Second Trial: Truth

The Hatred of Literature - William Marx 2015

Second Trial: Truth

5 P.M. at Cambridge University. A brief appearance by John F. Kennedy. A false symmetry. Homophobia suits anti-literature. Literature leads straight to Auschwitz. Benda, an unwitting moderate. Writers are cowards. Adorno. Nobel hopes for Baron Snow. And then there was Leavis. Third culture and third realm. Arnold and Huxley. The Homeric laughter of Monsieur Renan. Children sucking their thumbs. Does Mister Spock like literature? The geometer and the poets. God, poetry is so boring! Translations without an original. I embrace poetry, only to suffocate it. Return to Plato. When poets attacked philosophy. The classical ideal of the man without letters. Cup of coffee versus cup of tea. Behaviorism in Homer, Shakespeare, and others. The myth of the crazy writer and the Nazi lover of literature. Fighting for the territory.

IN A VAST NEOCLASSICAL ROOM whose only fanciful touch was a tile floor with a dizzying repetition of diamonds embedded within each other in a black-and-white jacquard pattern, two superposed rows of nine tall windows faced eighteen similar windows (to simplify the count, I am proceeding as if one of these windows had not been replaced by a dull, opaque wood door, the architect having eventually had to accept that even at Cambridge University, humans are not pure spirit and that the symmetry so carefully laid out consequently had to be broken to provide at some selected spot what is commonly known as an entrance). In this vast room, then, one found some thirty-four twinned windows (to which one must add the five windows of the short east side, the west side having none, for a total of thirty-nine). In short, quite a large number of more or less symmetrically arranged windows allowed the warm light of a late spring afternoon typical of the English countryside to illuminate a gathering of about four hundred people. Unless, of course, clouds were obstructing the sky that day and rain was pouring down, a detail history has refrained from recording, though it would not have been unlikely in this verdant part of leafy England, even in May—on May 7, 1959, to be specific. The clock had just struck five: it was not time to drink tea, but rather for a man of respectable height and girth, who would probably not have turned down a few extra scones, to head for the lectern standing at one end of the room in front of a recess paneled in dark wood and topped by a large pediment resting on four pilasters. The lecture was about to begin.

All this solemn symmetry in such an imposing setting was perfectly suited to the topic of the day: “the two cultures,” according to the invitation card, just as one might say The Two Towers or The Two Gentlemen of Verona. In fact, the full title announced was longer: “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.” Yet history would only remember the first part, and it is under this abridged title that the much-reissued text was read around the world and made a big impression, sometimes even generating outrage: another triumph for symmetry, whose power to illustrate overshadows the complexity of the real.

According to the orator, the two cultures are the literary culture and the scientific culture, which quietly stare each other down from opposite sides of a room without ever meeting in the middle. The literary types know nothing about the second law of thermodynamics, that old chestnut of modern physics, and the snobbish ignoramuses even dare to be proud of it. As for the scientists, they don’t ever read literature, preferring to devote themselves to the simple pleasures of gardening or, in the unlikely event that they should pick up a book, to use it merely as a tool (hard to say whether a hammer or a shovel).1 Is modern civilization forever fated to be torn between these two poles, without any possible communication between the two? Not at all, says the man at the lectern. On the contrary, we must fill the cultural gap by reforming the educational system, providing elites with the scientific abilities they sorely lack, and allowing the world to develop harmoniously through moral and technological progress that promises to unite all its peoples. In broad terms, this was the humanist, generous credo, so obvious it was incontestable, proclaimed in Cambridge that day in May 1959 in the context of the prestigious Rede Lecture series founded three or four centuries earlier by an equally generous donor.

The lecturer had all the necessary qualities to measure the consequences of the scandalous gulf between the two cultures: a chemist by training, Sir Charles Percy Snow had begun his career as a researcher at Cambridge and then worked as a consultant to the government during the Second World War, recruiting the scientific community to help reach military objectives. At the same time, he had begun early on to publish novels describing the scientific life, and these had been relatively successful. Wearing the two hats of an administrator for scientific research and a fashionable author regularly participating in public discourse, Snow could claim to speak authoritatively on the lecture’s double subject, the division between literature and science—a division to which he prided himself on being a happy exception.

Snow was indeed able to make the most of this double legitimacy, which created a halo around his slightest comment on this dual subject. In just a few months, the transcript of the lecture was printed, translated, and commented upon all around the world (except in France, oddly enough).2 Its author was hailed as an intellectual of the first rank and triumphantly welcomed wherever he set foot, starting with the United States. As early as 1960, Columbia University had started assigning The Two Cultures as required reading for every student, and future president John F. Kennedy promised himself to use it in his speeches.3

Readers today would find it difficult to explain the extraordinary impact of Snow’s discourse when faced with this text, which is not only unconcerned with stylistic elegance—despite the fact that its author delighted in being called a writer—but written in ordinary prose redeemed neither by its succession of good-natured platitudes and pretentious personal reminiscences along the lines of “I myself knew such and such a great physicist, who personally told me …,” nor especially by its failure to provide a precise meaning for the principal terms employed, least of all the term “culture,” which is curiously endowed with the ability to change meaning from one page to the next. Unless The Two Cultures’s very banality is responsible for its international success—as if in a certain way the future Baron Snow (for this was the title later bestowed on him by the queen for achievements that one can only hope, without much conviction, did not include The Two Cultures), as if this baron in the making had paradoxically been the first and principal beneficiary of the degeneration of culture that he so clumsily sought to denounce.

A book about anti-literature would have nothing to say about this lecture whose undeserved reputation is still strongly felt in the Anglophone world—though it is now less often considered in its own terms than as a historical moment best left in the past4—were it not for the fact that alongside its explicit condemnation of the division of society into two cultures, Snow’s lecture at the same time spread the insidious voice of a discourse aiming to depreciate actual literary culture. It is one thing to use a generous philanthropic vision to promote a more inclusive, unified culture that puts the humanities and the sciences on equal footing and provides everyone with the means to participate in both intellectual spheres for the purpose of facing the challenges of the present. The objective is laudable—utopian perhaps, poorly stated no doubt, but certainly laudable, like any effort to raise humankind’s general level of knowledge. But it is something else entirely to take advantage of this denunciation of the lack of communication between cultures to hide a unilateral criticism of the shortcomings and harmful effects of literary culture, and only literary culture. For, contrary to what the apparently equitable title of the lecture would suggest, the two cultures were not treated equally: the stated symmetry was as false as the symmetry of the windows in the Cambridge University hall where the famous lecture was delivered.

Two cultures? Without a doubt, but one of them is systematically credited with every virtue: sincerity, truth, simplicity, usefulness, effectiveness, altruism. That would be science—or scientists. It’s hard to know exactly because Snow doesn’t think twice about combining several distinct realities under the name of science: a method for constructing knowledge, the social and professional practice to which it corresponds, the environment in which this practice is carried out, the individuals that participate in it as well as their ways of life outside their professional context—Snow undoubtedly believes he can allow himself this rampant confusion because of his use of the word culture. As for the other culture, it is exactly the opposite: hypocritical, lying, snobbish, stuck in the past, artificial, egocentric, downright harmful—enough already! Believe it or not, this is Snow’s description of scholars, writers, artists, intellectuals, and the like. Obviously deriving pleasure from reinforcing this contrast, Snow could not be harsher in his criticism of literary culture, which he constantly and without explanation refers to as “the traditional culture,” as if this term made any sense. (Is it the culture based on tradition? The dominant culture? That of the people, the elites, etc.?)5 Contrary to what its title seems to promise, the lecture appears to be less a lament about the lack of understanding between the two cultures than a lampoon of the misdeeds of literary culture, the alleged cause of every ill besetting the modern world.

Some will say I’m exaggerating. Hardly: in fact, in 1959 Snow was toning down what he had said in a first version of the lecture published a few years earlier in the left-wing weekly the New Statesman, under the same title of “The Two Cultures.” Let the reader be the judge:

Its tone [that of scientific culture] is, for example, steadily heterosexual. The difference in social manners between Harwell and Hampstead, or as far as that goes between Los Alamos and Greenwich Village, would make an anthropologist blink. About the whole scientific culture, there is an absence—surprising to outsiders—of the feline and oblique. Sometimes it seems that scientists relish speaking the truth, especially when it is unpleasant. The climate of personal relations is singularly bracing, not to say harsh.6

Ah, the warm and harsh virility of relations among scientists! A welcome change from the effeminacy and feline slyness of literary types. Who wouldn’t prefer to live in the New Mexico desert, with the rugged real men of Los Alamos, rather than with the sissies of Greenwich Village and Hampstead?

Here we get the full measure of the talent that earned Sir Charles so many honors: rejection of unfair generalizations, attention to local and social specificities, subtle and objective analysis of personal experience, respect for others, and abolition of all prejudice.

