Luminescences of Words
When I was invited, a year and a half ago, to become president of the PEN American Center, I believe it was hoped I would prove enough of a figurehead to draw attention to PEN’s affairs. This unspoken understanding was agreeable to me. I had always wished to be president of something or other. We are an organization devoted to the collegiality of writers everywhere in the world. We seek to rescue writers or at least alleviate the conditions of authors who prove too outspoken in their work, whether they are men and women opposed to the prevailing right-wing, left-wing, or centrist oppressions of their own land. We work on the premise that the freedom to write is one of the inalienable rights of humankind. We are passionate about improving the liberty of writers everywhere. That to us is a self-evident, noble cause. Occasionally we succeed in these efforts. Even tyrants may have a love of literature. When a letter requesting improvement in the conditions of a jailed poet is signed by fifty prominent writers, the results are sometimes more effective than one would expect.
I could pretend I took up PEN work in the last year and a half because I was moved to the core by our good activities. I will not, however, make this pious claim. If I had an attractive motive, it was my enthusiasm for the theme of this congress, created by the fine minds of Donald Barthelme and Richard Howard. It posed the writer’s imagination against a new concept: “The Imagination of the State.” Writers are as bigoted about their favorite concepts as other human beings. It is as natural for us to despise the state as it is for the bureaucrat to sneer at our lack of respect for hard facts and common sense. The notion, therefore, that the state may be possessed of imagination is anathema to many of us. Months ago I received a letter from a distinguished foreign poet now living in America, which said in effect that our theme was absurd. Every idiot knew by definition that the state has no imagination. Today in The New York Times the illustrious critic George Steiner characterized the theme of this congress as “almost meaningless,” as “vacant,” and, the final blow, “ungrammatical.”
Obviously I disagree. The state, taken at its best, is a creative vision. At its worst, it is a disease. Let no one say that a disease can possess no imagination, not when imagination is first defined as “the mental consideration of action or events not yet in existence.” I indulge in this curious metaphor because I wish to emphasize a point. It may be that we can find no purchase on the intellectual confusions of our times, and so we try to alter the traditional reflexes of our thought. Maybe we will never understand the evils of the state and its possible services to us until we shift the style of thought, take a venture into the absurd, and commence to look at the state with the understanding and the intimacy we might bring to pondering the nature of a complex individual. Until we break out of the obsessive circularity of the terms of modern intellectual discourse, we are doomed like prisoners to keep taking meaningless turns around the track.
Four decades have passed since the Second World War presented a mirror to the human condition that blinded anyone who looked into it. Yet still we strive. Still we gather together to try to be the custodians of peace and the guardians of the word. We are members of PEN devoted to the premise that literature is a force for peace in the world. Our affection and respect for our countries begins in adolescence when we first encounter the work of great writers from other lands. If there is any residual affection left between America and the USSR, it is obviously due more to the love of Americans for Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and Turgenev and Gogol, and the passion of Russians for Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, and Ernest Hemingway, than to any work of presidents and premiers. Writers speak to one another across national boundaries more naturally and gracefully than governments do. Such was the essential premise on which PEN was founded by C. A. Dawson Scott and John Galsworthy in 1922. Let there be, they thought, a literary League of Nations. In modest fashion, this concept has served for sixty-four years and through forty-eight international congresses of PEN. We have thrived as an organization and we have waned, but we have remained village elders in the pursuit of peace; we have kept our posts as equerries to the word. We are in love with the word. We are proud of it. The word precedes the formation of the state.
Let us have an extraordinary week then, with bonfires of words, explosions of words, votive lights of words, luminescences of words. Let us return to the war and the play of words that will yet show our battered wife of a world some glimpse of starlight in the aesthetic heavens.