Upon hearing of the death of Gore Vidal, I had an immediate, almost visceral reaction, which I immortalized in Twitter form. That is the rhetoric of the age — immediate thoughts, put out in a form that was immediately visible for all to see. It was, in its way, the anthesis of Gore Vidal’s writing.
Still, I stand by it the next day, and will cheerfully reproduce it here:
I called the (inevitable) political cartoons of Vidal at the Pearly Gates inappropriate for two reasons: one, because Gore Vidal didn’t believe in Heaven. As with Christopher Reeve (an Atheist) and George Harrison (a Buddhist), there is something vaguely offensive of depicting Gore Vidal’s undergoing Heavenly judgment in an affectionate style. And two, because Vidal claimed Buckley was in Hell, and I have to believe if given the choice, he’d pursue him down there.
But, if there’s a Buckley knife fight. I’ll forgive them. More after the break.
I am, as I’ve made abundantly clear, a Liberal. This was something I mentioned in a remembrance I wrote upon the occasion of William F. Buckley’s death. In that remembrance, I acknowledged the ways in which I disagreed with Buckley but bemoaned the death of a man whose literate ilk had all but disappeared. I also bemoaned the tragedy of the polarization of American political thought. As I said then:
the only way it works — the only way it works — is for Liberal and Conservative ideas to come into conflict and ultimate compromise. We need both principles in good measure to make a nation great. We need to help and protect those in need with the spirit of largess, and we need to stand firm against corruption and evil. When the principles are in balance, the nation flourishes.
When Gore Vidal, on the other hand, was asked about the death of William F. Buckley, his response was a touch more terse than mine. In an interview not long after, he made his views quite clear:
I thought hell is bound to be a livelier place, as he joins forever those whom he served in life, applauding their prejudices and fanning their hatred.
In an essay he wrote for Truthdig in the immediate wake of Buckley’s death, he was perhaps more clear.
Now, to Newsweek’s obituary of this late dishonorable American in which my editor-friend assures me that his brain-dead son Christopher had a hand: “Buckley bridled at bullies.” And who was the bully in context? Myself. He was also an expert at changing indefensible contexts. Buckley maintained that I supported revolutionaries who favored murdering U.S. Marines. Yet all the talk of Nazis etc. was started by Buckley. There was no lie he would not tell to get back at those who defeated him in debate. […] RIP WFB—in hell
Vidal was as erudite as his enemy Buckley. As has been recounted many times, their feud really had its birth in a series of debates about the 1968 Democratic National Convention. These debates were as combative as the Convention itself, leading to infamous words and near violence at their last meeting in that venue. Vidal called Buckley a Crypto-Nazi. Buckley called Vidal a Queer. Two men of letters, reduced to monosyllabic, offensive insults and what today we simply call Godwin’s Law. And much like the Law predicts, with the invocation of Nazism, the debate was over.
The acrimony wasn’t — the pair sparred in Esquire, then sued each other over it. They sparred more over the years, including another lawsuit over Esquire and each other. Though Norman Mailer — a man both of them had as much animosity with as they did with each other — drew out gracious, even affectionate remarks from Buckley upon his death, one has to imagine Buckley would have been less charitable towards Vidal.
Then again, where Buckley only threatened Vidal, Norman Mailer actually headbutted Vidal backstage at an infamous taping of the Dick Cavett Show where everyone involved reached the point of sniping at best. Gore Vidal encouraged a livelier kind of debate than most. Then again, Vidal and Mailer reconciled, more or less, later on. (Though not before Mailer hurled a drink at Vidal in another venue.) On Mailer’s death, he didn’t speak of Hell but of Massachusetts (though admittedly some friends of mine wouldn’t see the difference):
He was interesting, because he was interested. … I went to Provincetown (Mass.) a year or two ago and stayed with him and (Mailer’s wife) Norris. It was very pleasant. He was in good form. We both dislike the same things about our native land so we had lots to talk about. [AP]
So, Vidal could reconcile with an enemy. He just didn’t always choose to. With luck, Mailer would be there at the knife fight, egging both combatants on.
