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.*

Let me attempt an application of this notion. The hypocrisy of the Soviet Union about its excesses, its oppressions, is talked about prominently and constantly in all American analyses of the nature of the Communist state: what is not, I believe, contemplated sufficiently is the ongoing obsessive concern of the Soviet system with itself and its moral nature. An irony can be located here. Two sets of political thought as nominally opposite as Russian communism and American capitalism are nonetheless prodigiously alike in one aspect, one aspect at least: it is in their endless search for a national identity. American self-righteousness, and Soviet hostility to criticism, are seen by other nations as the consummate hypocrisy of both systems. Yet if we can contemplate the possibility that the state like the individual artist does have a creative vision of new possibilities and oncoming perils, it may be intellectually productive to conceive of each nation as now engaged in a passionate and desperate search for its own identity.

Even as the US and the USSR flounder along totally different paths, with specters of economic downfall always close to our fears, and economic edema bloating Russian production, so are both nations’ energies and national dreams haunted by visions of failure. Even as each land embarks on military adventures that would be comic if they were not surrealistic and disgusting, even as each nation flounders in logical impasses: on the side of the USSR, claims for human liberty mocked by the real paucity of it; on our American side, anomalies of human indignity among us—I speak not only of our squalid adventures in Central America, but of our good city New York with its thirty thousand millionaires and its thirty thousand homeless—yes, even as each superpower twists in the Laocoön contradictions of each national ego, so do the US and the USSR keep searching, as if with the last passion left, for a sense of identity.

This all-pervasive Angst seems to be not only present for each country but true for an astonishing number of Soviet and American individuals. In both countries few of the young are still willing to die for a concept. They have reason. People detest perishing for an idea when they do not know their own identity. After all, it may be the wrong idea. Young Americans have a contemporary cry: “I know who I am,” they say. It is a barbaric yawp. They do not know who they are. Their voices throb in the hollow of not knowing. They are not hypocritical so much as spiritually livid. The prevailing ideas of the ninth decade of our century all seem to lead to the money swamps or to the abyss of terrorism—terrorism quivers in the imagination of each superstate like the fear of modern men and women at the cancer furies that may rage beneath. A body attacked by cancer discovers to its horror that the rampage of the cells has no regard for the integrity of physiological function; healthy and debilitated organs are attacked with equal vigor, even as a terrorist smuggling a plastic bomb into a public place cannot know if one of his own people might be in the plaza when the explosion goes off. Terrorists in their terrorism can be comprehended as kin to abused offspring, psychic descendants of those fearful beatings given to the psyche of every human alive by the prospect since World War II of worldwide nuclear destruction. If drunken parents live every night on the edge of murdering each other, who would need to inquire if their children are vicious?

Nearly thirty years ago, in 1957, I wrote the following words. It is depressing how contemporary they remain. I quote from The White Negro:

Probably we will never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everybody alive in these years. For the first time in civilized history, perhaps for the first time in all of history, we have been forced to live with the suppressed knowledge that the smallest facets of our personality or the smallest projection of our ideas, or indeed the absence of ideas and the absence of personality could mean equally well that we might still be doomed to die as a cipher in some vast statistical operation in which our teeth might be counted and our hair saved, but our death itself would be unknown, unhonored and unremarked, a death which could not follow with dignity as a possible consequence to serious actions we had chosen, but rather a death by deus ex machina in a gas chamber or a radioactive city; and so if in the midst of civilization—that civilization founded upon the Faustian confidence that nature could be subjected to our will, our psyche was subjected itself to the intolerable anxiety that death being causeless, life was causeless as well, and time deprived of cause and effect had come to a stop.

In that pall we still live, here in 1986. Four decades have passed since the Second World War presented a mirror to the human condition which blinded anyone who looked into it.

Yet still we strive. Still, we gather together and look to perfect the liberty of one another, 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 other 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 Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Chekhov, and the passion of Russians for 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. Such was the essential premise on which PEN was founded by C.A. Dawson Scott and John Galsworthy in 1921. Let there be; they thought, a literary League of Nations. Nineteen-twenty-one was the year for that.

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 post 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. The word comes to us from every avatar of early human existence. As writers, we are obliged more than others to keep our lives attached to the primitive power of the word. From India, out of the Vedas, we still hear: “On the spoken word, all the gods depend, all beasts and men; in the word live all creatures…the Word is the navel of the divine world.” From the Eskimos we learn that a human being is composed of three parts, body, soul, and name (which may be why politicians who remember your name do well). So, too, did the ancient Egyptians speak of the Ren, the secret and sacred name within every person alive. Aleister Crowley, the master magician, mountain climber, Faustian pansexualist, fantasist, and mediocre writer informed us nonetheless that the secret of invocation is to “enflame thyself in praying.” Not inflame; enflame. “Enflame thyself in praying.” Where is the serious writer who does not know the force of those four words? Our works are—we may hope—exquisitely constructed elucidations of our most private prayers—obscene, atheistic, or devotional, but still our prayers, close to curses. Writers may be the last humans to enflame themselves with words. 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.


The following statement was given on January 13 at the PEN Congress’s panel “How Does the State Imagine?”

The State has no imagination.

The State has no imagination because the State sees imagination as something that can be put into service.

