The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics People 1933-75 by Stephen Spender (1978)

Artists always have been and always will be individualists (p.52)

In this book Spender brought together key reviews, essays and other documents from each decade of his writing career. There’s a section of writings from the 1930s, but also from the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

As you know, I don’t have much time for Spender’s poetry, but he has sensible, honest liberal views on a wide range of subjects, and is a fantastic gossip. His very sensibleness seems to have made him a good editor (by all accounts), of Horizon magazine which he co-founded in 1939, and literary editor of Encounter magazine from 1953 to 1967.

As an affable, clubbable fellow, he sat as a judge for various prizes and could be counted to take part in innumerable ‘writers congresses’, with the result that he seems to have met and chatted with just about every important writer from the middle of the twentieth century. The index of this handy little paperback is a who’s who of poets, novelists, artists and playwrights from the 1920s to the 70s.

These are notes on his essays and reviews from, and comments about, the 1930s.

The Thirties

Background

Spender thinks the left-wing feel of literature in the 1930s has deep roots, going back at least to the Fabians (who included H.G. Wells and Bernard Shaw). He points out that the famous war poets Sassoon, Graves and Owen were all, by the war’s end, ‘socialists’ too, based on:

  • hatred of the older generation who had sent out the young to be slaughtered
  • sympathy for the working class men they supervised
  • admiration for revolutionary movements in Europe, political cultural and sexual
  • resentment of the way the British establishment tried to strangle the Bolshevik revolution
  • dislike of the British Empire

That said, all arts undergraduates of the late 1920s revered T.S. Eliot whose masterpiece The Waste Land prophesied the end of all civilisation, an apocalyptic vision which made conventional politics irrelevant.

But although the Modernists (Yeats, Eliot, Pound, Wyndham Lewis) held extreme right-wing views, their young fans still revered them because they were revolutionary in form & content. Also, although right-wing in tendency, the Modernists were heartily loathed by the dead, dull, philistine Conservatives who ran the artistic and literary establishment and thought them dangerous radicals and Bohemians (foreigners, too). The English conservative establishment was, Spender tells us, ‘philistine, stupid, respectable and frightened’.

As an undergraduate Auden held the view that the poet should be utterly unpolitical, in fact that he should be as unemotional and detached as a scientist: his own emotions, the lives around him and society at large were merely a field for his forensic enquiries. The exact opposite of, say, Shelley.

Writing in the 1970s, Spender now sees how that view stems from T.S. Eliot’s famous 1919 essay Tradition and The Individual Talent i.e. was indebted to the detached classicism of the Modernist generation.

Spender thinks he and the Auden Gang initially continued to adhere to the apolitical aesthetics of the Modernists. Only slowly did they let politics enter their work and it felt, to them, like a conscious lowering of standards. They had a ‘we’re only doing this for the duration’ feel about them. MacNeice in particular barely wrote any ‘political’ poetry during the 30s.

Spender sees the real generational break being between his friends – Auden, Day-Lewis, MacNeice – and the genuinely younger generation of fire-eating communist poets – Julian Bell and John Cornford – who were sincerely and utterly political (though he tempers this by pointing out that they were, in every instance, rebelling against the apolitical bourgeois aestheticism of their Bloomsbury parents).

Spender suggest that even when they were writing ‘political’ poems, he and Auden were in a way simply continuing the anti-war attitude of Wilfred Owen. He suggests his own poem, Ultima Ratio Regum, and Auden’s sonnets from China. They are anti-war protests, a kind of ‘anti-fascist pacifist poetry’.

In fact Spender thinks there wasn’t a thirties ‘movement’; movements have meetings and manifestos. But Auden was a ‘leader’ in the sense that he was intellectually in advance of all the rest, had through things through more thoroughly, and had a more highly developed technique.

Spender describes Auden’s advanced knowledge of psychoanalysis and how he used it to psychoanalyse his friends, inviting them to his darkened rooms in Christ Church and exposing them to penetrating psychological investigation. He liked doing this one-on-one, and preferred to keep his friends apart, which partly explains why the members of the so-called ‘movement’ rarely actually met.

In other words people didn’t ‘follow’ Auden because he commanded obedience. He simply was a cleverer, more fully formed and fascinating character than everyone else.

What triggered the ‘political content was simply the extremity of the times, the early 1930s, when it really looked as if the capitalist system might collapse, and the well-heeled literati in the south of England couldn’t fail to notice mass unemployment, squalor, and millions going hungry, their lives going to waste.

Because it was part of every educated person’s consciousness, the social crisis inevitably entered their writing. Overlapping it and extending the sense of crisis was the rise to power of Hitler and the sense, by the mid-30s, that war was inevitable. And they had an H.G. Wells-style horror of what the approaching war would entail. Spender was told by a leading government expert that British cities would be flattened in days by mass bombing.

