Pomp and Circumstance: C. P. Snow
BOOKS and MEN One of America’s brightest young university critic,s ROBERT ADAMS is chairman of Cornell University’s department of literature and a close student of the works of Milton, Stendahl, James Joyce, and others. Mr. Adams examines here the writings of C.P.SNOW,with emphasis on Sir Charles’ contribution to the two-cultures dialogue.
by ROBERT ADAMS
THE latest addition to C.P. Snow’s saga of Lewis Eliot, Corridors of Power (Scribner’s, $5.95), is number nine in a sequence destined to comprise either ten or a dozen novels, and it settles a question which had been in the air since The Affair (1960). Previous books in the sequence have moved with a short, uneasy motion, often involving considerable overlay and repetition, from Lewis Eliot’s early Georgian youth (Time of Hope, Strangers and Brothers), through World War II (The New Men, Homecomings, The Masters), to a terminal date about 1947. The Affair skipped six crucial years, to concentrate on the period 1952-1953, and there was a question whether this gaping hole in time would ever be, as it were, backfilled. Corridors of Power seems to ensure that it will not, for the book moves majestically forward into 1955—1958. Taking place on the ministerial level, the novel emphasizes a social advance by Lewis Eliot rather like that of the late Midshipman-Captain-Admiral-National Hero Hornblower. The next volume may well give us Lewis Eliot making his bow at St. James’s, with a dukedom in the offing.
For those who have faithfully followed the sequence, Corridors of Power w ill hold few surprises. What the trial of Jack Cotery and George Passant was to the first two novels, what the trials of Eric Strawbridge and Donald Howard were to The New Men and The Affair, what the struggle of Jagoe and Crawford was to The Masters, the parliamentary career of Roger Quaife is to Corridors of Power. As usual, the issues of the novel culminate in a vote. Indifference to dramatic setting seems to be growing on Sir Charles, and in this latest novel, almost all the scenes take place either in nondescript government offices or at the dining table. As the latter setting is a bit more picturesque, and therefore makes a stronger impression than the former, an unintended comic weight is laid on affairs of the stomach. I counted no fewer than thirty-one serious sittings-down-to-table in the book, though little is actually savored at any of them beyond warmed-over political phrases.
For the central thesis of the book is political. Roger Quaife stakes his fate on a liberal, semi-banthe-bomb nuclear policy, and he is brought down by an imagined group of what Americans must perforce think of as British McCarthyites. Behind the blackest of the book’s villains, Brodzinski, it is possible to recognize the saturnine features of Dr. Edward Teller, with perhaps a compounded touch of Herman Kahn. This paranoid monster plays on the fears and prejudices of backward irresponsibles, and so destroys the career of the enlightened Quaife, already weakened by an extramarital affair. This alignment of Goods and Bads is, perhaps, a bit mechanical. Historically minded readers may feel that Quaife’s high-minded liberalism is rendered a little too easy by the total omission of such ugly history as the Budapest uprising and the Korean War. It is not hard to portray liberals as wise and prudent men when one systematically ignores the problems which liberalism cannot solve. But ideology has been a controlling element of Snow’s sequence.
Strangers and Brothers had a consistent tendency to take up one topic at a time, sometimes covering the same time background twice over, but bringing different characters forward or pushing them into the shadows as the program of a particular novel required. Thus Lewis Eliot, though supposed to be having a frightful time with psychotic Sheila all through the period of The Light and the Dark, The New Men, and The Masters, said in these novels almost nothing about her-in effect, segregating her agonies and his own into Time of Hope, toward the end, and Homecomings, toward the beginning. There is intended to be a “resonance,” Sir Charles has said, “between what Lewis Eliot sees and what he feels,” but a good deal of this resonance is bound to be damped and muffled by the novelist’s extraordinary ability to switch people and ideas on and off. Long before Lewis Eliot began forgetting about Budapest, he was good at bidding brothers wait in the wings until needed, dropping aged fathers into oblivion, and keeping wretched Sheila in Chelsea cold storage while he trotted about Mentone observing the amours of Roy Calvert. Apart from the untidy narrative aspects, these mental sound curtains deprive Lewis Eliot of any real chance for resonance within himself, let alone with his time.