One wonders what detailed sociological research allowed this intellectual to achieve such a finely shaded perception of reality. Two years earlier, in 1954, the brilliant British mathematician Alan Turing had committed suicide after being convicted of homosexuality. A hero of the Second World War, which the Allies might not have won without his contribution to decrypting the Enigma machine, Turing had gone on to do nothing less than develop the fundamental principle of computers and artificial intelligence. So yes, with one less homosexual in its ranks, the British scientific establishment could perhaps pride itself on having preserved a proper, “steadily heterosexual” atmosphere. But had science benefited? Snow clearly did not ask himself that question: one hopes, with no real conviction, that he would have answered in the negative.

Curiously, the contentious passage from the 1956 article was removed from the 1959 Cambridge lecture, as was the one in which Snow remarks that a scientist asked about his reading habits might answer: “As a married man, I prefer the garden.”7 Not simply, “I prefer the garden,” but “as a married man,” which was undoubtedly important in Snow’s eyes. The argument is clear enough: literary culture only interests homosexuals and is sterile, perverse, and dangerous.8

In 1959, then, the more or less direct homophobic allusions in which Snow displayed the same “feline and oblique” character he denounced in the literary world were deleted. On the other hand, the danger of literature is still present, looming larger than ever. It is—and this is the key word—political:

I remember being cross-examined by a scientist of distinction. “Why do most writers take on social opinions which would have been thought distinctly uncivilized and démodé at the time of the Plantagenets? Wasn’t that true of most of the famous twentieth-century writers? Yeats, Pound, Wyndham Lewis, nine out of ten of those who have dominated literary sensibility in our time—weren’t they not only politically silly, but politically wicked?”

Then comes the fundamental question in all its terrible ridiculousness: “Didn’t the influence of all they represent bring Auschwitz that much nearer?”9

But of course! The invention of the extermination camps had nothing to do with Hitler, Nazism, the crash of 1929, the invasion of Poland, the outbreak of the Second World War, the development of nationalism and racial theories in the nineteenth century, two millennia of constant anti-Semitism in the West. A handful of British and American poets of the interwar period were most certainly to blame. What took everyone so long to realize that?

Joking aside, if Snow had not specified that the speaker was a well-known scientist, one might have thought he was repeating ill-conceived drawing room chatter from one of those dinner parties where after the meal and in a cloud of cigarette smoke, alcohol leads the conversation off the rails. But this is “a scientist of distinction”: anyone other than Snow would have drawn the reasonable conclusion regarding the value of this much-vaunted scientific culture and the intelligence it is supposed to confer—but anyone other than Snow would probably not have chosen to repeat such a statement, unless it was to laugh at it.

After such a pronouncement, one expects Snow to take the reins of the conversation and rectify the scientist’s judgment. After all, there were plenty of potential responses. For example, that Yeats, Pound, and Lewis did not have a wide audience in Great Britain, much less in Germany, or that James Joyce, Thomas Mann, and Marcel Proust, among many other writers, could hardly be suspected of being in league with the forces of fascism and anti-Semitism. Or that many scientists participated in making Auschwitz possible: the anthropologists Francis Galton and Georges Vacher de Lapouge, engineers like Wernher von Braun and Hermann Pohlmann, who invented the V-2 rocket and the Stuka, doctors like Josef Mengele, and of course the chemists of IG Farben. Or that literature has no more and no less responsibility for all this than the society that it was simply an expression of. In other words, there was no shortage of arguments.

Instead of which, the future Baron Snow continued:

I thought at the time, and I still think, that the correct answer was not to defend the indefensible. It was no use saying that Yeats, according to friends whose judgment I trust, was a man of singular magnanimity of character, as well as a great poet. It was no use denying the facts, which are broadly true. The honest answer was that there is, in fact, a connection, which literary persons were culpably slow to see, between some kinds of early twentieth-century art and the most imbecile expressions of anti-social feeling. That was one reason, among many, why some of us turned our backs on the art and tried to hack out a new or different way for ourselves.10

One can only be stunned by so many outrageous statements: not defend the indefensible, half-forgive Yeats because at the end of the day he was a good guy. With friends like Snow, literature doesn’t need enemies.

The most unbearable is the orator’s clear conscience in spouting such foolishness: he was convinced that he represented the good and the moral, that the future was on his side, and that he would be heard as an oracle. But a clear conscience devoid of intelligence is worthless.

As I have mentioned, Snow was a repeat offender. In the version published three years earlier, he had written:

[Scientists] have nothing but contempt for those representatives of the traditional culture who use a deep insight into man’s fate to obscure the social truth—or to do something prettier than obscure the truth, just to hang on to a few perks. Dostoevski sucking up to the Chancellor Pobedonotsev, who thought the only thing wrong with slavery was that there was not enough of it; the political decadence of the Avant garde of 1914, with Ezra Pound finishing up broadcasting for the Fascists; Claudel agreeing sanctimoniously with the Marshal about the virtue in others’ suffering; Faulkner giving sentimental reasons for treating Negroes as a different species. They are all symptoms of the deepest temptations of the clerks—which is to say: “Because man’s condition is tragic everyone ought to stay in their place, with mine as it happens somewhere near the top.”11

When dealing with such bad faith, what purpose would it serve to counter all those names with those of Tolstoy, Zola, Orwell, Gide, Breton, or Steinbeck? No doubt the Anglo-Saxon modernists had a frequent though not exclusive propensity for the right and even the extreme right of the political spectrum: is that a reason to stamp all of literature without exception with the seal of infamy?

It was possible to think otherwise. Thirty years earlier, in France, Julien Benda had also painted a bleak picture of the “betrayal of the clerks.”12 Immediately after the Second World War, long before Snow dreamed of criticizing contemporary literature’s “Alexandrianism” and its disconnect from the people and from reality, Benda made the case against the “Byzantinism” of the writers of his era, which could be summed up as the “triumph of pure literature.”13 Yet despite his aggressive tone, the French critic never dreamed of lumping all of literature together and arguing for its eradication: only a few writers were targeted.

Snow is not as scrupulous. He continues the scathing description in the 1956 version as follows:

From that particular temptation, made up of defeat, self-indulgence, and moral vanity, the scientific culture is almost totally immune. It is that kind of moral health of the scientists, which, in the last few years, the rest of us have needed most; and of which, because the two cultures scarcely touch, we have been most deprived.14

End of article, case closed: sic transit Gloria litteraturae. Immunity, “moral health”: Snow’s references are to biology and medicine, in keeping with an intellectual framework that, paradoxically, is identical to that of his enemies on the extreme right: the opposition between scientific and literary people is of an organic nature, which is why it is impossible to eliminate.

A few years earlier, a German philosopher of a different caliber had also taken literature to task, particularly poetry: “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.”15 Or: “All post-Auschwitz culture, including its urgent critique, is garbage.”16 These statements were motivated by the feeling that art, as defined in traditional bourgeois terms, was absolutely powerless in the face of Nazi barbarity, but their unexpected violence also expresses the necessary rejection of nostalgia as well as the will to radically transform the usual practices.

In Adorno—for it is him we are speaking of—the energy of this call to critical revolution was proportional to the disappointment and distress experienced. Solutions had to be invented from scratch; and if there was one place where it would be unwise to try to find them, it was in the so-called scientific and technological culture whose triumph the philosopher considered one of the fundamental reasons for the catastrophe known as Auschwitz. Science would not help us escape from the historical logic that had led to absolute barbarity: it was nothing other than the most successful expression of the primacy given to practical efficiency, with the results we know. In contrast to the technological and scientific pragmatism celebrated by Snow, Adorno argued that a general critique needed to come first, with the full force of its negativity.

Nothing could be further removed from the good baron’s thinking, both in content and in form. If Snow had read Adorno, it is likely that he would have used his ideas as additional evidence of the incorrigible “Luddite” temptation specific to literary culture, which according to him was traditionally opposed to industrialization and technological progress.17 Snow has simple ideas: unlike Adorno, he is hardly inclined to destroy or change everything and start over from scratch. That would be far too much work. He finds his solution in what already exists: it is called science. Simple as that.

Naturally, Snow also wants another literature. He believes it is possible, and he personally works to bring it into existence with his own novels: a generous literature, attuned to psychological and social realities, and not afraid to champion ideas.18 A literature that incorporates the virtues of science and subordinates itself to it. Yet that is still not good enough, for to Snow the literary endeavor appears to be rotten to the core, and the world will not find its salvation there.

According to Snow, literature—even good literature—is no longer necessary. Never does he make an attempt to balance his argument by pointing out science’s shortcomings in dealing with contemporary problems; never does he advise science to glean the slightest thing from the qualities of literary culture. The symmetry on display is false: there are two cultures, but only one culture matters. All the rest is … literature.

