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John Cleese: FOX News viewers are too stupid to realize that they are stupid

Be afraid, be very afraid…

For some years now, I have been fascinated with the Dunning-Kruger effect. I believe it was some Internet writings by Errol Morris that first turned me on to the idea around 2007. It’s incredibly useful, I feel like I find a use for it almost every day. If nothing else, it’s a spur to humility, because we’re all susceptible to it. Some, ahem, far more than others.

In a 1999 article called “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments,” David Dunning and Justin Kruger of Cornell University came to the conclusion that the qualified are often more skeptical about their own abilities in a given realm than the unqualfied are. People who are unqualified or unintelligent are more likely to rate their own abilities favorably than people who are qualified or intelligent. In the paper, the authors wrote, “Across four studies, the authors found that participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability. Although test scores put them in the 12th percentile, they estimated themselves to be in the 62nd.”

However, people with actual ability tended to underrate their relative competence. Participants who found tasks to be fairly easy mistakenly assumed that the tasks must also be easy for others as well. As Dunning and Kruger conclude: “The miscalibration of the incompetent stems from an error about the self, whereas the miscalibration of the highly competent stems from an error about others.”

Charles Darwin put it most pithily in The Descent of Man when he wrote, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” As W.B. Yeats put it in The Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Apparently there is a scientific grounding for that line.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is unusually suitable in describing the many frustrating positions and rhetoric of the Republican Party. My favorite (if depressing) example of the Dunning-Kruger effect comes from the mouth of George W. Bush in the days before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. As Bob Woodward wrote in Plan of Attack:

The president said he had made up his mind on war. The U.S. should go to war.

“You’re sure?” Powell asked.

Yes. It was the assured Bush. His tight, forward-leaning, muscular body language verified his words. It was the Bush of the days following 9/11.

“You understand the consequences,” Powell said in a half-question. …

Yeah, I do, the president answered.

Yeah, I do, the president answered. What on earth could that utterance by Bush possibly mean? Could it not be clearer that what was in Bush’s head at that moment and what was in Powell’s head at that moment had very little to do with each other? In effect Powell was taking Bush’s word that Bush had seriously considered the consequences of invasion, when to be frank, all available evidence, both at the time and later on, suggests that Bush was foolhardy about what the actual consequences of invasion might be.

Earlier this year, the research of Dunning and Kruger was referenced by a relatively unlikely source: John Cleese, the brilliant comedian who famously portrayed one of the single most obtuse and supercilious characters in TV history, Basil Fawlty. Cleese believes FOX’s viewership is too unintelligent to put the proper brakes on their own thought processes: “The problem with people like this is that they are so stupid that they have no idea how stupid they are. You see, if you’re very, very stupid, how can you possibly realize that you’re very, very stupid, you’d have to be relatively intelligent to realize how stupid you are.”

Apparently Cleese and Dunning are pals—he says so in the video, anyway. Here, have a look:


Posted by Martin Schneider | Leave a comment
Mick Jagger on Monty Python reunion: ‘A bunch of wrinkly old men trying to relive their youth’
06:16 am

Current Events

Mick Jagger
Monty Python

Never one to shy away from publicity, Mick Jagger sends himself up in this latest plug for Monty Python Live (Mostly), screened during today’s Python press conference.

Jagger, who has been touring with The Rolling Stones, gamely pokes fun at himself and his fellow bandmates as he discusses lighting and set lists for with an assistant:

Monty Python—are they still going? I mean, who wants to see that again really? It was really funny in the sixties… Still, a bunch of wrinkly old men trying to relive their youth and make a load of money, I mean, the best one died years ago!

The Pythons will be performing ten gigs this July at the O2 Arena in London. John Cleese has described the event as being more like a rock show than a piece of theater. The first show sold out in 40 seconds, leading to extra dates being added.


Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
On location with ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’

At the end of April 1974, the Monty Python team arrived in Ballachulish, Scotland, for a month’s filming on their second feature Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

After more than a year of careful planning, writing and lengthy negotiations, the Pythons (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin) hoped to make a “really good comedy film” that could stand alone and wouldn’t rely on the success of their TV series.

