Rest in Peace, Gore Vidal
Gore Vidal died on July 31. The “author, playwright, essayist, screenwriter, and political activist,” in the words of Wikipedia, was an important figure for the American left. Virtually no American author as well respected in the mainstream took such radical stances. Like Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, he did not simply appeal to American’s better side to remove the sting of injustice, but, instead, challenged core principles of the American creed and self image. Unlike Chomsky and Zinn, Vidal had a real presence in the mainstream American literary world. He was also comfortable with electronic media, writing for television and film and engaging in memorable televised debates. At the same time, Vidal spoke from a nativist, upper-class perspective that sometimes veered close to, or passed into, racist terrain.
Jay Rothermel wrote an essay published on MRZine in 2010 that captured well some of Vidal’s strengths and weaknesses.
Few US novelists have been as successful as Vidal while at the same time being defiantly and outspokenly a rationalist, an atheist, a bisexual, and supremely derisive about the two-party electoral system (even when himself descending into the fray of electoral cretinism). His career nicely illustrates the deep contradictions imperialist culture reserves for the independent-minded artist: taking a critical and contrarian stance to the most ignorant, vulgar, and hypocritically squalid aspects of life under capitalism, but embracing a merely individual, negative view of opposition, sooner or later leading to quietist cynicism.
Vidal, like most petty-bourgeois radicals of his generation (Chomsky, Mailer, Sontag, et cetera), is strongest when exposing the many crimes and base motivations behind Washington and Wall Street’s bloody rule at home and abroad. But when it comes time to give an answer to the “question of questions” that naturally arises from such criticism — “What Is to Be Done?” — all he can muster is nostrums: in response to Nixon and Reagan, Vidal could only suggest a new constitutional convention or replacement of the federal government by a parliamentary system. Tired of “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace“? Mourn eloquently, but don’t organize.
On the other hand, Rothermel notes, unlike most of his peers, he did not capitulate to the reactionary mood inaugurated by Reagan and deepened since 9-11. But Vidal could not transcend such postures as apocalyptic conspiracism and despair that the American ruling class is unbeatable.
Ultimately, Rothermel reserves his strongest praise for Vidal’s under-appreciated novels:
Few novelists are as meticulous and graceful in their style, and as confident in the organization of material. “The Messiah” (1954) is a richly textured fantasy perfectly delineating a stultified and increasingly irrational Cold War hothouse culture… “Duluth“(1983) is a brief, hectic, and funny novel about everyday life in the US as it might be narrated by a Martian (or an expatriate novelist). “Empire“(1987),”Hollywood“(1990), and “The Golden Age“(2000) tell the story of Vidal’s finest fictional creation, Caroline Sanford.
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