The following essay is adapted from Clive James' Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
Why should I waste my imagination on myself?
—Sergei Diaghilev (attributed)
Born in Novgorod and buried in Venice, Italy, Sergei Diaghilev (1872–1929) became famous to the world as the impresario of the Russian opera-and-ballet export drive that turned fashionable Paris upside down before and during World War I. He was already famous in Russia as the brilliant young connoisseur whose lavishly mounted exhibitions rediscovered the country's tradition of religious icons and secular portrait painting, and as the editor of the truly wonderful magazine Mir Iskusstva (or the World of Art), in which Benois, Bakst, and other Russian names that later became bywords made their first appearances. The gift Diaghilev demonstrated in Paris of attracting all the most celebrated artists of the day (Picasso, Stravinsky, Cocteau, Satie, Poulenc, and many more) to join his enterprises had already been demonstrated at home.
But at the height of his powers, home was lost to him. After the Revolution of 1917, he stayed abroad. The Soviet authorities, once it became obvious that he could not be lured back, condemned him in perpetuity as an especially insidious example of bourgeois decadence. Soviet art historians wrote him out of the picture for more than 60 years. When, in 1982, a two-volume collection of his pre-revolutionary writings on art was published in Moscow, it was a sign that the confident rigidity of official ideology was starting to bend, because any move toward telling the truth about the past was likely to be a prelude to telling the truth about the present. But it was just a sign. Only in retrospect was the change certain. What the astonished reader could be sure of at the time, however, was that Diaghilev had been a great critic—the discriminating impulse at the heart of his uncanny ablity to bend the talented to his will. They felt that he understood them. He almost always did.
As a lifelong admirer of Diaghilev, I am easily impressed by anything he is said to have said, but when I first read the quote above I was so impressed that I neglected to make a note: I knew I would remember it always. I could have sworn that I read it in Theatre Street, Tamara Karsavina's radiant little sheaf of memoirs. (Karsavina, previously the darling of the Maryinsky company in St. Petersburg, danced in the very first production of The Firebird,an early collaboration between Diaghilev and Igor Stravinsky, in Paris in 1910.) Probably the best single book ever written about dancing, it also has general application to the whole world of the arts: If I were making a list of 10 books that art-crazy young people should read to civilize their passion, Theatre Street would be on it. But when I searched through the book to find this quotation, there it wasn't. The conversation was there, but only in reported form: no inverted commas. Did I read it in that mighty balletomane Richard Buckle's book about Diaghilev? I couldn't find it there, either, nor in the fascinating interview with Karsavina contained in John Drummond's fine compendium Speaking of Diaghilev. Anyway, unsourced though it is, the remark is too resonant to leave out.