Adding bite to this mood was the appalling complacency of almost everyone outside the ‘intellectual class’ – the complacency of Stanley Baldwin and the Empire exhibition. You can hear the same note of exasperation in George Orwell’s novels – he wants to shake England out of its myopic slumber. Wake up! so many of those poems say.

Spender sympathises with the critics who point out the 100% private school nature of these lefties. There was something laughable, Spender himself admits, in their attempts to write for the working classes. Spender thinks that, if anyone, their poems were aimed at ‘sixth-formers from their old schools and at one another’ (p.23).

But what else could they have done? Ignored the mass unemployment and economic collapse of the Great Depression? Ignored the rise of Hitler and the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War? In a society in crisis every work becomes political.

The essence of the Modernist movement was it created works which centred on themselves, were self contained as art. The next generation, his generation, took Modernist tools and reinjected what the Modernist works had lacked, namely day-to-day subject matter. ‘We were putting the subject back into poetry’.

In his opinion the members of the movement were very varied, never had a manifesto, and had all kinds of doubts about putting politics into poetry – but were made to seem like a movement because of the deep sleep of everyone else around them. Writing about the Slump or Hitler created the impression of a camaraderie among writers who were, deep down, very disparate.

Real political poetry was that written by committed Communists like Christopher Caudwell, Ralph Fox, John Cornford and Tom Wintringham – but the first three of these were killed in Spain and the tradition they might have created, vanished with them.

All these concerns came to a head with the Spanish Civil War which triggered a crescendo of political commitment among the bourgeois poets – and then a collapse of cynicism and disillusion. One way of seeing it is that all the bourgeois writers were brought by the crisis right up against the need to write propaganda, that is, to lie, to write things they doubted or knew were lies (about the unity of the left, about the Moscow show trials, the wisdom of Stalin, and so on). When push came to shove, they all rebelled against this.

In face of Stalinist propaganda and methods it was a reversion to the view that individual conscience is the repository of witnessed truth. (p.29)

Once the scales fell from their eyes, they realised they had let themselves be cajoled into writing in ways, about subjects and reaching conclusions, that they knew to be false or disagreed with. This concern for individual truth-telling explains why many of them, most famously Auden, tried to suppress much of their work from the 30s as ‘dishonest’. Thus he tinkered with Spain, the long poem he wrote trying to support the Republicans, but eventually came to hate its entire tone and banned it.

This notion of individual truth was the reef that the ‘movement’ of political poetry ran aground on.

Review of A Vision by W.B. Yeats (April 1938)

In this book Yeats systematically laid out the complex system of images and ideas which underpinned his later poetry and which, he claimed, had been communicated to his wife by messages from the spirit world. With restrained irony Spender says that, if these complex insights into the meaning of human history, its patterns and recurrences really are true, it is a shame this long and complicated book makes no attempt to prove the fact or to relate it to the world the rest of us live in. More sharply, Spender notes that when Yeats writes that when he read Oswald Spengler’s vast epic about The Decline of the West (1918-22) he found an eerie similarity with his own thought – that is because both of them, along with Stefan George and d’Annunzio, in their attacks on the rotten littleness of modern democratic society and the need for new Caesars to rise up and restore civilisation – all prove ideological and artistic justifications for fascism.

Review of One-Way Song by Wyndham Lewis (December 1933)

Percy Wyndham Lewis was an avant-garde artist who, just before the First World War, founded the short-lived movement of Vorticism, a British response to Italian Futurism. After the war (in which he served) he continued to paint, including marvellous modernist portraits of his chums T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, plus the doyenne of 1920s poetry, Edith Sitwell; but also wrote a lot, novels, huge meditations upon Western Man, and, as in this case, poetry.

One-Way Song is an extended satire written with Lewis’s demonic energy which sets out to flail every cause Lewis can think of, including parliamentary democracy, Progress, relativity, the expanding universe and racial equality. Some of the lines tend towards fascism i.e. saying society can only be saved from its pettiness by a Strong Leader, but on the whole Spender admires Lewis for his vigour and his openness, unlike many a fascist sympathiser who couches their support in suaver support for ‘the corporate state’ etc.

Review of Phoenix by D.H. Lawrence (January 1937)

Lawrence was one of a kind, sui generis. Not many major writers have emerged from the genuine working class, his Dad being a miner in the coalfields outside Nottingham. As Lawrence got educated he moved out of his own class, but was never at home with the smug bourgeoisie which runs English culture (in his day, the Bloomsbury Group).

Despising the middle class for its post-impressionist pusillanimity, but unable to expect anything of a working class he knew was crushed and cowed, he found a solution, a way out – Sex.

