Tuesday, January 08, 2013


"Not to have read War and Peace and La Cousine Bette and La Chartreuse de Parme is not to be educated; but so is not to have a glimmer of the Second Law of Thermodynamics." C. P. Snow

I do have some glimmer of the Second Law, but I have never read War and Peace, or La Cousine Bette, or La Chartreuse de Parme, so I suppose that puts me in the Not Educated category. Given that I'm not really a huge fan of Tolstoy (I did like Resurrection, but it's very atypical Tolstoy), and that The Red and the Black largely disappointed me, I am unrepentantly uneducated. I hadn't even heard of La Cousine Bette; it turns out it's by Balzac, and I've only read short stories by Balzac (many of which are very, very good -- I especially recommend "The Atheist's Mass" and "The Succubus"). But having gone nearly half my life without even having heard of it, or at least in no way that ever stuck in my head, I doubt it will be leaping out at me from the shelf anytime soon.

Snow's Two Cultures idea, incidentally, is one of those things that take on a life of their own until they become obviously stupid. It made a certain amount of sense in Snow's own context; "The Two Cultures" idea grew out of Snow's criticisms of British education and Cambridge in particular. He did not propose it as a general thesis, and, in fact, in similar works from the same period contrasted the humanities-heavy educational approach of Britain with (for instance) German approaches to higher education. This gets expanded and generalized over time, and not in a very coherent way, since Snow is vague and arguably equivocal in how he uses key terms. But as a general thesis, assumed to be coherent, it always gets taken, and the result is simplistic nonsense uncritically parading as sociological insight.


  1. MrsDarwin7:24 AM

    Well, I've read War and Peace 1.5 times, and I'm going to go out on on a cultural limb and say you're really going to be okay without reading this doorstopper. But perhaps that's because all the characters drive me up-the-wall batty, including one who, by the epilogue, becomes a sort of proto-mommy-blogger ("Natasha did not care for society in general but this made her all the fonder of being with her relatives -- with Countess Maria, her brother, her mother and Sonya. She took delight in the society of those to whom she could come striding dishevelled from the nursery in her dressing-gown and with joyful face show a diaper stained yellow instead of green, and from whom she could hear reassuring words to the effect that the baby was much better.") Darwin wrote here on Tolstoy's theory of history.

    There's a movie version of Cousin Bette with Hugh Laurie in one of the supporting roles. It features the oh-so-quotable line (marvelous in context), "We've reached the quacking stage!", which is applied at my house to many things beyond the original context. I don't know if it's in the original Balzac, and I almost don't want to know; why spoil my quoting delight with dry citations?

  2. MrsDarwin7:43 AM

    And speaking of being out of sympathy with Tolstoy, here's a post on why Tolstoy fails the "Rousseau threshold": "I call it the Rousseau threshold, because his case is the one I consider the most clear-cut. The way he treated his common-law wife, his children, and his friends makes it impossible for me to take him seriously as a humanitarian thinker. The fact that he abandoned all his children does not make Émile ironic. It makes it worthless."

  3. branemrys11:04 AM

    There's definitely something to be said for that, although Tolstoy does have the advantage in the comparison, in that he seems to have at least gone through periods of recognizing that he was a jackass.


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