Sketches of Artistic Creators
Peter Grier. Peter Grier is on the Monitor's in Washington, D. C., The Christian Science Monitor
DO you find archaeology specials on cable TV oddly compelling? Have you ever considered taking night classes in Aramaic? Are you instantly attracted by the following sentence? "As we shall see, this inheritance might not have become ours had Justinian never married the bewitching demimondaine, Theodora, one of three daughters of a bear keeper in the Hippodrome in Constantinople."
If the answer to any of these questions is "yes," then Daniel Boorstin's magisterial new tome "The Creators" is likely to seem a great gift. For once again Boorstin, the prolific historian and former librarian of Congress, has delivered a compendium that proves one of life's consolations is the accumulation of a vast fund of general information whose daily utility is not readily apparent.
You may have known, for instance, that Cervantes and Shakespeare died on the same day. But I'll bet very few people recall Stravinsky's words on being asked to compose a ballet for circus elephants: "If they are very young, I'll do it." (Ringling Brothers performed that ballet 425 times, in case you're interested, but the trainers said their elephants were dignified animals who preferred to waltz.)
Goethe, as a boy, built an altar to nature in his bedroom topped by a flame lit through a magnifying glass by the rays of the rising sun. Peter Roget, best known for "Roget's Thesaurus," discovered the principles of vision underlying motion pictures. The Roman emperor Commodus took eight baths a day.
Boorstin's previous big book, "The Discoverers: A History of Man's Search to Know His World and Himself," (1985) was about the pursuit of scientific and geographical knowledge. "The Creators" is about the arts, its subtitle "A History of Heroes of the Imagination." Where the history of science is easily written in chronological order, dealing with the arts is admittedly more difficult. It is "a story of infinite addition," writes Boorstin. "We must find order in the random flexings of the imagination."
Boorstin imposes stylistic order on his massive chosen subject by using pithy biographies of crucial writers, architects, painters, and other artists to illustrate thematic points. And it is in these sketches, which bring vividly to life figures half-remembered from school survey classes, that his easy prose works best.
Here is the aforementioned Justinian I, Byzantine emperor between AD 527 and 567, born Petrus Sabbatius to a poor peasant family in what used to be Yugoslavia. He became head of the Eastern Empire through hard work and family connections, produced a codified legal code, and then erected one of the great buildings of the world - the Great Church, or Hagia Sophia in Greek.
Of course, he also massacred 30,000 rebels when a mob gathered at the Hippodrome to protest his policies, but he didn't really want to. He would rather have fled - "the iron-willed Theodora persuaded him to stay and turn his general Belisarius on the mob," writes Boorstin. …