His comeback novel – one that critics could not ignore—Julian told the story of Rome’s last pagan emperor who attempted to prevent the empire from establishing Christianity as its official religion. As he wrote in the novel’s introduction, “We are who we are now, largely because of who we were back then.” Creation, a novel about Socrates, Buddha, and Confucius in the fifth century B.C., gives readers a crash course in comparative religion and ethics that, if taken seriously, would bring much needed sophistication, compassion, and happiness to an America hell-bent on separating its body from soul, one credit card charge at a time.
Any biographer who would focus on Vidal’s intellectual triumphs would fail to honor his greatest quality and most masterful source of identification. Vidal was a writer. He was a writer in a way that Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, and others who were and are as equally prescient, smart, and courageous, are and were never writers. Vidal was one of the most colorful and pleasurable stylists of his generation. It was his marvelous prose that made such inedible truths so easy to swallow. Vidal once said, “I’m not a fool. I don’t like that my country is dying, but I’ve been listening to the death rattle for a long time.” Vidal was the bearer of bad news, but no one ever wanted to shoot the messenger.
Scavenge through all the articles written about Vidal – even those by his detractors – and it is impossible not to find the word “wit”. It’s sentences like these that earned him such universal praise:
In an essay on women’s liberation: “Take pornography. Though female nudes have been usually acceptable in our Puritan culture, until recently the male nude was unacceptable to the Patriarchs. After all, the male – any male – is a stand-in for God, and God wears a suit at all times, or at least jockey shorts.”
On a visit to Russia, described in an essay on the Christian prophecy embracing views of the Reagan administration: “The fifteenth of February, 1987, proved to be a bright sunny day in Hell, where I had come with nine hundred worthies from several dozen countries, to listen to Satan himself, Gorbachev, who spoke thoughtfully of the absolute necessity of abolishing all nuclear weapons on the ground that the fact of their existence endangers the human race. Plainly, the Lord of the Flies has not read the Good Book.”
Many of his best lines he attributed to a character he invented for his essays, The Wise Old Hack. Among The Wise Old Hack’s most quoted words of wisdom: “Shit has its own integrity.”
Vidal could blend black comedy with accessible profundity, as he did in his obituary for Richard Nixon. He used a seemingly meaningless incident to capture the weird personality of the former President:
“After I heard the trumpets and the drums, and watched our remaining Librarians – the high emeritus rank that we bestow on former Presidents – I played a film clip of Nixon in his vice presidential days. For some reason the soundtrack is gone. A silent movie. An official banquet of some sort. Nixon remembers to smile the way people do. Then a waiter approaches him with a large, corruptly sticky dessert. At that moment, Nixon leans over to speak to his partner on the left, frustrating the waiter’s effort to serve him. The waiter moves on. Nixon sits back; realizes that his dessert has been given to the man on his right. He waves to the waiter, who does not see him. Now the Nixon face is beginning to resemble that of the third English king of his name. Eyes – yes, mere slits- dart first left, then right. The coast is clear. Ruthless Plantagenet king, using his fork like a broadsword, scoops up half the dessert on the neighbor’s plate and dumps it on his own. As he takes the first taste of the dessert, there is a radiance in his eyes that I have never seen before of since. He is happy. Pie in the sky on the plate at least. R.I.P., R.M.N.”
Vidal wrote a much friendlier obituary for Frank Sinatra, and after explaining that Sinatra was his favorite singer, and writing about how the Nixon administration tried to smear him as a communist, he considers why, after Kennedy refused to invite him to the White House, Sinatra became a Reagan Republican: “It is not easy to be good, much less a tribune of the people, in the land of milk and money once your house is gone.”
Vidal once cracked, “There is no warm, lovable person. Beneath my cold exterior, once you break the ice, you find cold water.” Although I did not know the man, I suspect this may have been one of the only lies Vidal has ever written. Growing up with an abusive alcoholic for a mother likely made him overly cautious in showing sentimentality or a softer side, but that side did exist. Otherwise, how could he have written sentences like these?
