Coruscating on Thin Ice

Terry Eagleton

  • Creation: Artists, Gods and Origins by Peter Conrad
    Thames and Hudson, 529 pp, £24.95, September 2007, ISBN 978 0 500 51356 9

Most aesthetic concepts are theological ones in disguise. The Romantics saw works of art as mysteriously autonomous, conjuring themselves up from their own unfathomable depths. They were self-originating, self-determining, carrying their ends and raisons d’être within themselves. As such, art was a secular version of the Almighty. Both God and art belonged to that rare category of objects which existed entirely for their own sake, free of the vulgar taint of utility. The third member of this category was the human being. In their freedom, independence and glorious pointlessness, works of art were images of men and women – or at least of what they could become under transformed political conditions. In this sense, art was a politics all of its own, pointing to a future society in which human beings would be treated as ends in themselves. It was a foretaste of utopia in its very uselessness.

Before long, even more extravagant theologies of art were being launched. From Baudelaire to Yeats, the work of art was believed to reconcile the sensuous and the spiritual, or the concrete and the universal. It embodied a kind of mini-Incarnation, the point where time and eternity intersected. Those who found the divinity of Christ hard to accept could turn to Browning or Hopkins instead. It was, to be sure, easier to make these claims of, say, Rainer Maria Rilke than of Anthony Trollope, not to speak of Shopping and Fucking. Like most theories of art, Romanticism and its heirs privileged one particular form of it – in this case, poetry, which had taken up where religion had left off. As I.A. Richards remarked with stunning off-handedness, it was perfectly capable of saving us.

It was no accident that this exalted vision of art grew stronger with the advent of industrial capitalism. The artwork was the enemy of industrial production because it was an example of creativity rather than manufacture. That it was fast becoming just another market commodity made this all the more poignant. If you wanted an example of non-alienated labour, you looked to the poet or painter. The work of art itself could be seen as a peaceable utopian commonwealth, its various elements blended into unity without violence to their particularity. Like the good society, it combined freedom and community. The aesthetic was the last refuge of mystery in a drably rationalist world. Perhaps the artwork was the one thing left that had a value rather than a price, and didn’t exist for the sake of something else. Like God, poems and symphonies existed just for the hell of it. As the idea of God was gradually ousted, art was on hand to fill his shoes. Like him, it was a repository of absolute value. Like him, too, it was transcendent, universal, unified, all-seeing and all-sympathetic. It was a pity, though, that only a few thousand individuals actually bothered about art, whereas countless millions had devoted themselves to God. This meant among other things that art, or culture, was to prove a far less potent ideological force than religion had been. However much the artist recycled himself as a secular priest, art could not hold a candle to religion. But art at least had the advantage of indubitably existing, which was more than could be said for the Supreme Being.

The supposed divinity of the artwork, however, could never withstand much critical scrutiny. It certainly doesn’t receive much in Peter Conrad’s encyclopedic new study of artistic creation. For one thing, God’s act of creation is from nothing, which can scarcely be said of Mansfield Park or Dead Babies. Like cooking or carpentry, art requires raw materials. Conrad misses the point that the idea of divine creation is bound up with the contingency of the world. If something rather than nothing had pre-existed the cosmos, then the world’s existence might be seen as a necessary step in some greater process. To say that nothing preceded it is to claim that God didn’t have to bring it about, indeed may long since have bitterly regretted doing so. From a theological viewpoint, the universe could very easily never have happened. God created it out of love, not need. Since he is complete in himself, the dismal truth is that he does not need us at all, any more than people actually need a pet spaniel. Existence is gift, not fate, play rather than necessity. God is not a celestial engineer but an artist, for whom fashioning the world is an end in itself. Conrad is thus mistaken to claim that ‘the creation must have been hard work . . . The aesthetic impulse is friskier, freer, more hedonistic.’ To say that the world is divinely created is to claim that it shares in God’s own freedom and autonomy, and would not be his if it did not. It works all by itself, just as God does. It is not a claim about how it originated, as Conrad seems to think. Theologically speaking, the world would still be a matter of creation even if it had no origin. Creation means that God’s love sustains it in being, not that he threw it together some aeons ago in a fit of false optimism.

The imagination is thought by some Romantics to be like God because it transcends all partial viewpoints, but is able at the same time to enter emphatically into any of them. But it was always a poor substitute for the Creator. ‘The creative imagination’ is one of those phrases that almost everyone on the planet seems to find unequivocally positive, like ‘sustainable growth’ or ‘putting the children first’. But the imagination is capable of projecting all kinds of dark and diseased scenarios as well as life-enhancing ones, as the Romantics did not need to be told. Serial killing requires a fair amount of imagination. Every lethal invention on record came about through the envisaging of new possibilities. Besides, what sort of civilisation is it for which possibility is always preferable to actuality? The imagination is deemed to be among the noblest of human faculties; but it is also unnervingly close to fantasy, which is one of the most regressive. Poets are those who have never relinquished the sensuous delight of babbling.

