For a while, it was Parnassus on the Piedmont. At George Mason University, a crowd of nearly 200 was swirling in eddies of admiration around South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet James Merrill, British novelist D.M. Thomas, fiction-writer, essayist and filmmaker Susan Sontag, poet William Matthews, critic David Kalstone of Rutgers and Edmund White, novelist, nonfiction writer and co-author of "The Joy of Gay Sex."
The topic was literary tradition, some of its most distinguished inheritors had convened for GMU's annual writers' symposium, and the audience was ripe for revelation. But before the program ended yesterday, after two days of lectures, panel discussions, readings and a little literary guerrilla theater, the writers had generated more heat than enlightenment. And the influence of tradition--or how it might be defined--still remained to be answered by posterity.
That outcome was hardly surprising, considering the spectacular diversity of the writers recruited by symposium organizer Stephen Goodwin, head of the writing program at GMU, on the dual criteria of literary excellence and "who was available," two of them from opposite ends of the earth.
Thomas, author of "The White Hotel," had fled Washington and his five-month teaching commitment to American University in January because he feared the adverse effects of publicity. "It was never simply a matter of the mass-market approach to his novel, now in more than 1 million paperback copies from Pocket Books . I'm happier with a bit of commercial vulgarity than I am with venerability. That threatens me--it was starting to make me feel old." But he has returned to America for a few days of promotional touring, and on Sunday he was sanguine. "I had expected to be rather pilloried," he said, but several of his former students have seen him and been "extremely forgiving." "I knew I let them down," but their response "has made me feel that people did understand that it wasn't a pointless, irresponsible act--I had to restore my sense of being human."
Gordimer, a diminutive woman with a face fit for Greek tragedy, is spending a week at GMU teaching fiction. She was introduced by Goodwin as a "prophet of revolution" because her latest novel, "July's People," is set in a fictional civil war. "I don't accept that mantle," she said. "There's nothing utilitarian about my fiction." But her opposition to apartheid is well known, and her 1979 novel, "Burger's Daughter," about a family of communist political activists, was temporarily banned in South Africa. "July's People" was not; but it was "grudgingly received," perhaps, she said, because the future setting means "it cannot be put to any practical use."
As a writer, she feels, her work has done little to improve conditions, and as a private citizen "I feel frustrated and useless." Although the recent changes in Mozambique and Zimbabwe "made blacks feel bouyant and made whites like myself full of joy," the "average white South African is filled with gloom," and she sees a "drift toward civil war" as sabotage attacks and preventive detention increase. "Our defense budget gets bigger and bigger," she said, while "the real war is at home--against inequality, poverty and suppression of black people." Through "power-sharing," she said, that war "can be won without shedding a drop of blood."
Goodwin began the symposium by warning the audience that the subject was "so vague as to be almost mystical," and Kalstone's opening address--interrupted by a power failure--tended to substantiate the claim. He spoke of how in "post-modern" American literature, "the power of allusion is diminished," writers are torn between "relish for the past" and "the anxiety of influence," and concluded with a recondite exegesis of the influence of George Herbert on the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop. Thereafter, most speakers spent their time either begging the question or belittling it. In the first panel discussion, the ever-voluble Sontag dismissed the question of allusion as "perhaps the most trivial way in which one is related to the past," arguing instead that each writer forms his own unique heritage. "It only takes a few writers, profoundly absorbed, to give you a tradition." Thomas found the topic "rather boring," since his only sense of tradition lies in writing for an audience of "two or three people--all dead."
And White doubted whether the concept was even applicable, since "in a way, Americans feel that a writer isn't really attached to a particular historical moment," citing the examples of "Eliot becoming more English than the English," and "Pound roaming and ransacking his way through world cultures." Expanding the theme in a lecture yesterday, he called the modern mass availability of world literary works a "library without walls": In our era, "access to every possible tradition" has made American writers "great magpies, or is it culture vultures?" with the result that many "deny their debt to the past," claim total originality, and forfeit the fruits of apprenticeship to a single culture.
Before the symposium ended with a poetry panel including Myra Sklarew and readings by Thomas and Sontag, there was one unscheduled dramatic event. Frank Conroy, director of literary programs for the National Endowment for the Arts, attempted to ambush Thomas by exposing a supposed plagiarism in "The White Hotel." He rose from the audience, books in hand, to claim that a quotation from Heraclitus ("the soul of man is a far country . . .") which appears late in the novel had been taken from a biography of Sigmund Freud and cited without reference. Thomas quietly explained that in fact the quotation was plainly attributed in an earlier passage in the book. "The alert reader," Thomas deadpanned, "will know." "Oh," said the abashed grantsman, "I missed it then."