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March 28, 2008

To read Creation is to have a glimpse into the richness and confusion of Peter Conrad's mind, argues David Womersley: Creation: Artists, Gods and Origins - Peter Conrad

Posted by David Womersley

Creation: Artists, Gods and Origins
by Peter Conrad
London: Thames and Hudson, 2007
Hardback, £24.95

Peter Conrad describes his dazzling, bewildering new book as:

an attempt to understand a word, to explore the contradictory ideas it contains, and to trace its splintered history.
Immediately exciting as a prospect, of course; but, as one realises only a second or two later, also immediately problematic.

"A word"? But as well as English, Conrad's scope includes French literature, nineteenth-century German music, Latin and Greek literature and myth, Italian and Nordic painting, modern American art and music. We must surely be dealing with several words here, and also with words which may look identical to other words and yet bear importantly different meanings. Creation is a very exciting book, and some of the excitement it generates is the result of recklessness.

The problems inherent in what Conrad sets out to do in this book - problems of comparability across cultures and over centuries – are largely concealed from sight by, in a version of the well-known strategy of children's games, being placed in full view.

Each of the book's chapters is really just a folder for a series of fragments or details, loosely-grouped under a common theme (though many other arrangements would have been possible, and certain texts - notably Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and The Last Man - make several appearances).

So, for instance, chapter eight entitled "The Great Work" and addressing itself to alchemical creativity includes references to or discussions of Pico della Mirandola, Pliny, Luther, Joannis de Padua, Jacob Boehme, Vasari, Cornelius Agrippa, Jung, Donne, Michelangelo, Hieronymus Bosch, Ernst Gombrich, Thomas Burnet, Ben Jonson, Shakespeare, Joseph Wright of Derby, Pepys, George Méliès, Charlie Chaplin, Goethe, John Evelyn, Samuel Pepys, Browning, Carlyle, Wagner, Mallarmé, Strindberg, Delius, Valery Bryusov, Prokofiev, Borges, Blake, Wordsworth, and Gertrude Stein.

A rich mixture, certainly; but also perhaps a case of indigestion. All these figures, so diverse in background and belief, mingle in Conrad's mind and prose on a footing of complete equality; any of them, it seems, is equally available to be put into dialogue with any other. This airy annihilation of time and space reveals the peculiar nature of what Conrad is doing in Creation.

Most writers compose a book in order to report on or make discoveries about something which exists outside them. Creation, however, seems to have been written to allow Peter Conrad to collect into a single view the astonishing array of responses which have been provoked in him by an equally astonishing array of works of art, whether literary, musical or visual. There is an egotistical sublime at work here, just as there is in Wordsworth. If you want to have an idea of the richness and confusion of being Peter Conrad, then read this book.

At one point Conrad quotes approvingly Oscar Wilde's elevation of the superficial into the principle of art:

Though the body was worshipped - all the more fervently if it was one's own, or that of a homosexual double - this new mode of devotion refused to look beneath the skin for a soul. Wilde considered that "the transcendental spirit is alien to the spirit of art". He praised art that was impenetrably superficial or two-dimensional: Damascene tiles, Persian rugs, Chinese vases.
Here one can see part of Conrad's purpose in Creation, which he styles a "celebration of art that doubles as a critique of religion". But it is also a declaration of allegiance.

Conrad is himself a follower of Wilde in his devotion to the superficial, and to call Creation an indeflectibly superficial book is not to pass comment on its intellectual quality (there are some truly fine pages here, especially on nineteenth-century French literature and modern music), but rather to identify the focus of its concentration. Conrad's is not by any means a shallow mind, but his attention is captured by surfaces, and he shows no inclination to try to get beneath surfaces and thereby improve impressions into knowledge.

The result is that Creation is an extraordinary bazaar of opinions, and the experience of reading it is not unlike that of eating a box of chocolates when you have lost the piece of paper telling you what each chocolate is.

Some of the most interesting and original pages in this long, opulent book concern Darwin, and not the least helpful way of thinking about Creation is to compare it with the celebrated image with which Darwin concluded The Origin of Species:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.
Creation is itself such an "entangled bank". Ideas and impressions tumble over one another in rich profuseness and profuse confusion, disordered, and in part arresting because of the startling juxtapositions which Conrad's disregard for order makes possible.

Creation combines in a quite remarkable way the highest sophistication of response to individual works of art and acuity of insight into their aesthetic individuality, with a chosen immaturity of judgement visible in Conrad's indeflectible resolution to remain on the surface of things, not to inquire too deeply, not to test and verify his insights as thoroughly as he could.

Conrad begins this book by recollecting the experiences of his Australian childhood, and it is an appropriate keynote for a study which is childlike in both good and bad senses: avid in its curiosity about art, brilliant and fresh in many of its perceptions, but also restless, easily distracted, a foe to thoroughness, craving the next stimulation and unable to refuse itself to novelty.

From this glittering heap of brilliant paragraphs, a more mature and powerful mind may one day select some of the materials for a truly great book on the history of the idea of creation in the West.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.

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