In his diary, Michael Palin detailed the film’s progress from initial idea to finished product.

Monday, March 5th [1973]

A Python meeting at Terry’s. The first time since the third LP in September that we have all contributed to a creative enterprise—in this case the second Python film. It was in many ways like a typical Python working day. Graham arrived late, and Terry made the coffee—and there was the usual indecision over whether to have a small lunch in, or a blow-out at one of Camberwell’s few restaurants…

But for me, the most heartening thing of all was the quality and quantity of the writing that Python has done over the last week… Today we proved that Python can still be as fresh as three years ago, and more prolific.

The team were also working on a stage show, a new book, another TV series (this time without Cleese) and their own projects. In amongst all this, each Python had to find time to work on the film script.

Tuesday, November 27th [1973]

Worked at Terry [Jones’] in the morning. A very poor session. We both wrote 75% tripe, and seemed unable to summon up excitement or concentration about the film. The most I could manage was a sketch about Galahad having smelly breath.


Tuesday, January 15th, London [1974]

Python meeting at T. Gilliam’s… There was some fairly bitter debate over timing of the film and rewriting. In the end, after the personal differences had been aired, we got down to some fast and efficient business, dates were agreed and there was a very useful hour’s discussion of the film. An idea I had for the gradual and increasing involvement of the present day in this otherwise historical film was adopted as a new and better way of ending it…

With the script finished, casting and locations chosen, the filming was scheduled to commence in the spring with Terry Jones and Terry Gilliam co-directing.

Tuesday, April 30th, Ballachulish

First day of filming. Woken at 6.45. Sunshine streaming through the curtains. Into chainmail and red-cross tabard. A difficult day today—the Bridge of Death scene where Eric and I die and Lancelot is arrested by the police…

Camera broke midway through first shot.

The day is hastily rearranged and, from having been busy, but organised, it is now busy and disorganised… Graham as King Arthur got vertigo and couldn’t go across the bridge. He spent the day unhappily cold and shaking. Eric and I and John sat around listening to stories from the Mountain Rescue boys about how many people perish on these spectacular mountains each year. Five or six deaths usually.

Terry J comes up to me in the afternoon and says he’s ‘a bit worried about Terry G’s priorities in choice of shots’—we run two and a quarter hours overtime, until nearly 8.00. Everyone in the young unit seems happy enough.


Wednesday, May 1st, Ballachulish

Lunch with Mark [Forstater, producer], Eric and John, who is trying to read a book of philosophy and is constantly rather cross—but quite fun. He continually goes on about the ‘bovine incompetence’ of the waitresses—who are no Einsteins, but good-hearted Scottish mums.


Thursday, May 2nd, Ballachulish

Eric and I have another lazy day at the rest home for officers, while Graham and Terry are finding the Castle Aaargh! We go to the location about 2.00, and they still haven’t had a lunch break.

Graham is getting shit poured all over him. He’s taking a great deal of punishment in these first few days of filming.

Friday, May 3rd, Killin

A slow day’s filming, it seems. Rather a lot of worried faces when we run into overtime again…

Julian [Doyle] took me aside after filming today as we walked down the hillside and said he was worried that the way things were being shot this week was putting a big strain on the budget (almost the entire £1,000 allowed for overtime was spent in this first week) and there would have to be some compromises by the Terrys somewhere along the line.


Saturday, May 4th, Killin

A good day’s filming at last. Even John and Eric aren’t grumbling, even tho’ we go into overtime again.

Monday, May 6th, Killin

John and I talked about life. I sympathise quite a lot with his urge to be free of the obligations and responsibilities of the Python group—but I feel that John is still tense and unrelaxed with people, which compounds his problems. He has more defences than Fort Knox.


Tuesday, May 7th

Today we shoot the Camelot musical sequence. A long and busy day for 50 seconds’ worth of film…

We pass the afternoon with a game of football. Despite the chainmail, some quite good moves.


