Authors: Paul M. Johnson
From Chaucer and Dürer
to Picasso and Disney
PUBLISHED A BOOK
. It surveyed the genre and provided essays on a dozen examples. It was a critical book whose unifying theme was the discrepancy between the ideals professed by intellectuals and their actual behavior in their public and private lives. I defined an intellectual as someone who thinks ideas are more important than people. The book was well received and was translated into a score of languages. But some reviewers found it mean-spirited, concentrating on the darker side of clever, talented individuals. Why had I not more to say about the creative and heroic sides of the elite? Therein lies the genesis of this work,
, dealing with men and women of outstanding originality. If I live, I hope to complete the trilogy with
, a book about those who have enriched history by careers or acts of conspicuous courage and leadership.
Creativity, I believe, is inherent in all of us. We are the progeny of almighty God. God is defined in many ways: all-powerful, all-wise, and all-seeing; everlasting; the lawgiver; the ultimate source of love, beauty, justice, and happiness. Most of all, he is the creator. He created the universe, and those who inhabit it; and, in creating us, he made us in his own image, so that his personality and capacities, however feebly, are reflected in our minds, bodies, and immortal spirits. So we are, by our nature, creators as well. All of us can, and most of us do, create in one way or another. We are undoubtedly at our happiest when creating, however humbly and inconspicuously. I count myself doubly
fortunate in that God gave me the gift of writing, and the ability to draw and paint. I have made my living by words, and I have derived enormous pleasure throughout life by creating images on paper or canvas. Whenever misfortunes strike, or despondency descends, I can closet myself in my study, or walk across the garden to my studio, to seek relief in creation. The art of creation comes closer than any other activity, in my experience, to serving as a sovereign remedy for the ills of existence. I am fortunate again in that the spheres in which I work are universally acknowledged to be “creative,” and provide visible testimony to what I have done, in the shape of forty-odd books, countless magazine and newspaper articles, and tens of thousands of drawings, watercolors, and paintings. Other forms of creation are not always so obvious. A man or woman may create a business, one of the most satisfying forms of creation because it gives employment and the opportunity to create to other people as well—tens, even hundreds of thousands. And the business is there for all to see, in a huddle of buildings, possibly spread over many acres, or in products sold in the shops and used and enjoyed by multitudes. But some forms of creativity cannot be seen or heard or experienced. My former editor, Kingsley Martin, said to me once: “I have never had a child. But I have made three gardens from nothing. Two have disappeared, and the third will doubtless do so also after I die.” But all three once produced flowers and fruit and vegetables, and made many people happy. And indeed, nothing is so conspicuous and luxurious an act of creation as a fine garden—or so transitory, as witness the utter disappearances of the magnificent gardens of antiquity registered in written records.
Some forms of creativity, no less important, are immaterial as well as transient. One of the most important is to make people laugh. We live in a vale of tears, which begins with the crying of a babe and does not become any less doleful as we age. Humor, which lifts our spirits for a spell, is one of the most valuable of human solaces, and the gift of inciting it rare and inestimable. Whoever makes a new joke, which circulates, translates, globalizes itself, and lives on through generations, perhaps millennia, is a creative genius, and a benefactor of humankind almost without compare. But the name of the man or woman remains
unknown. I say “or woman” because women, whose lives are harder, need jokes more than men and make them more often. The first joke in recorded history (about 2750 BC) was made by a woman, Sarah, wife of Abraham, and the joke and her laughter are recorded in the book of Genesis, 18:12.15, Sarah being rebuked by the Lord for her frivolity. There was an old-fashioned stand-up comic called Frankie Howerd, whose art is imperfectly recorded in scraps of old movies and in video footage. I once found myself sitting near him at a tedious public dinner and said: “You have a creative face, Mr. Howerd.” “How so?” “One has only to look at it, and begin to laugh.” “You are flattering me.” “No, sir. You comics, who create laughter from what nature has given you, are among the most valuable people on earth. Statesmen may come, and generals may go, and both exercise enormous power. But the true benefactors of the human race are people like you, who enable us to drown our inevitable sorrows in laughter.” He was moved by this, and I suddenly noticed large tears coursing down his old cheeks, furrowed by decades of anxiety about raising chuckles (or, as he used to put it, “titters”) in drafty music halls. That creative face of his took on a new dimension of tragicomedy, and he wiped his tears and whispered: “That’s the nicest thing anyone has ever said to me.” Then he told me, and acted out, the notorious joke about the one-armed flutist, and the incident dissolved in laughter.
