Cato of the Antipodes
In literature as in life, there is something to be said for indeterminacy, poetical ambiguity, and the aching, open synapses of incomplete ideas. But the essays of Gore Vidal are a break from all that, a weather station in the Alps. When the air is clear, you can see across borders; when it’s cloudy, chats by the fireside agitate and charm.
Atypically for a critic of the 20th century, Gore Vidal does not subordinate his perceptions to any school or ideology. This is why he can be trusted. For models, he looks to the worldly, progressive belletrists of the late 19th and early 20th century: Henry James, William Dean Howells, Henry Adams. Note the absence of their immediate predecessors: Hawthorne, Melville, Emerson. Vidal is not a romantic—his mind is empirical. Though he reads with a sympathetic eye, his judgments are sonorous with authority.
Though he often writes of politics, he is a critic and a satirist rather than a pundit, and much of even this work comes by way of book reviewing. “I start from the premise that the creator is ‘right,’” he notes, in the introduction to his second collection of essays, Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship. “I try to inhabit his work, to enjoy it, to be—very simply—had by the artist. Only later does one attempt to answer the question: to what extent has the maker of the world accomplished what he set out to do?” Mark that try. Vidal is a natural skeptic, and one of the pleasures of his criticism is the extent to which he refuses to be had by certain writers, try as they might. He claims to feel no pinch of sadism, and though his dismissive aperçus are rightly famous (on John Barth: “This isn’t bad, except as prose”; on Theodore Roosevelt: “Give a sissy a gun and he will kill everything in sight”), I don’t want to go on quoting them here, because they fill up space all too often in newspaper profiles and what Martin Amis calls the “shithead factfile” that precedes interviews. Isolated, these blow-gun darts of observation shock and amuse, yes, but they also diminish the author, show him only as a drawing-room wit and not the serious reader and thinker that, on more thorough perusal, he reveals himself to be.
It wasn’t until he was well into his thirties that Gore Vidal took to criticism. He’d already written nearly a dozen novels, as well as some stage plays and screenplays. It’s fashionable to put down his early books, and I won’t demur, except to say that of his pre-1960s work, the novels Messiah and The Judgment of Paris still reward reading, and the play The Best Man is being revived, rightly so, as this essay goes to press. In his earliest essays, collected in 1962’s Rocking the Boat, we find Vidal’s mature voice already formed. Precision of language obsesses him and jargon bores him. “The language of criticism now tends to be as inexact as the prose of the works criticized,” he writes in a frustrated essay about the easy answers and easy familiarity of the live theater in New York, where “words are employed for transient emotive effects, never meaning.” Already, the ills of a safely sentimental age were in place to be tipped over. He nips at method acting: “those gentle souls, the actors … have been taught that ‘truth’ is everything. And what is ‘truth’? Feeling. And what is feeling? Their own secret core, to which the character they are to interpret must be related.” This is one of the many types of laziness he fought against in the literature of his time.
Beginning in the 1970s, Vidal would from time to time write movingly about the fiction he had read as a child (Tarzan, Oz) and of his frustration with other childhood pursuits. He couldn’t build a model plane and didn’t care for sports. Before books, he must have oscillated between boredom (the languors of Washington DC in the summer, pre–air conditioning, with its slow ceiling fans and empty streets) and the alternating stimulation on offer from two antipodal but directly related people. His mother Nina was a drunk and a morphine addict (“I think what Nina instinctively most feared was an intelligent witness”). And so Gore (then Eugene) sought refuge from her anxious house in the company of his grandfather, the grand old blind senator from Oklahoma, T.P. Gore, later the boy’s elective namesake. Young Eugene had the thrill of leading the old man onto the senate floor and the more intimate pleasure of reading to him. Here he learned about politics—dissimulations, maneuvers, small tells—and he learned about the late 19th century when his grandfather was young and America had not yet thundered up the gory hills of empire. Increasingly—nearly a century later—on shaky web-cam interviews and in the writing he still produces, Vidal sets T.P. Gore at the center of everything he talks about. Though the old man died a conservative, almost a reactionary, the famously progressive Gore speaks proudly of the senator’s atheism, his isolationism, his skepticism—all traits the younger man shares. He stretches stories (T.P. “invented” the state of Oklahoma) and walks him, as a fond memory and indignant ghost, into every conversation. He used to graze on the old man’s library and to read brittle newspaper clippings about his career, trying to piece the story together. Learning about the senator, and his world, foreshadowed the grown Gore’s twin concerns: literature and politics, their confluence, and the lessons in both the 19th century has left for us.