In the sexual act two people could transcend the petty restrictions of class and country and rediscover human dignity and authenticity. On this discovery he posited a potential social revolution, and described and wrote about it on countless occasions. He was against crowds, the masses and their filthy representation politics and democracy. In this respect he was anti-democratic and gave way sometimes to brooding images of Dark Power and the Strong Leader. But at its core he revolted against all of society, of whatever shape, in favour of a revolution in the head of individuals, then of men and women in their relationships with each other.

All settlement of the property question must arise spontaneously out of the new impulse in man, to free himself from the extraneous load of possession, and walk naked and light.

This is why he is among the Great Writers – because he took the key subject of the most serious novels – relationships between men and woman, or a man and a woman – to new levels of intensity.

Review of Red Front by Louis Aragon (May 1933)

A review of a zealously communist poem by the French poet, Louis Aragon. Spender is blisteringly critical of its calls for the proletariat to rise up and shoot the bourgeoisie. Why, asks Spender. Why is one lot of people arresting, imprisoning, torturing and executing another group of people terrible if it’s group A, but fabulous and deserving hymns of praise if it’s group B? They’re all people.

Marx had an answer. The proletariat represent Hegel’s Spirit of History. They are not only good and just in themselves, they represent the future of mankind. Spender obviously doesn’t buy this.

Spender says this isn’t a poem it’s propaganda and, what’s more, threatening propaganda. He treats Aragon to about the most withering criticism possible by saying its invocations and threats of violence are directly comparable to Hitler. Compare this poem to any speech by Hitler. Whoosh!

Poetry and Revolution (March 1933)

A poem is complete in itself, it does not reach out and affect the real world. Poetry is idealist in the sense that it is restricted to the world of thought. It is, therefore, the opposite of materialist thought. Individuals locked in their own little worlds is the opposite of the mass movement which the revolutionist calls for.

Basically Spender argues that all literature is middle class. To read it or be able to write it, workers have to get educated enough to lose their working class roots and enter the bourgeoisie. Even rebels against the bourgeoisie tend to be bourgeois, and their ‘rebellion’ tends to be into precisely the kind of visionary individualism which the true revolutionary hates most (he evidences the French poet, Rimbaud).

The bourgeois artist can not rebel against his bourgeois origins. But he can serve revolutionary ends by writing honestly. If he writes honestly his writings will accurately reveal the symptoms of a decaying society.

He defends poetry with these arguments:

  • poetry records the changing meaning of words, it preserves words in their pure and historic meaning
  • poetry saves the language from degenerating
  • poetry is a function of our emotional life
  • ‘poetry is the language of moments in which we see ourselves or other people in their true relation to humanity or nature’
  • poetry expresses compassion for all human beings regardless of race or class

Contemporary writers who wish to be communists cannot join the communist cause because of their economic condition, which forces them to be individuals, alone and alienated. Come the revolution, this will be solved.

(Compare and contrast Spender’s lightweight ideas with the fully worked out theory of Realism in fiction propounded by Marxist philosopher György Lukács.)

The Poetic Dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (Autumn 1938)

Spender had written a poetic drama himself, Trial of a Judge, this same year of 1938.

He praises the poetic dramas of W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood, specifically The Dog Beneath The Skin and The Ascent of F6, but enters a few typically sensible caveats.

  • Not much of the poetry in them is as good as Auden’s individual poems.
  • None of the characters has the subtlety of the characters in Isherwood’s novels.
  • Lastly, the pop nature of some of the lyrics created a kind of lowest common denominator style which Auden’s younger fans are now copying.

The public figures in F6 are too true to life to be believable. The satire on them is too crude to be believable and therefore effective. In this respect, yes, they are rather schoolboyish, as older critics claimed. Spender considers Dog works in its long journey round Europe, but when the protagonist returns to his English village, the climax of the play is him delivering a sermon indistinguishable from one any ordinary vicar would deliver.

Spender acutely points out the several ways in which the conclusion of The Ascent of F6 is not only unsatisfactory, it is incoherent. I agree with him that lots of it are just chunks of Auden which have been inserted into the play without too much regard for context. But that the chorus poetry of Mr and Mrs A is excellent (the best thing in the play, in my view).

With a touch of the apocalyptic, Spender hopes Auden and Isherwood have laid the foundations of what might be a much wider social change in coming decades which would see ‘the emergence of the theatre as the most significant and living of literary forms’ (p.61). Of course, they hadn’t.

Tangiers and Gibraltar Now (Left Review, February 1937)

Six months into the Spanish Civil War, Spender tried to get into republican Spain but was refused a visa so he did the next best thing which was to travel to Tangiers – where he attended meetings, speeches etc by Republican supporters – then Gibraltar, where he dwells on the revolting Franco sympathies of the British authorities and old British colonels’ mithering about ‘Red atrocities’. Even if these atrocities are true, Spender excuses them as the inevitable excesses of the suffering imposed on the people by the ‘monstrous Spanish system’ (p.64).