Since we are all made in God’s image, there is creativity in all of us, and the only problem is how to bring it out. A farmer is creative—none more so—and so is a shoemaker. A ticket collector on a red double-decker once remarked to me: “I run the best bus route in London.” His pride was proprietorial, and clearly he felt he was creating something, rather like Pascal, the moral philosopher, who in the mid-seventeenth century first conceived the idea of an omnibus service for big cities like Paris. I sometimes talk to a jovial sweeper, who does my street, and who comes from Isfahan, in Persia, wherein lies the grandest and most beautiful square in the world, the work of many architects and craftsmen over centuries, but chiefly of the sixteenth. I asked him if he felt himself creative, and he said: “Oh, yes. Each day they give me a dirty street, and I make it into a clean one, thanks be to God.”
People do not always discern the creative element in their lives and work. But those who do are more likely to be happy.
However, though all are potentially or actually creative, there are degrees in creativity, ranging from the instinct which makes a thrush build its nest, and which in humans is reflected in more complex but equally humble constructions, to the truly sublime, which drives artists to attempt huge and delicate works never before conceived, let alone carried out. How to define this level of creativity, or explain it? We cannot define it any more than we can define genius. But we can illustrate it. That is what this book attempts to do.
All creative individuals build on the works of their predecessors. No one creates in vacuo. All civilizations evolve from earlier societies. Speaking of the great centuries of Mycenaean culture, the Attic Greeks had a saying: “There was a Pylos before Pylos, and a Pylos before that.” We would like to know the name of the creative genius who first produced elaborate cavern paintings in north Spain, perhaps as early as 40,000 BC, becoming, as the evidence suggests, the first professional artist. But there is no evidence of individuals in this huge artistic movement. There is, however, some shadowy evidence of the existence of a man of (apparently) universal genius, who acted, as it were, as the man-midwife of ancient Egyptian civilization. Imhotep was a vizier or prime minister or chief servant of a succession of pharaohs in the Third Dynasty, beginning with Djoser, who reigned from 2630 to 2611 BC, and ending with Huni, half a century later. Imhotep’s activities were so multifarious, and covered so long a period, that one scholar has suggested that the name Imhotep is a conflation of two people, father and son, but there is no actual evidence for this surmise. Imhotep was, among other things, an architect, and he caused to be built the famous stepped pyramid at Saqqâra. This was the first large-scale pyramid that, by virtue of its internal engineering, remained stable (it survives to this day), escaping the fate of earlier large structures which collapsed in what the Greeks were later to call a
-. Imhotep’s pyramid was thus the precursor of the colossal pyramids created at Giza under the Fourth Dynasty. Equally important was the complex of buildings attached to the stepped pyramid. They are signed with
Imhotep’s name, and they confirm a tradition, which was preserved throughout the history of ancient Egypt and finally reached written form about 250 BC, that Imhotep was the first man to build in stone. And certainly his funerary complex is a formidable work of architecture, looking surprisingly modern, its pilasters beginning the long progression of forms which first culminated in classical Greek temple architecture from 700 to 400 BC, and which is with us still.
Imhotep’s name occurs in another group of works at Saqqâra, and it is clear that he was a creative artist of large accomplishments. But he was more than that. As chief priest and secular minister to Djoser, he lived at a time when Egyptian civilization, building on the work of the first two dynasties (and the predynastic rulers), achieved its characteristic forms, which then acquired permanence and canonical authority, and lasted for more than 2,000 years. This is most noticeable in the hieroglyphics, which emerged strongly under Pharaoh Menes, the great statesman who united Egypt about 2900 BC, but assumed their wonderful stylistic elegance under Djoser and his immediate successors. This too must have been the work of Imhotep, suggesting that he brought together, while chief executive of the kingdom, a group of leading craftsmen in all forms of art and workmanship and, through them, imposed a uniform way of creating. I know of no other case in history in which a single man played so determinant a part in the creation of a civilization, or rather of its outward and visible forms. He must have been a man of exquisite taste, as well as of inventive genius and powerful will. The Egyptians themselves recognized his uniqueness. By the late period (c. 750–332 BC), he had been deified, as a god of healing, among other things, and the first architect. Numerous bronze and stone statuettes of him survive, the latest being about AD 400, well over two millennia after his death, and he survives in the Greek pantheon too as a healing god, Asklēpios.
