Wednesday 27 July 2022

Emptiness and futility, arbitrary motivations and hedonism - on re-reading CP Snow's The Light and the Dark (1947)

Although now almost forgotten as a novelist; CP Snow's work has many special qualities, and I find I return to re-read one or other of his books every few years*.

I last read The Light and the Dark when I was at school, aged about sixteen - but have appreciated it more this second time around. It is focused on the story of Roy - a brilliant scholar of lost and obscure languages, whose personality alternates light and dark moods... 

(Not to the level of psychosis - he is not a manic depressive, always keeps working, and is never hospitalized; but nonetheless the down-swings are terrible for him to suffer. The point of the book is that his gifts and his miseries are part of a package - he cannot have the bright accomplishments without the shades.)

As always with Snow; the main character is based on a real-life model - an oriental linguist called Charles Allberry; whom Snow regarded as the closest and most intimate friend of his life. 

As a teen, I was considerably put-off by the aristocratic milieu and snobbery depicted among many of the main characters (although not the narrator, who - like Snow - had impoverished lower middle class origins, but aspired to be assimilated into the rich and able ruling class. And achieved it - becoming Lord Snow of Leicester, and sending his son to Eton.)   

This time around, I was more entertained than annoyed by the class-consciousness; and instead I saw the novel as a depiction of the spiritual bankruptcy of the English ruling class on the eve of the 1939-45 war. 

In a nutshell; the characters depicted most intimately have nothing to live for - except arbitrary motivations such as cultivated snobbery, and short-termist 'amoral' (often sexual) hedonism. And then The War... 

There are political motivations - communism or pacifism for many (especially scientists), National Socialism for a few; but these are essentially negative. In the end the war is fought - bravely and effectively - but against Germany rather than for anything in particular in the world afterwards. 

Which is, of course, exactly how things turned out - but it is fascinating to realize that Snow could perceive this so clearly and explicitly even by 1947, when this book was published. 

One sub-plot is the 'Light and Dark' protagonist's unsuccessful 'search for God' - Roy sees with absolute clarity that his life (and the world) is futile without God - but cannot 'make himself believe'; therefore leads an hedonically promiscuous life (alleviated by great - and secret - kindness and generosity to many people) which ends by deniably engineering his own death. 

Most of the characters avoid acknowledging this harsh truth; and immerse themselves in little (or large) plans and schemes, to seek pleasure and 'get-on' - but all, sooner or later, realize the futility of this 'materialistic' life.  

Seventy-five years later our civilization has lost the bleak, stoic insight of Snow (via his characters); and are still trapped by a false dilemma between a traditional Christianity they cannot believe - and a despairing life of increasingly short-termist, ever-less-coherent expediencies. Snow himself - with his life of ambition and status-seeking - seemed to be caught in this trap, up to his death in 1980. 

Regular readers know that I believe there is a way-out from this crux of unacceptable nihilism versus impossible traditional religiosity (i.e Romantic Christianity) - but that it requires individuals to give their best efforts to understanding (for- and from- the depths of their natures) Man in relation to God. 

This personal quest needs to be accorded at least the same effort and application as Roy gave to his unravelling of ancient texts; or others gave to communism, fascism and the other later leftist ideologies that purported to displace and replace Christianity. 

So, here we are...

*The Masters is probably CP Snow's best book - being an extremely gripping, sustained, satisfyingly-structured work. The Search is less accomplished, but also excellent for anyone interested in 'real science' - it has stuck in my mind for several decades. Also The Affair, and The New Men are similarly memorable; encapsulating certain things incomparably well. The Physicists - a group biography of some of the greatest physicist of the early 20th century, most of whom Snow (who had degrees in chemistry and physics) knew personally to some extent - is also extremely good; as is Variety of Men, a collection of memoirs of eminent people.  

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