Reading became a way into worlds not his own:
I have a precise, tactile memory of the first Oz book that came into my hands. It was the original 1910 edition of The Emerald City. I still remember the look and feel of those dark blue covers, the evocative smell of dust and old ink. I also remember that I could not stop reading and rereading the book. But “reading” is not the right word. In some mysterious way, I was translating myself to Oz, a place which I was to inhabit for many years while, simultaneously, visiting other fictional worlds as well as maintaining my cover in that dangerous one known as “real.” With The Emerald City, I became addicted to reading.
The story of Vidal’s adult life has been told and retold, not least by Vidal himself, but I’ll sketch it briefly for those coming in late. He went to war in the Pacific at seventeen and there wrote his first novel, Williwaw, which made his name. His third novel, The City and The Pillar, a somewhat frank story of two boys screwing around with each other, made him notorious. (The latter was always more a series of gestures than a finished work, and Vidal extensively revised it twenty years later both to make what was going on between the boys more explicit and render the ending more psychologically real). Because he had entrée from childhood to the Great World he bought a manse up the Hudson, an apartment in Rome and a villa in Ravenna. Exercising his wit in drawing rooms and clubs and occasional weekends with the Kennedys (he and Jackie had siblings in common), he got into a fuck-you contest with Bobby Kennedy that expelled him forever from Camelot. He took in nightclubs and weekend parties with Saul Bellow, Dawn Powell, and Anaïs Nin, then spent the next forty years writing bestseller after bestseller about American history, ancient history, and American cultural oddities.
As much as we may envy his progress, the anecdotes evaporate unless he tells them himself (making them art) and his grins on the Johnny Carson show and tussles with Norman Mailer on the Dick Cavett show are either lost or deteriorating or, if surviving, awkward period-fodder on YouTube. What’s left to us is the best of his time: his mornings working and afternoons reading.
He loves books that seduce him, take him to new places (Vidal was an early champion of Italo Calvino and an old fan of Fredric Prokosch). Later, this curiosity about unfamiliar lands leads him deeper into his own country’s past. This love of discovery was also a hatred of boredom, of being told what he already knew he knew. Thanks, perhaps, to his alcoholic mother, Vidal developed a loathing of deliberate liars (as opposed to bullshitters and tale-spinners, like Anthony Burgess and Tennessee Williams, whom he adored for their bald blarney). Vidal’s aesthetic philosophy—to the extent such a thing can be pinned down—is causal: because he is angered by boredom, he finds solace in books that either tell him something new about this world or which sweep him into another. Because he hates lies, he champions that which is precisely observed and truly told.
He holds his own criticism to this same standard. Not a short review goes by where he does not introduce a general discovery, a bit of pointed perception, like in the opening of his review of Susan Sontag’s Death Kit:
The beginning of a novel tends to reveal the author’s ambition. The implicit or explicit obeisance he pays to previous works of literature is his way of “classing” himself, thereby showing interest in the matter. But as he proceeds, for better or worse his true voice is bound to be heard, if only because it is not possible to maintain for the length of a novel a voice pitched at a false level. Needless to say, the best and the worst novels are told in much the same tone from beginning to end, but they need not concern us here.
Vidal notes that Sontag’s “principal literary sources are Nathalie Sarraute, Robbe-Grillet, Sartre, and Kafka.” Vidal likes these writers, but he likes them firsthand. He produces swaths of prose from each to compare with Sontag’s own, and to note her inattention to the precision good language requires:
The first few pages of Death Kit are rich with Sarrautesque phrases: “inert, fragile, sticky fabric of things,” “the soft interconnected tissuelike days,” “surfaces of people deformed and bloated and leaden and crammed with vile juices” (but Miss Sarraute would not have written “leaden” because a bloated person does not suggest metal; more to the point, “leaden” is not a soft, visceral word), “his jellied porous boss” (but isn’t the particular horror of true jelly its consistency of texture? A porous jelly is an anomaly).