The most interesting thing about this episode is the global success with which Snow’s proposition was met in the few months following the lecture, despite all its approximations, oversimplifications, absurdities, and untruths. It is as if the world had been waiting for exactly that: a discourse radically opposing literary principles and scientific principles and elevating the value of the latter at the expense of the former. A discourse confirming the idea, which was being insisted on everywhere with imperturbable force, that in the second half of the twentieth century, literature had been definitively supplanted by science and now belonged to a bygone era. That it no longer had a place in the modern world. If so many people were blind to the flagrant naïveté of the lecture delivered on May 7, 1959—so many intellectuals, critics, journalists, and politicians—it is because it was merely using the dazzling power of pseudo-obviousness to repeat a theory everyone was already absolutely convinced of, sometimes without even daring to admit it: literature and progress had proven to be incompatible, and since the postwar world was now on the irresistible path to humanity’s material and moral improvement, since everyone was genuinely delighted about it, since the fast-approaching year 2000 seemed to promise the fulfillment of the wildest utopias, anti-literature could now become the official discourse of the elites. Endowed with a truth and an effectiveness that literature was lacking, science had won, once and for all. This creed was the most widely shared thing in the world, and Snow was its prophet.

Snow’s and Adorno’s theories were radically opposed to each other. This did not prevent either of them from being swiftly disseminated. In the German-speaking world and beyond, the phrase “to write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” became a slogan nearly as well-worn as “the two cultures” was in the Anglophone world. The coincidence of these two successes is surprising, given how contradictory the positions were. It is as if the cause of their success was to be found in their only common denominator, their anti-literary content. Public opinion was ready for such a message: the era of media-driven anti-literature could finally begin.

RESISTANCE TO SNOW’S lecture long remained in the shadows. Everyone had applauded the orator, or pretended to. No one seemed to notice that behind the writer’s apparently generous, humanist system for reconciliation of the two cultures, a purely anti-literary war machine was being launched. For three years, everything was just fine, so to speak. In 1962, Sir Charles, the future Baron Snow of Leicester, was peacefully enjoying his international fame. Nothing seemed out of reach to him now, and he dared to hope that a Nobel Prize for Literature might eventually honor his body of work and crown his achievement as a great thinker and a great writer.

Then an annoying interloper stepped in. Not just any interloper either, but Frank Raymond Leavis, the most famous and influential critic at Cambridge, if not in the entire United Kingdom, a merciless foe of literary mediocrity whose keen opinions altered the canon to his liking, making and unmaking reputations. His journal, Scrutiny, had long championed the position of literature as one of the highest achievements of the human spirit and the central element of any rigorous intellectual education. While it goes without saying that Snow’s lecture and ensuing success had upset the critic, who was perfectly aware that Snow’s apparently irresistible influence was on the verge of dashing his own efforts to establish the study of English literature as the basis of the university curriculum, Leavis nevertheless bided his time: he did not publicly express himself on the subject until February 28, 1962, the date on which he had been invited by students to deliver the Richmond Lecture. The context was far different from that of the Rede Lecture that Snow had given three years earlier: the Richmond Lecture was limited to a single college, Downing, where Leavis taught, and was not open to the general public. Journalists were deliberately excluded. Not for want of trying, either: the press had been attracted by the smell of blood and a title that could not be mistaken for irenicism: “Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow.” An air of scandal surrounded the event.

The lecture lived up to expectations—or fears. Several members of the audience noisily left the room after a few minutes, and the very next day all of Cambridge was abuzz with speculation about what had transpired inside the walls of Downing College.19 Rumors about the lecture reached London, and, to put an end to the false allegations that were beginning to circulate in the major newspapers, Leavis quickly decided to entrust his text to The Spectator. The conservative weekly published the piece on March 9, 1962, with its cover entirely devoted to what was becoming a major controversy. This controversy continued for a month, in every issue of the magazine: reactions to Leavis’s article, counter-reactions, counter-counter-reactions, etc. Political and intellectual notables as well as ordinary readers had a field day, with those favoring Snow taking precedence over his detractors, since his cause was championed by the vast majority of establishment thinkers. A prime example was the poet Edith Sitwell—Dame Edith Sitwell, to call her by her full title—whose concision was as brutal as it was scornful:

I read with an entire lack of interest, but some surprise, Dr. F. R. Leavis’s non-stop and malevolent attack on Sir Charles Snow in your last issue.

I read to the end of this attack solely because I could not make out what it was all about, or why Dr. Leavis wrote it.

Is it possible that Sir Charles may have offended Dr. Leavis by the fact of his great fame, or by the fact that he—Sir Charles—can write English?

Only this can explain such a silly exhibition.20

Most of the other reactions were of the same type: the publication of the opinion piece turned markedly to Doctor Leavis’s disadvantage at least in The Spectator’s letters section, to the point that the paper had to explicitly come to the critic’s defense.21

It has to be said that Leavis had not pulled any punches during his lecture at Downing College. Let the reader be the judge:

The peculiar quality of Snow’s assurance expresses itself in a pervasive tone; a tone of which one can say that, while only genius could justify it, one cannot readily think of genius adopting it.22


The judgement I have to come out with is that not only is he not a genius; he is intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be.23

As well as:

Snow is, of course, a—no, I can’t say that; he isn’t; Snow thinks of himself as a novelist. I don’t want to discuss that aspect of him, but I can’t avoid saying something. The widespread belief that he is a distinguished novelist (and that it should be widespread is significant of the conditions that produced him) has certainly its part in the success with which he has got himself accepted as a mind. The seriousness with which he takes himself as a novelist is complete—if seriousness can be so ineffably blank, unaware.24

Leavis continued to demonstrate the literary pretensions of this novelist who was incapable of breathing life into his characters or producing anything other than a dry, utterly external approximation of what a real novel should be. Incapable, even, of allowing the reader to perceive what really drives the scientists who are his characters, to the point that Snow’s own reputation as a scientist is called into question: “That [Snow] has really been a scientist, that science as such has ever, in any important inward way, existed for him, there is no evidence in his fiction.”25

Is this a case of literary incompetence or scientific incompetence? Leavis slyly fails to shed light on the question, omitting any mention of the affair that drove Snow to give up his career as a researcher in the 1930s. The much-publicized announcement that he had found a way to artificially synthesize vitamin A had been followed by the no-less-talked-about revelation that the discovery was false—a disappointment that Snow would use as the subject of one of his first novels, The Search (1934).26 At best, the critic continues, Snow is merely a technocrat, familiar with what he calls “the Corridors of Power,” which are actually far more fascinating to him than the humble routine of lab benches and microscopes. His view of the world is no less technocratic: according to him, science should serve only to produce economic growth for the entire planet, the purely material satisfactions to which he boils down the aspirations of the human race, or the “jam” to be spread on one’s toast, according to an expression Snow uses several times and whose deplorable triviality Leavis is quick to point out.27

No one would deny that science can make human action more effective. But, the critic asks, what is the purpose of this action? Scientists in their labs are no more qualified than anyone else to decide. This is exactly what literature considers: ultimate purpose. Leavis cites the writings of Joseph Conrad and D. H. Lawrence, whose reflections on the role of technical progress in advancing social well-being and individual existence seem more finely shaded than Snow’s: there is a reflective dimension specific to literature that neither the academy nor humanity in general can do without and that can certainly not be replaced by the third-rate journalism practiced by Snow and his friends. This is Leavis’s response to accusations of the alleged immorality and dangerousness of literature.

But there is more, Leavis continues: it is the very principle of a comparison between science and literature that is fundamentally flawed. It would be absurd to deny Sir Charles’s claim that science is a marvelous human creation. However, “there is a prior human achievement of collaborative creation, a more basic work of the mind of man (and more than the mind), one without which the triumphant erection of the scientific edifice would not have been possible: that is, the creation of the human world, including language. It is one we cannot rest on as something done in the past. It lives in the living creative response to change in the present.”

Yet, the critic continues,

It is in the study of literature, the literature of one’s own language in the first place, that one comes to recognize the nature and priority of the third realm (as, unphilosophically, no doubt, I call it, talking with my pupils), the realm of that which is neither merely private and personal nor public in the sense that it can be brought into the laboratory or pointed to. You cannot point to the poem; it is “there” only in the re-creative response of individual minds to the black marks on the page. But—a necessary faith—it is something in which minds can meet.28

This admirable and nearly desperate profession of faith in literature attempts to save the field in the face of science by drawing attention to an order of realities that is specific to it: that of this intermediate “third realm,” inserted between a person’s innermost being and the external world, between pure subjectivity and hard objectivity. This is the shared world of intersubjectivity: aesthetic values and judgments on which the possibility of public life is based. How could we refuse literature the eminent, leading role it can play in exploring this vast domain? Leavis’s argument is a powerful one.

