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Archive for August, 2012

Lots of Gore

To live in an age of civilization decline sounds horrible, and yet also terribly attractive. People romanticize it all out of proportion to its actual reality, when science and history are often blind to it. But to a certain kind of writer, reveling more than he’d like to admit in Freudian death drive, it is delicious.

To Gore Vidal, a postwar literary lion who tried ever so hard to describe the world in a solipsistic idiom, decline was probably one of the most effective tools in his writer’s cassette. A winking, urbane snob who brandished wit often of the pun variety, an aristocrat who cried crocodile tears over American populism in ways mostly funny for their disingenuousness, a bitter crank who thought right wing bomber Timothy McVeigh’s and World Trade Center destroyer Osama bin Laden’s ideas deserved a day in court, a screenwriter who tried to inject transgressive ideas into Old Hollywood, Vidal left us last week, left us daring even to feel sentimental blush for his passing, since love was a frippery subject to him. For some of us, especially those with literary leanings, the news, unremarkable given his ill health, still likely caused a frisson of competitive writer’s id, the need to for one last moment perhaps feel competitive with a gilded age of public intellectuals, whose pungent, elegant sentences were something to be savored like brandy notes, not minced up on Twitter. We are hypocrites, though, as Gore Vidal realized, because in the 24 hour news cycle, few of us prize the written word so much as we crave a melodrama. It helps us feel alive.

A few hundred years ago, we forget that men could be roasted over green logs for hours over fine points of religious heresy. Gore Vidal did not live in such an age, but instead trod one of banality, of Main Street peanut crunchers meeting his manicured polemic not with fire but with puffy eyed bafflement. And so his American age, as much as he’d like to frame it in terms of Caligula and the decline of the Empire, was not full of burning corpses, but of thumb suckers. People squabbling over parochial biases and narrow ideas. It’s not surprising that Christianity and communism both find so many adherents in such an age–these philosophies both place the helpless individual into a historical narrative–communists see themselves as part of the materialist struggle on its way to revolution while Christians see themselves as soldiers in a battle for the heavens. This urge to frame one’s life in a higher context was no less tempting to Gore Vidal, who saw the decline of republicanism into imperialism as an inexorable thrust of history, and imagined himself as Cicero  standing at the pillar. He called himself a solipsist and joked that the rest of us were figments of his imagination. This kind of bold artist’s statement impresses those of us with less gusto, but only until we realize that Madonna and Tom Cruise probably see things the same way, and they sound less like cranky old farts.

The irony of such curmudgeons is how often they leave the world as beloved as Mother Teresa. Note the fawning obituaries recalling him with a sentimentality he would seldom show others. Of course, in this age of “Obit Hits,” we have a few naysayers: Here’s a savage attack on Vidal by Slate, if you like the taste of blood.

I have a few Gore Vidal novels at home, and though one can’t help but be impressed by his erudition, in many ways his desire to stand outside of history as a monitor meant he was left aside by some of the most exciting ideas in the 20th century. He thought Bob Dylan wrote terrible lyrics. He dismissed Thomas Pynchon because he thought “Gravity’s Rainbow” was unreadable (i.e., he didn’t understand it, and there’s a pathetic essay out there preserving that ignorance for posterity). At the end of the day, as he fought for the value of letters in an illiterate society, he probably didn’t know how much he sounded like the grumpy old men of the right after their declaration of culture wars. He didn’t seem to get, with his enlightenment superciliousness, that the 20th century belonged to irrationalism. Freud and Jung’s science may have had little basis in fact, but their interpretations of history offered guideposts for an age in which we found out particles’ positions and directions couldn’t be determined at the same time. When mass slaughter could be contrived by a few people with sick beliefs. The realm of the unconscious seemed to hold no guerdon for Gore, and so we are left only with his cleverness and its limitations. If Vidal had anything else in common with Christopher Hitchens, his also recently departed “dauphin,” it was that both seemed to think that the highest form of consciousness was spotting vulgarism and irony, and that those with such radar were society’s saviors. As if all the other forms of intelligence and consciousness and aesthetic barely mention a footnote.  For that reason, Vidal’s novels can feel awfully limited and contrived–more likely to cause titters than cries of “Eureka!” Gore Vidal seemed bent in impressing us and bullying us into seeing the world his way than on pursuing the humbling task more native to the great artists–discovery, with a bit of humility.