Thursday, May 9th

Amazing how much eating one does on filming. If you get up at 7.15 it is nice to have a cup of coffee at least before going to over to the Doune Rural Hall (headquarters of the WI [Women’s Institute]) and, with a full breakfast menu available, I am quite often tempted to a kipper or even a piece of toast. Then, at 10.30 on set, there is more coffee and soft, delicious bap rolls with sausages and scrambled egg. Ron Hellard supplies a gargantuan lunch with much pastry and potato, which is also hard to resist. At around 4.00 tea/coffee and cakes (v. good home-made currant buns) and, after a drink back at the hall at the end of the day, and a look at the rushes (shown extraordinarily enough, in the Silver Chalice Bar!), there is a four-course set meal at the hotel. Consumption is about double what one eats at home.

Saturday, May 11th

John is doing the Taunter on some artificial battlements at the back of the castle. He’s getting very irritated by TG’s direction of his acting. TG tends to communicate by instinct, gesture and feeling, whereas John prefers precise verbal instructions. So TJ has to take over and soothe John down.

Monday, May 13th

The day of the Mud-Eater. Clad in rags, crawling through filthy mud repeatedly and doggedly, in a scene which makes the flagellation scene from Seventh Seal look like Breakfast at Tiffany’s.


Friday, May 24th

...filming is an appalling process for reducing an actor to the role of machine.

In the Knights of Ni, for instance, I was to do close-ups first. directly in front of me are a group of anoraked people squatting down, far more preoccupied with their equipment than me. Someone reads the lines off in a flat voice, which gives you little encouragement. An eyeline keeps you looking at no one at all. Two huge white polystyrene reflectors enclose me on either side—it feels like acting in a sandwich.

Wednesday, May 29th

John, dressed as a magician, spent much of the morning on the narrow top of an extremely impressive pinnacle of slate, across the quarry from us.

Twice the cameras turned. Twice John, towering above the green and pleasant vistas of the Trossachs, gave the signal to summon forth mighty explosions. Twice the explosions failed, and John was left on this striking but lonely pinnacle. He kept in good form, reciting his old cabaret monologues across the quarry, but it was a hard start to the day for him—and he was cold and subdued by the time he came back.

Friday, May 31st

The long and wordy Constitutional Peasants scene. Feel heavy dull and uninspired—wanting above all else for it to be the end of the day…

Terry Bedford [camera] is angry because Mark [Forstater, producer] has been trying to economise by buying old film-stock. Some of the film which has arrived today is six years old. Terry will not use it—in fact he threw a can into a nearby moorland stream—so we have 1,000 feet on which to do this entire scene…

I’m almost too tired to enjoy fully the elation at the end of the day, when the filming, or my part of it anyway, is finally completed. Want to jump up and down, but can’t. So I just stand there looking out over the Scottish hills, all grey and dusky as evening falls, and feel wonderfully free.

Extracted from Michael Palin’s Diaries: 1969-1979 The Python Years.
Monty Python and the Holy Grail was released in April 1975 and proved incredibly successful, hailed as one of the greatest comedies ever made, making millions in profit, and spawning Eric Idle’s multi-award-winning musical Monty Python’s Spamalot.

H/T Vintage Everyday

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’-themed killer rabbit slippers


Tim: Well, that’s no ordinary rabbit.
King Arthur: Ohh.
Tim: That’s the most foul, cruel, and bad-tempered rodent you ever set eyes on!

If I bought these Monty Python and the Holy Grail rabbit slippers, they’d probably just end up being extra expensive Monty Python dog toys. My dogs are like that. Assholes.

The Killer Rabbit of Caerbannog slippers are available through Firebox for $40.89.

Update: Some less expensive ones can be found here.

Via Laughing Squid

Posted by Tara McGinley | Leave a comment
Monty Python to reunite for new stage show!
07:11 am

Pop Culture

Monty Python

And now for something completely… wonderful?

After The Sun broke the story about 12 hours ago, it was confirmed by Terry Jones to the BBC that comedy group Monty Python’s Flying Circus are to officially reform in some capacity for a stage show and a rumored film/TV deal. There’s going to be a press conference on Thursday, according to Eric Idle’s Twitter feed.

Jones told the BBC:

“We’re getting together and putting on a show - it’s real. I’m quite excited about it. I hope it makes us a lot of money. I hope to be able to pay off my mortgage!”