Yet, at the same time, it would be hard to deny that the academy also includes an entire body of disciplines that can make an equally legitimate claim to the study of this shared world: those generally known as the social sciences. Snow sensed that this was a card he could play against Leavis. In the reply he published a year after the Richmond Lecture, he emphasized a “third culture” that could bridge the gap between the first two: “social history, sociology, demography, political science, economics, government (in the American academic sense), psychology, medicine, and social arts such as architecture.”29 In short, just about every discipline possible outside of the exact sciences—except literature. Surprise, surprise! In his lecture, Snow had already stressed that the historians and sociologists of his acquaintance vigorously refused to be “corralled in a cultural box” with literary people.30 In other words, there was no chance that Snow would recognize literature’s claim to exploring any world, including that of intersubjectivity: it was time to make way for the new human and social sciences, which, strangely, he now employed as reinforcements in the battle of the two cultures.31 This is not the only time they would be enlisted on anti-literature’s side, whether they liked it or not.32

However, it is far from certain that the counterattack of the social sciences succeeded in completely dispossessing literature. For that to take place, the “third culture” heralded by Snow would have had to perfectly match the “third realm” discussed by Leavis. As it happens, the two fields are as poorly assorted as literature and sociology: while literary works include noteworthy sociological and anthropological reflection, as seen in Conrad, Lawrence, and Dickens, the literary experience goes far beyond simple description of a shared world.

According to Leavis, this experience has three parts: a linguistic experience, contributing to the foundation of a common language; an aesthetic experience, allowing the establishment of a canon and a tradition of reference; and a moral experience, aiming to produce a “criticism of life,” to quote Matthew Arnold’s famous expression.33 Involved at the origin of any community of thought, literature participates in the functioning of society as effectively as science. Truth falls to science, good and beauty to literature. How could science ever render literature obsolete, if we recognize that the moral question and the aesthetic experience must remain at the heart of all education and civic existence? Science is the instructor of truth, literature the teacher of good—and, secondarily, of beauty: this is the position defended by Leavis, for better or for worse.

How long could this partition of the empire and the ensuing gentleman’s agreement persist? No matter how secure literature’s position might have appeared, it was the result of a retreat to its basic principles, after it was forced to relinquish truth to the power of science. Additionally, this fallback position did not appear to be ironclad. If Snow could conflate literary culture and evil in such an absurd way without raising an outcry, it had to be expected that literature would eventually be evicted from the moral camp. While Flaubert had made such an attempt a century earlier in France (not without difficulty), the literary systems on either side of the Channel were too different for his example to bear fruit on British soil.34

In the meantime, and despite his attempted retort, Lord Snow of Leicester never completely recovered from the furious attack launched against him by F. R. Leavis. The publication of Leavis’s denunciation in The Spectator was followed by numerous indignant responses, as we have seen, but perhaps in the eyes of the victim the most important thing was missing: genuine praise of his work as a novelist, which would have offset the pernicious discrediting of his literary reputation by the Cambridge critic. Snow’s friends ventured only half-hearted attempts. The American critic Lionel Trilling found fault with Leavis’s form but did not express any significant disagreement with the substance of his argument.35 Snow asked George Steiner, whom he had hired at Churchill College, to take his defense from a purely literary point of view, but the brilliant young Cambridge Fellow found a paradoxical way to offload his responsibility with a magnificent tribute to Leavis, supplemented for good measure with a few sincere paragraphs on the “ignoble performance” of the Richmond Lecture and the critic’s lack of humanity.36 And so Baron Snow saw the Nobel Prize inexorably slip out of his grasp; in any case, he was convinced that Leavis had been the cause of this failure—or what he experienced as such.37

Yet could Snow decently claim to have it both ways and win on the literary and the anti-literary front? All in all, perhaps a more appropriate prize for Snow would have been a Nobel Prize in Anti-Literature, had there been such a thing. Even that is not a given: Snow was a popularizer of anti-literature, not an inventor. Leavis had said as much with the full weight of his contempt: “in himself negligible,” Snow was primarily relevant as a “portent” or a symptom.38 He was the ideal pseudo-thinker for an age in which lack of culture prevailed: his success singlehandedly spelled the intellectual degradation of a society that demeaned itself by taking him so seriously.

LET’S PUSH ON EVEN FURTHER: Snow was only a stage, neither the first nor the last, in the long history of the fight of science against literature, one that was repeated several times in nearly identical terms, with education as the primary focus. The Leavis-Snow controversy was simply a reprise in more violent form of the genteel conflict that had opposed Matthew Arnold and T. H. Huxley a century earlier, also in England. On the occasion of the inauguration of the new Mason Science College in Birmingham in 1880, Huxley had defended the principle of an education based exclusively on the sciences, in keeping with the wishes of the college’s founder.39 Arnold responded in 1882 with a lecture at Cambridge, in the series instituted by Sir Robert Rede, which would provide the prestigious setting for Sir Charles Snow’s famous remarks almost eighty years later. The lecture was entitled “Literature and Science,” and Arnold repeated it no less than twenty-nine times during the course of a subsequent major tour of the United States and Canada.40 His position was deeply conciliatory. In essence, Arnold’s argument went as follows: “Literature conflicts with science? But literature as I conceive it calls on everything that makes us human beings; it includes science, it presupposes it! While the reverse is not true. So that, all in all, if I had to choose between the two, I would choose the first and not the second. But God forbid that I should have to choose!” All of this expressed in the politest, friendliest of terms.

However dissimilar the tone of the lecture, neither the issues nor the arguments presented were particularly different from those characterizing the polemics that would one day erupt in the same location—with unprecedented fierceness. Lionel Trilling was not wrong to complain that Snow and Leavis were merely repeating a well-known controversy and that Sir Charles had failed to display any knowledge of his distant predecessor’s lecture.41 Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it—often in a farcical mode.42

That both events took place at Cambridge in the context of the Rede Lectures is an entirely superficial coincidence. Their real similarity is elsewhere, in the fact that the antagonism between science and literature appears in both as the commonplace of anti-literature. The argument is that since science has dispossessed literature of truth, literature no longer has a rightful place in education or society in general. It would be difficult to be more straightforward—or dismissive. But why stop while you’re ahead? Science can itself be recognized as having ethical and critical content that makes literature superfluous: eighty years apart, Huxley and Snow were saying the same thing. In the meantime, the prodigious development of modern science had only exacerbated the antagonism.

Yet this repetition should not obscure the difference between the two controversies: the first saw the clear-cut success of the pro-literary argument, via the good word that Matthew Arnold triumphantly preached all across North America, from Massachusetts to Virginia and from Ohio to Wisconsin and Quebec, while the second saw the official victory of the anti-literary position championed by Snow—at least until Leavis entered the fray. Many things had changed between these two moments: science and technology had experienced tremendous development; technocracy, as most perfectly embodied by Sir Charles, had prevailed; literature, now under formalism’s sway, had largely reduced its social ambition since the romantic age of which Arnold was a late representative; finally, postwar Western societies had undergone sweeping democratization and no longer had the same relationship to a culture and a tradition perceived as elitist.43 A long and rich career lay ahead for anti-literary discourse, which was now in a position to dominate. It had become a less shocking discourse, which made the threat it represented all the more painfully apparent to the last partisans of literature. This was all it took to bring things to a head—or at least to send the newspapers into a tizzy. The personalities of the opponents did the rest. The impassioned response to the dispute matched this level of tension.

Nonetheless, there was something irresistibly déjà vu about the polemic. Snow and Leavis were merely unwilling links in an infinitely longer story, the reluctant actors of a scene played out a thousand times in many countries—notably in the context of debates about education. There was a distinct lack of subtlety in this case, but one could hardly complain about the passion or character of the episode: anti-literature is more like a gladiator fight than an academic dispute.

WE NOW MOVE TO AN ENTIRELY different scene, one far more courteous and high-society, though perhaps no less disturbing, owing to its incongruity. It takes place in Paris, in the late 1880s, shortly after Matthew Arnold’s much-talked-about Cambridge lecture on “literature and science.” We are at the literary salon of Madame Arman de Caillavet, the inspiration for Proust’s Madame Verdurin. This evening, the guest of honor is none other than Ernest Renan. He holds court by the fireplace, his massive body supported by a flimsy gilt chair on the verge of collapsing. Guests are introduced to him one by one. A thin young man approaches. Awkward and shy, this recent arrival from his native Provence can think of nothing better to do than to tell the writer how much he admires his “Prayer on the Acropolis,” which many writers at the time thought contained the most perfect page of prose ever written in French.44 The hostess joins in, adding her own compliments and those of all her guests for this magnificent prayer, and then … But let’s give the floor to Charles Maurras, who described the events almost half a century later with full knowledge of the facts, for he had once been that shy young man:

Then, then, what a surprise! First M. Renan began to go very red in the face, then he suddenly burst out laughing, but with a god’s laugh, as mysterious as it was uncontrollable, a laugh whose object we tried in vain to discover. The more we tried to explain to him all the reasons we admired this great page—the most beautiful in French literature, we kept repeating—the more he laughed wholeheartedly, to the point of making the gilt chair shake and groan.