Heroes in Spain (New Statesman, May 1937)

Finally Spender got himself into Republican Spain and reports on what he saw and the Unity of the People as he travelled round for six weeks.

Spender takes exception to calling anyone who dies in a war, a ‘hero’, saying this is just a rhetoric people use to hide from themselves the disgusting reality of war. He testifies that the actual soldiers dislike talk of heroes and heroics; in the reports they read they are far more concerned to hear the simple truth.

Spain invites the world’s writers (Autumn 1937)

Being notes on the International Writers Congress held in which Spender attended. He is very impressed by André Malraux (‘a hero’) and his talk of will, how the writer must create an environment which allows them to write. They drive from Barcelona to Valencia and on to Madrid, seeing sights, meeting the People, excited by the social revolution very obviously going on around them. The essay concludes with a conversation with the Spanish poet, José Bergamín who, when asked about his Catholicism, says yes yes yes he believes all the articles of faith, but no no no he believes the Catholic Church in Spain has allied with one particular class and is trying to prevent ‘the spiritual growth of the Spanish people’. Spender optimistically concludes that, within the political revolution sparked by the war, is also taking place a Catholic Reformation. (In both predictions he was, of course, wrong.)

I join the Communist Party (Daily Worker, February 1937)

Spender explains that the motivation of his book Forward From Liberalism, published in 1937, was to show the mindset of a typical bourgeois liberal (i.e. himself) approaching communism, namely his belief in social justice and international peace rather than imperialist aggression.

In this article he announces that he has a) formally joined the communist party b) is setting off to Valencia to support the Republican government.

In fact these three short pages conclude with a description of his whistlestop tour of Tangiers and Gibraltar (mentioned above) and how he found everywhere how a minority of capitalist-imperialists was wedded to the Francoist attachment to property and in doing so seeking to suppress and put down the 80% of the population who wanted revolutionary change to their society.

Everywhere he went he saw Communists leading the fight against fascism, the best and most dignified of the working class were the Communists. And so he’s joined the Party.

When he puts it like that, his decision sounds eminently reasonable.

However, the first half of the little essay indicates a massive problem he faced: even before he joined the Party he had been sharply criticised by a critic in the Daily Worker for passages in Forward From Liberalism in which he had questioned the Moscow Show Trials i.e. Stalin’s word.

This is the crux of this entire section and of Left-wing politics in the 1930s as a whole. In contrast to the rotten, do-nothing democracies, Communism was actively fighting the unambiguous evil of fascism, and everywhere communist workers provided inspiring examples of human heroism and high-mindedness. Plus, to the anxious bourgeois intellectual, the Communist Party provided a wonderful sense of community and acceptance in a greater task. Good.

But, as they all discovered, Communism-in-practice meant lying for Stalin. Lying about the show trials, the deportations, the famines, the labour camps, the murder of opponents and rivals in Russia, and lying about the undermining of the entire Spanish Republican war effort by commissars more concerned with eliminating Trotskyists or Anarchists than with fighting the supposed enemy.

And this was the enormous disillusion which woke Spender, Auden and many other writers from their dream of solidarity with the working class. They would love to show solidarity with the working class and overthrow the rotten old system. But central to membership of the Party was abandoning their individual ‘bourgeois’ consciences and lying for a brutal, murderous dictator. And none of them could do that.

Postscript

With the ending of the Spanish Civil War it became clear that the thirties was being wound up like a company going into bankruptcy. The departure of Auden for America in 1939, whatever personal feelings it aroused, considered as a public act only underlined what most of his colleagues already felt: that the individualist phase was over. From now on, people did not join anti-fascism as individuals who might influence history. They joined armies in which they were expected to forget that they were individuals. (p.85)

With a few exceptions the writer associated with the thirties tried after 1939 to break with their political connections. This was particularly true of Auden who edited out of his works what might be termed the Thirties Connection. His departure for Isherwood in late 1939 dramatised the end of a decade. (p.276)

(In this second passage Spender makes a small but telling mistake. Auden and Isherwood sailed for New York in January 1939, at the start of the year. Spender’s memory has smoothed this out by making it occur in ‘late’ 1939, right at the end of the year and so of the decade – thus making it appear more symbolic and neat. Well, he’s a poet, not a historian.)


Credit

The Thirties and After by Stephen Spender was first published by Macmillan Books. All references are to the 1978 Fontana paperback edition.

