Creative Tensions

It is fifty years since the British novelist and scientist C. P. Snow gave his famous Rede Lecture ‘The Two Cultures’ which lamented the gulf between scientists and ‘literary intellectuals’. To this day, debate over the relationship between these two worlds persists. Following the huge success of English PEN’s ‘Creative Energy’ last year, this evening’s event welcomed novelists Dame Margaret Drabble and Andrew O’Hagan and scientists Professor John Sulston and Giovanna Mallucci to discuss the possibility of a unified world of creativity and, as chair for the evening Lisa Appignanesi put it, to seek ‘a language that is comprehensible to both’.

Dame Margaret Drabble, who is also a vice-president of English PEN, rejoiced that both scientists and writers have ‘an enormous freedom’ to express themselves: ‘Some language used to be unprintable. I’ve broken many taboos!’ Yet for all the advances in terms of literary freedom, it seems that a new ‘no-go area’ has arisen stemming from ‘a disabling sensitivity towards ethnic and religious issues with writers fearful to enter that gladiatorial arena for fear of physical violence’, as Drabble put it. ‘Race and “ethnicity” are explosive issues. Dawkins and Amis enjoy confrontation but some of us are cowards’, she said.

Constraints of this kind are not exclusive to race and religion; even as we celebrate the first female poet laureate – ‘at last, the feminist battle is won’ – Drabble believes it still remains difficult for a man writing as a woman ‘for fear of appropriating or causing offence’. Moreover, she has found that on occasions it can feel like a no-win situation. ‘Sometimes I feel there are no words that aren’t going to annoy somebody, from family, neighbours and friends to minority groupings… there’s nothing much left! I now have to think harder. I have become too polite.’ Political correctness also inhibits scientific creativity, as Giovanna Mallucci explained. ‘We [scientists] want the freedom to explore and understand, to make experimentation a positive outcome for public health. At the centre, scientists are simply trying to express ideas and that requires an enormous freedom in your own mind. But political direction sometimes distorts this and creates a restraint if every question has to have a predetermined outcome’.

Finance, like political correctness, is another enemy of the creative world and, according to Drabble, has proved ‘disastrous’ for writers. ‘Publishers are murdering each other; they’re all out for the bottom line. Serious literature at the moment, as defended by PEN, is under threat by commercial forces: they want 15% not 3%.’ In contrast, for Drabble and fellow novelists like Doris Lessing it was ‘conviction not commercial calculation’ that brought them success. Andrew O’Hagan concurred and urged ‘timid, market-led artists new to the game’ to redirect their focus. ‘Getting out of the house and into the world; that requires bravery and the freedom for discovery.’ He admired John le Carré for writing about distress and poverty in the third world and ‘for taking on world issues from the perspective of an English novelist.’ Similarly, in the field of science, problems arise as soon as money becomes a major incentive, as Mallucci opined: ‘My personal feeling is you shouldn’t be making profit. What worries me is when people start to patent… it’s for the public domain.’

Professor John Sulston wholly endorsed the importance of publicising scientific research and discovery. Indeed, he famously defended the need for DNA codes to be available to all. ‘There was an interesting public reaction and a great amount of hype. I never expected it to cure cancer but knowing our code is a step towards a public discovery which we can share. The crucial point is that it must be collectively decided what should be rolled out and society must play a major role in this decision-making.’

Andrew O’Hagan’s personal story was a poignant testament to this interaction between science and the humanities. He recounted the time when, aged 13, he visited his grandmother in hospital and remembers her saying: ‘I’m dying of cancer but I don’t understand the science.’ His grandmother had apparently voiced fears that ‘he’s going to turn out a novelist… or worse!’ and, as he looked into the necropolis, O’Hagan thought of how women of his grandmother’s generation had believed in the union of science, literature and philosophy: ‘I hoped that my generation would see that marriage honoured to some extent,’ he said. By all accounts it has been honoured, no less so than in O’Hagan’s emotional and literary life, where science has played a significant role: ‘It is part of emotions, human relations… we must open ourselves up to the problems and wonders of science’, he said. While previously the relationship between literature and science fiction had been seen as ‘almost a childish thing to do with fantasy and storytelling’, O’Hagan has witnessed a recent change: ‘Writers see sci-fi as not a wall but a door opened’. Drabble agreed that science writing has much improved: ‘We’ve been enormously aided by some wonderful popular and serious science writers whose books combine cultures… John’s [Sulston] book on the human genome is like an adventure story,’ she said.

While the writing profession is frequently associated with solitude, most scientists have to express their creativity through others, as Mallucci explained: ‘I become less individual. I have as much responsibility for the people who come into my lab as myself, even more.’ While working as a team can be very dynamic – ‘you gain ideas and energy that comes through others’ –  Mallucci still finds the process inherently personal because creative energy is essentially ‘your own journey’. Similarly, O’Hagan explained that while writers essentially need to work alone, he always urges his students not to be ‘overburdened by the idea of the great creative individual’. He went on to say: ‘It’s about experience, a world out there to involve themselves in. I think the greatest writers were in the world, rather than in pure solitude.’

For Professor Sulston, it is not only thinking alone that has helped him to reach solutions. ‘I have been most creative at times of blackest despair, when I have almost stopped research, but somehow sat down at the microscope and started to see things that no one had seen before.’ Mallucci agreed. ‘We have blocks! Despair is part of the process and you can’t escape it. You’re holding on by threads sometimes and then you suddenly see it in a different light.’ O’Hagan said this sense of despair is equally necessary to foster creativity in writing. ‘[Writing] is utterly demanding of our health, talent, time but we need that incubation. Some think creative talent is about relentless loquaciousness, but despair is part of it.’

For all their differences, it is evident that these two worlds share a fundamental driving force: a shared sense of discovery. As Professor Sulston so eloquently put it: ‘We have so much to find out. Humanity is such an extraordinary voyage in which science and humanities are playing a part in an interactive way. Divergence of these strands many come back together as a kind of enlightenment.’

Report by Alexandra Masters

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