From his second memoir, in the description of his longtime companion Howard Auster’s final days:
“A doctor friend in Rome, although officially retired, still worked at a private Roman clinic. We checked in. AN MRI revealed a small dark bubble on the lobe of the brain that controls locomotion. He had also become incontinent. Several times I had to lift his deadweight off the floor until, finally, I ruptured a spinal disk. Donella, our doctor friend, arranged for a distinguished surgeon at Rome’s Villa Margherita to operate. But when the professor had studied the MRIs of Howard’s brain he said, ‘We must not wait.’ Unfortunately a long holiday weekend was coming up and such weekends are sacred in Italy. The operation was scheduled for the next week. As I left Howard’s room, he said, ‘Kiss me.’ I did. On the lips, something we’d not done for fifty years.”
He wrote charmingly about the village of Ravello, Italy where he lived with Howard Auster for decades, and in the end turns his description of the community and camaraderie of his street into a reflection on the forgiving cycle of life:
“Italo Calvino now lives at the north of the street, and we cher confrere one another when we meet. Then we move on. Yes, we are all growing old. But a baby’s being born to the wife of the hardware-store owner, while a half-dozen babies of a few years ago are now men and women. So – plenty more where we came from. That is the lesson the street. Meanwhile, what time is it? Free the bejeweled ladies held captive! Daffodils, tulips, mimosa. What time is it? The same.”
The conclusion to The Judgment of Paris, when young Philip Warren makes the right choice for love and passion over money and power, is one of the most beautiful elevations and reinforcements of love’s magic and majesty ever put to paper:
“She was waiting for him at the end of the balcony, in a grotto of shell and starfish, of seaweed and mother-of-pearl. She was unmasked, in white, with a summer flower in her gleaming hair. As he looked at her by the firelight, saw her smile, the silver mirror dissolved before his eyes, dispelling it ungrieved ghosts like smoke upon the night, and beyond her in the dark, a promise at the present’s furthest edge, a dreaming figure stirred and opened wide her golden eyes.”
I can still recall sitting in my dorm room as a sophomore in college, eating a cheese sandwich, and reading Vidal’s essay collection United States. It was that moment that I decided to make writing the major part of my life. With the clarity and force of the Mediterranean Sea, the memory of my breakthrough returns. I said to myself, “I will never be this good, but I’d like to spend my life trying.”
It seemed an enterprise of nobility and integrity. It still does. It’s not merely for Vidal’s intellect, talent, and courage that I aspired to his life, but also for his personality. Much is made of Vidal’s impressive rolodex of friends: John Kennedy, Hilary Clinton, Mick Jagger, Tennessee Williams, and his best friends, Paul Newman and Joanee Woodward. Equal attention is given to his impressive rolodex of enemies: William F. Buckley, John Updike, and Ayn Rand. But the most important part of Vidal’s personality is his style.
Style is rare in the contemporary intellectual world. The average Charlie Rose guest may be smart, but is likely to be boring. Vidal was handsome, and he possessed such graceful elegance that he made brilliance, even to a young man preparing for the next party in a dorm room, attractive. He appeared to be having such fun, and every witticism, upward tilt of the chin, and self-satisfied smile served as invitation for taking part in the fun. The life of the mind does not have to be stale and stuffy. The life of the mind can be a life of joy. Indeed, Marcie Frank, an English Professor in Toronto, Canada, wrote a book called How To Be an Intellectual in the Age of TV: The Lessons of Gore Vidal. Her central contention is that Vidal, like no other, was able to translate his brilliance into the entertainment language of television without diluting it.
Now that this ‘betraying defender ‘of our Republic has passed through the door marked “exit”, and as deference to power and convention and advancing mediocrities dominate our letters and rule our airwaves, we mourn the loss of one of America’s most interesting citizens. If we are smart, we will long for the intelligence, style, and fun of Vidal, and we will wonder where it all goes. As in the words of Auster, as Vidal remembers him saying on his death bed, “Didn’t it go by awfully fast?”
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