Related links

Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins (1998)

Here is another analogy… (p.12)

Although this book is over 20 years old, the issues it addresses (the anti-scientific tendency of much traditional literature and the inappropriate use of poetic writing in bogus pseudo-science – versus the hard scientific fact and clear scientific thinking Dawkins promotes) are still very current, and since Dawkins is still writing books attacking non-scientific ways of looking at the world (such as his most recent tome, Outgrowing God, published just last year) I think it’s still worth reviewing this one as an analysis of his overall style and approach.

The aim

The full title is Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder and the book’s purpose is simple: For thousands of years humans have written poetry or concocted religious myths and symbols to explain the puzzling world around them. But (Dawkins says) the scientific worldview as we now have it explains more or less everything about the world around us from bacteria to supernovas and, if properly understood, is far more beautiful and inspiring than the poetry, myths and legends it supersedes.

My advice

However, in my opinion, if you want to be inspired, watch a David Attenborough documentary about the natural world or a Brian Cox one about the stars, because this book is a hilariously silly, shallow, ragbag of random quotes, fragments of science mixed up with countless personal anecdotes, snippets from newspapers or TV and, above all, a relentless stream Richard Dawkins’s pet peeves and trite opinions.

Do not read this book.

Dawkins shares his opinion of modern journalists (lamentably anti-science)

Dawkins opens the book with a sustained attack on a shopping list of contemporary authors who have written disparagingly about science, including Bernard Levin (who once wrote an article specifically about Dawkins God, Me and Mr Dawkins 11 October 1996 – hence the enmity), Simon Jenkins, A.A. Gill, Fay Weldon (author of a ‘hymn of hate’ against science in the Daily Telegraph) and so on and so on.

Dawkins quotes articles in the newspapers, or letters he has received, or questions he gets asked at the end of his lectures, or anecdotes about students of his, to demonstrate that anti-scientific prejudice and ignorance is everywhere – There are creationists under the bed and anti-evolutionists hiding in the closet. It isn’t safe to turn on the TV or open a newspaper without someone spouting unscientific rubbish or promoting astrology or showing the deepest scientific illiteracy. Fools! Knaves! Dawkins has no patience with error.

This is dramatically, profoundly, hugely wrong. (p.90)

Dawkins shares his opinion of British poets (lamentably anti-science)

And then – oh dear, oh dear – Dawkins takes it upon himself to be the judge of a raft of classic poets including Keats, Coleridge or Wordsworth, Blake or Yeats or Lawrence.

Dawkins has located quotes from all of these luminaries lamenting the ‘death of romance’ and the role science has played in ‘dis-enchanting the world’ so, as usual, Richard loses no time in telling us that they were all dead wrong in thinking science dis-enchants the world: if only they’d understood modern science, they’d have written poetry ten times as good!!

Dawkins then goes on to prove that he has absolutely no feel for poetic writing or for the luminous quality of poetry:

  1. by the way he quotes schoolboy tags and the most obvious ‘greatest hits’ moments from the most obvious Great Poets
  2. by the way he treats poems as rhythmic verse i.e you can do a prose summary, and then evaluate them on whether or not they show the ‘correct’ attitude to the scientific worldview
  3. and by the way he has rummaged through the diaries and letters and table talk of the Great Poets to find quotes of them stating anti-scientific or anti-rationalist opinions

Which he considers case closed. He cannot entertain the idea that poetry might not be written to put forward clearly defined and logical points of view, but might be an alternative way of perceiving and expressing the world and what it is to be human…

He refers to D.H. Lawrence who (allegedly) refused to believe that moonlight is reflected sunlight (that sounds too pat and too stupid to be true), but even if it were, you kind of know what Lawrence is talking about. We have evolved over tens of millions of years to find night-time eerie and the changing shape and movement of the moon uncanny. Is it possible that part of a poet’s role is to respect ancient beliefs, to excavate and re-express deep ancestral feelings, no matter how irrational?

Not in Dawkins’s view. No! They were all wrong wrong wrong about science and deserve to be sent to the back of the class. He speculates that:

Keats, like Yeats, might have been an even better poet if he had gone to science from some of his inspiration. (p.27)

If only the Great Poets were more like, well, like Richard Dawkins!

Dawkins’s bêtes noirs and pet peeves

He fills the book with his own Daily Mail prejudices and bêtes noirs.

Post-modernism is rubbish Once again we get his shallow critique of ‘post-modernism’ and ‘cultural relativism’ – ‘the meaningless wordplays of modish francophone savants‘ – which he dismisses in a sentence as existing merely ‘to impress the gullible’ (p.41).