The writer is put into service by his imagination; he or she writes at its dictate.

The State is a collective intelligence. This is so whether it is arrived at by way of the Central Committee of the Party or whether it is the result of the long process of primaries and secondaries in a multi-party order. When the State projects a social vision—and it has no more concentrated unit of vision—it does so through the perceptions of planners, advisers, commissions, experts in this and that, ministers of this and that, constitutional lawyers, spokesmen, politicians. The formation of the State’s vision is a process of briefing. Its product is social engineering.

The imagination can never be the product of a collective. It is the most concentrated of cerebral activities, the most exclusive, private and individual. If there is a physiological explanation of it, I have never read one that matches the experience I know, and you know, as writers. Wicks along the way of the past—childhood or only yesterday, or even an hour ago, in the dark of time in which the writer is always comfortable, as a blind man feels along his darkness—these wicks are lit up one by one, and they are followed to caverns that were missed, where voices that did not complete what there was to say, sound on; places that have never been open to ordinary perception, or may be in time to come. For the writer is connected with time; that is the imagination. The State is connected with history; the State has only projection in place of imagination. For the writer, those small lights fuse in a single vision and become the Cyclops eye of the writer. It is what that eye sees that no other does. Only the writer him- or herself can focus that beam as a social product—poem, novel, or story. The inner eye of the State is one of those revolving balls made up of fragments of mirror which used to dominate old dance halls. It winks all over the place, casting back upon all who pass under its surveillance whatever spotlight it chooses to illuminate itself with from without—turning faces timid with green, tense with violet, or happy with sunset-rose.

What kind of relation can there be between the imagination and the projection? How do the Writer and the State get on?

We know that there have been examples of the imagination feeling at home within the projection; something close to what Lukács1 calls the duality of inwardness and outside world, overcome. This unity then becomes “the divinatory-intuitive grasping of the unattained and therefore inexpressible meaning of life.” Time and history meet. And of course the philosophy of social order from which the State selects for projection whatever serves the purpose of power in its particular circumstance (rebellious population, high unemployment, famine or plenty)—the philosophy of social order was first imagined, in the secular world, by writers—the writers of antiquity. It was from Plato’s cavern of small lights that the shadows on the walls came out to try democracy, in the flesh. But what the State made of the ancients’ visions of social order belongs to the realm of history and not imagination—extant in the forms of democracy that actually do exist in some countries of both East and West, and also in the kind of total travesty that exists in my own country, South Africa, where the State fantasizes (which is not at all the same thing as imagining) the projection of a “democratic process” as a social order where the majority of the population has no vote.

But I believe that more often, in instances where time and history appear to have met, this has been, so to speak, before the event: the Writer’s imagination has visualized an ordering of human lives that seems to be attainable in the projection of a State not yet created. The Risorgimento is one example. The Russian Revolution, in the vision of a Mayakovsky, another. And there are more. But once the State is established, the duality between Writer and State opens again. Why? I do not think the whole explanation is to be found in the stark fact that the ideals of a revolution are at best difficult to realize and at worst are betrayed, when the revolution itself succeeds. The writer himself knows that the only revolution is the permanent one—not in the Trotskyite sense, but in the sense of the imagination, in which no understanding is ever completed, but must keep breaking up and reforming in different combinations if it is to spread and meet the terrible questions of human existence. What alienates the Writer from the State is that the State—any State—is always certain; it is always certain it is right. Whereas the writer—this time Czeslaw Milosz2—finds himself thus: “Ill at ease in the tyranny, ill at ease in the republic, / for in the one I longed for freedom, in the other for the end of / corruption.”

Brecht’s imagination had an uneasy relationship with the projection of the State in East Germany; although his political beliefs were those he saw embodied in the idea of the State, the State’s projection of the idea was not that of his imagination. His theory of epic theater seemed orthodox enough (orthodoxy always belongs to the projection, of course); it was, in the words of Walter Benjamin,3 “to discover the conditions of life.” Now that is what the Writer’s imagination seeks to do everywhere; and as happened to Brecht, it is generally not exactly what the State would have from the Writer. The State wants from the Writer reinforcement of the type of consciousness it imposes on its citizens, not the discovery of the actual conditions of life beneath it, which may give the lie to it. The State wants this whether it is in the form of the pulp fiction where individualism is safely channeled as a monogram on a variety of consumer goods and the ideal of human achievement takes place not on earth at all, but is extraplanetary, or whether it is in the form of the incorruptible worker exposing the black marketeer, or whether—East or West—it is the retributory bad end of the spy who sells defense plans, his fate thus transforming the State’s nuclear arms into the sacred sword of King Arthur.

Where the State’s projection of social order allows it to do so, it often goes so far as to imprison the imagination, in the person of the Writer, or the banning of a book. Where the State says it welcomes and encourages assaults by the imagination on the State’s projection, it invites the poet to dine at State House, and shores up if not the law, then something invoked as the traditional morality of the nation, against the breaches the high tide of the imagination has made in the consciousness of the State’s subjects.

Finally, I would say that the opposition between imagination and projection, between the Writer and the State, is best defined in Milan Kundera’s words: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”4

The imagination, freed in time, never forgets what the projection, bound in history, constantly rewrites and erases.

This Issue

February 13, 1986