The fact that Imhotep’s reputation as a genius survived so long, and that he was worshipped (on the island of Philae, for instance) as a great creative artist and man of science, almost into the dark ages, when Athens and Rome themselves were in precipitous decline, shows that creativity is sometimes handsomely rewarded by successive generations benefiting from it.
We build pantheons and mausoleums, we create academies of “immortals” (as in Richelieu’s Paris), we adorn a Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey, preserve an Arlington Cemetery or an Escorial or an Invalides or a Valhalla overlooking the Rhine. In such hallowed places repose the mortal remains of honored individuals, including creators. Some creators reap astounding financial rewards, too. Luca Giordano, an accomplished seventeenth-century artist with a large practice but skills and invention essentially of the second rank, left the immense sum of over 300,000 gold ducats to his heir. Picasso (as we shall see) was commercially the most successful artist who ever lived, and when he died in 1973, his estate in France (deliberately underestimated for tax purposes) was worth $280 million. We make other acknowledgments, too, these days, awarding Nobel prizes, honorary degrees, and the like. But Nobel awards often emit the unmistakable whiff of politics, other prizes often seem futile—France now has more than 4,000 literary prizes but precious little in the way of literature—and honorary degrees are a kind of recondite joke among the cognoscenti, though alas not up to the standard of Frankie Howerd’s face in raising a laugh. In contemplating worldly success, I often think of the stately, seriocomic figure of Roy Jenkins, a British politician of the third quarter of the twentieth century, who collected baubles, such as peerages and honorific posts (he was chancellor of Oxford University) with immense enthusiasm and diplomatic skill. He was a hard worker who, on the verge of his eighties, wrote two large-scale biographies, of Gladstone and Churchill, which became best sellers, though his work in general shows no evidence of great creative power. Nonetheless, he collected more honorary degrees than any other man in history, exceeding Einstein’s total by a considerable margin. Lord Jenkins once told me, with some satisfaction: “I believe—in fact I am certain—that I am the only one who has done the double-double.” On inquiring, I found that this meant he had received honorary degrees from both Yale and Harvard, and Oxford and Cambridge. I do not know what he did with this immense collection of parchment scrolls. My philosopher friend A. J. (“Freddie”) Ayer, also much honored, used his scrolls to paper the downstairs lobby of his London house. In
general, those who covet and obtain worldly honors do not cut impressive figures. One of the most curious sights of Oslo in the 1890s was Henrik Ibsen, walking to a public dinner, wearing his decorations. So keen was he on medals that he actually employed a professional honors broker to get them from every government in Europe. He wore them on his dress clothes, reaching to his waist and even below it, and he often pinned a selection to his everyday suits. Thus weighted down and clanking, he strode nightly to his favorite café, for schnapps. Unlike Lord Jenkins, he was a creator of some substance. But his habit was unbecoming unless (and this seems unlikely) his intent was humorous.
What strikes me, surveying the history of creativity, is how little fertile and productive people often received in the way of honors, money, or anything else. Has there ever been a more accomplished painter than Vermeer—a painter closer to perfection in creating beautiful pictures? How Vermeer must have cared about what he was doing! And how hard and intensely he must have worked to do it! Yet when he died, his widow had to petition the local guild for charity—she and her children came to abject poverty. That has been the fate of so many widows of fine artists. Sometimes the poverty of creators is not the fault of the system but of individual weakness. Guido Reni earned immense sums in his day, but he gambled them all away and had to hire himself out as an artist’s day laborer. Franz Hals was also prolific but drank up all his wealth; or so his enemies said—I suspect the truth is more cruel. It seems to me horrifying that the widow of Johann Sebastian Bach, a hardworking man all his life, at the top of his profession as organist and composer, and a careful and abstemious man too, should have died in poverty, as did the sister of Mozart, another prodigiously industrious and successful maker of music. Both these men were creators on a colossal scale, and consistently produced works of the highest quality. But they could not achieve security for their families.