Now maybe a lot of French post-war philosophy is pretentious twaddle, but, for example, Derrida’s attempt to rethink the entire tradition of writing as a way of encoding authority which constantly undermines itself because of the looseness and deeply unfinishable nature of writing, or Foucault’s histories of how power is wielded by supposedly ‘objective’ academic disciplines and public institutions, or Roland Barthes’ explorations of how texts have lives of their own, determined by structures or levels of activity which have hitherto been overlooked – these are all fascinating intellectual endeavours, certainly more worth spending time reading about than the Daily Mail philistinism of Dr D.

It’s a telling irony that soon after a passage attacking writers and journalists (Bernard Levin, Simon Jenkins et al) for their shallow, ignorant dismissal of science as being a worldview which they don’t like — Dawkins himself carries out just such a shallow, ignorant dismissal of post-modern philosophy, for being a worldview which he doesn’t like.

Could it be that there are multiple worldviews, countless worldviews, and that we get along best by enjoying their diversity? No! Wrong wrong wrong!

Children’s book awards are vulgar Dawkins gives an account of attending an awards ceremony for children’s science books where the audience was encouraged to make insect noises, which he found insufferably ‘vulgar’.

Computer games are vulgar In much the same way, in The Blind Watchmaker, he dismissed ‘vulgar’ arcade computer games (not as dignified and worthy as the computer game he had devised, of course).

The ‘Top 20’ shows how vulgar people are This kind of lofty condemnation of ‘popular’ interests and tastes comes, of course, from a long line of lofty and contemptuous Oxford intellectuals, and sits alongside his fastidious disapproval of the so-called ‘Top 40’ and how easy it is to promote ‘worthless pop singles, an attitude of fastidious elitism which made me laugh at the end of The Blind Watchmaker. Later on he finds the space, for obscure personal reasons, to go out of his way to tell us that the activity of bodybuilding is an ‘odd minority culture’. Possibly. But not as odd as writing a book supposedly about science and going out of your way to include a paragraph disapproving of body building.

The X-Files is anti-scientific Dawkins takes the time to explain why he dislikes the popularity of the TV show The X-Files – namely, because of the way it foregrounds the spooky, irrational explanations for the weird occurrences it depicts (p.28) – which is so frightfully anti-science.

Douglas Adams is masterly By contrast, he wants us to know that he approves of the ‘masterly’ science comedies of Douglas Adams (p.29).

Science fiction is serious literature! Science fiction by the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov et al:

seems to me to be an important literary form in its own right, snobbishly underrated by some scholars of literature (p.27)

Oh yes, if Dawkins ran literature departments, things would be different! Out with Derrida and Barthes, in with Douglas Adams and Isaac Asimov!

Dr Dolittle is not racist Dawkins finds time to share his opinion that Hugh Lofting’s Dr Dolittle books do have a little racism in them, but then that was the universal worldview of the 1920s, so it is silly for ‘pompously correct librarians’ to ban them. And, anyway, Dolittle’s love of animals is superior to the speciesism which even the most politically correct of our own time are still prey to (p.53).

Ruskin didn’t understand science I was actively upset when Dawkins quotes a passage of Ruskin about how people prefer myths and stories to the cold empirical facts – and then goes on to ridicule Ruskin’s attitude not by countering his views but by retelling the hoary old anecdote about the great critic and social reformer’s disastrous wedding night.

It stood out to me as a moment of gross insensitivity and schoolboy bullying. Ruskin was a genius, who struggled to transform the way the philistine British thought about art and design and handed his cause on to the young William Morris. To drag up this hackneyed anecdote is in the worst possible vein of Daily Mail ad hominem philistinism.

Summary

a) Dawkins is a modern reincarnation of just the kind of literal-minded, unbending, unsympathetic and impenetrably dense philistine who forced so many of the Great Poets – Shelley and Byron and Browning, Lawrence and Auden – to flee claustrophobic, puritanical, judgemental England for hotter, more laid-back climes.

b) There seems to be no subject too trivial or too minor for Dawkins not to be able to use it as the pretext to share with the reader his trite and obvious opinions and prejudices, or to prompt another anecdote from his endless store of ‘fascinating’ encounters.

Imagine if David Attenborough interrupted his voiceover about humming birds or polar bears to share an anecdote about a distinguished professor he had a squabble with over dinner at his Oxford college, or took a minute to explain to his viewers why Star Trek is better than Dr Who, or why Douglas Adams’ novels are criminally under-rated.

You’d think he’d gone mad. But that’s what most of this book is like.

Snobbism

Although Dawkins goes out of his way to sound reasonable he can’t help quite frequently sounding like a snob, fastidiously distancing himself from the ghastly taste of the mob. Richard – alongside the Daily Mail – laments how standards have slipped and once-mighty institutions have pandered to popular taste. O Tempora! O mores!

In his chapter rubbishing horoscopes and astrology, Dawkins quotes surveys in which most people say they read horoscopes just for entertainment:

Their taste in what constitutes entertaining fiction is evidently different from mine!