If he had been reminded of a bad little book of juvenilia, riddled with indecent trivialities, would he have reacted any differently?

We didn’t give up. We tried to make him recite that beautiful text, but he laughed even harder. There was nothing left to do but be quiet. And I have no memory of that laugh coming to an end, for I hear it to this day.45

Sometimes anti-literature is just a laugh. This is how the divinity mocks those who bring her offerings in thanks for what they regard as a godsend: the recovery from ill-health of a family member, a much-needed rain, an abundant harvest. “These are trifles,” she replies, “that are not worth the trouble. Celebrate me for what is really important: the creation of the world, the movement of the planets, the birth of life, what have you … I can see that these things have merit. For the rest, leave me alone; I have serious work to do.”

For Renan, literature was merely an amusing pastime to undertake in between archeological digs or epigraphic studies, pursuits that were helping to advance science. His disdain for the literary veneration he was universally granted was unprecedented. He did not even try to use this reverence to add to his fame. His rejection of hypocrisy here, as in his other activities, was absolute, and his moral attitude irreproachable—but anti-literary.

In 1891, Jules Huret came to see Renan in the context of research for his Enquête sur l’évolution littéraire (Study of literary development). Ceremoniously entering the vast office Renan used as an administrator of the Collège de France, the journalist finds him hard at work, wholly absorbed in several quartos lying open around him. Huret struggles to get Renan to take an interest in the question that has brought him, the development of contemporary literature:

As I was making incredible efforts of dialectic to link literary trends to the developments of the philosophic spirit, M. Renan said to me, with both his hands lying flat on his knees:

—Literary trends … are puerile, childish. That’s not interesting, no, really it’s not. In two years, no one will talk about it.

And he added:

—You see, literature is itself a mediocre concern.46

Renan suddenly appears to change his mind and begins to speak highly of Racine, Voltaire, Leconte de Lisle, and Sully Prudhomme, but it is clear that his praise is pro forma. Huret asks him about Zola. By a stroke of luck, Renan has just read La Faute de l’Abbé Mouret (The sin of Father Mouret) and remarks that there are too many overlong passages. He continues:

And also, there are a great number of repetitions; it is not written, it is not crafted, oh no! … It was done too quickly, that is clear. It would have taken another year of work to finalize it, and he should have pruned, pruned a lot.… But after all, [Zola] is undoubtedly a worthy man.47

A master would not have proceeded any differently had he wanted to destroy his student’s work—for Renan is a master, though he has nothing but contempt for the art form in which he is a past master.

The interview is coming to an end. It has lasted only a short time: Professor Renan has other things to do. With a final push, the journalist tries to bring him back to the subject of the day:

After all, I had to utter one last time the fundamental words of this study, and with a final effort, I managed to say: symbolists, psychologists, naturalists.

To which M. Renan replied:

—They are children sucking their thumbs.48

That was the end of the interview and the end of the study. Things couldn’t have been much loftier on Mount Olympus. Huret’s experience is every bit as bad as the laughter at Madame de Caillavet’s.

Renan does not live on Mount Olympus, but he might as well: he looks at literature in the context of an overall conception of the history of humanity. His contempt is anything but a tantrum or the resentment that follows a failed love affair. It is a very strong feeling that goes back to his formative years. Matthew Arnold alluded to it in his 1882 lecture at Cambridge, rightfully reproaching the illustrious thinker, whom he greatly admired, for having come away from his literature courses at school with the memory of a “superficial humanism,” admittedly “elegant,” but “slight and ineffectual,” having nothing to do with “positive science, or the critical search after truth,” and even appearing to him to be “the opposite of science or true knowledge.”49

Indeed, Renan has only a single credo: humanity is fated to science, and the scientific contemplation of truth will soon replace the meager pleasures provided by literary lies:

Let us then say without fear that if the wonder of fiction has thus far seemed necessary to poetry, the wonder of nature, once revealed in its full splendor, will constitute a poetry one thousand times more sublime, a poetry that will be reality itself, that will be both science and philosophy.50

Renan was twenty-five when he put this profession of faith into words in L’Avenir de la science (The future of science). Though he would not publish this early work until the very end of his life, in 1890, the idea that science will render art and literature obsolete is an underlying theme throughout his work. It seems that revolutions encouraged Renan to speculate. Just as the reflections collected in L’Avenir de la science were inspired by the events of 1848, the turmoil of 1871 yielded the following:

Even great art will disappear. The time will come when art will be a thing of the past, a creation made once and for all, a creation of the nonreflective ages, which man will adore but recognize no further need for. This is already the case with Greek sculpture, architecture, and poetry.51

All the arts are fated to eventual extinction, including literature, which the infinite expansion of truth and good will one day cause to be stored away with the other antiquities:

Each art, with the exception of music, is thus tied to a state of the past; music itself, which can be considered the art of the nineteenth century, will one day be done and complete. And the poet? … And the good man? … The poet is a comforter and the good man is a nurse, which are useful but temporary duties, for they presuppose evil, the evil that science aspires to greatly diminish.52

Beauty will itself no longer be necessary. Humans will have turned into beings of pure reason, not unlike Star Trek’s Mister Spock (though the comparison, it goes without saying, is not Renan’s):

Perhaps there will come a time (we see this day dawning) when the great artist and the virtuous man will be outdated, nearly useless things; the scholar, on the contrary, will always be increasingly valuable. Beauty will nearly disappear with the advent of science; but the extension of science and man’s power are also beautiful things.53

Literature is just a crutch: useful during the childhood of humanity, but ready for the scrap heap when it reaches adulthood. This philosophy of history is more radical than the succession of the arts proposed by Hegel because it is tinged with a cruel nostalgia—the same cruelty one cannot help but hear in Renan’s uncontrollable laughter, as it continues to ring out in Madame de Caillavet’s salon, or in his haughty replies to the journalist Huret.54 Renan uses the same insensitive cruelty to close “Prière sur l’Acropole,” which is in fact a eulogy for literature and religion, considered on an equal footing: “The faith one has had must never be a chain. One is done with it once it has been carefully rolled into the crimson shroud in which dead gods sleep.”55

On a lovely Paris evening, Monsieur Renan’s laughter painfully revealed the irony of this nostalgic farewell to literature—and his own conversion to anti-literature.

LET’S GO BACK another century. Third scene: after Snow’s lecture at Cambridge and Renan’s laughter at Madame de Caillavet’s, we now find ourselves at the Académie Française, in 1760, on the feast day of Saint Louis. It is August 25, and the mathematician Jean Le Rond d’Alembert is sharing his “Reflections on Poetry, Written on the Occasion of the Texts,” submitted to the Académie’s annual competition. One might well be surprised to learn that the Académie had entrusted a geometer with the task of writing a speech on poetry. And indeed, some people were surprised. Although the spirit of the time revolved around science and philosophy, which were considered able to govern everything, including poetry, d’Alembert knew that his speech would be received as that of a scientist and that the conservatives would hold it against him; nonetheless, he dove right in.

Why, d’Alembert asked, do old men have less taste for poetry? It is because poetic fictions get worn out; with time, the same endlessly repeated topics become boring; poetry does not take enough interest in great ideas. In fact, the boredom of old men is that of the entire century, which is no spring chicken:

Most types of poetry seem to have successively gone out of fashion. The sonnet is nowhere to be seen, the elegy is expiring, the eclogue is on the decline, even the ode, the proud ode is starting to wane; satire, finally, even though it has every right to be welcomed—satire in verse is boring when it is long; we made it more comfortable by allowing it to move into prose.56

As for the “little verses” that appear in the periodicals, is it even worth mentioning them? They are completely out of favor. Even the epic poem, which d’Alembert initially seems to preserve from the disaster, no longer interests people: Homer and Virgil have themselves become unreadable. Only Torquato Tasso is spared, along with Voltaire—but in his case, friendship is at play.57 Generally speaking, long poems have become impossible; it is difficult to maintain a uniform quality throughout, and even if it can be done, monotony threatens: “verse stops being pleasant as soon as it is careless, and on the other hand pleasure becomes dulled by continuity itself.”58 Even the “continuous exactitude and elegance” of Racine are eventually tiresome.

Yet if brevity disappoints and length is boring, what are poets left with? When there are so many problems whichever way one turns, it’s best to give up: “The versifying population sadly recognizes the appreciable growth of the discredit into which it has fallen.”59

The century has become too philosophical to enjoy this kind of balderdash. The Académie itself has complained of the low standard of the poetic pieces it receives: the quality is going down.60 (Clearly, this argument is nothing new; d’Alembert would repeat it each time he was responsible for the poetry competition and in 1772 even chose not to award a prize because of a lack of sufficiently worthy contestants.)61

The solution? D’Alembert announces that it exists and will come from philosophy itself. It is time to put an end to the preconception that verse alone can make poetry interesting: ideas—real ideas, great ideas—have to be put into poems.