Vidal, like Walt Whitman, contained multitudes, and it is difficult to reconcile them. He was one of the first major American authors to include homosexuality in a novel — direct homosexuality, not coded or otherwise made implicit instead of explicitly — without decrying it or making its practitioners sexual deviants or mentally ill. The City and the Pillar was a watershed moment in Gay Rights, and well worth lionizing Vidal for in retrospect. In essays written throughout his career, he championed homosexuality and bisexuality as natural and an eternal part of the human condition.
And yet, another of his “groundbreaking” novels questioning sexual mores, customs and viewpoints — Myra Breckinridge — is nigh impossible to read today without seeing deep and implicit transphobia, reducing questions of gender identity to dissociative identity disorder, depersonalization and other forms of mental illness, not to mention great heaping gobs of rape.
On the gripping hand, the sequel to Myra Breckinridge — Myron — responds to the Supreme Court’s decision (in the case Miller v. California, which created a precedent that obscenity was not protected speech), replaced all the ‘dirty words’ with the surnames of the Justices — a brilliant satirical move. In… another novel that’s not exactly friendly to members of the Trans community.
More damning still, at least from my point of view, he didn’t simply defend director Roman Polanski in regards to his 1977 arrest and conviction over the sexual abuse of a 13 year old girl, he was downright offensively dismissive. “I really don’t give a fuck,” he said. “Look, am I going to sit and weep every time a young hooker feels as though she’s been taken advantage of?” Lest you think this was quoted early on, when the case was still confused, understand that this quote came from 2009.
It is hard to get a handle on Vidal, especially now — in the aftermath of his demise.
Politically, he was unabashedly Liberal — but as with Buckley on the right, he was not a parrot for talking points. He was more than willing to tear into Liberal icons and champion causes we consider conservative — indeed, he claimed he was conservative, only the political climate couldn’t recognize it. He despised Scientology, but protested Germany’s harsh treatment of Scientologists. He was dismissive of both parties, finding the GOP more intolerant and the Democratic Party more corrupt, but otherwise fundamentally identical. He decried Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman. Indeed, if there was a President he unreservedly supported, I’ve yet to hear about it.
All this, by the by, from an essayist and author given more to intellectual discussion than punditry and ranting.
I have implicitly compared Vidal and Buckley above, and I’m going to do so again. In that remembrance I mentioned above, I said that William F. Buckley had been good for America:
Not good for American conservatism (which he was often called the Father of), not good for the Republican party. Not good for snobby white intellectual Skull and Bonesmen from Yale. William F. Buckley was good for America. And I am certain that he would argue that the reasoned and intellectually rigorous Liberal thinkers were equally so — because Buckley did not enter into debate without also entering into discourse, and Buckley understood that the resultant compromise of what was, after all, two very American positions made for a better nation than any singular could.
Well, I say that Gore Vidal was also good for America. Not good for American liberalism, not good for the intellectual elite. Good for America. Between his passion and his rhetoric lay a man who brought the American discourse up, while never shying away from those who would bring it down. When others would close ranks, Vidal would take pride in his contrarianism. When a conservative made an assertion, Vidal forced them to back it up, to explain their position, to bring thought and citation to bear — or else he would eviscerate them.
I don’t think there’s a person alive who would unreservedly agree with Gore Vidal — and in the areas they disagreed with Vidal, that disagreement would be passionate. I despise Vidal’s defense of Roman Polanski. I feel ill reading through long parts of Myra Breckenridge. But then again, I celebrate the breakthroughs he made, in driving forward the discourse, in championing LGB rights, if not T. In savaging provincialism and cultural norms.
I think it is disrespectful to depict Gore Vidal at the gates of Heaven. But I will admit, I like to think of my image of Vidal and Buckley wrestling with each other for all eternity — battling with knife and fist, but also with word and wit, insult and imperative. In a way, their debates led to the shrill shrieking that passes for television discourse today, but unlike most of that it was based in a deep understanding of the issues and the ways in which their positions were similar as well as different.
I can’t get a handle on Gore Vidal. But the world is diminished now that he’s gone.