Indeed. Dawkins has told us several times that he cycles through the streets of leafy Oxford. I wonder if he’s ever thought about people like me who have to fight their way onto over-crowded tube trains, or flop exhausted at the end of the day onto a muggy bus, brain dead and pick up a copy of the Metro or Standard to leaf through, treating the horoscopes as much the same as all the other brainless twaddle in it which helps pass the time if you are very, very tired. Different strokes for different folks. Live and let live, maybe…

I chortled when he referred to the Radio Times as ‘that once-respected organ of the BBC’ (p.124). Could anyone sound more pompous?

After taking part in a BBC programme promoting a faith healer who claimed to be the reincarnation of a 2,000-year-old dead doctor, Dawkins clashed with the commissioning editor of this programme. He was horrified that the BBC should:

lend the weight of its long built-up reputation by appearing to accept the fantasy at face value (pp.125-6)

It’s so often the BBC which draws the ire of the Mrs Angry’s from Tunbridge Wells… and so it is for Dawkins. I smiled when he described David Frost as:

a veteran British television personality whom some government saw fit to knight… (p.126)

‘Whom’. I know it’s technically correct but I don’t like using ‘whom’ precisely because Dawkins is typical of the kind of people who still use it, the kind of people who perpetually think the BBC is going to the dogs.

The long chapter demolishing astrologers and fake magicians is an orgy of supercilious superiority to the immoral tricksters who make money be exploiting a gullible public, aided and abetted by intelligent people in places like the BBC who really should know better!

Dawkins’s personal stories and gossip

I’ll begin with a personal anecdote. (p.138)

The book is jam packed with chatty stories and anecdotes from people he’s met, and letters he’s received, and newspapers articles he’s read, and debates he’s taken part in, and lectures he’s given, and children he’s chatted to, and anecdotes about his wife, and his mother-in-law, and his parents, and uncle and aunt.

  • I am told on good authority that defence lawyers in the United States sometimes object to jury candidates on the grounds that they have had a scientific education (p.83)
  • A colleague tells me of a time when he was up for selection on a jury… (p.84)
  • I had a schoolfriend who claimed that he could recognise any member of the 80-strong residence in which we lived purely by listening to their footsteps. (p.88)
  • I had another friend from Switzerland who claimed that when she walked into a room she could tell, by smell, which members of her circle of acquaintances had just left the room. (p.88)
  • I once received a lawyer’s bill, the last item of which was ‘Time spent making out this bill’ (p.106)
  • My wife Lalla Ward recalls an occasion when an American starlet approached the director of the film they were both working on with a ‘Gee, Mr Preminger, what sign are you?’ and received the immortal rebuff, in a thick Austrian accent, ‘I am a Do Not Disturrrb sign.’ (p.118)
  • I once met a woman who was employed full time to invent these stories [Elvis sighted on Mars-type stories] for an American publication… (p.124)
  • I recall an entertaining dinner with a philosopher who told me the following story: One day in church he noticed that a priest, in a kneeling position, was hovering nine inches above the church floor. (p.133)
  • I remember once trying to amuse a six-year-old child at Christmas time by reckoning with her how long it would take Father Christmas to go down all the chimneys in the world. (p.141)
  • I used a similar illustration in one of my Royal Institution Christmas lectures in 1991. (p.145)
  • My wife once bought for her mother a beautiful antique watch with a pink face. (p.154)
  • During this particular minute, my thoughts have strayed to a schoolfellow called Haviland (I don’t remember his Christian name, not what he looked like) whom I haven’t seen or thought of for 45 years. (p.159)
  • Daniel Dennett has told me of a conversation with a philosopher colleague who had read Wonderful Life as arguing that the Cambrian phyla did not have a common ancestor – that they had sprung up as independent origins of life! (p.207)

He spends a page and a half describing the time his parents persuaded little Richard and his sister to put on blindfolds and led them out to the garden where they sat them in a wooden frame which they persuaded the children was an airplane, trundled it along the ‘runway’ and then lifted it into the air and zoomed it around the garden, sometimes brushing against low-hanging branches of trees.

This anecdote is the basis of a couple of pages of complete speculation about why credulity, the ability to believe anything they’re told, might be an evolutionary advantage in human children – but how adults should grow out of it and apply serious scientific standards of scepticism and an informed understanding of statistics to every aspect of their lives.

But why? Why can’t people believe what they want to? In reality they already do, and always have, and always will. Charming, page-long anecdotes about Richard’s upper-middle-class childhood aren’t going to change anyone’s minds, they just warm the hearts of the upper-middle-class book reviewers who, as a result, shower his books with praise (enthusiastic blurbs on the back of this book come from A.S. Byatt [private school and Oxford] and Matt Ridley [the fifth Viscount Ridley, Eton and Oxford]).

