For My Commonplace Book

Mon Feb 15, 2010

‘In England a schoolboy of [James] Watson’s precocity and style of genius would probably have been steered towards literary studies. It just so happens that during the 1950s, the first great age of molecular biology, the English schools of Oxford and particularly of Cambridge produced more than a score of graduates of quite outstanding ability – much more brilliant, inventive, articulate and dialectically skilful than most young scientists; right up in the Watson class. But Watson had one towering advantage over all of them: in addition to being extremely clever he had something important to be clever about.’

From a Mark Ridley review of Peter Medawar’s Pluto’s Republic. (The comment is Medawar’s; the article is only available to subscribers.)

I suspect that Leavis’s response to Snow might be in the background somewhere, but it does make me think a bit about the current rhetoric of justification of literary studies, broadly defined. There’s the gadgetry hypothesis, the literacy gambit, and the ever-reliable culture capitalizing of taste and distinction. Empirical studies of literature (and literary response) may be an underutilized resource here, one that might have even gratified a Popperian like Medawar.