In the 18th century, the doctrine of the imagination was among other things a corrective to the antisocial implications of empiricism. If all I can really know are my own sense impressions, how can I ever come to know you, other than as a fat grey patch on my eyeballs? Are we not eternally shut off from one another by the thick walls of our bodies? I can know for certain that I am in pain, but I can only infer or deduce that you are, even when flames are sprouting from your hair. If this is so, then there would seem to be a need for some special, intuitive faculty which allows me to range beyond my own sense-data, transport myself into your emotional innards and empathise with what you are feeling. This is known as the imagination, product of a flawed epistemology. It makes up for our natural state of isolation from one another. The moral and the aesthetic lie close together, since to be moral is to be able to feel what others are feeling. It would be interesting to know what sadists would make of this assumption.

Creation is an eloquent defence of the transcendent artistic spirit; but not all artists have viewed their trade in this high-minded manner. Jonathan Swift or Samuel Johnson would have been dismayed by this grandiose inflation of their literary hackwork. And who knows how Aeschylus or the author of Beowulf regarded their craft? It would be rash to assume that they thought of it in the same way Shelley did. Not all societies have shared our conception of art, grouping poets with sculptors and musicians rather than with, say, historians or genealogists. The poet as purveyor of timeless wisdom is not itself a timeless notion. Conrad may be at root an old-fashioned Romantic, but Romanticism itself is not all that old-fashioned. There is indeed something elusive and opaque about art, which resists any reduction to rules or doctrines; but this quality has too often been wielded in an obscurantist way as a weapon against the liberal Enlightenment, a politics from which this volume is not light-years remote. William Blake thought that art should not be too obvious in case it fell into the rationalist trap of false transparency; but he was also quick to see how cults of mystery were exploited by both priest and king to legitimate their power. There is no reason to assume that artists have been immune to this vice.

The fact is that there is also something elusive and opaque about fine cooking or magnificent tennis-playing. Heston Blumenthal probably has no more idea of how he came up with snail porridge than Michelangelo understood how he produced David (which is not to declare the two creations of equal worth). Peter Conrad enters what he sees as an unfashionable plea for the idea of artistic genius; but genius can be found all over the place. Paul McCartney has a touch of genius, and so do many people who may well not be remembered in fifty years’ time. Not all geniuses join the ranks of the immortals. We have learned since Freud that human beings as such, not just artists, are profoundly strange to themselves. What is supposed to characterise only a gifted minority is revealed by psychoanalytic thought to be as commonplace as forgetfulness. What is striking about art is that this obscurity is combined with an unusually heightened degree of awareness. No doubt this is what T.S. Eliot had in mind when he said that poets were both more primitive and more sophisticated than the average run of individuals.

If God spans the whole of Creation, Peter Conrad runs him a close second. This is an astonishingly erudite work, one which would still be impressive for its panoptic learning even if ‘Peter Conrad’ turned out to be the name of a committee of twenty or so scholars. Creation ranges from alchemy, the Kabbalah, Finnish mythology and primitive cave paintings to Stravinsky, Duke Ellington and Steven Spielberg, glancing en route at virtually every major European writer or artist. It is crammed with curios and choice anecdotes, all the way from Richard III’s hump to an oiled arm in a Mapplethorpe photograph probing a gaping anus. In a work which ranges effortlessly across the major arts, we are treated to learned disquisitions on Boethius, Hildegard of Bingen, Pico della Mirandola, Leonardo, Milton, Rameau, Sade, Mozart, Balzac, Darwin, Wagner, Rodin, Philip Pullman and a supporting cast of hundreds. A single page, selected at random and by no means the most thickly populated, scatters references to Conrad (Joseph), Hesiod, Rilke, Shakespeare, Plato, Mann, George Eliot, Gide and St John. Quite how much Conrad may be coruscating on thin ice here and there is a question the book can’t help posing, as do the works of his fellow polymath and mandarin critic of modernity, George Steiner. Yet the intellectual unity of the volume is breathtaking: if the theme of creation occasionally threatens to disappear underground, it is never for very long.