Seeing himself as a historical figure, he seemed to write about history in first person a lot. “Look, there’s me with Tennessee Williams in the late ’40s. Already, my serious mien suggests I see trouble in the postwar era.” Or, “Hey, look, there’s me blowing the lid off the Oklahoma City bombing story. Adding my stamp to your understanding because mass murder by an extremist doesn’t explain itself well enough.” “Look, there’s me with Jackie Kennedy as she explains after-sex douching.” “Look, there’s me not being liked by the Kennedys anymore.” Whether the subject was Occam’s razor or McVeigh, Vidal was ineffably gifted in starting the sentence with “I.” Historians might wrestle with each other over the Great Man Theory of history, but Gore Vidal was constantly able to show that when it comes to being a Great Man in History, 90% of success is showing up.

Did he mention that he was good looking? And that his enemies weren’t? He boasted of his sexual exploits and his lack of concern with others’ pleasure, even those he bedded. He informed us that he was not capable of sexual jealousy or love (besides the love of his long-lost school fere “Jimmy Trimble,” killed in World War II.) He claimed to have taken Jack Kerouac upstairs to one of the rooms in the Chelsea Hotel to play horses and mares and wondered if the registry would become famous. Yes, Gore Vidal helped illuminate hypocrisy, especially sexual hypocrisy in a way that was to offer pathways to liberation for homosexuals. But he didn’t embrace the gay movement so much as he insisted that everybody was secretly bisexual and just wouldn’t admit it. Why? Because he was. If we admit he helped history along, we also have to admit he did it in the way that only an unabashed narcissist could–with a Napoleonic, indefatigable belief that everything he did was right, a belief bestowed him by his patrician upbringing among the rich and powerful. (His grandfather was Senator Thomas Gore of Oklahoma.)

You can take his word for it, and if you were scared of him, you probably would. And yet he was surpassed on so many levels by people with a better understanding of the spirit of the age.

He also liked to attack people for their looks and once said that narcissists are just people better looking than you, i.e., him. You can trace ad hominem attacks back further than Vidal, surely, but he made it urbane and witty to attack persons (He said Will Hays looked like Mickey Mouse) and that likely inspired ferocious leftists of the current day (like those on the Daily Kos blog, whose authors do the same, albeit without the wit or elegance). You could easily say that his crankiness and flights of paranoid conspiracy mongering in his last 15 years ought to be excused because of his age. Vidal isn’t the first sharp intellect (Vonnegut is another sad example) who turned shrill, uncompromising and humorless in dotage. But he was calling his adversaries Nazis (William F. Buckely) and comparing them to Charles Manson (Norman Mailer) in the 1960s. So Vidal’s affable curmudgeon routine could also be seen as less a sad effect of age and more of a sclerotic hardening of bad qualities he’d always had. You might not notice because he was always willing to gossip about whom he’d fucked, which made him more fun than, say, Noam Chomsky.

But can I miss the writer? Yes. Sometimes. Myra Breckinridge is very funny. Not as funny or Vonnegut or Pynchon or Southern, but funny. In his cramped way, Gore Vidal illuminated sexual and political hypocrisy, albeit with reductionist obsessions. He championed numerous writers like Italo Calvino and Dawn Powell who might have been forgotten. He endured blacklisting after writing an openly gay novel (in the ’40s!) and made it his job to blast accepted history. The latter is not a fun job. It requires constantly questioning the underpinnings of your beliefs, especially about the world you live in and who was really a hero, who was foolish, and who bought their way into more acceptability. He knew. Because he had crawled around in that world himself, one he claimed he had tried, with some success, to leave. Fighting accepted history is like taking out garbage. You will be doing it forever if you do it right.

My fondest memory of Gore Vidal is, oddly, as an actor. He played a cameo role of a garrulous priest in the film Igby Goes Down, which also starred his pal Susan Sarandon. Vidal has a brief monologue in which he is giddy describing the joys of the fall leaves. Vidal, whose famous vanity surprisingly didn’t lead to an acting career, is positively ebullient in his small role talking the trivialities of a fool. Seeing him work so hard to fake warmth made me feel warm. It redeemed a lot of his literary work, which has always left me impressed, sometimes titillated, but nevertheless a little cold afterward with no one to hug. Maybe only the memory of the beloved J.T.

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