Graham Chapman died in 1989. The last time that surviving members John Cleese, 74, Terry Gilliam, 72, Terry Jones, 71, Eric Idle, 70, and Michael Palin, 70, have all been seen in the same stage was an appearance in 1998 at The Aspen Comedy Festival.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail’ minus the jokes, a ‘modern’ trailer
12:45 pm


Monty Python

I normally turn my nose up at these re-imagined trailers of comedy films turned into serious, action-packed funsies. But this one actually works.

I’ll be honest, I-I kept waiting for the funny parts!

Via reddit

Posted by Tara McGinley | Leave a comment
(Amazing) Monty Python rarity: ‘The Great Birds Eye Peas Relaunch of 1971’
11:19 am


Monty Python

Above, Eric Idle, looking like a member of the Cockettes (deliberately?) as “The Comparatively Good Fairy”

One of the least-known Monty Python rarities is “The Great Birds Eye Peas Relaunch of 1971,” a short advertising film that was made for the Birds Eye company’s internal use and then apparently locked away from the public eye (and probably the Python’s, too) until it magically appeared on YouTube.

It’s difficult to imagine what the Bird’s Eye brass would have made of the film back then, but the salespeople would have been delighted, I’m sure. It’s Glengarry Glen Ross meets Salvador Dali, minus all the swearing and macho angst.

“I like all my peas on the plate to be the same size.”


“Sheer stupidity.”

This is the most complete version of “the story they said was too uninteresting to be made” that’s out there.


Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Pre-Rutles: ‘I Want To Hold Your Handel’

On Friday, Eric Idle posted a photo on Twitter of what he thinks is “possibly from a very obscure ITV one off show c 1965 featuring some of the Footlights” singing a pre-Rutles Beatles parody, “I Want To Hold Your Handel.”

Music arranger John Cameron, who later worked with Donovan and producer Mickie Most at RAK Records, started out at Cambridge University with Idle. During Idle’s time as president of the Cambridge Footlights Revue, Cameron was vice president and musical director.

Cameron described “I Want To Hold Your Handel” in the liner notes to the reissue of Donovan’s Sunshine Superman:

“[Eric Idle] and I wrote a lot of pastiches of Beatles tunes… we actually wrote a thing called ‘I Want to Hold Your Handel,’ which was the Hallelujah Chorus for The Beatles. Unfortunately Messrs. Lennon and McCartney weren’t very happy about their songs being pastiched in this way and wouldn’t allow us to do it on English territory, which was a drag, but it did go on to Broadway. Eric and I used to receive royalty cheques at the Footlights in our third year at university, which put us in a rather different spending league to anybody else!”

Idle’s penchant for affectionately spoofing the Beatles developed into The Rutles on his post-Python series Rutland Weekend Television with Neil Innes, Ricky Fataar, John Halsey, Ollie Halsall, and David Battley.

The Birth of ‘The Rutles’ on Rutland Weekend Television, below:

Posted by Kimberly J. Bright | Leave a comment
Neil Innes, the ‘seventh Python’: How Sweet To Be An Idiot
11:33 am


Monty Python
Neil Innes
Eric Idle
The Rutles

I’ve been listening to the music of Neil Innes a lot this week as I’ve been writing and as always, enjoying his work immensely. It’s a feast. Truly he is one of the best pop songwriters we have, a chameleon of musical styles from the earliest stages of his career. Tin Pan Alley, vaudeville, psychedelic rock, Beatles pastiches, even reggae, there’s nothing he can’t do. As Innes gets older, his genre hopping songwriting gets even better, something that can’t be said of all—or even many—of his Sixties contemporaries. Sadly, although he is undeniably a musician’s musician, Innes will probably never be recognized as such. Why? Because he’s funny, too.

