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Culture's Greatest Hits
[FINAL Edition]
The Washington Post (pre-1997 Fulltext) - Washington, D.C.
Author: Dirda, Michael
Date: Oct 4, 1992
Start Page: x.05
Section: BOOK WORLD

Readers of an owlish bent will remark that The Creators eschews notes, ostensibly to make the book look more inviting. [Daniel J. Boorstin] makes no secret of his debts to other scholars, however, and on occasion will attribute a quote. But generally he leaves cloudy exactly how well he knows the texts or works he discusses, or whether the opinions he expresses are his own or another's. For instance, Boorstin critiques, in laborious detail, Goethe's theories about nature, alluding to their exposition in "fourteen volumes of scientific writing." Has Boorstin read these books or is he relying on someone else's scholarship? There's no way to know. Moreover, wouldn't it have been better for readers to have learned more about the Goethe that matters, the major lyric poet and the author of Elective Affinities - one of the three or four best German novels and a book Boorstin passes over in a sentence?

For the chief problem with The Creators lies in the superficiality of its approach to art. Boorstin delivers the received opinion on most works, makes enough mistakes to suggest that he has not read the literary texts recently or attentively, misquotes frequently, cites passages that do not support what he claims, tosses in sexual speculations far too often, and generally carries on like a man more interested in gossiping about colorful lives than in conveying the richness of a poem, painting or piece of music. Most peculiarly, for a man who has supposedly lived with these masterpieces, few connections are made between or among them; yet how can Boorstin fail to see, for instance, that T.S. Eliot's views on tradition are echoed in quotations he himself offers from Proust and Picasso? Perhaps as a historian Boorstin is more comfortable with matters of fact than with questions of appreciation, for there remains something cold, unloving and sometimes even derisive in much of his writing about art and its practitioners.

These, and other matters, are questions of fact. But besides these mistakes, Boorstin also offers some exceptionally doubtful judgments. "The enduring success of Boswell's work is precisely in its artless surrender to chronology." Chronology? More than Johnson's irresistible wit and moody humanity? Boorstin claims that Marlowe's Dr. Faustus is damned by his "refusal to accept the Protestant doctrine of justification by faith." No elaboration of this follows; Faustus's actual damnation occurs because he cannot bring himself to accept the Catholic doctrine of penance, that God will forgive his sins. Boorstin maintains that Gretchen, in Goethe's Faust, "ends in a dungeon and a miserable death - a victim for Mephistopheles" - in fact, the last lines of Faust (Part One) are Mephistopheles exulting "Sie ist gerichtet" ("She is judged") and a voice from heaven answering "Ist gerettet" ("Is saved"). Goethe's autobiography has "the puzzling title Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth)"; actually, there's not much puzzle. Wahrheit und Dichtung was the name of a Jena newspaper, and poetry and truth are the twin poles of any autobiography: the need for artistic form tugging against the way things really were.

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