Yet, in one of the novels, poor old Lewis does come momentarily out of the numb encapsulation which has been imposed on him. The moment of emergence is in Homecomings; it rises out of a situation in which Lewis, who has been Margaret’s lover, has rejected her and allowed her to marry Geoffrey, by whom she has had a child. Then, slowly but inexorably, it becomes clear to both of them that they want, need, and are still in love with one another. Sir Charles is not at his best in rendering this storm of Wagnerian yearning. Margaret, though a nice girl, is about as passionate in ordinary discourse as the average dean of women; and Lewis Eliot as a lover seems chiefly inclined to mope. But, granted the characters are in love —it isn’t supposed to be a young, sensual affair, but the slow culmination of an inarticulate and only half-dramatizable attraction —the fact is that they have got themselves into a frightful mess. They try to find a way out which will not hurt someone’s feelings. They are both decent people, and it is actually the depth of their civilized decency which landed them in this mess in the first place. But there is no easy way out, and in the end, Lewis Eliot does what, so far as I know, he does nowhere else in the sequence. He acts on instinct, without regard for fairness or propriety or other people’s desires. He wants Margaret, and at last, reaching down under those layers of kindness and niceness which make him a “dear old boy” — odious phrase — to his friends, he finds something which entitles him to be a man with the woman of his choice. Whether or not it was worth waiting through six novels for, it certainly makes Homecomings the most authentic novel of the series.
To A degree that has not been altogether appreciated, the novels of Sir Charles Snow are studies in the accumulation of evidence. Whether the central action is an election or an examination or a trial, one accumulates evidence to support a position; amid distractions and irrelevancies, it piles up. Fair-minded, limited men scrutinize it while Lewis Eliot scrutinizes it and them. Everyone is anxious. Then a decision is reached, sometimes right, sometimes wrong; but most of the time it turns out that the decision didn’t matter much anyway. By the time George Passant and Jack Cotery have been declared innocent, Lewis Eliot knows that they are, in a certain sense, guilty. But no matter, they are decent chaps and probably will not do it again. After all the fuss which is made in The Affair over the guilt or innocence of Donald Howard, he reveals himself in the last pages as an incorrigible malcontent, so lightweight that not even his supporters think him worth the trouble he has caused. Like Roy Calvert’s disappointment at not finding God — and this is presented so much from the outside as to seem a symptom of unaccountable temperamental eccentricity-Lewis Eliot’s bid for Margaret is an exceptional appeal to something resembling instinct or passion or need, a layer of existence which lies under and untouched by rationality or culture. It is something that cannot be submitted to a vote.
The shift of moral gravity is the more moving because it is made deliberately and in the teeth of something which Margaret has explicitly rejected — Lewis Eliot’s nagging, corrupting sense of moral responsibility. It is his nature, it is his sickness, to be a helping, considerate companion; it was this role which he played to his own satisfaction with despairing, unrewarding Sheila. Margaret isn’t having any of this; and it is, in fact, only by acting ruthlessly, for himself, in the teeth of his “responsibilities,” that Lewis Eliot gets her at all. What must be her disappointment to find him, in The Affair (ten years after their marriage), exercising that same twitchy moral responsibility on the compulsive counting-up of some more evidence?
Apart from its deficiencies of construction, verbal inventiveness, episodic variety, and atmospheric depth, the Strangers and Brothers sequence has aroused irritation through its obsessive, slow-paced concern with the sort of limited judgment which legislative bodies make and which we think literary artists ought to transcend. Like Lewis Eliot himself, the sequence of which he is the narrator is extraordinarily culture-bound. At his best, Eliot can briefly rise above his fate, can protest with blunt but authentic energy against it; these muffled cries render all the more oppressive the grinding, automatic quality of the writing at its routine level. This quality not only limits Sir Charles as a novelist, leaving both tragedy and comedy outside his chosen scope; it also lends a certain perspective to his extranovelistic pronouncements on culture.
