- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 25, 2006

CREATORS: FROM CHAUCER AND DURER TO PICASSO AND DISNEY

By Paul Johnson

HarperCollins $25.95, 320 pages

REVIEWED BY JAMES SRODES

“Creators” is the second installment of a planned trilogy that follows British polymath Paul Johnson’s 1988 bestseller “Intellectuals.” In this volume he examines what distinguishes those individuals gifted with the capacity to engender the new visions in art, architecture, fashion, and science that mark what we see as the progress of the ages. The third book will do the same for those we call “Heroes.”

For those who read Mr. Johnson’s weekly column And Another Thing in London’s The Spectator magazine or his commentary over here each month in Forbes, Mr. Johnson needs no introduction as the boss polemicist of our time. For anyone else, it is enough that for nearly 50 years he has been an unrivaled delineator of an astonishing parade of humankind — its races and religions, its cultures and caprices, its faltering and frustrations.

The span of incidental insights he includes in his analysis is breathtaking and if his tone is often sharply mordant to the point of appearing unforgiving, the facts he marshals are nuggets of convincing context. Part of Johnson’s problem, if there is one, lies with us; we are not used to so much substance from our thinkers.

This book is a far pleasanter read than “Intellectuals,” whom he defines as “someone who thinks ideas are more important than people.” For Mr. Johnson, Roman Catholic from birth and educated by Jesuits, it might be more accurate to say he derides secular thinkers whose social nostrums seek to supplant the traditional guideposts of morality and faith. He attacks the pretensions of Rousseau, Shelley, Marx, Hemingway, and Bertrand Russell. If you despise Lillian Hellman and Norman Mailer, or find James Baldwin annoying, then begin your journey with “Intellectuals” perhaps buying a used copy on line.

Mr. Johnson is more generous and expansive in his definition of creativity. He concedes that the most humble activity from farming to street sweeping can be creative if the doer intends it to be. But the common thread that links the individuals he profiles in “Creators” is their courage to seek new ways of expression or thought, often in the face of daunting adversity or dangerous opposition.

Fittingly, Mr. Johnson’s first profile is of Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1342-1400), who began to write in English at a time when the ruling class of his country spoke French and wrote in Latin. More importantly than the language of his stories, Chaucer celebrated both people high and low and their doings, high and low as well, and thereby set a standard that most great writers have had to follow in the centuries that followed.

In profiling Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), the German engraver and watercolorist, Mr. Johnson sounds some themes that continue through his other sketches. One, Durer pointed to his talent at an astonishingly young age; drawing when he was a child, doing self portraits when he was 13.

Another theme, Durer’s output was heroic — 346 woodcuts, 105 engravings, scores of massive portraits, altar pieces, and 970 drawings that survive today out of thousands done by his own hand.

A third repeated theme is how some change in circumstances, politics or technology, enabled these geniuses to chart their new directions and discoveries. In Chaucer’s England the Hundred Years War cut the island kingdom off from its French language roots. In Durer’s case, the advent of the printing press made mass production of his output widespread enough to make him famous during his own time.

And so it went. The spread of English literacy and the popularity of the theater gave Shakespeare a vocabulary three times that at Chaucer’s disposal. What would Johann Sebastian Bach accomplished without the revolutionary technical advances built into the great cathedral organs of the early 1700s?

Sometimes a creative genius moves ahead of the advances of the times. Jane Austen and her sister writers fought the constraints imposed on women of her day by the public at large and often families at home against literary women. William Turner and his Japanese contemporary Hokusai Katsushika created the unique visions of modern landscape paintings for their cultures well in advance of what their artistic establishments were willing to accept.

Not all of these creators were especially endearing or even pleasant people. Mr. Johnson gives some pointed jabs at Richard Wagner and Victor Hugo for their pomp and posturing.

But Mr. Johnson is at his best in the last chapter when he considers the creative component of such scientific explorers as physicist Michael Faraday or organic chemist

Robert Burns Woodward. Speaking of the amount of imagination needed, he quotes Albert Einstein, “A scientist tells himself a story and then finds out by experiment whether it is true or not.” This is the common theme of all creativity—first the imagination, then the truth.

This is Paul Johnson at his best.

Washington journalist James Srodes wrote regularly for The Sunday Telegraph and The Spectator from 1973 through 1996.

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