The Imagist poet T E Hulme described Romanticism as ‘spilt religion’, and his quip continues to resonate today. Elevating them to a standing once accorded only to the Deity, the Romantic belief that artists are creators of new worlds is an example of the transposition of Christian ways of thinking into secular terms that is such a prominent feature of the modern period. Most of the religions and philosophies that humankind has entertained contain no notion of a creator-god. Hindus and Buddhists view the cosmos as an unending series of cycles – a view that also prevailed in pre-Christian Europe. The belief that the universe had ‘a birth and a beginning’ was incomprehensible to Lucretius and unknown to Plato. The idea of creation ex nihilo, which the Romantic Movement took over when it cast artists in the role of gods, is a biblical inheritance. Yet it has entered deeply into post-Christian cultures, animating the liberal ideal of autonomy according to which humans can be authors of their own lives.
Part of the charm of Peter Conrad’s Creation: Artists, Gods and Origins comes from the vast array of reference it displays. Ranging freely from Oscar Wilde to Edgar Wallace, Arnold Schwarzenegger to Alban Berg, it is a flamboyantly encyclopaedic meditation on art and creativity that leaps over all cultural boundaries.