes when they found out that his humanities friends didn’t know about the second law or couldn’t explain “mass” or “momentum” (as a novelist and chemist, he moved between both crowds).
So far, the humanities/science divide isn’t too controversial. But then when he starts talking about the industrial revolution, that really changed how I think. I had always thought bad of the industrial revolution, from reading Blake (“dark Satanic Mills”), Thoreau (Walden), Dickens (Hard Times), Hardy (Far from Madding Crowd), and Austen (Sense). They all idealized the countryside, the old agrarian life.
Snow’s take is that factories were taking people in hand over fist because life in the fields was much more horrible than life in the factories. That idea blew up my mind. Then he blew up my mind some more with how he tied the Industrial Revolution into his two cultures thesis: the scientists and engineers at the time never thought of the Industrial Revolution as a bad thing, they were busy inventing things for it. But the humanists portrayed it as the worse thing in the world by combatting it with the image of the pastoral idyll. I thought: “Damn! It IS two cultures!”
His take is controversial. But I haven’t thought this hard in a long time. And since these are transcripts from the 1959 Rede lecture series, it is quite readable.
I wonder now if E. O. Wilson’s CONSILIENCE (where he advocates bridging together humanities and sciences in a great jump fowards) was a reaction to Snow’s THE TWO CULTURES. One of the great things about reading is discovering the archaeology of ideas. Today is a good day.
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Don’t forget me. I’m Edwin Wong and I do Melpomene’s work.
sine memoria nihil