The book, however, is unified in a less creditable sense as well. As with Conrad’s earlier study of Modernism, Modern Times, Modern Places, it is hard to avoid the sense of some mighty supermarket of the mind, in which all the various items on display are levelled and equalised by the book’s relentlessly unruffled, faintly deadpan style. In this glittering mosaic of allusions, not much can be investigated in depth, and everything begins after a while to sound like everything else. Ironically, Conrad’s own creativity seems to take the form of cannibalising everyone else’s. His portrait of the myriad-minded Shakespeare, for example, is tediously familiar. The boldness of the book’s scale, and its prodigal fertility of mind, contrast tellingly with the conventional nature of its arguments. Conrad is a cultural elitist who believes in inspiration, the autonomy of the human spirit and the Great Genius theory of cultural history. Yet his high journalistic style clothes this traditionalist case in eclectic, omnivorous, postmodern guise, like a mixture of John Bayley and Simon Schama. And in typically postmodern style, the critical yields ground to the descriptive and anecdotal. Creation resounds with a hymn of praise to the all-fruitful individual artist; yet the book’s own author, sheltering as he does behind densely woven webs of allusion and quotation, seems to have undergone the metaphorical death prescribed for such literary personalities by postmodern decree. Rather as God is so all-pervasive as to be invisible, much the same can be said of Peter Conrad’s relation to his own creation.

The dethroning of God was not only the elevation of art. It was also the invention of Man. Because God had created human beings in his own image and likeness – that is to say, fashioned them as free – they were now able to press that freedom to its limit by abolishing the source of it and installing themselves in his place. Man was now the transcendent peak of creation, owing almost as little as the Almighty had to nature and biology. As Nietzsche scornfully pointed out, surprisingly little was thereby altered. Instead, the religion of Yahweh gave way to Feuerbach’s religion of humanity. There was still a stable metaphysical centre to the world; it was just that it was now us rather than a deity. Idolatry accordingly gave way to narcissism. In Nietzsche’s view, the toppling of God, if it were to constitute a genuine revolution, would have to involve the subversion of Man as we know him as well. Otherwise God would simply live a shadowy afterlife in the form of suburban morality.

Like aesthetics, then, humanism was covertly theological all along. It had its satanic side too, as humanity came to lord it destructively over its world with all the imperiousness that had once been ascribed to God. Moreover, just as creation is a delight in itself, so can destruction be. The two are closer than the naive Romantic supposes. The devil is a fallen angel. To destroy just for the hell of it, without any purposeful end in mind, is what is traditionally known as evil.

As Freud often pointed out, there is at the heart of humanity an impulse which yearns to tear it apart simply for the obscene pleasure of doing so. In this sense, creation is far from a purely benign idea. Throwing a brick through a stained glass window may be a perversely creative impulse, one which for some people would be far more delectable than actually designing the thing. We learn early on that smashing things up is a keen source of pleasure. If Satan is classically seen in a sulk, it is because God has kept the act of creation for himself, leaving the devil with nothing but destruction, a malicious parody of creation. Destruction may be a joy, but it means that the devil is always belated in relation to his divine antagonist. He has to depend on God to bring things into being so that he can annihilate them. And this means he can never be his own man – even though, as Conrad reminds us, Milton’s Satan declares himself to be ‘self-begot, self-raised’.

What the humanist parallel between the infinity of Man and the eternity of God overlooked was that God is traditionally thought to be in love with the fleshly, frail and finite – a doctrine known as the Incarnation. Once Man had emancipated himself from this belief, however, he was free to persuade himself that he was boundless. As such, he found himself in perpetual danger of developing too fast, over-reaching himself and bringing himself to nothing, as in the myth of the Fall. The consequence of forgetting one’s limits is hubris. There is a traditional cure for this oblivion known as tragic art, but it is a therapy almost as devastating as the sickness itself.

As a self-declared secular humanist, Conrad seems attracted by the idea of a divine spark in Man. He writes with implicit disapproval of St Augustine’s comment that created things should not presume to create. What they should not presume to create above all, however, is themselves. The myth that human beings are self-originating and self-fashioning lies at the root of a great deal of human disaster. In Shakespeare, those who regard themselves as authors of themselves, stiffly denying all human dependency, are either villains or tragically wrong-headed. In psychoanalytic thought, those who reject their parentage for the fantasy of being self-begotten are disavowing their birth, and in doing so hope to shuck off their mortality as well. For some postmodern thinkers, we are clay in our own hands, artist and artefact together, free to mould our bodies and psyches into whatever shapes we find most appealing. Behind a belief in the endless plasticity of the world lies a rather less congenial faith in an iron will which stamps its imprint on these shapes. Self-authorship is the bourgeois fantasy par excellence; and even though the bourgeoisie as Freud knew it has almost vanished from Europe, this middle-class myth is alive and well in the rugged individualism of the United States. The American Dream acknowledges no limits. When the ancient Greeks heard talk of such infinite striving, they looked fearfully to the sky.