Book Review: Paul Johnson
Creators -from Chaucer to Shakespeare to Victor Hugo to Picasso and Disney
The English people of today seem to be caught in an identity crisis of their own.Lost their empire and with that has gone their assumed plumes of hauteur and bluster.The English,more than the ordinary Brits,the so-called establishment as such is still haunted by their lost lusture.so,it seems. Even now,we see their obsessions with their own importance,be it writing,letters,press and even such lofty fields like diplomacy.They seem to hold the key to everything in the world.But the outside world doesnt seem to think of them so.They clung on to an imaginary special relationship with the USA and now with the disasterous Iraqi war,both the Labour party as well as the English public opinion is again caught in an identity crisis.
This impression is strengthened if one goes through Paul Johnson’s latest book,”Creators”where most of the literary references are only to English language writers,even when they are minor ones in today’s world of letters.So,at places he makes a strained case for taking his views seriously.The total impression is that here is a brilliant mind nevertheless and Johnson remains a favourite writer of highly stylised and polished prose.
Paul Johnson is perhaps the best known intellectual writing in England today.He can be called the public intellectual in the American or French sense of the term.In England there are any types of pretensions,so too as for intellectuals who take up public causes.Of course,we have had the example of Bertrand Russell who went on to establish himself as the well-known intellectual face of the English people.
But it is very difficult to notice such people in a country like England and aslo at a time like this,after England had shrunk into a little island and English men struggle to live up to old images.Hence,the disasterous politics of Tony Blair and also the very growing troubles in England with the minorities,immigration and the fall in standards in public life.
This fall is noticed even here in this book which deals with a variety of creative people but Johnson somehow doesnt rise above his isolationist mindset.He chooses all English writers for literary creativity:Chaucer,Shakespeare,Jane Austen,T.S.Eliot.Apart from Hugo(France) and Mark Twain(USA)he has no examples in literature.
However,this is a remarkable book and a tough one too,considering the topic it has chosen to tackle.In India,I am not sure how far the book has been noticed for I have become more and more disillusioned by the fact that reading serious,first class ,original books seems not much in evidence.At any rate,such books or topics are not written about in the newspaper columns or even by intellectuals who write essay on different branches of knowledge.
Paul Johnson,in my opinion,is perhaps the greatest living writer and intellectual who can take up any topic of great importance and he can write also in such exquisite language.To read him is always a great pleasure and a source of great satisfaction both for the intellect as well as our aesthetic and emotional satisfaction.I have to confess I have been reading Johnson all my life ever since my tine at Oxford when he has also editor of the “Newstatesman” magazine,a great favourite with me and in fact reading that magazine helped me to form my political opinions and on a variety of issues.I have read,I think, almost all his major books,on the history of the Jews,history of the modern times,on Napolean,Renaissance,Egypt and on the” Intellectuals”which was published in 1988.
I am glad at least one Indian newspaper even today reproduces his Spectator magazine column,Spectator is also one of my favourite reading even now.
Now the subject of creators is a highly difficult territory and the very first chapter itself is a very fulfilling reading.At the very start,he defines who is an intellectual.”I define an intellectual as someone who thinks ideas are more important than people”.Of course this is a very simple definition.An intellectual is often one who the society looks upto him or her to take up fundamental causes,fundamental truths and advocate the truths in the light of the contemporary developments and often take stands that might go against the current dominant public opinion. That is how even writers like Victor Hugo became immensely popular,so too Charles Dickens and all writers who remain relevant even today,years after their lives and writings were done.
Says he in the very opening:”Creativity is inherent in all of us.God is a creator.All of us can create in one way or another.We are undoubtedly at our happiest when creating,however humbly and inconspicuously…I count myself doubly fortunate that God gave me the gift of writing.I have made my living by words…”Of course there are several forms of creativity and some are obvious,others are not so obvious.All creators build on the works of their predecessors,no one creates in a vacuum.Some get easy recognition,some great creators don’t get easy recognition.Some make big money,some don’t make.Picasso made big money, also big paintings.Some became famous as creators like Keats and Shelley,others got recognition only late in life.Then comes Johnson about what constitutes creativity,after examining several lives.Says he:”Creative originality of outstanding quality often reflects huge resources of courage”There is also the courage of persistence,Johnson gives several names of writers who persisted by their daily grind so that we have great literature after their lives are gone.Putting words on paper comes to only a few so easily,others struggle hard every day before they can put their pen on paper.Concludes the chapter Johnson thus:”Creation is a marvelous business, and people who create at the highest level lead a privilege life,however arduous and difficult it may be.An interesting life,too,full of peculiar aspects and strange satisfactions.That is the message of this book”
The chapter on Chaucer might not interest readers,except to be told that it was he who created the English literature.Chaucer,says Johnson,found d the English letters but left a literature.This was in the fourteenth century.For Indians who have had a great classical literature,both in Sanskrit and Tamil,this is no big deal.But the point is that Chaucer who borrowed heavily in his time from Latin and French and absorbed foreign words and made them English words!Only the ordinary people in England at that time spoke in English,the ruling class spoke French and write in Latin.English was made the language of law and government only in 1362,when Chaucer was a young man.Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales is in print for 520 years!Chaucer had a vocabulary of 8,000 words while Shakespeare had thee times,24,000 words vocabulary.One lessons for us in India.A language grows and becomes strong and relevant only when it borrowed,creates and uses new word and as Chaucer did,the “his game was life”!He had affinity with all living things!
