Gore Vidal has quit this fallen world and completed the cycle of being and becoming. One might think death is the only thing in life about which surprise is impossible, but as with the winning national lotto numbers, it is always something which befalls the stranger. I have ransacked the interior of my cranium to locate my first memory of Gore. To find the earliest sighting of the man and the icon. No luck. It seems like somehow he’s always formed a part of the mental furniture.
Days like this make one think if there is not a cosmic plot afoot to knock off the higher order man. Two weeks ago it carried off Alexander Cockburn. Another week, another legend. In a saner world, the end of a calendar would be marked by the end of its greatest scribes. With the departure of Gore, an historic epoch is cremated.
He was rare among the post-war novelists in commanding a multi-generational appeal, winsome alike to a more literate age that festooned the gifted artist as well as those for whom the late night TV chat show is the modern novel. He liked to joke that he did not believe in Darwinian evolution because the quality of the American stock declined progressively with each passing generation. It was impossible to think of George Bush as an improvement upon Abraham Lincoln.
But he was no idoliser of the past. Among the finest of his novels, Lincoln, Gore fetched the Great Emancipator down from the seventh heaven, knocked the halo off the national myth, and converted him into a power grubbing mortal who, far removed from the high-flown speech of Gettysburg, never let the abolitionist cause impede his political aspirations for the top job.
His abiding theme was the manner by which false messiahs, past and present, went down the annals of history as redeemers, by the way sinners outfitted themselves in the white garb of the saint and made a killing. The court historians erected the idols of the age, and down Gore took them gleefully.
His victims were the guardians of orthodoxy, the politician, the clergyman, the courtiers of the state. Nothing so gratified his animal spirit than being reviled by the upholders of convention as a corrupter of the young. With his taboo defying books about same sex couplings, he never lacked for heresies to kindle and blood to stir.
He was sure that destructive criticism was good for the soul, reforming to the mind and kept one young. And if the crashing noise of his iconoclasm kept him out of the New York Times, then so much the worse for the Times.
Alone among the scribblers of his time and place he did more to set the national letters on a more honest course and guide the majestic currents of the culture high and low. It is said that he was an irreverent wit, that he warred against everything and venerated nothing, but it was really sham that he could not bear. Out of this same contempt for charlatans grew his deep respect for sound artificers. He celebrated the work of foreign novelists like Italo Calvino on whom he conferred the award of greatest fictioneer, and he gave praise and encouragement to many more.
In telling contrast to the false patriots that afflict the republic, Vidal served his country manfully in the Second World War from which he carried away a titanium knee that in later years wheelchaired him, and the hatred for war born of direct experience. In wit-kissed polemics after 9/11 he lobbed sticks of dynamite under the skirts of the architects of “perpetual wars for perpetual peace”. Was there not a way, he asked, to round up the hawkish draft dodgers and parachute them behind enemy lines?
Ronald Reagan was a cherished object of ridicule. He pioneered the witless presidency of the teleprompting know-nothing raised to an artform by Dubya. “Prepare yourself for some bad news” Gore announced on prime time TV. “Ronald Reagan’s library just burned down. Both books were destroyed. But the real horror: he hadn’t finished coloring either one of them.”
Decades before the onset of the professional atheist bores Gore denounced supernatural thinking for its anti-science foolery, its revolt against intelligence and its war on a secular ethic. The “Christers” were the bearers of Oriental despotism, and the beginning of civilisation was the end of monotheism. Yet he was not dead to the charms of the East. He cultivated a rich understanding of the history and culture of the non-Christian world and poured his learning with vast skill and beauty in Creation, the finest artistic rendering of comparative religion.
The old sinner did not permit his anti-Godism to be used as a weapon against the much hated Muslims, what with their religious frenzy and foreign habits. To the end he was a keen advocate of the Palestinian cause and enjoyed toying with degraded Zionists like John Podhoretz and his gaggle.
He was a friend of the high and mighty seen cavorting with Jack Kennedy and the Clintons, with Tennessee Williams and Jack Kerouac, and yet the trappings of power and pomp never conquered his undying scorn for the elected pawns of Wall Street and the arms industry. “The United States has one business party with two right-wing factions” he observed, “the Democrats and the Republicans”. Upon the Kennedy royals he fell with a meat cleaver as a gang of frauds unjustly venerated and declared JFK’s presidency a failure even as he cherished their personal friendship. There was no less partisan man.
If he made life troublesome for the establishment he was generous to the lower orders. Timothy McVeigh wrote him letters from death row and, in a culture that prefers to send the wicked prematurely to heaven, Gore went beyond the official cant that he was just a very naughty boy and dug up the reason why. Something to do with kids massacred in Waco by the FBI apparently. How odd. It’s almost as if terrorists have political motives.
The election of Obama was greeted with elation by him. Having had thrown his support behind the presidential run of Jesse Jackson a generation earlier, and defended the Civil Rights movement in the Sixties from the onslaught of Bill Buckley’s National Review which maintained a fondness for segregation, the reaction was understandable. But Gore had met one too many smooth talking mountebanks before to be long fooled by the windbag-in-chief.
The obits say that he nursed a great talent for the public feud. He was too severe on the lovable Truman Capote true enough, and he was surely wrong to say that he had no talent. Even so, much of this taste for invective came from a good place, his moral sense of incorruptibility: He gave no quarter even to friends who misbehaved, assailing Mailer for his book length attack on the feminist movement for which Norman repaid him with a punch and a headbutt.
He warned that, being the younger man, he would outlive the pugilist and write viciously about him. As any schoolboy could tell, however, the two iconoclasts, whatever misgivings they might have had, were much too fond of each other, and Gore waxed affectionately about the older writer when he died a few years back.
As the years took their toll on his health and ancient friends and foes snoozed below the damp soil, I think he felt increasingly out of place, out of time and out of step with a race so eager to stampede off the cliff. He pressed for a new constitutional convention to repair the ailing political system in keeping with Jefferson’s dream, and said that it was the only cure for our one party dictatorship.
His populism notwithstanding, he never could shake off the patrician doubt that perhaps afterall the masses, with their brimless capacity for cajoling and manipulation, are too stupid for reform.
We have had more popular novelists. But as a model of the true stylist, and among the practitioners of the English essay, Gore outruns them all. Good writing, if it aspires to graduate into art, makes for easy reading, and his bore the stamp of the aristocrat. It is reassuring to note a man could write so feelingly who never went to college, and it is some comfort that he left a vast body of work behind to be enjoyed by his admirers.
He will not be missed. For it is impossible to miss the omnipresent. Gore’s monuments are everywhere about us. He lived through scores of triumphs in the feeling and thought of the republic. And for this tall legacy, I give my affection to a monarch without a kingdom and a prophet without a creed.