Vidal goes on to limn the plot, entertainingly describing a man who may or not have committed murder on the train where he meets his future wife. He likes the coda of the novel very much, where “Sontag reveals herself as an artist with a most powerful ability to show us what it is she finally, truly sees,” suggesting that “once she has freed herself of literature, she will have the power to make it, and there are not many American writers one can say that of.”
Reflections Upon a Sinking Ship also sports essays on new French fiction, Edmund Wilson, Byzantium, and Nasser’s Egypt, as well as a conversation with Barry Goldwater, a tribute to John Horne Burns, notes on the Tarzan books, and a delicious review of Sexus by Henry Miller. See how beautifully Vidal steps back at the end of the following paragraph and lets Miller’s prose hang itself, substantiating Vidal’s judgment, which, up to that point, might have appeared unkind:
Things usually get going when Miller meets a New Person at a party. New Person immediately realizes that this is no ordinary man. In fact, New Person’s whole life is often changed after exposure to the hot radiance of Henry Miller. For opening the door to Feeling, Miller is then praised by New Person in terms which might turn the head of God—but not the head of Henry Miller, who notes each compliment with the gravity of a recording angel. If New Person is a woman, then she is due for a double thrill. As a lover, Henry Miller is a national resource, on the order of Yosemite National Park. Later, exhausted by his unearthly potency, she realizes that for the first time she has met a Man … one for whom post coitum is not triste but rhetorical. When lesser men sleep, Miller talks about the cosmos, the artist, the sterility of modern life. Or in his own words: “… our conversations were like passages out of The Magic Mountain, only more virulent, more exalted, more sustained, more provocative, more inflammable, more dangerous, more menacing, and much more, ever so much more, exhausting.”
Though he champions Miller’s work against censorship, he ends by shaking his head over “writers of a certain kind, and not all bad … bursting with some terrible truth that they can never quite articulate.” He enjoys Roland Barthes (and quotes him, here and there, approvingly) but disapproves of Barthes’ “lizardlike dodges” away from points about to be proved. This is also the stem of his famous antipathy toward Norman Mailer’s work:
Mailer is forever shouting at us that he is about to tell us something we must know or has just told us something revelatory and we failed to hear him or that he will, God grant his poor abused brain and body just one more chance, get through to us so that we will know. Actually, when he does approach a point he shifts into a swelling, throbbing rhetoric which is not easy to read but usually has something to do with love and sex and the horror of our age and the connection which must be made between time and sex (the image this bit of rhetoric suggests to me is a limitless gray sea of time with a human phallus desperately poking at a corner of it). He is at his best (who is not?) when discussing himself.
Vidal’s readers quarrel amongst themselves: is he skeptical of John Kennedy’s administration because of its cold war rhetoric and embrace of the National Security State? No, some of us insist, he dislikes Kennedy because he wants to be Kennedy—what did Kennedy have that Gore wanted? Power? Pulpit? Another: Gore dislikes academia because its denizens are authoritarian and theory-drunk. No, no, no he loathes academia because he himself is perceived there as a mere bestseller writer—not intertextual, not relevant, and consequently uncelebrated.
It’s true that Vidal has long felt excluded from the academic conversation (he has never been avant enough, though, as he might irritably ask “avant of what”). This is because the books he writes and the books he likes to read do not need to be explicated at length, only read with care. He doesn’t cotton to systematic analysis, or any study in which the act of examination itself attains more importance than the book on your lap. There is an element of snobbery here. “Those of us who emerged in the forties,” he writes, “regarded the university … as a kind of skid row far worse than a seven-year writer’s contract at Columbia (the studio, not the university).” This swipe comes built with its own irony, as to no one’s eye is churning out pop pap at MGM (where Gore was himself under contract for many years) a more noble or selfless profession than teaching the young. Fortunately, he did not remain in Hollywood long, and by the time of his second collection, he had abandoned celluloid for movable type; his voice had become a fixture in the magazines of his day, Esquire and Encounter, New World Writing and Life.
