Gore Vidal, gentleman bitch
Welcome to Assessment, an occasional tour through the fights, critical squabbles and obsessions of the Internet culture machine.
“Gore Vidal loved America in the way that the best of the founders did,” The Nation’s John Nicols wrote today. He also called Vidal a “bold and unrelenting challenger of the Puritanism that he regarded as the ugliest of American tendencies."
No doubt this is an accurate assessment of Vidal, the prolific author, playwright, television commentator, social gadfly and aphorist who died late yesterday in his Hollywood Hills residence at the age of 86.
But Vidal was also prolific in his self-assessments, many of which are reformulations of his proclamation of himself as America's "gentleman bitch."
Vidal wrote 25 novels, of which the bestsellers Lincoln and Myra Breckenridge were the most famous; several obituary writers are reminding the public that his 1946 novel The City and the Pillar was one of the first to feature characters who were unapologetically gay.
He also wrote TV dramas and screenplays, such as Caligula (Roger Ebert, who today tweeted his admiration for Lincoln, at the time called the movie “sickening, utterly worthless, shameful trash”) and Billy the Kid, which starred Val Kilmer and featured an appearance by Vidal himself.
But these were finally calling cards; countless novelists and screenwriters as prolific and with this number of successes are forgotten. (The New York Times obituary today says, without apparent sarcasm, "Few American writers have been more versatile or gotten more mileage from their talent.")
It was what he said when he arrived at the party, which he did often ("I never miss a chance to have sex or appear on television," he once said) that kept him in the public mind. His quotes have the aphoristic appeal of Dorothy Parker or Oscar Wilde; the latter was a great subject of his, and Vidal turned one of Wilde's most famous quips, that one must "have a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell without laughing," against him, asking rhetorically whether the same might not be said of "Ballad of Reading Gaol."
In fact, Vidal was a great admirer of Wilde, to whom he was often compared. He simply hated the academics' fascination with Wilde's sexuality, the great distraction from a great literary career.
Being a gentleman bitch, Vidal knew, was a dangerous game, and he was not naive about it, nor did he suffer naivety in his subjects.
For all that iciness, Vidal was a crusader, and one who used all the stylistic weapons in the neoconservative arsenal—a grip on American history and the classics, and of the whole great Bloomian canon—in the aid of the American left. (Bloom once snipped that the real reason Vidal wasn't more widely read was not his sexual identity but his practice of genre literature, historical fiction.)
But when the weapons on both sides are essentially the same, little more than great television really emerges. Here's Vidal's famous confrontation with William F. Buckley Jr., at the 1968 convention in Chicago:
He was of course at times a fatalist and even listless crusader:
"'Liberal' comes from the Latin liberalis, which means pertaining to a free man," Vidal said in a 1992 Lowell lecture at Harvard University. "In politics, to be liberal is to want to extend democracy through change and reform. One can see why the word had to be erased from our political lexicon."
Asked once about Obama's trouble getting the health-care law passed, Vidal said:
Well, if I were he, I would just give up. He should say to the country, 'The Republicans will not allow these things to come to a vote without a filibuster. We can’t get anything through. So, good luck. Take two aspirin – and you’ll all die of the next epidemic.'
That interview, with John Meroney in The Atlantic, also became controversial because of Vidal's answer to a question about Roman Polanski's arrest for the rape of a 13-year-old girl. Vidal was friends with Polanski, and finally attributes the entire episode to anti-Semitism and a sort of retroactive Puritanism. His punchline: "I really don’t give a fuck. Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?"
But unlike the neoconservatives he sometimes sounds so much like in tone and presentation, Vidal was a historian and a novelist, and not a maker of public works; he never meant to be. He ran colder than that.
"I'm exactly as I appear," he once said. "There is no warm loveable person inside. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water."