These were the many provocations scattered throughout d’Alembert’s speech, cleverly hidden behind remarks apparently commending good poems. Yet one did not have to dig deep to find a fundamental challenge to the very idea of poetry—of any poetry. It was one thing to say that long poems had become as unbearable as the short ones: after all, one could try to come up with an unlikely happy medium. But there was worse—a proposal that d’Alembert pretended not to dwell on, if only to try to attenuate its brutality: “In a word, it seems to me that our century imposes on poets the following rigorous but just law: it now only recognizes as good in verse what it would consider excellent in prose.”62

In essence, d’Alembert is simply stating that poetry is absolutely reducible to prose; that the harmony of language that it imposes on itself as an additional constraint is only useless embellishment; and that, all in all, if one can do without the embellishment, one can do without the rest, which is to say poetry itself. Then d’Alembert goes to an even greater extreme, couched in the language of philosophical experimentation:

We believe that rhyme is as indispensable to our verse as versification to our tragedies: whether this is reason or prejudice, there is only one way to liberate our poets from this form of slavery, if indeed it is one: it is to write tragedies in prose, and verse without rhyme, which would in fact be worthy enough to justify this license. Until then any reasoning on either side will be in vain, with some believing they have reason on their side, and the others claiming usage and habit, before which reason must be silent.63

Verse without rhyme, tragedies in prose: d’Alembert was putting the spotlight back on a debate over the usefulness of verse and rhyme, which had been stirring in France since the late seventeenth century and was crashing head-on with the literary system of the period.64 In a later speech, the scholar made the no less paradoxical proposal to use translation as a touchstone of poetic beauty: “Any poem, it will be agreed, loses in translation, but perhaps the most beautiful one is the one that loses the least.”65

The proposal was not absolutely new: it can be found earlier in Isocrates, and Charles Perrault had borrowed it during the quarrel between the ancients and the moderns as a practical tool for comparing the two sides’ poems.66 In this case, however, it serves as a direct attack on versification.

The poet Évariste de Parny would remember it: in 1787, he presented his Chansons madécasses as a translation of an unknown (and most likely nonexistent) source text of poems by natives of Madagascar. And so the prose poem entered French literature by proving that the most beautiful poetry can do without verse: d’Alembert’s posthumous triumph.

The very year that the mathematician delivered his provocative remarks to an audience at the Académie, James Macpherson published his first Fragments of Ancient Poetry Collected in the Highlands of Scotland, and Translated from the Gaelic or Erse Language, which was soon followed by many others; the original, attributed to a bard named Ossian, was as imaginary as that of the Chansons madécasses. In a way, the unprecedented success of these translations without an original, which were in turn immediately translated throughout Europe, proved d’Alembert’s theory right; at the very least, it proved its historical pertinence.

Walter Benjamin concisely expressed this argument in describing the aesthetic theory of German romanticism, notably that of Friedrich Schlegel: “The idea of poetry is prose.”67 At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the philosopher Carl Gustav Jochmann prophesied “the regression of poetry,” which would be reduced to nothing by humanity’s progress.68 D’Alembert was clearly a pioneer in this history or this philosophy of history, the same thread that would later include the reflections of Renan.

If his 1760 speech is more directly akin to anti-literature than Schlegel’s and Jochmann’s romantic writings, it is because it was received by his contemporaries as a deliberate act of aggression against poetry on the part of science and philosophy. L’Année littéraire, the literary periodical founded by Élie Fréron, no friend to the philosophes, published an anonymous letter (possibly written by Fréron himself) “on the remarks d’Alembert made against poetry and poets at the Académie Française on the feast of Saint Louis.” It read:

Here, Sir, are the lapses we are subjected to by this geometric spirit, much vaunted today as the only one worthy of enlightening the arts, but in actuality more terrible for poetry and music than the iconoclasts were for painting and sculpture.69

A few years later, a poem “on the fate of poetry in this philosophic century” related the fateful reversal of fortune that poetry had been subjected to since Urania, the muse of philosophy, had taken its place in human hearts and the most austere works had prevailed over games and laughter:

Thus came about this sudden change

From a poetic century to a philosophic one.70

The author had the good idea to advocate for the reconciliation of the two muses: he walked away with an honorable mention from the Académie Française.

By 1760, d’Alembert was well aware of the risk he was running: that of uniting against him the anti-philosophic camp, which was already hostile to him, and the defenders of poetry, who would certainly be irritated by his radical critique. Since such a coalition would be good neither for his own affairs nor for those of the philosophes, he had to do everything in his power to break up the common front and distinguish between what was at stake for the different parties:

[The versifying population] attacks that pernicious philosophic spirit, already accused of far more serious iniquities; for the philosophic spirit must also be charged with that particular wrong.

Perhaps our century does not truly deserve the honor or injury we claim to do it by calling it, as a compliment or an insult, the philosophic century; but whether or not they are philosophers, the poets have no grounds for complaining of our century, and it will be easy to justify it to them.71

He returned to the charge in 1771: “There have been complaints that poetry is discredited among us, and it is this philosophic century, thus named in praise by some, and in denigration by the rest, that is indiscriminately held responsible.”72

To defuse the situation, it took nothing less than the publication of a “Dialogue between Poetry and Philosophy, to Serve as a Preliminary to and Basis for a Treaty of Peace and Perpetual Friendship between the Two”—a freewheeling dialogue in which d’Alembert, speaking behind the mask of philosophy, attempted to put the pieces back together by giving the poets the floor and proclaiming his good intentions toward them:


I protest that I want much good for you.


Your protestations might well resemble the line from Britannicus: I embrace my rival, but it is to suffocate him.

If you want so much good for me, why then do you constantly decry me? Why do you constantly repeat that verse is no longer wanted?


Me, decry poetry! Me, say that verse is no longer wanted! …


Yet won’t you admit that you do not read much verse?


I admit it, and it is not without reason. I read a great deal of it in the past, but I got so caught up in it, that I hardly ever expose myself to it anymore.…


All of that is marvelous; but by feigning to attack only bad artists, it is against art itself that you bear a grudge.73

Luckily, the conversation ends well, and poetry and philosophy go their separate ways as friends forever—especially after the latter has touted its project to “introduce tragedies in prose and verses without rhymes,” exactly as d’Alembert had suggested in 1760.74 The most important thing was thus intact, except that this final retraction can cast legitimate doubt on the sincerity of the entire dialogue. The retraction itself seems to have been prompted by tactical considerations aimed at restoring peace within the Académie and the Republic of Letters. In any case, d’Alembert had seen the error of his ways—or made a show of seeing it. Did he succeed in convincing poetry’s defenders? They would have been mistaken to settle for his gestures of good will: through his voice, science had made the first assault on poetry. As we have seen, it would not stop there.

IN FACT, the indictment of poetry in the name of truth had not begun with d’Alembert. As is always the case with anti-literature, we have to go back to Plato to find the first example of such a conflict—with one difference, however, and a significant one at that: in Plato, the truth in question is not exactly that of science, in the modern sense of the term, but that of a discourse. The opposition between poetry and truth did not play out as a clash between two incommensurable worlds or two totally disproportionate practices, as would be the case with Renan and Huxley. Snow took perverse pleasure in describing these two parallel universes that never meet, even at the high table in Cambridge’s colleges: scientific and literary types rubbed shoulders while ignoring and being invisible to each other the whole time. Modern science made the divide between the two fields infinitely more unbridgeable.

There is almost none of that in Plato, for whom truth is a discourse, like poetry, but other: a discourse of truth, strictly speaking, or a philosophical discourse. The opposition of poetry and truth pits two types of utterances against each other. These most often contradict each other, but they can sometimes be in agreement. Thus Socrates accuses the poets of spewing one lie after another about the gods: if one were to believe the poets, the gods do harm, metamorphose, and do not hesitate to deceive both humans and other gods. But this is all nonsense, says Socrates: the philosopher knows that the divinity can only do good, that it is immutable and only produces acts and words of truth; otherwise, it would not be a divinity. Poets must therefore be forbidden to spread so many lies about the gods. Nothing could be more simple: take away the choruses the poets request and they will be reduced to silence.75

In this case, the opposition between poetry and truth does not reflect a difference in nature or essence: poetry can sometimes express the truth, and in the good republic imagined by Plato, it must even be required to tell the truth—except, possibly, when this truth is dangerous, in which case it is important to keep it quiet.76

As one might suspect, this argument does not go far enough for those who want to make philosophy the only legitimate discourse. The Republic therefore proposes a second argument with the ability to wholly invalidate poetic discourse. It appears in The Republic’s last book, like a coup de grâce delivered to literature. The thesis is that poetry is only imitation—and not just any kind of imitation, but the lowest level or worst possible kind of imitation. There are three levels in the production of objects. Take a bed, for instance. The first level corresponds to the idea or essence of the bed: only the divinity is capable of this idea, just as it produces all the objects that make up the universe. Then comes the next level of production: the carpenter who makes the bed by focusing his mind on the idea of the bed. Seen in this light, the actual bed is already an imitation. Finally, at the lowest level, the painter comes in, reproducing the image of the bed in his painting. This is the third degree of production, the least worthy of interest because the furthest from the original idea. The painter is unable to build the real bed: he has no skills as a carpenter; he produces the imitation of an imitation, nothing else—an imitation of a bed devoid of any of the qualities one expects from a real bed.