Reflections Upon A Sinking Ship is dedicated to Jason and Barbara Epstein, and with good reason. Vidal’s review of some essays by John Hersey filled the last pages of the first issue of The New York Review of Books, and were the first of some eighty-odd pieces Vidal would write for them over the following half-century. A berth at the Review (and, to a lesser extent, the Times Literary Supplement) gave Vidal the opportunity to relax his line of argument into digressions, satires, personal anecdotes. He sinks back into his chair and puts us at ease. He keeps us there, at pause from the day’s occupations, to talk of things past and things to come. He knows when to spin a story out and when to let it drop; he knows when to drop cutting lines like a torch singer knows when to let her voice crack.
In the 1970s, a long string of successful histories and satires behind him, he turned to (and on) his contemporaries in a series of glorious hatchet jobs for NYRB. In 1973 he reviewed all ten of the New York Times bestsellers (a custom we periodically revive in these pages) calling out the mostly no-longer-memorable list for stealing scenes and spectacles from Hollywood, and for catering to the worn-in tastes of its readership. And worse. Of Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War, he notes:
Mr. Wouk perpetuates the myth that the SS were all fags. This is now an article of faith with many uneducated Americans on the ground that to be a fag is the worst thing that could befall anyone next to falling into the hands of a fag sadist, particularly the SS guards who were as “alike as chorus boys … with blond waved hair, white teeth, bronzed skin, and blue eyes.” Actually the SS guards in 1939 were not particularly pretty; they were also not fags. Hitler had eliminated that element.
In a 1982 collection titled, in England, Pink Triangle and Yellow Star, Vidal dresses down the neocons Norman Podhoretz (“I hope and pray we bomb Iran”), Midge Decter, and their Commentary colleague Hilton Kramer for hypocrisy. Jewish themselves, and no strangers to bigotry, they nonetheless remain cold to compassion, writing and publishing screeds against the subjugated many:
They know that should the bad times return, the Jews will be singled out yet again. Meanwhile, like so many Max Naumanns (Naumann was a German Jew who embraced Nazism), [the Commentary crowd] passionately supports our ruling class—from the Chase Manhattan Bank to the Pentagon to the Op-Ed page of the Wall Street Journal—while holding in fierce contempt faggots, blacks (see Norman Podhoretz’s “My Negro Problem and Ours.” Commentary, February 1963), and the poor (see Midge Decter’s “Looting and Liberal Racism,” Commentary, September 1977). Since these neo-Naumannites are going to be in the same gas chambers as the blacks and the faggots, I would suggest a cease-fire and a common front against the common enemy, whose kindly voice is that of Ronald Reagan and whose less than kindly mind is elsewhere in the boardrooms of the Republic.
By 1981, when this appeared in The Nation, Vidal had been writing sensibly about politics and sexual and racial identity for twenty years. It’s worth noting that this was a riskier enterprise then it may appear in retrospect. In 1965, for example, he could write, “The idea that there is no such thing as ‘normality’ is at last penetrating the tribal consciousness, although the religiously inclined still regard nonprocreative sex as ‘unnatural,’ while the statistically inclined regard as ‘normal’ only what the majority does.” Thirty years later, it was the shock of shocks for one sixteen-year-old in a sexist, racist, homophobic town to read—on library microfilm—essays that spoke to the pan-sexuality of all people, the meaninglessness of race, and a recognizable world in which “people don’t like their slaves very much.” He goes on: “Women were—and in some cases still are—slaves to men, and attempts to free slaves must be put down.” Even better: “The young man with a child and pregnant wife is going to do as he is told. The young man or woman on his own might not be so tractable.”