Since I was a wee lad I’ve been been a fanatical fan of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, the wonderfully zany group of Dada art school rejects featuring Innes and “ginger geezer” front man Vivian Stanshall. I discovered them listening to the Dr. Demento radio show when he played their cover of “Hunting Tigers Out in ‘Indiah’” (I heard Noel Coward and The Mothers of Invention for the first time during that same show, three life-long obsessions launched that fateful evening). I ran right out and spent my birthday money on The History of the Bonzos, a two LP set with a glossy booklet filled with insane photographs and a history of the group. I loved every single song on it. Still do.

The Bonzos were much beloved of all the really heavy rock groups of the Sixties and they opened for The Who, Led Zeppelin and The Kinks. Eric Clapton was a huge fan. Paul McCartney produced their only hit, “I’m The Urban Spaceman” (under the name “Apollo C. Vermouth”) and they made a guest appearance in the Beatles’ TV special Magical Mystery Tour as the band in the strip joint playing “Death Cab for Cutie” (and yes, this is where the band got their name). If you’ve never heard their seminal albums Gorilla, The Doughnut in Granny’s Greenhouse, Tadpoles or Keynsham (my favorite) you really don’t know as much about Sixties music as you think you do, it’s just that simple.

It’s like never hearing Captain Beefheart or The Velvet Underground and thinking you’re all clever, a glaring and unforgivable cultural blind spot, sez me.

I’ve gone out of my way for three decades now hunting down Bonzo Dog Band related bootlegs, especially video. There wasn’t a lot of it about until a few years ago when the DVD of Do Not Adjust Your Set was released. DNAYS was a hip Sixties tea-time kids show, beloved of children and parents (think Pee-wee’s Playhouse from an earlier era). It starred pre-Python Eric Idle, Terry Jones and Michael Palin (Terry Gilliam did animations for the show). The Bonzos were the primarly musical performers and members of the group appeared as extras in the comedy sketches. DNAYS was thought lost for many years when the ones that were released on DVD were re-discovered. Now there is a terrific amount of “new” Bonzo material for fans like me to feast on much that has been uploaded to YouTube.

After the breakup of the Bonzos, Neil Innes continued his association with his former DNAYS co-stars by appearing and writing material for the final 1974 series of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, the series after John Cleese left (only Innes and Douglas Adams were ever given writing credits outside of the six Pythons during the show’s history). Innes appears in Monty Python and the Holy Grail as the annoying minstrel and singing his memorable Dylan parody, “Protest Song” (“I’ve suffered for my music and now it’s your turn…”) in Monty Python Live at the Hollywood Bowl. Post-Python, Innes and Eric Idle created the wonderful Rutland Weekend Television series (think Brit version of SCTV) and Innes went on—solo, I think he and Idle had a falling out—to The Innes Book of Records, a musically-oriented comedy series., quite ahead of its time.

And of course there were The Rutles in All You Need is Cash, Idle and Innes’ adroit parody of the Beatles. Innes went on to a number of children’s shows in the 1980s and 90s such as Puddle Lane. He tours solo and with others and has reformed The Bonzo Dog Band for a reunion concert (with luminaries like Britwits Stephen Fry and Paul Merton filling in for the late Vivian Stanshall). A film was made about Innes’ life and career (and featuring many of his famous friends) in 2008 called The Seventh Python, which has never been released on DVD.

Neil Innes Official Website. Follow Neil Innes on Twitter

Previously on Dangerous Minds
The Bonzo Dog Band: Rare and Complete version of ‘The Adventures of the Son of Exploding Sausage’

GRIMMS: The most incredible 70’s Supergroup, you’ve probably never heard of

The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band: Debut appearance on classic kid’s show ‘Blue Peter’ in 1966

‘High School Hermit’: Another Delightful Moment in TV History from The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band

Bonus Clip: George Harrison performing “The Pirate Song” on Rutland Weekend Television in 1975.

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Terry Gilliam’s darkly humorous animated Christmas cards

An inspired bit of Christmas fun from Terry Gilliam. This originally aired in 1968 on the British TV show for kids, Do Not Adjust Your Set.

