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Ex Libris

February 09, 1986|RICHARD EDER

A convention of writers is plainly less absurd than a convention of solipsists. It is a second-level absurdity, like an orchestra conductors' picnic, a boatload of admirals or Peter Arno's cartoon clergymen all raising their hands at dinner when someone asks who will say grace.

There was plenty of inherent contradiction at last month's PEN Congress in New York. Eight hundred individual literary sensibilities found themselves attempting some kind of coordinated footwork and ended up as 800 itchy footnotes.

The ruckus over inviting the secretary of state, the protest over the meager representation of women on the panels, Norman Mailer's talent for making the explanation more offensive than the offense, the spectacle of writers (as Congress officials) telling other writers (as audience) not to insert comments in their questions, and a pulsating threnody on the theme of "Why are we here and why are we behaving this way?"--all these things quite dominated the sessions' noise-level.

Still, even a brief visit to the Congress--I could only stay two days; I had books to read--unearthed a number of quiet and particular thoughts about writing amid the tumult of general thoughts about its practitioners.

Squirreled away on an upstairs floor, a panel of literary critics demonstrated that to gather people under the banner of criticism nowadays is like gathering astrologers and astrophysicists under the heading of celestial investigation. There was a post-Galilean abyss between Leo Bersani's discussion of "ontological versus dialectical negativity" and Denis Donoghue's plea for "a vocabulary of pleasure." To the latter, the former's was clearly not it.

Donoghue was worried about more than the density of language brought in by the critical adepts of semiology and other forms of proto-scientific literary analysis. He spoke of the high and fearful rigor that has congealed over the rambunctious notion of art by art's sake.

Matthew Arnold began the stiffening, Donoghue asserted. Religious belief was waning, and art became an alternative to doctrine. "It was a privileged way of being serious," he said. And along with it, he added, "critics have superseded theologians and parish priests without having to believe anything. . . . And criticism has taken on religion's messianic and apocalyptic tone."

This was 32 floors above the various bits of apocalypse going on in the Congress' main meeting-place, and Elizabeth Hardwick used the distance to take a swing at the rhythms of American literary life. She had in mind the pressure to produce after an author has achieved celebrity. She deplored "the hurried book every two years.

"One can smell the sweat of calculation on the page," she added; "Having arrived, one cannot disappear." She named no names, which was a pity. (Mailer? Joseph Heller? John Irving? Make your own list.) No doubt, it is wise for a critic to speak in generalities at congresses and keep the juicier bits for remunerated forms of discourse.

Downstairs, in a political lull, the subject of writer's block was raised. Perhaps it was a dispiriting topic for such a gathering, like talking botulism at a chefs' seminar. In fact, the man who brought it up was Robert Nozick, who is generally thought of as a philosopher more than a writer.

Nozick spoke of the paradoxical marriage of exaltation and terror that goes into the act of writing. "Why," he asked, "can it be so hard to start writing when we know that it can become a pleasure and that we have been able to do it before?"

Artistic creation, he went on to suggest, involves rearranging the artist's own person. "It is a little voodoo doll that stands for reconstructing the self," Nozick said. "And the self rebels against a project of such uncertain outcome." It was an apt notion, considering that the writer's dark night of the soul is white: a blank sheet of paper, in fact. And that if the words initially swimming across that blank sheet are: "What shall I write?" After hours of staring, they turn into: "Who am I?"

Politics, of course, is a shorthand way of answering, or at least fudging that question. But there were some revealing things in the fudge. It should be no surprise that writers can be as polarized as anyone else. But it was disconcerting to hear the Salvadoran exile, Manlio Argueta, say that writers imprisoned in Eastern Europe or Cuba were not a problem that concerned him. Or to register Saul Bellow's irritation when Third World writers talked of repression by U.S.-backed governments. To each, it seemed, the other side's martyrs were a form of aggression.

Bellow, probably to his regret, became something of a symbol of American hawkishness. In fact, his confrontation with Gunter Grass, ostensibly over inequities in this country, mainly reflected another concern.

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