As for other creators,the chapters on Picasso and Walt Disney is very interesting ,though I have my own way of looking at the these “creators”.Picasso(1881-1973),there have been so much writing and so what Johnson says is only partial interesting.He often dramatizes Picasso’s passion for women and his paintings.So,the piece reads well,though Picasso has to be seen in a more historic context of how modern painting,more so the painting movements,after Impressionism evolved in Paris,in particular.Picasso exhibition I visited at Tate in the Fifties,I think in 1960 or so and enjoyed the whole show enormously.It left a deep impression on me,a totally outsider to Western paintings and since then I had visited the Paris museums,Picasso museum in particular.In my view,you become a true appreciator of paintings,the more you see the paintings,as in music the more you become a connousieur the more you listen to good music,attend music concerts.I have also sought to read more on Picasso from different sources,the new books(Christopher Green,Picasso),Picasso,the real family story by Olivier Widmaier Picasso,the one book by his own wife and lover, Francoise Gilot was the most enjoyable.Unluckily,all the Picasso catalogue as well as other books on him were stolen away from my library!God bless them,the thieves!
Johnson of course brings his wide reading and observation to this chapter on Picasso.I learnt many new things and got many new insights about this truly creative genius.Picasso was determined from the beginning not to go for conventional painting,from nature and thus starts a very creative and very productive career,so many phases in his painting experiments led to outstanding results.He painted in total something like 30,000 pieces,every morning one piece in a most creative pahese and also one of the most commercially successful painters in history.There is a thirty three volume catalogue(1932-1978)still far from complete!There is a Musee Picasso in Paris and another one,Musee Picasso in Barcelona,Spain.There are eight chronological periods or phases in his different phases of life.His famous painting is still considered to be the,Guernica.another,Les Demoiselles make for the two best paintings in modern art.There is much to say about his creative genius,he was a bunch of contradictions,creative,destructive,jealous,violent,oppressive to women,his mistresses are many and his quarrels with the world were also too many.A totally fascinating personality.
The most anticipated chapter when I bought the book was on T.S.Eliot.After I read through this chapter my disillusionment with both Johnson as well as Eliot was full!
Why?First,Johnson hasn’t,in my opinion.put his mind fully into what constitutes Eliot’s genius.Second,Eliot,as I now see him after reading Johnson,is not my hero anymore!Yes,Wasteland was celebrated when it appeared after the second world war.But this is all about disappointment with the world as we all lived through.But here we find Eliot living a bourgeois life of a bank clerk,wearing a three piece suit and one of his bank colleagues says:”You know of one of our employees who is a poet Mr.Eliot.He is also most proficient in banking.Indeed I don’t mind telling you that if he goes on in his present way,he will one day become a senior bank manager!”(page 215).He always looked like an official,so said the Buckingham Palace where he was invited to read his poetry!
His second wife later told Johnson that she read his early poem and fell in love with him and also Eliot once told her he wrote his celebrated Journey of the Magi that he said this to his wife:”I wrote it one Sunday after matins”.Alcohol played a role in his poetry! This was not the Eliot I had appreciated all these years.Of course the life and times of Eliot also helped,the world war and its aftermath,the bank work that gave him some security and stability to continue to compose poems,he co-founded a literary magazine,Criterion(1922),his later job as director at the publishing firm,Faber and Faber also helped him to spread his influence among fellow poets.Of course some his memorable lines,in the hallow men” helped to spread his name.
“We are the hallow men,we are the stuffed men
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but with a whimper”
There are of course so many such memorable lines,full of ironies and self-pity and anyone who is confused and left in doubt can certainly find echoes in Eliot’s lines.
But somehow,I have to confess,I am now left with only my favourite English poets,Wordsworth,Shelley,Keats and Lord Byron who have had a more positive,humanistic and hope filled sunny lives for an and nature.They would be the eternal currents.So,too the Eastern European and Russian poets of the Communist era who would haunt man’s challenges in the face of so much of fellow men’s mindless opppressions.Anyway,this is my key to great poetry,poetry in my opinion,is the greatest creative impulses of man.
Finally one word about Johnson’s approach to creators and creativity.Of course one can have his own choices and one’s own definitions.But we cant stretch the definition too far and wide,as Johnson does.Then,our grasp of the essentials of creativity gets diluted.Thus,it is fruitful if we restrict our definition to literature and then go on to other spheres.But Johnson,in a brave attempt extends his definition to all areas,sciences, commercial ventures,Tiffany,Walt Disney and he mixes up,in my opinion,inventions,discoveries and innovations all into the general category of creativity.Thereby his reach gets lost in some confusion.
One last word.Johnson is an English man,he seems also a little England man!He doesn’t realize there are and were greater creative geniuses outside the English language literature.A Tolstoy,a Romain Rolland have no parallels.Creative height is reached only when the creator shows us the”paradise”,right?We have to be shown the truth,the beauty and the faith and the vision and whatever you call the greater heights of joy and fulfillment.That is my own definition of a creator and a creative output.
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