NEW YORK — The theme--a "pressing moral and artistic issue," according to conference organizers--was imagination: specifically, "the writer's imagination and the imagination of the state." Imagination was no problem: After all, these nearly 800 men and women gathered for the 48th international congress of PEN, the worldwide writers' group, are novelists, poets, playwrights, essayists, historians, biographers, translators and literary editors, and most of them find their life's work in somehow giving rein to their imaginations.
The "state" part, on the other hand, was quite another matter. On that notion there was debate, disagreement and a full day's worth of often-heated discussion.
"The state has no imagination," South African novelist Nadine Gordimer declared.
"I think the state has an imagination," West German novelist Guenter Grass said, "and I fear that the state has a greater imagination than we think."
"The imagination of the state exists only in the mind of the writer," Israel's Amos Oz said, "like those who concocted the title of our discussion here."
Said a reflective Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, a West German novelist: "The imagination of the state, as I understand it, differs (from that of the writer) not only in quality of art, but in intention."
Updike's Positive View
And John Updike, the North American novelist, allowed as how his lifelong perception of the state was decidedly positive, since even as "a child born into a tribe with its mystic rites, signs and symbols, the place where my personal hopes and dreams and the world intersected was the postal system.
"In those days," Updike went on, "when a stamp cost 3 cents, I sent letters to great men, some of whom deigned a reply." His friendly relationship with the postal system "is still true for me today," Updike added. "I send manuscripts in the mail, and often I get praise and money in return.
"I never see a blue mailbox," he said, "without a sense of wonderment that this system is maintained for my benefit."
But even before Sunday evening's official opening of the weeklong congress, "state" had vaulted itself into a paramount area of discussion. Acting, he said, on a suggestion from American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters president John Kenneth Galbraith, PEN American Center president Norman Mailer had last month invited Secretary of State George P. Shultz to address the group's plenary session. Almost immediately, the objections to the presence of a Reagan Administration official began pouring in, and by Sunday evening, the ire among some PEN members had reached near-stratospheric levels.
"All you have to do is see what is happening," novelist and short story writer Grace Paley said as PEN members gathered for this first session in the elegant South Reading Room of the main public library on 5th Avenue. "People can't come in here freely," she fumed as uniformed guards examined passes and identification badges. "The whole nature of this event has been changed by this man, and it is really outrageous."
Of the secretary of state, Paley demanded: "What is his relationship to us? Is he a writer? What has he got to do with us? There is no reason to have him here, and people resent it."
Like Paley, novelist E. L. Doctorow was among 65 signers of a public letter calling Shultz's appearance "inappropriate." The letter, brief but angry, faulted Shultz because "under your leadership the State Department has, in the past, excluded many writers from the United States using the McCarran-Walter Act." That action, passed at the height of anti-communist hysteria in 1952, permits the exclusion of persons from the United States based on their political views.
Writing a commentary in the Jan. 18 edition of The Nation, Doctorow had blasted "Shultz's government" as "conscientious in its application of the ideological exclusion provisions of the McCarran-Walter Act, which keeps out such dangers to the Republic as Nobel Prize-winner Gabriel Garcia Marquez." Further, Doctorow charged, "writers both black and white have been tortured in South African prisons without a word on their behalf from Shultz." In extending the Shultz invitation, Doctorow wrote, "American PEN (has) betrayed itself."
'A Disturbing Thing'
"It is a disturbing thing," Doctorow said in the library moments before Shultz was to appear. "If this were a convention of mechanical engineers or automobile salesman, it would of course be a great honor for the secretary of state to appear." But, Doctorow said indignantly, "this is a group of writers."
Indeed, Shultz was greeted not only with the letter objecting to his presence, but with a chorus of hisses and boos. Repeatedly, Paley and poet Allen Ginsberg rose from their seats to shout their displeasure and to demand Shultz's ouster.