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The Writer’s Imagination and the Imagination of the State’ Two Views

1.

The following address was delivered on January 12 at the opening of the Forty-eighth International PEN Congress at the New York Public Library.

When I was invited, one year and a half ago, to become president of the 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.

Contemplate, then, the horror, a few months after induction, when I found myself laboring as diligently at fund raising for PEN as at my own literary projects. I had become a hard-working figurehead; a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron.

Now I could pretend that the noble activities of PEN are precisely what spurred me to such labors, since PEN is indeed one of the last of the poor and noble organizations. Supported by small funds, the people who work for the American Center under the all-consuming dedication of our executive director Karen Kennerly (who in my mind is the real president) do undertake labors that few people of good will would wish to disagree with. 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 unspoken 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.

We are also a fraternal organization. We have funds—not nearly enough—to offer writers who have immediate needs—rent for the month or money for pressing medical work—we offer prizes to fellow writers, to editors, translators, occasionally we even honor a publisher. We have prison programs for incarcerated men and women who want to learn to write, we have similar programs for the handicapped. We have public symposiums, we have PEN parties for our members. 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 in the fine minds of Donald Barthelme and Richard Howard, it posed the writer’s imagination against a new concept—the imagination of the state.

It is here that intellectual dangers commence, Writers are as bigoted about their favorite concepts as other human beings. Since our power, literary power, is most peculiar and is usually consigned in any mansion of social power to the attic, the kitchen, or the cellar, since we tend to be seen by true men of power in government and finance as, at best, court jesters, at worst, spoiled children, we have a tendency to resent our idler-gear relation to the drive-train gears of history. 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. Without depending altogether on Jung, a case can still be made that the state is an organism composed of many human beings striving in concert and in opposition to one another who yet reveal by the sum of their actions such faculties as expectation, anticipation, planning, scheming. Images of future activities are projected, historical desires which require exceptional solutions—as for instance sending a man to the moon—are undertaken. Mental concepts of the future are formed which are not actually present to the senses—this is merely another way of saying that every state has a budget. Concepts not available to the senses, such as Capitalism is evil, or Communism is evil, become active premises upon which military-industrial pyramids are built. If there are four definitions for imagination in a good dictionary, we must already have satisfied three of them. Only when we call imagination “the creative faculty of the mind in its highest aspect, poetic genius,” does the state fail to satisfy the criteria for imagination. Yet, even there, all possibilities of a flowering humanism must wither if all states, good and bad alike, prove incapable of creative vision.

Indeed, I might go so far as to suggest that if the state does not possess imagination, then we are left with no need to write history. A computer can reassemble the available facts better than any of us. An era without a recognizable spirit—which, in fact, our period may indeed be—is naught but an assemblage of human units, computer data. In contrast, can we conceive of the Middle Ages without speaking of the imagination of that Church which was, de facto, the State throughout so much of Europe? Can it be that our intellectual impotence before the Holocaust, our fearful lack of insight into Hitler and the Third Reich, which remains as much of a mystery to us today as in the Thirties, may derive from the assumption that Nazism can finally be comprehended by rational means? No, it cannot. The Third Reich can only be understood on the assumption that it did possess an active imagination, a most debased, horrible, paranoid, and catastrophic imagination, but still it was a state that drew its strength from the intoxication of perceiving itself as a protagonist on the world scale.

Here, perhaps, is the clue. When states begin to perceive themselves as protagonists, that is to say, as embodiments of a creative vision, we may be entitled to speak not only of the imagination of the state, but to perceive of such states as actors in a scenario, or characters in a novel. Brought face to face with our world condition today, our peculiar megaworld with its overpopulation, its mediocre oppressive architectures, that world of old and new capitals all ringed on their perimeter by miserable replicas of each other’s high-rise, faceless housing—I almost said “fascist housing”—brings us close to declaring that something awful is going on. Some kind of odd, even deadening, imagination seems to be at work, some unseen species of cooperation to flatten our spirit, some flatulent compact in world aesthetics, some curious unspoken agreement between nations that are otherwise at raw odds to cooperate long enough to leech out the culture of the world. It is cause to wonder if the nuclear holocaust that may yet destroy us can come into being only after we have deadened the ecology, the aesthetics, the culture, and the meditations of silence sufficiently for life to become so harried and hectic, so consumed by unrest and static that existence will have become less desirable than a final conflagration.

The state taken at its best is, I repeat, 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 actions or events not yet in existence.” To go forward into the unknown with the confidence that one is possessed of purpose is a function of imagination. Disease, with its teleological bent toward the grave, and its unexpected crises—since not every disease, fortunately for us, is successful—is a form of imagination; disease is also a protagonist.

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 until 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 our 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.

So let me embark on an intellectual venture which by its face is absurd. Let me look at America and the Soviet Union as if both were individuals, both were protagonists. Now I am more than aware that this is an international conference and a great number of our guests come from many countries which have their own pressing concerns, and their own comprehension of their own aims. Yet to the degree that we are all citizens of the world, two nations have dominated not only our discourse but our dreams and our nightmares. For the first time in human history, two nations, the USSR and the USA, possess the power to end history. So they are the obsessive concerns of every human alive. They are the two giants who dominate the existence of all of us, neurotic giants, I would add, and so I would ask you to conceive of them as analogous to huge tormented mythical figures in a literary work.

How different they are, however, from the protagonists of the nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century novels. For their character is so different. They may be giants, but they are also narcissists.

If that is a bewildering term to apply, let me speak of narcissism for a moment. I do not know that it is well understood. I have often felt it is too quick, too simple, to think of the average narcissist as someone in love with himself or herself. To the contrary, one can detest oneself intimately and still be a narcissist. What characterizes such a psychic state is that the fundamental relation is always with oneself. The to-and-fro of love and hate which mates feel for each other is experienced within the self. A special kind of insanity always underwrites the narcissist, therefore. The inner dialogue never ceases. Each half of oneself is forever scrutinizing the other. Two narcissists in a relationship do not attach to each other so much as they approach like crystals brought into communication. They have intense relations to the degree that each makes it possible for the other to resonate more fully than when alone. Two narcissists in a relation are thereby forever critical of each other, obsessed with each other, paranoid about each other, each forever stimulated to a feverish preoccupation with the motives of the other.*

  1. *

    The last paragraph is taken in large degree from my book Pieces and Pontifications.

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