Angelic creatures inspired to genius


October 26, 2007

The first, involuntary response to this astounding book can only be to think of it as a mad professor's version of Not Many People Know That . Not many people know, say, that an 18th-century composer neither they nor I have heard of wrote a suite called Les Elémens that renders in sound Kepler's new theory of a heavenly harmony of straight lines; that Duke Ellington wrote, played and improvised a jazz oratorio describing the Creation; or that Salvador Dalí choreographed photographs featuring himself, naturally, along with 28 buckets of water and 84 cats being hurled across a room.

That one small head can provide three such examples of divine and human creativity on every one of Peter Conrad's 600 beautifully designed and illustrated pages fills all the rest of us with wonder, and even justifies the blurb's reckless claim for Conrad as "one of the great cultural critics of our time".

But, after all, his mighty topic is creation and the faculty of creativity it requires in order to be realised. Since Conrad quite rightly refuses the sterility of what Herbert Hart called "the definitional stop" so beloved of uncreative teachers ("Please define your terms"), what he must and does do is to show what he means ostensively, providing limitless- seeming instances of human efforts to mimic and surpass the creative accomplishments of their Great Originator, as well as to imagine metaphors for the Almighty's own prior efforts at creating absolutely everything.

This very broad conception of a narrative begins with the polymorphous gods of classicism and their assorted gestures of fond or malignant creativity. The colossal substance of this volume is, however, devoted largely to the innumerable sallies into the dramatisation of the creative act made by scientists, philosophers, composers, painters, sculptors, photographers, poets, novelists, film-makers, exhibitionists, pornomaniacs and bombers since the Renaissance, and even more concentratedly, since Romantic artists saw themselves as doing God's work for Him once He seemed to be in a state of evanescence.

In all this bewildering but genially controlled and stage-managed performance, Conrad sustains a posture of serene non-evaluation. For sure, our Dr Caligari's cabinet is crammed with pretty high art, except for a marked diminuendo in the loweringly uncreative films treated at the end - Independence Day , The Matrix and suchlike tripe. But the storyteller's recounting (and there's a lot of it) of such as the more revolting contes of the Marquis de Sade is as level and gracious as the credit Conrad does to Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy or his splendid exposition of Leonardo da Vinci's anatomical drawings (those of intercourse and genitalia, as it happens).

From time to time one is pleased and moved by a celebratory note resounding through the huge catalogue. The pages on Haydn's Creation , the paragraph on Berlioz's cantata to the railways (no, nor did I) and the quite magnificent description of how Turner dabbed, sprinkled, threw, smeared and plastered on his paint, bring out the best in the author, his love of the great old artists, his candid belief in the factuality of genius, whatever the primness of the wretched student here reported as saying: "I don't understand what it means to call him that. He was just a person."

Although there is, as I say, a sort of plot in the book, moving chronologically from the scientific-theoretic art of Michelangelo and Milton to the temperamental-expressionist art of Dickens and Wagner, it is damned hard to discern its progress. By the end, God is dead at Nietzsche's hand and, in an uncharacteristic clash of anachronistic symbols, the kitsch art of the apocalyptic movie and the hateful pointlessness of Mohammed Atta's piece of theatre are aligned as finale.

The march to this end delineates no clear path or argument. The book is not necessarily the worse for this. It is not a Wittgensteinian history of a concept, assembled in terms of its conflicting usages. Nonetheless, I could not detect any very masterful direction in the 32 topics addressed chapter by chapter. Why, say, should "protoplasts" (Faust wandering the heavens) be followed by "the God of Steam" (Balzac's awful The Wild Ass's Skin ). Sex as the new religion of creativity is announced, of course, by D. H. Lawrence, but heaven knows why Jacob Epstein's sculpture The Rock Drill follows on.

The inconsequentiality taxes one's stamina. In this multitudinous sea of words, more could have been made of the Word itself, its ways of world- making (T. S. Eliot doesn't get a word); more, too, of the exhilarating creativity of destructiveness. But it is right that amazement at what the man has made should be the state of mind in which you close this endlessly to-be-reopened book.

Fred Inglis's biography of R. G. Collingwood will be published by Princeton University Press in 2008.

Creation: Artists, Gods and Origins

Author - Peter Conrad
Publisher - Thames & Hudson
Pages - 592
Price - £24.95
ISBN - 9780500513569

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