There is also, half a century prior to Occupy Wall Street, this observation-as-prophecy:
Millions of men, women, and children are financially exploited in order to support one per cent of the population in opulence and the rest in sufficient discomfort to keep them working at jobs that they dislike in order to buy things that they do not need in order to create jobs to make money to be able to buy, etc. This is not a just society. It may not last much longer. But for the present, the children of the rich are as carefully conditioned to the world as it is as are those of the poor.
But Vidal has a love/hate relationship with power, and with the American people. He sounds more certain in his essays than you can believe he feels. He suspects Reagan to be millenarian, but Vidal himself wrote two novels about the end of the world (three if we count Julian) and is routinely quotable with some species of “let’s get it over with.” He hates American empire but mourns its collapse. He feels as though American citizens have all the power they need to effect a real change, but he derides those citizens as the laughing stock of civilization. Can he really favor democracy? He’d gladly play pope. As he puts it, “what matters finally is not the world’s judgment of oneself but one’s own judgment of the world. Any writer who lacks this final arrogance will not survive very long in America.”
Permitting George Bush to take the White House was a poor way for America’s citizens to repay their preeminent critic. During the Bush years, Gore Vidal published (and republished) his essays in pamphlets—not very sturdy or handsome things produced by the publishing arm of The Nation. I surprised myself by never being able to finish reading one of these. I don’t think he was slipping. I think the reason was the same as he gave for not being able to finish the essays of Robert Coles; because Vidal had shaped so many of my own political opinions, my distractibility had to do with “my own perhaps irrational conviction that [his] heart is so entirely in all the right places (mouth, boots, upon the sleeve) that nothing he has to say will ever surprise me.” He hated what he called the Bush Junta and he hated the meaningless wars and the public’s yellow ribbons of surrender. Of course his work changed nothing. Warmongering was in vogue that decade, as it had been at the beginning of his career.
Those pamphlets no longer sell as they did, but Gore Vidal’s monument remains. It’s difficult to find a hardcover copy of United States: Essays 1952 – 1992 with its jacket intact, so read and re-read has this great book been. In these pieces, and the equally valuable annex The Last Empire: Essays 1992-2000, Vidal proves as good a companion to the open, literate mind as can be found anywhere. In the later essays especially, those written from the Carter years forward, Vidal writes not only about what he despises but about what he loves. Henry James’s later bookchat surprises him in its capacious sympathies. James’s The Golden Bowl (dictated, and so belonging “as much to the oral tradition of narrative as to the written”) evinces “a new heightening effect … he has learned from the theater to eliminate the nonessential but, paradoxically, the style becomes more complex.” William Dean Howells is praised as avant-garde in his realism, his awareness that “our manners and customs go for more in life than our qualities,” and his eye for the quotidian. Mark Twain, under assault by a critic for youthful bigotry and presumed impotence, is defended; we’re all born bigots, but some of us grow wise. Twain hates how America and Europe enslave the poorer countries of the world, and Vidal, in perfect digressive style, wonders at how,
When one contemplates the anti-imperialism of Mark Twain, it’s hard to tell just where it came from. During his lifetime the whole country was—like himself—on the make, in every sense. But Mark Twain was a flawed materialist. As a Southerner he should have had some likening for the peculiar institution of slavery; yet when he came to write of antebellum days, it is Miss Watson’s “nigger,” Jim, who represents what little good Twain ever found in man. Lynching shocked him. But then, pace Hemingway, so did Spanish bullfights. Despite the various neuroses ascribed to him by our current political correctionalists, he never seemed in any doubt that he was a man and therefore never felt, like so many sissies of the Hemingway sort, a need to swagger about, bullying those not able to bully him.
Note that comma after “Jim.” With it, Vidal makes the epithet Miss Watson’s and not his own. He can always be counted on for touches like that, for taking care in small things, and for reliably providing someone to laugh at the squares with. Twenty years have passed since the publication of United States; sooner, let’s hope, rather than later, all of Gore Vidal’s essays will be bound together once again, The Last Empire included. Even in onionskin, the volume will be a heavy one—heavy enough to measure your own mind against, and your own collection of sympathies. It will be a wonderful book.
John Cotter‘s novel Under the Small Lights was published by Miami University Press in 2010. He’s a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly.