Sketches of Artistic Creators
DO you find archaeology specials on cable TV oddly compelling? Have you ever considered taking night classes in Aramaic? Are you instantly attracted by the following sentence? "As we shall see, this inheritance might not have become ours had Justinian never married the bewitching demimondaine, Theodora, one of three daughters of a bear keeper in the Hippodrome in Constantinople."
If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then Daniel Boorstin's magisterial new tome "The Creators" is likely to seem a great gift. For once again Boorstin, the prolific historian and former librarian of Congress, has delivered a compendium that proves one of life's consolations is the accumulation of a vast fund of general information whose daily utility is not readily apparent.
You may have known, for instance, that Cervantes and Shakespeare died on the same day. But I'll bet very few people recall Stravinsky's words on being asked to compose a ballet for circus elephants: "If they are very young, I'll do it." (Ringling Brothers performed that ballet 425 times, in case you're interested, but the trainers said their elephants were dignified animals who preferred to waltz.)
Goethe, as a boy, built an altar to nature in his bedroom topped by a flame lit through a magnifying glass by the rays of the rising sun. Peter Roget, best known for "Roget's Thesaurus," discovered the principles of vision underlying motion pictures. The Roman emperor Commodus took eight baths a day.
Boorstin's previous big book, "The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself," (1985) was about the pursuit of scientific and geographical knowledge. "The Creators" is about the arts, its subtitle "A History of Heroes of the Imagination." Where the history of science is easily written in chronological order, dealing with the arts is admittedly more difficult. It is "a story of infinite addition," writes Boorstin. "We must find order in the random flexings of the imagination."
Boorstin imposes stylistic order on his massive chosen subject by using pithy biographies of crucial writers, architects, painters, and other artists to illustrate thematic points. And it is in these sketches, which bring vividly to life figures half-remembered from school survey classes, that his easy prose works best.
Here is the aforementioned Justinian I, Byzantine emperor between AD 527 and 567, born Petrus Sabbatius to a poor peasant family in what used to be Yugoslavia. He became head of the Eastern Empire through hard work and family connections, produced a codified legal code, and then erected one of the great buildings of the world - the Great Church, or Hagia Sophia in Greek.
Of course, he also massacred 30,000 rebels when a mob gathered at the Hippodrome to protest his policies, but he didn't really want to. He would rather have fled - "the iron-willed Theodora persuaded him to stay and turn his general Belisarius on the mob," writes Boorstin.
Here is Edward Gibbon, a pioneering humanist historian, whose classic work on the Roman Empire was produced when Britain was itself in the midst of losing its empire in America. A wealthy Englishman educated briefly at Oxford and with more effect by a Calvinist minister in Lausanne, Switzerland, Gibbon cleaves to his great subject during a visit to ruins in Rome on Oct. 15, 1764, and thereafter works decades with an amateur's enthusiasm for the true detail, not the learned abstraction.
"That the greatest of modern historians had no `philosophy of history' was a secret of his greatness," writes Boorstin.
Here also are Verdi and Wagner, the competing geniuses of opera, the one from the Italian peninsula and immersed in warm peasant culture, the other born in Leipzig, Germany, and rigorous in his application of northern European "folkloric mystery." Perhaps inevitably, the creator of Aida and the composer of the Ring cycle had little use for each other. Verdi at least respected Wagner's music. Wagner, in turn, labeled Verdi's work "nights of carnage."
It would be wrong to think the dozens of such sketches in this book aren't hung together on a recognizable frame. Boorstin is nothing if not organized (he prepares outlines for interviews as if readying for a lecture), and "The Creators" postulates that the history of creation has been the history of man looking ever more closely inward at himself.
It begins with the founding of the world's great religions and their view of creativity - concluding that Christianity's emphasis on a single creation and Creator made it the progenitor of the idea that humans could themselves create.
It then follows man's artistic path through the ages, which Boorstin presents as an ever-increasing awareness of human potential, interaction with nature, and self. In concrete terms this takes the reader from the religious symbolism of Stonehenge to the worlds within of Marcel Proust and James Joyce. Joyce's famously obscure "Finnegans Wake" is the "ne plus ultra of the literature of the self," writes Boorstin, so inner directed that perhaps "the book is something only the author (and he only partially)
"The Creators" is not a multicultural book, as it includes little on Asian or African art. At times the book is so sweeping and learned it almost seems snappy self-parody. But it also seems a counterpart of Trajan's Column, the intricate erection of carved marble that commemorated Trajan's victory over the Dacians and for the time was a vast collection of historical record, "in scrupulous and elegant detail," according to Boorstin.
Of course, Boorstin's book is easily accessible. Trajan's Column was largely invisible to contemporaries, because they couldn't see most of the carved figures after it was erected.
"Trajan's Column was History for History's sake," says Boorstin. Now, that's creation.