Well, the poet is on the same level as the painter: while Homer gives the impression of knowing something about leadership in war and government in The Iliad, we do not know whether he ever commanded an army on the battlefield or governed a city. He knows absolutely nothing about these types of things and provides only an illusion of competence. Furthermore, if the poets had been useful in any way, if they had been able to improve humankind, they would not have led the itinerant life they are known to live, and cities would have competed to be associated with them. Yet not only are poets not useful, they are truly dangerous: their art excites only the worst parts of the soul, those furthest removed from reason: love, anger, and the pleasant and painful passions that are aroused at the mere sight of an imitation, without regard for the truth.77 Socrates therefore concludes that we must turn away from poetry:

Just like the men who have once fallen in love with someone, and don’t believe the love is beneficial, keep away from it even if they have to do violence to themselves; so we too—due to the inborn love of such poetry we owe to our rearing in these fine regimes—we’ll be glad if it turns out that it is best and truest. But as long as it’s not able to make its apology, when we listen to it, we’ll chant this argument we are making to ourselves as a countercharm, taking care against falling back again into this love, which is childish and belongs to the many. We are, at all events, aware that such poetry mustn’t be taken seriously as a serious thing laying hold of truth, but that the man who hears it must be careful, fearing for the regime in himself, and must hold what we have said about poetry.78

What proper language for such a severe condemnation! Especially proper given how radical it is: one regretfully lets go of poetry in the same way one lets go of a childhood love (d’Alembert would make the same argument: there is an age for poetry and an age for philosophy), but one nevertheless resolves to let go because poetry is an art that cannot reach the truth.

Of course, most of Socrates’s anti-poetic arguments can be challenged. The poet describing a bed may be referring less to the object than to the idea of the bed, which exists in his mind as it does in the carpenter’s: the imitation is therefore not so far removed from the original idea, even less so if the idea is a human invention rather than a divine one, as could legitimately be argued. Even Homer’s alleged ignorance is debatable: Homer could not lead an army or pilot a ship, but could a general write The Iliad or a sailor The Odyssey? Writing poetry is a specific skill, one that is too easily reduced to divine inspiration or delirium, as Socrates does elsewhere.

We will not venture further into contesting Plato’s arguments against poetry on rational grounds. Ultimately, it doesn’t make much difference, for Plato was not the first to attack poetry; Socrates mentions that even in his era the quarrel between philosophy and poetry was already ancient.79 The poets’ invective against the philosophers attests to it:

That “yelping bitch shrieking at her master” and “great in the empty eloquence of fools,” “the mob of overwise men holding sway,” and “the refined thinkers who are really poor” and countless others are signs of this old opposition.80

Socrates is particularly smug in reporting these pleasantries in stark contrast with the measured strictness he imposes on himself: in doing so, he implicitly emphasizes the excesses of poets, who are unable to curb their language. Philosophers, of course, are made of different stuff.

If there is one thing to take away from Socrates’s line of argument, it is that poetry is, as a matter of principle, in the realm of imitation. It has nothing to do with truth; in fact it even dismisses the truth. In contrast, the task of “true philosophy” is “the turning of a soul around from a day that is like night to the true day; it is that ascent to what is.”81 Several sciences lead to it: arithmetic, plane geometry, the geometry of solids, astronomy, harmony, and finally, the crowning achievement, dialectics.82 Ultimately, poetry and philosophy are different in nature. That difference is the basis for condemning the former in favor of the latter.

Once the sentence was handed down and the poets were exiled, philosophical discourse could occupy the space left by poetry. It is not by chance that immediately after the trial of poetry in the name of truth, The Republic’s dialogue ends with a myth, that of Er the Pamphylian.83 The reader might object that she thought we were done with myths once and for all after the last poet had been evicted. Yes, but it is a philosophical myth, which changes everything, since, unlike the Homeric poems, it expresses a truth reached by philosophy—in this case a theory of justice and its consequences in the hereafter.

Truth be told, in formal terms a philosophical myth is just like an old wives’ tale, and the tale of Er the Pamphylian is no exception, with its description of the underworld, the three Fates, and the souls of heroes popping up like celebrities encountered by the narrator at every turn: he is no luckier than a tourist visiting Los Angeles who comes upon one of the movie stars whom everyone knows can be spotted on every street corner in the city.

Nothing could be more like bad fiction—except that Socrates was careful to distinguish between the two discourses beforehand. It’s true that the tale of Er could have fooled us. Did it completely pass the test? Nothing is less certain: no one is forced to take Plato’s philosophy as an article of faith—outside of his republic. Witness d’Alembert:

I know that Plato banned poets from his republic, but between us, and I only dare whisper this to you, Plato was an ingrate, far more worthy still of being included among the poets than among the philosophers.84

Let’s take it a step further: there may be more human truth in book 11 of The Odyssey, in which Odysseus encounters the dead, than in the heavy-handed, allegedly scholarly myth of Er the Pamphylian. Sometimes anti-literature is just a way to get rid of an irritating competitor.

THE DEVELOPMENT OF MODERN science did not systematically result in an opposition to literary culture. Leonardo da Vinci was criticized for being a “man without letters” (omo sanza lettere),85 but in fact he prided himself on this, knowing that he was endowed with the “good disposition” and genius that are far better than a simple veneer of literary culture and as likely to produce writers and artists as engineers and scholars: “Good letters are born of a good disposition; and since the cause is more to be praised than the effect, I will rather praise a good disposition without letters, than good letters without the disposition.”86

Good letters and good science were supposed to be products of the same cause. This is a long way from the dichotomy of cultures proclaimed by Snow—but then again Snow had none of Leonardo’s genius, neither in letters nor in science, which may explain a lot.

Even Descartes, who “completely abandoned the study of letters” and resolved “to search for no knowledge other than what could be found within [him]self, or else in the great book of the world,” “held oratory in high regard and was enamored with poetry.” “But,” the French philosopher adds, “I thought both were gifts of the mind, rather than fruits of study”87—in other words, the same “good disposition” proclaimed by Leonardo. Near the end of his life, Descartes wrote verses for a ballet to celebrate the end of the Thirty Years’ War, which he dedicated to Queen Christina of Sweden: the separation between letters and sciences was not yet experienced as an insurmountable tension.

Scientific knowledge on one side, poetic pleasure on the other: this modus vivendi finally settled in on a permanent basis among the poets themselves in the late sixteenth century. Responding to the rediscovery of Aristotle’s Poetics, which attributed the pleasure of poetry to the mere pleasure of imitation, poets and the erudite now strove to make their own distinction between poetry and knowledge. A notable example is Lodovico Castelvetro’s famous commentary on the Poetics, which was studied throughout Europe:

The material of the sciences and the arts cannot serve as a subject for poetry for another reason that is even more obvious to common sense, namely that poetry was invented solely for delectation and recreation—I mean to say, for the delectation and recreation of the mind of the rabble and the common people, who do not understand the reasons, distinctions, or subtle arguments, far removed from regular custom, used by philosophers in their search for the truth of things and artists in their organization of the arts, and since they do not understand them, they can only be bored and unhappy when discourse turns to that.88

This argument was a last resort for turning the separation of poetry and truth—which in Plato was merely one count of the indictment—into a distinctive feature and almost a title of nobility: anything can be turned to good use. The natural side of art was increasingly valued, at the expense of sophistication and pedantry; after all, art was just a matter of entertaining honest folk. Poetry thus came to define itself against literature understood as knowledge (the French expression “avoir de la littérature”—“to have literature”—was then equivalent to saying one was cultured): one could be—in fact one should be—a poet without having letters.89

Thus was classicism born. “A good poet is no more useful to the State than a good skittles player,” as Malherbe put it.90 Plato couldn’t have said it better: had he experienced classical poetry, he would probably have approved of the poets’ ironclad modesty—and then he would have gotten rid of these useless mouths to feed.

The theory of classicism is a direct product of the distinction between literature and truth: sometimes anti-literature can lead to the birth of a new kind of literature.

THE TRIAL OF LITERATURE in the name of truth has been repeated in every era: repetition is one of the great pleasures of anti-literature. Literature may change, but the arguments remain surprisingly stable.