Gilliam was asked to prepare something for a special show to be broadcast on Christmas day, 1968, called Do Not Adjust Your Stocking. Looking for inspiration, he decided to visit the Tate Gallery. In The Pythons: Autobiography by the Pythons, Gilliam remembered the project and how it figured into his emerging artistic style:

“I went down to the Tate and they’ve got a huge collection of Victorian Christmas cards so I went through the collection and photocopied things and started moving them around. So the style just developed out of that rather than any planning being involved. I never analysed the stuff, I just did it the quickest, easiest way. And I could use images I really loved.”

Ho, ho, ho.

Via Open Culture

Posted by Marc Campbell | Leave a comment
Neil Innes: ‘Urban Spaceman’ revisited

Neil Innes performs two of the quickest versions of his hit song “Urban Spaceman”.

The first is accompanied by “Testing” and is taken from Late Night Line-Up - a kind of late night BBC arts show that kicked-off in the 1960s and was revived in the 1980s. The second is from the brilliant series Rutland Weekend Television, which spawned The Rutles.

Innes is a favorite at DM, for his brilliant musical talents and his incredible back catalog as Bonzo, Python, Rutle and Book of Records. Like the dear olde Ginger Geezer, he is one of the few artists I return to with an obsessional passion. Indeed, m’colleague Richard and I have had phases when we’ve played nothing but the Bonzos for weeks on end.

My earliest memory of “Urban Spaceman” is looped to clips of playing space walks and moon landings with my brother on summer-lit lawns, at my grandparents’ house. Of wearing cardboard space helmets given away free with tasty fruit pastilles called Jelly Tots, and watching the Bonzos on Do Not Adjust Your Set. It was also the first time I learned the lyrics to a song, and became fascinated with its meaning. Who was this “Urban Spaceman”? And why didn’t he exist?

Later, in the 1970s, Innes starred, wrote and performed 3 series of The Innes Book of Records, one TV’s truly brilliant and original shows. Sadly, the BBC has been loathe to rescreen or even release this classic piece of musical culture since. But thankfully there is a petition up-and-running to get the Beeb to pull its finger out and do something useful about it ASAP. So, if like me, you want to see Neil Innes’ genius show, then please click here and sign the petition. Thank you!

More from the fabulous Neil plus bonus clip of when a Bonzo met The Beatles, after the jump…
With thanks to NellyM

Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
Monty Python and the amazing space age slenderizer
12:30 pm


Monty Python
Trim Jeans

I’m gonna look for a pair of Trim-Jeans, the “amazing space age slenderizer,” on eBay. Man, could I use a pair. Losing nine inches on my waist in three days? I could start wearing skinny black jeans again.

Posted by Marc Campbell | Leave a comment
Monty Python bloopers and outtakes
09:50 am


Monty Python

This is gold, pure gold, for Python fanatics. You might even say it’s a bit of a holy grail.

I wonder where this came from? Is there more?
Watch the video after the jump…
Thank you, Brian Kish!

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment
Monty Python’s letter to the haters for ‘Life of Brian,’ 1979
10:44 am


Monty Python
Life of Brian

Monty Python’s letter—apparently thousands of these were sent out—to judgemental people who had never even seen The Life of Brian but who found it blasphemous nevertheless: 
Dear __________

Thank you for your letter regarding the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Whilst we understand your concern, we would like to correct some misconceptions you may have about the film which may be due to the fact that you have not had the chance to see it before forming your views. The film is set in Biblical times, but it is not about Jesus. It is a comedy, but we would like to think that it does have serious attitudes and certain things to say about human nature. It does not ridicule Christ, nor does it show Christ in any way that could offend anyone, nor is belief in God or Christ a subject dealt with in the film.

We are aware that certain organizations have been circulating misinformation on these points and are sorry that you have been misled. We hope you will go see the film yourself and come to your own conclusions about its virtues and defects. In any case, we hope you find it funny.

Best wishes,

Monty Python

Via Nerdcore via Letters of Note

Posted by Tara McGinley | Leave a comment
Finding Hidden Unity: An interview with Dr. Jacob Bronowski from 1974

I can still recall watching The Ascent of Man when it was first broadcast on TV. It was a startling experience, like taking a dive into the cold waters of a loch in November. Its presenter the scientist and mathematician, Dr. Jacob Bronowski may have been “4’ 11” in height” but he was “10’ 5” in presence.” He was astonishing on screen. Likable, super intelligent and filled with a life-loving humanity that inspired. He seemed, as a Monty Python sketch later claimed, to know “everything”.