On and on it goes in an endless burbling stream of jolly gossip which is entertaining because it’s so inconsequential and vain, a self-satisfied family album of preening opinions.

Sometimes there are bits of science…

Why rainbows appear like they do, sound waves, how we can read the chemical composition of different stars, DNA fingerprinting – there are interesting fragments of actual science, reasonably clearly explained, buried amid all the gossip and personal prejudices.

There’s another explanation of the structure of the eye (repeated from River Out of Eden), a page about qasars, and 4 or 5 pages about ‘Skinner boxes, and the behaviouralist B.F. Skinner’s experiments rewarding animals (pigeons and rats) which led him to notice that animals, too, appear to develop superstitious rituals i.e. if they happened to be doing something (pecking a particular part of the box, or huddling on one particular corner) when some food pops through the chute into the box, then they will repeat the same behaviour again and again in the hope that lightning strikes twice. Like humans who carry out lucky tics and rituals.

There’s a lengthy passage (pp.193-209) attacking Stephen Jay Gould. It’s typical of Dawkins in that he says he respects the great American populariser of evolution, but then goes on to systematically demolish every aspect of Gould’s book Wonderful Life. Gould uses the fossil discoveries in the Burgess Shale to assert that the Cambrian period when they were laid down saw a spectacular and unprecedented explosion of evolutionary growth and diversity, hundreds of wacky designs for life forms, many of which flourished and disappeared. Dawkins powerfully disagrees that evolution works in such bursts and spurts, and lines up a barrage of critics and authorities to demolish Gould’s position, concluding with a quote from Peter Medawar claiming it was a shame that Gould had (before his death in 2002) become the pre-eminent popular exponent of evolutionary theory in the United States because his ideas are ‘confused’ and totally unrepresentative of the mainstream of evolutionary thought (‘in fact the evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed his work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with…’, p.207).

OK so there’s some science in this passage, as Dawkins explains why he disagrees with Gould but, as you can tell, the explication of the facts of what was found in the Burgess Shale take a poor second place to Dawkins’s argufying about it. The point of these fifteen pages or so is not to explain the thing to you, it’s to convince you that Gould was wrong wrong wrong!

The passage I liked best explained how evolution, among other things, has selected for the correct shapes of key proteins – some crucial proteins have multiple shapes and versions: the correct shapes are the ones which allow them to carry out their life-enabling activities, but it explains why things go disastrously wrong if the body, for whatever reason, starts to produce wrong-shaped alternatives: which is what happens in mad cow disease, when an alternative shape of the prion protein occurs and then triggers a cascade of mishapen prions throughout the body, which leads to holes forming in the brain, and madness.

Moments like this are obviously interesting, but they are oases of sense in a book most of whose text is made up of anecdotes, stories, far-fetched analogies, pitifully simplistic opinions about Great Literature, and a wholesale misunderstanding of human nature.

Conclusion

As to Dawkins’s central point that all kinds of people think unscientifically, don’t understand statistics or probabilities or how DNA fingerprinting works or how the rainbow is made, and instead believe gibberish about horoscopes and astrology and magic tricks… well, so what?

People have always been fools, always will be, as John Gray points out (see my review of his most recent book, The Soul of the Marionette). On the whole, people don’t burn witches or lynch strangers or march gaily off to war like they used to, so that’s progress of a sort.

But expecting everyone to suddenly abandon junk TV, sensationalist tabloid journalism, horoscopes and the countless promises of overnight diets and anti-ageing creams, and suddenly, miraculously, become hyper-intelligent, private-school educated, Oxford academic experts in DNA and astronomy is… well… a fatuous fantasy.

Dawkins and Junior

When my son (22 and studying Biology at university) discovered that I was reading Dawkins’s books, he was genuinely outraged. He crossly told me that all Dawkins’s contributions to biology have been discredited, and that his only achievement has been to create in many people’s minds a vision of science and scientists as narrow-minded, intolerant, anti-religious and bigoted – a view which my son has personally found himself having to extricate himself from in student conversations, and which has been extremely socially unhelpful.

P.S.

One last Dawkins anecdote to finish with:

In a previous book I gave away the number of the combination lock on my bicycle. I felt safe in doing so because obviously my books would never be read by the kind of person who would steal a bicycle. Unfortunately somebody did steal it, and now I have a new lock with a new number. (p.147)

This vignette perfectly captures Dawkins’s spirit of winning naivety and complete ignorance of human nature. Maybe you can see why, in my review of The Blind Watchmaker, I dubbed Dawkins the Mr Bean of Biology.

Credit

Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins was published by Penguin in 1998. All references are to the 1999 Penguin paperback edition.


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