WHAT Sir Charles actually said in that Rede Lecture of 1959 (which in good part merely restated theses put forward earlier) does not now look as if it ought to have stirred up as much enduring controversy as it has done. He said, in effect, that scientists as he had observed them knew so little of the “polite” culture, that many of them considered a novel by Dickens a dangerous literary adventure; and that, contrariwise, most literary and artistic people (those people who claimed for themselves the title of “intellectuals”) knew remarkably little of modern science. As a statement of fact, this one covers such an amount of territory that everyone can, could, and did think of exceptions in goodly numbers; yet, as sweeping generalizations go, it is obviously right. But it does not go far enough. Communication does not take place between the two disciplines, but it does not take place very freely within them either. This point needs little laboring. Literary people are often painfully out of touch with the plastic arts; sculptors do not as a rule talk shop with musicians. Even within a specific field, say English literature, the weight of current book production makes it impossible for any reader, however devoted, to keep up with the day-to-day output. A sort of communication does take place through the mass media, ranging from the macabre simplicities that go out over the wire services or the television cables to some occasionally interesting and complex work in the movies. But too often the price of communication is the dismissal of those nuances which were the only thing worth communicating in the first place. As for the sciences, they are producing so much new material every day, of such density and complexity, that no one man can possibly maintain even superficial acquaintance with more than a tiny fraction of it.
Thus, though Sir Charles was right enough in calling attention to a gap between the major branches of our culture, it appears that the more crucial gap is between the culture as a whole and the people within it who are being crushed and oppressed by a heritage which for the individual has become more a burden than a support. Naturally the supremely gifted and confident student still responds to the challenge. He may even learn how to appreciate the sort of approach which is customary in a field other than his own. But increasingly, the young men of the future, brought up against the demands of the culture, are turning back as bewildered and directionless children. The grind which faces them is frightful; the big rewards are for a supremely talented few; the new society offers, in the way of motivation, neither the fearful stick of abject poverty nor the luscious carrot of great wealth. Is it any wonder that the students, entering on their advanced acculturation, murmur in increasing numbers and with increasing emphasis, “No, thanks”?
Perhaps the most questionable aspect of Sir Charles’ lecture was his suggestion that the Russians seem to have made a proper start at reconciling the “two cultures.” The idea that in “socialist realism” the engineer and the artist find a satisfactory cultural meeting ground was distressing in its political simplicity; as if it were not common knowledge that this excuse for a style has been imposed by political edict upon most Russian writers and artists, that they are restive under it and would throw it off in a minute if they were allowed to. But quite apart from the political argument, it seems that the scale of the question has shrunk remarkably if it can be satisfied by a romance in which Masha and Mitya fall in love while overfulfilling their quota of lag bolts. We are not really talking about culture at all if what we want is a higher percentage of engineers as the heroes of our novels and movies; we are talking about stage props. There are several specific troubles with duress in matters of culture, one of which is that the things that can be required are all superficial. A deeper trouble lies in the basic notion of attacking a disease by suppressing symptoms; one recalls the basic Navy solution to mechanical malfunctions: “Hit it with a bigger hammer.”
For in every matter of culture, the voice of obligation, persuasion, or duress is only one of the voices making up the dialogue. There is also the voice which responds to society’s recurrent “You ought” with a quiet, yet no less insistent “But I must”; it is the voice which Lewis Eliot heard just once in his life and which liberated him on that brief occasion from his routine treadmill of worried muddle. It is the voice of instinct, the voice of tragic need, the voice which says the whole prudential world is important only as it provides me with the raw materials to make my own creative soul.