The series had been intended as a counterpoint to Kenneth Clark‘s landmark series Civilisation, which had appeared on the BBC at the end of the 1960s. There was then still the idea that science and art were 2 different cultures, an idea which had been promoted by scientist turned novelist C. P. Snow in 1959, when he claimed in a lecture, The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, that the intellectual life of “the whole of western society was split into two cultures” of Science and the Humanities.

Snow said the British educational system had put an emphasis on the Humanities (in particular the Classics) at the expense of Science. His lecture inspired a notorious rebuttal from F. R. Leavis, Two Cultures? The Significance of C. P. Snow, in which the famed academic dismissed Snow as a “public relations man for science” and destroyed his reputation as a novelist:

“Snow is, of course, a—no, I can’t say that; he isn’t: Snow thinks of himself as a novelist….his incapacity as a novelist is … total….as a novelist he doesn’t exist; he doesn’t begin to exist. He can’t be said to know what a novel is…..[Snow] is utterly without a glimmer of what creative literature is, or why it matters…..not only is he not a genius, he is intellectually as undistinguished as it is possible to be.”

Today this type of vitriol one might expect from Simon Cowell, but back then, in the dusty quadrangles of academe, it was unacceptable, and led to mailbox filled with letters from Outraged of Oxford, Cambridge and Mayfair. More damagingly, it led to an entrenchment of views between science and the arts.

In essence, the avuncular Snow believed science, or the culture of science, contained “a great deal of argument, usually much more rigorous, and almost always at a higher conceptual level, than the literary persons’ arguments.” He went on to say:

“If the scientists have the future in their bones, then the traditional culture responds by wishing the future did not exist.”

By “traditional culture” Snow meant writers, artists, those students of Humanities, and incredibly cited George Orwell’s novel 1984 as an example of someone who did not want the future to exist. 

Snow claimed that science offered optimism, while let’s call them the Arts were just plain old pessimistic. he also thought writers were suspect (obviously excluding himself here), and science was the only means through which society and the quality of existence would become better. Admirable stuff. But as Leavis was to point out, while science had indeed made the quality of life better, but it only told us how to do something once the decision had been made to do it. Science could not offer the process through which humans came to the moral / philosophical decision to do something.

This debate continued during my school years, where a lack of interest in Maths or Science, or a preference for English and Art, was considered a failing. It was therefore inspiring to watch Bronowski’s Ascent of Man, who showed this separation to not only be false but irrelevant.

“For me science is an expression of the human mind, which seeks for unity under the chaos of nature as the writer seeks for it in the variety of human nature.

Or, as he explained in this interview with James Day for his series Day at Night, recorded in April 9, 1974, just 4 months before Bronowski’s death.

Where does fact end and where does imagination begin? Well, in a sense fact is what the world faces us with, and it is chaotic. We are surrounded in nature by a multitude of phenomena, in which, if order exists it certainly does not display itself.

It is when human beings enter into that, that they ask themselves where is the trail of this chaos?

The trail is called science, if we are talking about inanimate nature.

But, if we are talking about animate nature, about living things and their personal relationships, that trail is called literature or drama or cinema.

In each case, what I the scientist , you the reader, get out of the film or the book, is a series of landmarks which say ‘Follow these steps and you’ll see that there is a hidden unity’, what I call a trail, in the variety of nature. Now, finding that requires imagination, that’s not displayed for you in the open book of nature or in the hidden book of human mood.

In 1945, Bronowski visited Japan and saw at first hand the devastation caused by the detonation of an atomic bomb over the city. It affected Bronowski deeply, and he quit his involvement with mathematics to focus on writing a book on the life and poetry of William Blake. As he wrote the book and contemplated his experiences of the war, it was became clear to Bronowski, long before Snow or Leavis fired their broadsides, that the human imagination is not passive - it is what unites Science and Art - and the pursuits of which were “characteristic of the identity of the human species.”


Posted by Paul Gallagher | Leave a comment
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