In 2011, the Times Literary Supplement published an article by the English philosopher Gregory Currie claiming that the psychology in novels has nothing to do with real psychology as it is brought to light in laboratories.91 According to Currie, science shows that conscious will plays a very limited role in our daily activities. Rather, the decisive influence comes from our environment: mere contact with a cup of hot coffee is enough to provoke an altruistic feeling; hearing the names of friends produces the same effect; repeating a customer’s order word for word automatically increases the customer’s generosity and, consequently, the server’s tip; imagining a professor for five minutes increases one’s intellectual capacity far more than imagining a hooligan; and so on and so forth. Well, the philosopher continues, if we read the great so-called psychological novelists Henry James and Marcel Proust, we will find none of these psychological truths based on experience, but instead, a mythification of character and will that has very little to do with the empirical reality of human behavior. This is proof enough, Currie concludes, that novelists know nothing about psychology; literature can therefore not be defended on the grounds that it provides readers with psychological insight, contrary to what Lionel Trilling, F. R. Leavis, and, more recently, Martha Nussbaum have stated. This is the substance of Currie’s argument.

There are, in fact, a lot of things one does not find in novels: the recipe for veal Marengo, how to replace a washer to fix a faucet, the proper way to pick up a heavy object without throwing out your back. And, yes, it is likely that one does not find much in James or Proust about the influence of hot coffee on altruistic feelings, nor for that matter on the latest developments in molecular genetics and digital miniaturization. It is true that Proust discusses the influence on human bliss of a madeleine dipped in tea; sadly, he failed to do the same about coffee. Surely this oversight was worth an article in the TLS.

But seriously: can one reasonably criticize two early-twentieth-century novelists for not having taken into account the latest psychological discoveries of the following century? Let’s imagine that James and Proust had done so, through some unprecedented miracle: wouldn’t the usefulness of contemporary psychologists and the need to fund their research programs with huge grants be called into question if a relatively observant novelist had obtained the same results a century earlier by sitting alone at his desk?

As it happens, anyone willing to consider things with a modicum of good faith will see that this is exactly what took place. Gregory Currie presents as the last word in contemporary psychology the thesis that “our conscious decisions are not what bring about our actions, but are a product of the underlying and unconscious causes of the actions themselves.”92 You don’t say! This very thesis has been constantly illustrated in literature since time immemorial. One would have to be totally blind—or else thoroughly lacking in good faith—to fail to see that this alleged last word in contemporary psychology is simply the old chestnut from In Search of Lost Time: when Swann says, “I wasted years of my life,” “wanted to die,” and “felt my deepest love, for a woman who didn’t appeal to me, who was not my type,” isn’t that precisely the revelation that love is produced by a set of circumstances in which volition and conscious inclinations do not play any part?93

But let’s not go on and on about Proust, who is clearly not Gregory Currie’s cup of tea. Would Valéry earn his approval? All of La Jeune Parque proceeds from an attempt to provide a never entirely conclusive, after-the-fact explanation for a sob and a hand “absently submissive to some deep-hidden end.”94 And what about Colette, whose entire body of work deals with the hold that circumstances have on her characters’ moods: the coat of the cats they pet, the cups of hot chocolate they drink in the late afternoon, the lark they hear in the distance amid the dew and the scents of morning. Or Baudelaire, whose Spleens returns again and again to the influence of time, light, and setting on the poet’s melancholy. Surely Molière’s Misanthrope is the most behaviorist play in the repertoire, with its characters driven by the whim of circumstance to go against the person they most sincerely believe themselves to be: Célimène badmouthing her lover in the heat of discussion, Alceste dismissing the woman he loves on a sudden impulse.

But maybe the most behaviorist drama is simply Hamlet, whose theme appears to be the very impossibility of expressing one’s will or remaining aware of it when circumstances oppose it. Has Gregory Currie read Shakespeare—or Homer? For Homer speaks of nothing else: the fact that the heroes’ deeds are incommensurable with what is said to be their nature. Facing Odysseus, Ajax, and Phoenix, who have come to negotiate with him, Achilles struggles to find a reasonable justification for his stubborn refusal to fight after his fit of anger at Agamemnon. Later, he gives Priam the body of the man he hates the most in the world for the simple reason that the old king of Troy reminds him of his father. Odysseus remains on the island of Calypso for seven years, kept there by the charms of the nymph and against his conscious desire to return to his beloved Penelope.

Not that behaviorism must be considered the final word in psychology sub specie aeternitatis: Currie’s obvious bias toward this fashionable theory should in itself lead one to proceed with caution. Just as the behaviorist framework I suggest for interpreting these masterpieces should not exclude all other interpretations. But at least it is applicable, if one is willing to go to the trouble.

The problem is that Gregory Currie is not willing to go to the trouble: his entire inquiry aims to incriminate literature using the most specious arguments. For instance, the philosopher quotes a 1990s study of “creative groups,” according to which “only one in fifty writers was free of psychopathology (Maupassant)”; worse, writers were the group that “contained the highest proportion of individuals with severe pathology (nearly fifty percent), compared with scientists, statesmen, artists and composers.”95 (Such a shame the study has nothing to say about plumbers, highwaymen, and raccoons, but no doubt they would not supplant writers, whose case clearly appears to be hopeless.)

Currie goes on to conclude, in the most serious manner, that given the propensity of people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder to overinterpret the slightest detail, writers cannot be trusted to provide accurate psychological insights. (It goes without saying that one could mount just as reasonable a defense of the opposite position, namely that attention to detail makes writers far more sensitive to the environmental conditions that determine action—in the same way that certain forms of autism boost mathematical aptitude or the ability to learn.)

In case the reader has failed to understand him, Currie drives home his point by quoting a pseudo “expert on creativity” who suggests that “people in the arts are more prone to such disorders than those in the sciences, and especially prone if they are operating at high levels of originality.” Suddenly, the old opposition between the sciences and the arts is back on the table, this time in the form of an ad hominem attack: it is no longer worth examining literary works in detail to see if they deserve their despicable reputation; one need only discredit the authors themselves, and the game is over.

One would like to know what method, undoubtedly very scientific, made it possible to retrospectively evaluate the level of psychopathologic suffering of fifty writers who died long ago and lived in societies and cultures other than our own. One would like to know how such a method, should it exist, could be compatible with the behaviorist theory with which the article’s author aligns himself. One would especially like to know how credible a method could be that singles out Guy de Maupassant, of all people, as the only writer “free of psychopathology”—unless the author of the study considered that the paranoiac madness that overcame Maupassant before he turned forty and destroyed him in short order is a sign of perfect mental health?

It is flabbergasting to find so many prejudices, outrageous remarks, and simply naïve statements concentrated in only two pages, particularly coming from a philosopher who holds a senior position in an institution of higher learning. Nothing like this has been seen since Baron Snow, to whom Currie refers extensively, and who at least had the excuse of being an amateur philosopher.

Despite all that, Currie claims that he is not attacking literature in and of itself, but simply those who represent it poorly. Yet he does not attempt to mount a better defense: his blows are squarely aimed at writers and literary works.

Two years later, Currie published an article of the same vintage in the New York Times, entitled “Does Great Literature Make Us Better?” in which he repeats the old anti-literary cliché of the Nazi who loves literature. While Currie pretends to hold it at arm’s length, he ultimately does not clearly distance himself from it.96 How blinded does one have to be by the hatred of literature to fail to see the weakness of such arguments? There may certainly have been well-read Nazis, but there were far more who were utterly uncultivated, of whom not a word is spoken. And what about Nazi scientists, Nazi musicians, Nazi artists? What about Nazi philosophers, the Carl Schmitts and Heideggers, Mister Philosopher? What about Nietzsche’s Nazi readers?

“Does Great Literature Make Us Better?” Currie asks. Maybe not, but it doesn’t need to do that to be great literature. It is far more worrisome that philosophy does not make us think better.

FUNDAMENTALLY, Gregory Currie is not saying anything different from what Charles Percy Snow had proclaimed in the beautiful senate chambers at Cambridge University half a century earlier. He has simply adapted it to a new behaviorist and psychological flavor.

By a curious coincidence or concerted irony, the same issue of the TLS contained a review of a book by a learned psychologist who included a short piece of fiction that he had written to illustrate his main points. According to the reviewer, the fictional piece was so weak as to spoil the entire book.97 In other words, it takes more than solid knowledge of psychology to write a good novel.

But would this be sufficient reason to attack psychologists, declaring them to be poor writers and then accusing them of being neurotic? Such an attack would certainly be deemed absurd—and justifiably so.

Yet this is the treatment writers receive when someone claims to discover that a novel’s quality does not necessarily rest on psychological accuracy. The double standard is glaring: out of principle, it is always literature’s territory that is contested. The question of truth is only an excuse, but one that is highly significant in the scientific world and the academy, where every department wants to expand and add a few positions, to the detriment of its neighbors. From this perspective, the future looks rosy for anti-literature, and the Snows and Curries will proliferate for years to come.