Truth lies here, not in the middle, not in a compromise or reconciliation, but in the continuing dialogue of extremes. If socialist realism implies almost automatically the solving of a problem by reducing it to its stage props, so do our petty academic palliatives. Nobody has much confidence in little courses called “Western Culture for Engineers” or “Modern Science for the Aesthetic.” Any student worth a lick knows that what he learns in such courses is a laughable oversimplification — better than nothing, maybe, but perhaps worse. Serious intellectual work is just not done in a spirit of “Gosh, we really ought to know something about sand sharks”; quite literally, modern man must specialize or die. The culture presses on us, huge, intricate, and demanding: most of it we shall have to ignore; of some small part we can be peripherally aware; and within a tiny area of their choice a few men in each generation have a bare chance of knowing what they are talking about. The period when they know enough to operate and are still flexible enough to seek out new ideas is, for most, pitifully brief; I do not think they ought to be nagged about the narrowness of their interests unless that narrowness interferes in some way with their chosen ends.
No individual is responsible for everything, or for any one thing, in a culture; no man should be asked to feel guilty because he doesn’t know some particular piece of information; it is the structure lie is making that counts, not the presence or absence of one particular brick. For, the pressure of holding men responsible for too many things leads directly to compromise and muddle, a classic instance of which is the present state of popular opinion in America, where we are forever being hurried by the news media from one emergency to another. We are told to feel responsible for Cyprus, for the Congo, for Vietnam, for Cuba, for the cold war generally, for juvenile delinquency, for the deplorable state of race relations in Mississippi and elsewhere. Each of these concerns may be legitimate in itself; with regard to all of them, our sense of obligation vastly outweighs our power of positive action, and in effect, when we divide our attention so radically we neither know anything worth acting on nor are entitled to an opinion about anything. The proposal that intellectuals should divide their attention between widely disparate disciplines is so clearly open to this criticism that one can hardly impute its serious advocacy to Sir Charles.
And, in fact, the Rede lecture veers off rather oddly after its bold diagnosis of the “two culture” dilemma into a plea for more support for one of these “cultures.” “More jam” was Sir Charles’ way of putting it; however homey the phrasing, its sense was clear, and in view of the recently publicized drain of British scientific personnel overseas, one can scarcely think the warning uncalled for. How serious the losses are in terms of the national welfare is another matter. Nobody seems to keep scientific secrets very long nowadays. The whole concept of keeping up in this race or that race implies an inconceivably wasteful duplication of labor, talent, and facilities which probably will not be possible on a major scale for very long; we shall then see, as we are already starting to see, a growth of cooperative ventures among the have nations and an attempt to limit access to the monopoly by the have nots.
Under the circumstances, it will probably matter less and less whether British scientists are working at Harwell or elsewhere. But in any event, the example of contemporary America is excellent evidence that giving the scientists more federal jam doesn’t solve or minimize problems of interdisciplinary communication. Quite the contrary. Jam in large amounts is necessary for some scientific research, and a welcome perquisite of intellectual activity generally; but when federal jam tries to control and direct, as in the current expansion of the superuniversities, it tends inexorably to reduce scientists and humanists alike to bureaucrats. Poets work best to the judgment of their fellow poets, historians with an eye to the criticism of their brother historians, mathematicians for their own occult fraternity, and every craftsman worth his salt to the measure of men skilled in the mystery. Robert Graves tells us that the Scilly Islanders live by taking in each other’s laundry; and nowhere in the world do the clothes come out whiter.
It is an old but wise prescription: Ne sutor ultra crepidam. “Let the shoemaker stick to his last.” For contemporary culture, though inevitably burdensome, becomes bitterly restrictive only when seen through the distorting lenses of muddle and indiscriminate responsibility. A clear eye to our own advantage will tell us how widely or narrowly to invest our energies in the culture. If we do something, I do not think we shall be much blamed for not doing everything. Whatever we invest, and however we distribute it, I believe we shall do well to hold something in reserve, a private and quiet negation, a provincialism of the heart. Read with this point in mind, the story of Lewis Eliot is pretty good evidence that a moment of concentrated, heartfelt authenticity is worth several thousand pages of drab responsibility.