Vidal's higher goals and intelligence notwithstanding, it was this personality, and his orientation toward the forbidden topic, the over-the-top insult or one-liner, that made him impossible to ignore (and impossible not to invite on the air). He once told the biographer C. David Heymann that Robert Kennedy and Rudolf Nureyev had engaged in a threesome with an American soldier—a claim that made him enemies in the Kennedy camp. But it was part of the game to push the boat out too far and come back in to shore.
To the degree that his semi-scholarly work in history is forefronted on the occasion of his death, it's worth remembering what Vidal, who would never have observed these kinds of obsequies, once said of the discipline: “History is nothing but gossip about the past, with the hope that it might be true.”
He was fond of putting interviewers off the path of taking him seriously. His Jean Kerr-esque mutation in an interview with The Paris Review on his writing methods included: "First coffee, then a bowel movement. Then the Muse joins me."
The New York Times obituary at least does not submit to the decorum Vidal so hated, noting that the man of letters claimed to have had over 1,000 “sexual encounters” by age 25. As a sort of reverse Anderson Cooper, there was little about Vidal's sex life we didn't know, and yet he was not to be considered gay exactly. Here another controversial aphorism of Vidal's applies: "There is no such thing as a homosexual or a heterosexual person. There are only homo- or heterosexual acts. Most people are a mixture of impulses if not practices."
From that point of view, there is little to be said of Vidal except that his acts were of both types.
Some of his most re-quoted aphorisms: "Envy is the central fact of American life” and "A narcissist is someone better looking than you are."
Over the years there have been those who thought Vidal a genius and those who have doubted it more quietly; those who found him despicable and those who rallied around his heterodoxies. Dave Eggers once said: "His words, his intellect, his activism, his ability and willingness to always speak up and hold his government accountable, especially, has been so inspiring to me I can't articulate it.”
In the context of the obituary in The Daily Telegraph, that quote served as evidence of Vidal as an inspiration to young writers. But his contemporaries (and for Vidal, attention was a zero-sum game and all contemporaries were competitors: "Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies") weren't always so keen. Ralph Ellison's assessment of Vidal was that he wasn't much more than a "campy patrician."
More recently, a former acolyte of Vidal and fellow atheist activist, the late Christopher Hitchens, himself known for some Vidal-like tendencies (The Hitch Slap) turned on his idol in a 2010 essay for Vanity Fair:
The price of knowing him was exposure to some of his less adorable traits, which included his pachydermatous memory for the least slight or grudge and a very, very minor tendency to bring up the Jewish question in contexts where it didn’t quite belong. One was made aware, too, that he suspected Franklin Roosevelt of playing a dark hand in bringing on Pearl Harbor and still nurtured an admiration in his breast for the dashing Charles Lindbergh, leader of the American isolationist right in the 1930s. But these tics and eccentricities, which I did criticize in print, seemed more or less under control, and meanwhile he kept on saying things one wished one had said oneself.
... However, if it’s true even to any degree that we were all changed by September 11, 2001, it’s probably truer of Vidal that it made him more the way he already was, and accentuated a crackpot strain that gradually asserted itself as dominant.
Late in his life, Vidal, as Hitchens points out, had come to view the terrorist attacks as a conspiracy that likely involved the Bush White House; valorized, not it seems purely for effect, Timothy McVeigh; and became more truculent in his assessment that it was a mistake for the U.S. to enter World War II.
The Wall Street Journal has posted a selection of Twitter tributes from unlikely sources (Flea and Rob Lowe among them), to which we might add an update from Michael Ian Black: “Sad to hear that Gore Vidal died but slightly comforted by the fact that I never read anything he wrote.”
Perhaps the best testament to Vidal's self-possession is the fact that he doesn't seem to act any differently in an interview on the topic of history with Ali G than he would being interviewed by anyone else: The Vidal you got was almost precisely the same. (Hitchens, again: "his private talk was as entertaining and shocking as his more prepared public appearances.")
Then again, he already understood this phenomenon when he said in 1979, "Television is a great leveler. You always end up sounding like the people who ask the questions."